“Love and Faith in St. Petersburg,” Ensign, Dec. 1993, 32
As an American graduate student in Russian linguistics, I recently lived in St. Petersburg in order to practice my Russian. While there, I interviewed members of the Church. In spite of our cultural differences, I came to see that we were true brothers and sisters in the gospel. I saw also that those who have found a happier life through joining the Church are deeply committed to the gospel and are thirsty for more knowledge of God.
Katya Demidova’s conversion illustrates the enthusiasm with which Russians are embracing the gospel. Katya was introduced to the Church in New York City, where she was staying with a friend for several months. She was standing outside a building waiting for her friend on a cold, wintry day when a pleasant stranger invited her inside to view a film. She readily accepted. The building turned out to be an LDS visitors’ center, and the film was about Joseph Smith.
When she learned that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not only in New York but also in Russia, she was skeptical. She had investigated many churches in Russia and had never heard of this one. But when she got home, Katya says, “the first call I received was from the sister missionaries.”
She felt a bond with the missionaries from their first words on her doorstep: “Do you believe that we’re all children of the same God—which makes us sisters?” Katya invited them into her home. Never before had she been visited by representatives of a church, people willing to talk to her about spiritual things. She was amazed. Katya was baptized in June 1992 after many months of thoughtful investigation. “I believe that this is the true church of God,” Katya says. “I like knowing that this life is meant for us to find happiness. This is so important for me now, because when the missionaries told me I could be baptized I felt so sinful that I didn’t think it would be possible. I like knowing that I can repent.”
Unlike Katya, Pavel Anishchenko encountered the Church in Russia itself—when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir came to St. Petersburg in 1991. Pavel had thought all Americans were cold and businesslike until he saw the choir’s performance. “It was miraculous. I’ve never experienced anything like it before. I’ve been at very nice performances, with very good choirs, but they were just artists, nothing more. When I heard the Tabernacle Choir, something inside me changed. I felt love toward them; I felt something radiating from them.”
Pavel says he was a product of his times. He was a communist and believed what he had been told about the communist system. He had hoped with all his heart that communism would bring happiness to all people, encouraging them to be upright and decent. But in this he had been largely disappointed. And when he found in the Church another system that promised its members happiness, Pavel feared being disillusioned again. Still, hope brought him to investigate the Church. Five months later he was baptized. This time he was not disappointed. “I feel very happy in the Church,” Pavel says. “Even those around me have noticed that I have become more life-loving.”
If the unrealized ideals of communism brought Pavel to the Church, for Diana Timofeeva, it was atheism. When Diana had been in school, she had taken a comparative religion class; the goal of the class was to convince the students that belief in a supernatural being was ridiculous. Instead, Diana became convinced that some higher being must exist because atheism didn’t make sense. But though she explored many religions, she says, her interest was purely academic. “Through my atheism class I understood that there was something higher, but I didn’t know what. And at the time I didn’t want to work to find out what.”
After completing high school, Diana enjoyed much of what the world considers important to happiness—attention, money, beauty, youth. And yet these weren’t enough; something was missing. She decided to pray to God for help, although she wasn’t even sure he existed. “Every night for three months,” she says, “I got on my knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer, because I didn’t know any others. At the end of the prayer I would ask God to lead me to the true church.” Her prayers were answered one day when her aunt called to tell her about a church she might be interested in—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Diana was later baptized.
Like Katya and Diana, many joining the Church are young. But the gospel message appeals to all age groups. Nina Afanasyeva, for example, joined the Church when she was seventy-one. As a young girl of fourteen, Nina had to quit school because her father died and she needed to help her mother earn a living. In spite of a lack of formal education, she continued to hunger for knowledge. Much of that hunger was satisfied when she was baptized. “Here in the Church I’ve received a lot of knowledge,” she says. “The most important thing is that I’ve become closer to Heavenly Father. If I didn’t have the gospel, I don’t know how I would survive. Even though times are stormy, now I have more spiritual peace.”
Vera Markova is married and has two sons. Like Diana, she became convinced of the existence of a higher being through logic. Vera saw too much order in the world to believe that it had been created randomly. She says, “I was brought up not knowing anything about God. But when I did find out about Jesus Christ, about his life and death and his heroic conduct on behalf of all humankind, I immediately believed.” Once she knew about Jesus, Vera began to address herself to God—without prayers but with a seeking heart. She also sought a formal church because she needed a source outside of herself to give her spiritual strength.
