“Pioneering in Russia,” Ensign, June 1997, 25
During the 1988 commemoration of 1000 years of Christianity in Russia, it became apparent large numbers of Russians had preserved a heritage of faith despite more than seven decades of official Soviet atheism. Many of these Russians turned for spiritual nourishment to the centuries-old Russian Orthodox Church. Others sought renewal from Christian faiths brought to Russia in the 19th century.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some Russians began to direct their spiritual quests toward a study of religious faiths just entering the country, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In October 1989 Dennis B. Neuenschwander (now of the Seventy), president of the Austria Vienna East Mission; and Steven R. Mecham, president of the Finland Helsinki Mission, were authorized to take the gospel into the Soviet Union. Within months, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles formally dedicated Estonia for the preaching of the restored gospel and offered a prayer of gratitude in a spirit of rededication in Leningrad, invoking the blessings of heaven upon the Estonian and Russian peoples. (Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had dedicated Russia in July 1903.1) In 1990 the Church was officially recognized in Estonia and Russia.
In December 1989 President Mecham and the first full-time missionaries visited Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to support members and teach investigators. By July 1990 the Church numbered 156 Soviet members: 80 in Leningrad, 43 in Tallinn, 26 in Vyborg, and 7 in Moscow.
Early Russian investigators and new members encountered daunting obstacles to embracing the restored gospel. Paramount was the common perception that joining another church implied a betrayal of Russian Christianity, which was embodied in distinctive images of the Russian Orthodox Church: cathedrals with gilded cupolas and icons, beautiful liturgical music and priestly vestments, and elaborate worship services.
By contrast, Latter-day Saints and investigators met in modest “houses of culture” (recreation centers), schools, libraries, and other facilities rented for three hours on Sundays. The Church had few materials in Russian, and lay leaders and teachers were inexperienced. Often the laws of tithing and chastity represented new truths, as did the Word of Wisdom, especially for seasoned partakers of tobacco, tea, or vodka.
How could Russians surmount these barriers and embrace the restored gospel? As examples of Russian pioneers illustrate, acceptance of the gospel required faith and courage.
Many Russian investigators, used to aesthetically resplendent yet impersonal religious services, responded to the Church’s simpler service in which polished ceremony is less important than individual contribution and growth. Investigators were especially drawn by the friendliness of meetings and the concern members demonstrated for one another. In a caring branch, they felt accepted and needed.
“I had never supposed that there would be no icons in a church, or that there would be a kitchen, showers, a gymnasium, a huge room with an organ, and many classrooms,” recalls Andrei Semionov of his first Church meeting in Finland.
Andrei had met Latter-day Saints shortly after completing medical studies and beginning work as a doctor in Vyborg, a Russian city situated east of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland. As he practiced medicine he was troubled by questions of life’s purpose, the possibility of an afterlife, and the meaning of evil.
In the summer of 1989 Andrei took a canoe trip with friends and a Latter-day Saint couple—Aimo and Nellie Jäkkö from Finland. Campfire discussions about God and faith touched Andrei. The Jäkkös invited Andrei to Lappeenranta, Finland, to attend Church services. There he met full-time missionaries.
“I tried to hold to materialist positions as before, but my eternal questions continued to bother me,” Andrei writes of his discussion with the missionaries. “It was then that the seed, of which I later read in the book of Alma, fell into my soul [see Alma 32:28–43]. I took with me from Lappeenranta this ‘good seed’ in my soul and a Book of Mormon in my travel bag.”
During a second trip to Lappeenranta, the missionaries nourished Andrei’s faith. Of that visit, he writes, “The last prejudices and reservations I had in my heart in relation to a foreign church disappeared.”
When he returned to Vyborg, he studied the Book of Mormon. “Halfway through I realized that a human mind did not have the power to create such a thing. I knew almost nothing about Joseph Smith himself, his education or intellectual qualities, but I didn’t need to know anything at all about them. I knew these words were not of man but of God, and in my eyes the fact that Joseph Smith was able to reveal these words to the world made him a true prophet.”
