“That Sunday in Leningrad,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 67–69
“Is this where the Latter-day Saints meet?” asks the young man in Russian. He and a friend have approached Elder Reagan and Elder Dover on the street in downtown Leningrad.
It’s Sunday morning, September 23. Elder Reagan and Elder Dover stand at the entrance to the old three-storied building where the Leningrad Branch has met since April. David Reagan comes from Des Moines, Iowa; his companion, Bert Dover, is from Tucson, Arizona. Both are in the final weeks of their missions, having been originally called to the Finland Helsinki Mission. Last July they were among the first missionaries to be assigned to the Finland Helsinki East Mission.
Elders Reagan and Dover begin talking with the two students, welcoming them to the meetings that will begin in fifteen minutes. They learn that the students had heard of the Church from friends.
A Special Time and Place
Once inside the little theater that serves as a chapel, the members and visitors charge the atmosphere with a vibrant warmth that is characteristic of Latter-day Saint gatherings anywhere. Vigorous handshakes, arms around shoulders, hugs, and verbal expressions of love animate the dusky hall, almost illuminating it.
I ask various members and even visitors why this particular church appeals to them when so many are now open to choose from. Responses are similar to Sergei Buinov’s. “I felt something special here, a warmth and friendliness that I had not felt elsewhere. The Church embodies my greatest hopes and has raised my expectations for myself,” says Sergei, who with his wife, Olga, was baptized in June.
Branch president Yuri Terebenen, one of the first to have been baptized, expresses similar feelings. He and his wife, Ludmila, and their teenage daughter, Natalia, joined the Church a year ago in Hungary while visiting with friends. “We went to Church with them,” says Yuri, “and felt something different in the people’s relationship with God and with each other. It seemed right that we should be free to communicate directly with God for ourselves rather than through a professional clergy. You are taught, and you teach; this brings you closer to God.
“For me, the rituals and language of churches I visited had often come between me and God. Here, I felt intimately connected with Him, which made me also feel closer to people.”
When the Terebenens returned to Leningrad after being baptized, they relied on friends in Helsinki to put them in touch with the Finnish mission president, who at the time was Steven R. Mecham. President Mecham and his counselor Jussi Kemppainen had already been visiting with members in Vyborg and Tallinn. They visited with the Terebenens and other members in Leningrad. By December 1989, small branches of the Church were established in those three cities.
The Leningrad Branch now numbers more than one hundred members, but on this particular Sunday there are also forty or fifty visitors—families, individuals, and groups of friends. Today, President Gary Browning and his family are here from the Finland Helsinki East Mission, and he has a special announcement to make. “Just under a week ago,” he begins, smiling a broad smile, “on September 19, the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs informed Elder Ringger that it has officially registered the Leningrad Branch of the Church.” At these words, the decorum of the sacrament meeting is lost for a moment, when the congregation’s uncontained joy expresses itself in a not entirely muffled cheer.
Since last spring, even before the Finland Helsinki East Mission opened, missionaries were allowed into the USSR on short-term visitors visas. President Browning, a professor of Slavic languages at Brigham Young University, has directed the work of his eighteen Russian-speaking missionaries from his office in Helsinki, three hundred miles to the north, making trips as necessary to the branches in Leningrad, Tallinn, and Vyborg and to the handful of members in Moscow.
To open the sacrament meeting, President Yuri Terebenen stands at the podium and offers a soft-spoken welcome. Above him on the wall hangs a banner inviting citizens to do all they can to accomplish the goal of the Twenty-seventh Congress of the Supreme Soviet—perestroika. Of course, this actual meeting and President Browning’s announcement of the Church’s registration are evidence of, among other things, the progress of perestroika. New freedoms allowing Sabbath worship are bringing people back to the churches.
Behind the Scenes
For centuries, Christianity flourished in Russia. Cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church are among the most colorful and striking of the country’s architecture, and faith in God was strong among its people. In those days, Leningrad was still St. Petersburg, or Petrograd. But for the past 60 years, the beautiful churches, with their shiny gold cupolas, icons, and fine art, have been used very little for worship. Many of the structures were converted to museums or skating rinks or were used for storage.