“Within the last two years,” Vera says, “I have felt that I don’t have the strength to fight with reality. My husband and I get along well, but we can’t be together much due to his work. And I always fear for my children. The gospel and the Book of Mormon help me to deal with my life. They help me be stronger.” Vera’s husband has now been baptized.
Svetlana Glukhikh, one of the first Russians to join the Church, was baptized in February 1990. A friend invited her to hear from missionaries who had come from Finland to tell Russians about the gospel. Svetlana remembers: “When the first missionaries came, it was a wonderful time; we felt like a family, even those of us who weren’t baptized. We’d never felt anything like that before—when people meet each other for the first time and yet they feel able to trust in each other.”
Svetlana also remembers this as a time of fear. Baptisms were held in tourist hotels, and these hotels were frequented by KGB agents. And yet in spite of this fear, two or three Russians were baptized every week, and the number of visitors to meetings grew.
Once a person encounters the Church, he or she is profoundly affected by the missionaries. When Ira Kulik decided to let the sister missionaries visit her, she worried that some stern women would preach at her about how she should live. “But when we opened the door, we saw two charming young girls with pleasant smiles. We liked them right away. There was a light, happy atmosphere. Although I didn’t understand it then, I know now that as soon as the sisters crossed our threshold, the Holy Ghost came with them.”
Ira says that they were very surprised by the missionaries. “There’s a conviction here that Americans are superficial and don’t have deep souls. We saw the opposite in the missionaries. With these missionaries, the gospel was presented beautifully, harmoniously, and intelligently. That’s probably how Christ would do it—without force and without bribes.”
Like Ira, Nadya Anishchenko appreciates the love the gospel has brought into her life—though she was initially afraid of the consequences of joining the Church. She told only one close girlfriend; among the people where she lives, being a religious person is not well accepted. “When my mom was young,” she says, “they persecuted religious believers. They killed a lot of them and sent others to camps.” But Russia is changing. In almost all social circles, joining a church is now accepted.
Tanya Solovyova, a young adult who was baptized in June 1992, believes that the gospel will help accelerate these changes. “The Church helps people get together, make friends, and know each other better.” She says that many young people in Russia spend time together at restaurants or bars, and often, because of alcohol, start fights. Tanya says that she is happy for the Church’s social activities, like picnics and ward events. She believes they can help youth socialize in wholesome ways.
While membership in the Church brings many changes, the most important are spiritual. Ira Kulik describes the change that came into her life as a “positive impulse” that gives her the energy and the faith to be better. She says, “I think this is very important because when you get used to a certain way of life, lots of moments are lost. For example, I rarely used to think about the fact that I needed to love God and Christ. There are many distracting moments in life, and things get jumbled up in your head. The Church helps me understand the fundamental goals of my existence.”
For Pavel Anishchenko, the change he is experiencing is the development of a better character. He has always loved his family, but the Church has taught him to be more patient and forgiving with family members. He says he used to be pessimistic and gloomy. Not so now—and people around him have noticed the change. “I used to really criticize our political leaders,” he explains. “But now I don’t. In my relationships with people I also act differently, and also with my family. I wish more people could experience what I have experienced.”
Despite improvements Russian members are experiencing in their lives, they continue to confront some serious challenges. For some, tithing is a difficult principle to follow in hard economic times. But as they discover the blessings of faith, most members want to keep the law of tithing. One member figured out that if she earned 4,000 rubles a month, her tithing of 400 rubles would be “more or less just one day of eating. And we are always fasting,” she said.
This is not to say every Russian is struggling financially. Many members of the Church own television sets and VCRs, and some own fax machines. One member was building her own house—something almost unheard of in Russia.
Among the most serious problems Russian society is facing is alcoholism. One person described the rise of alcoholism as “a sickness in our society.” The Word of Wisdom, with its prohibition of alcoholic drinks, is a great strength for members of the Church—although it can also be a challenge to live it. Some, for example, find it difficult not to drink tea. The only convenient alternative is tap water, which is not clean and must always be boiled. Milk, soda pop, and juice cost too much for the average Russian. Those who substitute herbal teas must gather the herbs or berries themselves. This presents real problems in winter.
In spite of their challenges, the St. Petersburg members remain convinced that they have chosen the best life possible by becoming members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They have found in the Church what many have sought for decades to obtain—a way of life spent in service to others. Vova Emilianov describes how he and his brothers and sisters in the gospel feel: “I’ve woken up. All the time, for thirty-seven years, I was sleeping. I was in a fog, in a state of nonbeing. When I was baptized, I was born. I was born, and now I’ve only lived for one year.”