Andrei attended a conference with 15 Leningrad Saints in February 1990: “I kept thinking, Could I go on with my life without these people, without the excitement in my heart and the chills that run down my spine when I pray and read the scriptures? All my doubts vanished when Jussi Kemppainen [a counselor to President Mecham] approached me after the conference and said, ‘I think you are ready to be baptized; what do you think?’ The words immediately escaped my lips—I didn’t even have time to think—and I heard my response: ‘Yes, of course I am ready.’ With that Jussi turned to address the closest missionaries, telling them, ‘This young man by the name of Andrei should be baptized today.’”
A month later Andrei was ordained an elder and set apart as branch president. His wife, Marina, was soon baptized. “I baptized Marina in the waters of the Gulf of Finland five kilometers from our home,” he recalls. “The water was very cold, but we paid no attention to it.”
Changes in the couple’s life brought many blessings and opportunities.
“A special joy came into our lives after we were sealed for eternity in the Stockholm Sweden Temple,” President Semionov writes. “During the course of the past two and a half years I’ve been to this temple with every group from Russia, and I try to help my brothers and sisters prepare to enter the eternal world. I am happy for all who come to the temple and I know that I will see them again in the kingdom of our Father in Heaven.”2
President Semionov served with distinction as a branch president; today he serves as the first district president in Vyborg. On 4 May 1996, under the direction of Elder Neuenschwander, then president of the Europe East Area, President Andrei Semionov dedicated the first Latter-day Saint chapel in Russia.
After Viacheslav Efimov’s father died from injuries suffered near the end of World War II, his mother worked hard to provide for her son’s physical and spiritual needs, instilling in him a love of God. To lessen his mother’s burdens, Viacheslav began working full time in a Leningrad factory when he was 15. To further his education, he attended evening school. Though busy, Viacheslav made time to reflect on his spiritual yearnings.
“I read the journal Science and Religion, in which there were passages from the Bible,” he wrote. “As I had been baptized at the age of five into the Orthodox Church, I sincerely wanted to acquire a knowledge of God. And there in the journal where they attacked religion, I found out about the Bible’s truth.”
After marrying his wife, Galina, in 1971, Viacheslav avoided discussing his spiritual yearnings with his in-laws. He recalls, “No one in my wife’s family ever talked about God because they were communists.”
When Viacheslav and Galina’s daughter, Tamara, turned five, she and Galina were baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. “We began to attend Orthodox services, light candles, and pray before icons to the Savior, but we always had the feeling that God did not hear us, that we were hardly noticeable among all the gold, icons, and beauty of the cathedral,” Viacheslav writes. “We would go home disappointed, where we would sit down at the table and drink a glass of vodka and start to feel warmer. … That’s how it was for 15 years. We would sin and repent, then sin again.”
In the spring of 1990 while at a friend’s house, Tamara met the full-time missionaries, who began teaching her at home. At first Viacheslav ignored the missionaries “because I wondered what these young men could tell me about God … ; after all, God had always been a part of me. But what I heard at the following discussions gave me the opportunity to receive answers to my own questions and, most important, to understand that God loves each of us. We are his children, and he has given us a Savior, his Son, Jesus Christ, and each of us will be resurrected.”
Life soon changed for the Efimovs: they became a family.
“Although we had lived in the same house, we had been involved in our own activities and spent little time together,” Viacheslav writes. “The cares of everyday life drew us apart. Then for the first time in 10 to 12 years we began to spend more time together. We began to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon. For three months we waited for an answer to our prayers and then made our decision to be baptized. On 9 June 1990, we were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a family.”3
After serving faithfully in many callings, the Efimovs began sharing their gospel joy on a full-time basis in July 1995, when Brother Efimov was called as president of the Russia Yekaterinburg Mission.