Latter-day Saints have prayed for years that the restored gospel could be taken to all nations of the world. So, though perestroika may seem to be the cause of religious revival, it is more likely evidence that the hand of the Lord is moving quietly behind the scenes of mortal events.
As early as 6 August 1903, Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve knelt in the Summer Gardens in St. Petersburg and dedicated Russia for the preaching the gospel. Again in April 1989, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve knelt beneath the rows of hundred-foot lindens and oaks in that same beautiful garden and prayed for the Lord’s blessings on the Soviet Union. Since that time, Elder Nelson and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy have continued to meet with officials of the Russian Republic and have worked to bring about the registration.
Following the administration of the sacrament—by three men and a youth—the speakers begin. Two recently baptized young women share moving testimonies, then President Browning speaks. He says that the Church has become a worldwide Church, with leaders from many nations. “Someday we may have one from here, also. The Church in Russia is a child, but this child, although young and learning, is growing rapidly. You have expressed faith; now you must add knowledge to your faith. Faith without knowledge leads to fanaticism, and knowledge without faith is cold. Jesus Christ has shown us by his example that his love comes from faith balanced with knowledge.”
After the meeting, several students share how they heard about the Church from Pavel Agafonov.
Pavel, who studies engineering and psychology, learned of the Church when he was in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States, last March. Previously, he had visited many other churches, asking hard questions. “None of the churches I visited could answer the questions I had,” explains Pavel. “I wanted a real church, one that knows God today.”
He was baptized in April and then began bringing his friends. Since then, his two roommates, Andrei Chromovskikh, another engineering and psychology major, and Vladimir Shestakov, a semi-professional basketball player and athletics major, have both joined the Church. Another friend of Pavel’s, Valeri Pomazanov, who studies at the Institute of Teachers, has also joined. These young men agree that there is no other place where they have found as much closeness, both emotionally and spiritually, as they have found in the Church.
Twelve-year-old Roman Batin was one of the first to be ordained a deacon in the Leningrad Branch. At school, he tells his friends about his American friends at Church who are “young men of very high character, and I want to grow up to be like them.”
Elena Stolyar, twenty-six, works in a children’s culture center and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. What appealed to her about the gospel? “I like that it’s not easy and that much is expected of us. My life is being shaped by the new values, new friends, and new hopes that I’ve gained.”
As soon as Liliya Chuprova attended Relief Society, she “knew at once that this is what I’d been looking for all my life. I have come every Sunday and bring my children.” She and her daughter, Alexandria, who is nine, were baptized in August. Liliya is a single parent, rearing two daughters and helping her own mother.
Most of the growth of the Church in the USSR to date has come from members telling their friends about the gospel. Like President Terebinen, who learned of the Church in Hungary, most of the early members had external connections.
One such connection was the Jakko family, Nellie and Aimo, in eastern Finland. Nellie is an international table tennis champion, and through some friends in Russia, she managed to play matches there. Table tennis led to informal talks about religion with two Russian doctors, Andrei Semionov, of Vyborg, and his brother Pavel. Both men and their families have since become strong Church members. Andrei is now the branch president in Vyborg, near the Finnish border, and Pavel is the branch clerk in Leningrad.
Pavel tells how his whole practice of medicine has changed since his discovery of God and the sacred nature of human life. Andrei, likewise, explains that he is grateful for the new strength in his life that comes from the gospel. “I was agnostic,” he says. “I have looked for truth. But when I first heard the Latter-day Saint doctrines, I was afraid. The standards seemed too high, too impossible to live. Since then I’ve learned that there is a source of strength to help me live this way.”
Like all Soviets, Andrei and Pavel and their families, the students, the Terebinens, and the Buinovs had all been taught from their infancy that there is no God. Imagine their joy to discover for themselves the “good news”—the very meaning of the word gospel—that He is not only there, but that, as Andrei says, “He loves us enough to speak to us through a prophet.”
“My life has changed 360 degrees,” Andrei adds. “I’m going the same direction now—but with a complete turn in my thinking and feeling. This knowledge of the gospel and the hope it brings has changed my life and will change life for my countrymen who are ready for it.”