“I live in Voronezh [about 250 miles south of Moscow] and am a professor of English at an institute. … Thanks to the heritage of my parents, at a young age I learned about God. … But I never went to church, and I didn’t read the Bible until I was 40. Once I became an adult, I tried to attend church in other cities when I went on professional trips. … At 19 I married. My husband [Oleg], a physicist by education, was a thorough atheist, and at the beginning was amused by my ‘faith’ and prayers. …
“The year 1985 brought great changes into my spiritual life. I was able to go to church openly, fearing neither the KGB nor any unpleasantness at work. … Then came September 1991 and my first-ever international linguistics conference in Zvenigorod, near Moscow. At that time occurred what was for me a momentous meeting with professors from Utah.
“In our lives are many coincidences. And so it seemed that by sheer coincidence I was drawn into a discussion about contemporary Russia. … Suddenly I heard a question: ‘And how has the status of the Orthodox Church changed?’ I felt that the question was addressed to me personally.
“In four or five phrases I tried to explain how much the church meant to me and my family, and how happy I was that now I could speak of my faith openly. I didn’t have to fear being a believer. This sincere but awkward answer, as it turned out, touched many people in the room, especially the gray-haired professor who had asked the question. It was Dr. Robert W. Blair from Brigham Young University. We became acquainted, and I invited him to Voronezh.
“In the spring of 1992 Dr. Blair came … with his family to see us for the celebration of the Orthodox Easter. I invited them to a church Easter service. I had been eagerly awaiting this event. That spring … I was fasting and for the first time in my life attended confession, and I thought I was beginning a new life without any transgression or deceit.
“While on my way to church that day, I hoped to experience there the feelings of Tolstoy’s heroes, so well described by him in Resurrection. But it turned out otherwise. The Holy Ghost did not descend upon me. Though the ceremony and the brilliance of the golden vestments were dazzling, the service itself did not move me at all. … I returned home discouraged, convinced that my personal sins had not allowed me to experience any feelings of redemption at the service.
“During the summer of 1992, however, students from Brigham Young University arrived in Voronezh to teach English in nursery schools. I came to their Sunday meeting and was struck by the atmosphere of love and warmth that prevailed there. I wanted to become like them, and I wanted my son [Aleksandr] to be with them. These were unusual Americans, people unlike any others I knew.
“At first I wasn’t going to change anything in my life. Would it really be impossible to be a member of the Orthodox Church and at the same time follow the principles of the Mormons? … Sooner or later I would have to decide for myself which side I would be on: with the Orthodox Church or with these new, unfamiliar people, whom I wanted to become more like.
“This choice tortured me and would not allow me a moment’s peace. All the while it seemed to me that by choosing the Mormons I would betray the faith of my fathers, and that God would not forgive me for this apostasy. I prayed and asked God for an answer, and it came.
“One day during the summer while I was sitting on the bank of a river gazing into the water and persistently thinking about the choice I had to make, I perceived a distinct voice that said I would not betray anyone, that I would simply progress farther and believe more deeply.
“It’s difficult to describe the feelings that I experienced upon hearing this voice: surprise, relief, happiness. I continued to attend the students’ meetings, and then I took the discussions from the missionaries in Moscow. It was there I was baptized on December 15, 1992, on the eve of the students’ flight back to America.
“My life changed. I became more tranquil, tolerant, and patient. Problems in our family life gradually diminished. For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the words ‘quiet happiness,’ that is to say, harmony with oneself and peace of mind. During that year I became convinced that faith is capable of growing, and much that I had doubted a year ago now seemed true and right.
“I don’t know what exactly it was that first influenced my husband, whether it was the example of my son and me or his interaction with the students, the mission president, or the missionaries, but in September 1993 he began to regularly attend church. … On January 15, 1994, he was baptized. … Now we are all together.
“The first time I saw the student members of the Church I said to myself, This cannot be a bad church with such good people. Now I can testify that this Church is true, and that it leads people to light. This Church gives people hope, and with hope it is easier to overcome those trials which are sent to us. I know I am not alone. My family, friends, and brothers and sisters are with me, as is our Heavenly Father, who wants me to be happy.”4
Sister Bazarskaia has served in many callings since her baptism, including Relief Society president. Her husband became president of the Voronezh Branch. Their son, Aleksandr, served in the Latvia Riga Mission.
Many who joined the Church soon after its introduction were well-educated urban Russians. Although they considered Marxist scientific materialism inadequate for happiness, they were reluctant to abandon intellectual pursuits to explore religious truths. They responded well to the Church’s emphasis on eternal progression, which includes the ongoing development of the spirit and mind.
Sergei Leliukin was such a person. Like his parents before him, he was an atheist. For many years he believed that religion had no future in his country. “When I had occasion to visit an Orthodox Church and would see the many elderly women there, the thought would occur to me that these women would soon die and then the church would be closed,” he says. “That would be the end of religion.”
Sergei’s wife, Irina, had been baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church while living briefly with her grandmother, who had taught her about the Savior. When the couple’s daughter, Marina, asked to be baptized in 1990, Sergei began to reflect on his atheism and on the importance of religion.
“I started reading many religious books, primarily by Orthodox writers. The central point I came to understand was that for a believer, the church is the foundation of his life. When I knew that I could find the strength within myself to lead a religious life, I decided to be baptized and become a member of the Orthodox faith.”
Sergei and Marina were baptized in November 1990. But they continued to feel a spiritual hunger. While on a business trip in June 1992 to Donetsk, Ukraine, Sergei met the full-time missionaries. He was curious about their beliefs but unable to accept an invitation to join them at a Sunday meeting. Four months later he received another chance.
“I was walking home from work along the main street of the city,” Sergei recalls. “Ahead of me I saw two young men wearing backpacks. Walking quickly, I passed them and approached a green traffic light. I could have quietly crossed the street, but an unfamiliar power prevented me from continuing on my way. I still remember that feeling well.
“These two young men caught up with me and asked me how to get to one of the streets in the city. I said that I could show them to this street. While we walked together for about 10 minutes, these missionaries told me about their church. At the end of our conversation, we agreed to meet at my apartment.”
A few days later the Leliukins joined the missionaries at the first Church meeting held in Saratov, located 420 miles southeast of Moscow. “We very much liked the atmosphere at the meeting,” Sergei says. “After the service I had a desire to pray, which I did when the missionaries came over for the second discussion.”
Following more discussions, the family members were baptized in November 1992. They learned the gospel quickly, served cheerfully, and fellowshipped others joyfully as they worked hard to establish the Church along the lower Volga River.
“The opportunity to serve the Lord in his Church has helped us in our spiritual development,” says President Leliukin, who became the first branch president in Saratov. “We feel our own growth so much as we try to help other Saints grow through our callings.”
Changes following the family’s baptism left them confident and happy but caused concern among relatives. “After our baptism we encountered misunderstandings and even some aggressiveness from our relatives,” President Leliukin recalls. “But we were confident we would endure. Even though a total understanding is still far away, relations toward us have become more tolerant.”5
The Leliukins were sealed in the Stockholm temple in March 1995. Today President Leliukin serves as a district president in Saratov.
Despite the challenges Russian Latter-day Saint pioneers have faced, they know their Heavenly Father desires their happiness. As Lehi’s glad message assures, “Men are, that they might have joy.”6 Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky echoes Lehi and reminds us of the blessings of obedience which underlies lasting joy: “Men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’”7
As the growth of the Church attests, the gospel and the joy it brings is taking root. By 1996 nine LDS missions, with a combined membership of 9,000 members, had been created in the former Soviet Union: six in Russia, two in Ukraine, and one in Lithuania.
In June 1843 the Prophet Joseph Smith appointed Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Brother George J. Adams as the first two missionaries to “that vast empire” of Russia, to which, the Prophet stated, “is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days.”8
While their mission was not accomplished at that time, Russian Latter-day Saint pioneers today are laying a foundation for the fulfillment of that prophecy.