“A Heritage of Faith in Russia,” Liahona, Apr. 1998, 33
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has blessed the lives of Russians since at least 1895. In that year, Johan and Alma Lindelof were baptized in St. Petersburg. Years earlier, Brother Lindelof had heard the gospel preached in his native Finland when a missionary taught and baptized his mother. Later, Johan, a skilled goldsmith, and his wife, Alma, moved to Russia. Sixteen years later, Elder August Hoglund was sent to Russia in response to letters the Lindelofs had written to the Scandinavian Mission president. They were baptized in June 1895 in the Neva River in St. Petersburg.
After joining the Church, the Lindelofs were visited occasionally by missionaries. By 1903, when Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offered two prayers of dedication in Russia, one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow, two of the Lindelof children had also been baptized. Many felt the Lindelof family would play a prominent role in bringing the gospel to Russia. Had it not been for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, that expectation might have been realized.
In 1918, in an apparent attempt to dispossess the wealthy Lindelofs, the family was imprisoned in a labor camp, their home ravaged and their property confiscated. Of the seven children, only one son and one daughter survived. Two daughters are known to have died in exile. The fate of the other three children is unknown.1
While Russians living abroad continued to join the Church, including André Anastasion, who joined the Church in England in 1917 and later translated the Book of Mormon into Russian, the Church was not officially recognized in Russia until after the state instituted religious reforms in 1990.
Religious tolerance was slow in coming, but the first sign that it was inevitable came in 1988 when the government permitted a commemoration of 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia. As the door to religious freedom opened, it became apparent many Russians had preserved a heritage of faith despite seven decades of official state atheism. Today, many have turned for spiritual nourishment to the centuries-old Russian Orthodox Church. Others are seeking renewal from other Christian faiths, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In October 1989 Dennis B. Neuenschwander (then president of the Austria Vienna East Mission, now of the Seventy) and Steven R. Mecham (then 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 gospel and offered in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) a prayer of gratitude, invoking the blessings of heaven upon the Estonian and Russian peoples. By July 1990 the Church in Russia numbered 156 members.
Russian investigators and converts encountered daunting obstacles. Paramount was the common perception that joining another church was a betrayal of Russian Christianity, embodied in the beautiful buildings and elaborate worship services of the Russian Orthodox Church.
By contrast, Latter-day Saints and investigators met in modest schools, libraries, and other facilities they could rent 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 real challenges, as did the Word of Wisdom. Acceptance of the gospel required faith and courage.
Many Russian investigators, used to elaborate but impersonal religious services, responded to the Church’s simple service in which ceremony is less important than individual contribution and spiritual growth.
“I had never supposed 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 beginning work as a doctor in Vyborg, a Russian city close to Finland. In the summer of 1989 Andrei took a canoe trip with a Finnish Latter-day Saint couple—Aimo and Nellie Jäkkö. Campfire discussions about God and faith touched Andrei. He had been troubled by questions about life’s purpose, the meaning of evil, and the possibility of an afterlife. The Jäkkös invited Andrei to attend Church services in Lappeenranta in Finland. 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. “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.”
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 in the mission presidency] 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.’” He was baptized that day.
A month later Andrei was ordained an elder and set apart as branch president. He soon baptized his wife, Marina.
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 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.”2
President Semionov served with distinction as a branch president; he also served 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 in 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 pursue his spiritual yearnings.
“I read the journal Science and Religion, in which there were passages from the Bible,” he writes. “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 feelings with his in-laws. He recalls, “No one in my wife’s family ever talked about God.”
When Viacheslav and Galina’s daughter, Tamara, turned five, she and Galina were baptized in the predominant church in Russia. “We began to attend services, … but we always had the feeling that God did not hear us, that we were hardly noticed,” 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.”
In the spring of 1990, Tamara met the full-time missionaries at a friend’s house. At first Viacheslav ignored the missionaries, who taught his daughter, “because I wondered what these young men could tell me about God. … 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.
Life soon changed for the Efimovs. “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.”
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.
Nina Bazarskaya lives in Voronezh (about 400 kilometers south of Moscow). She works as a professor of English there. At a young age, she learned about God, but she never went to church and didn’t read the Bible until age 40.
Her husband, Oleg, a physicist, “was a thorough atheist,” she recalls, “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.”
During a conference session, Nina felt compelled to answer an American professor’s question about the current religious climate in Russia. Her sincere expression of gratitude for her ability to speak openly of religion touched many people in the room, including Dr. Robert W. Blair from Brigham Young University, who had posed the question. They soon became acquainted, and Nina invited him to Voronezh.
In the spring of 1992 Brother Blair visited Nina and Oleg and attended Orthodox Easter services with them. “I had been eagerly awaiting this event,” Nina writes. But “the service 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.”
Then, in the summer of 1992, students from Brigham Young University arrived to teach English. Nina attended one of their Sunday meetings and was struck by the love and warmth she found there.
“I wanted to become like them, and I wanted my son, Aleksandr, to be with them. These were … people unlike any others I knew.”
At first she thought it would be possible to remain a member of the Orthodox Church while living the principles exemplified by her new LDS friends. But it soon became clear that she could not. She was torn between remaining with her traditional faith and joining the people she wanted to be like.
“This choice 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 … 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 further and believe more deeply.
“It’s difficult to describe the feelings I experienced upon hearing this voice: surprise, relief, happiness. … I was baptized on 15 December 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 can grow, and much that I had doubted a year ago now seemed true and right.
“I don’t know what 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 attend church regularly. … On January 15, 1994, he was baptized.”
Sister Bazarskaya 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.
Although many Russians consider scientific materialism inadequate for happiness, some are reluctant to explore religious truths. However, many respond well to the Church’s emphasis on eternal progression—the ongoing development of the spirit and mind.
Sergei Leliukhin was such a person. Sergei’s wife, Irina, had been baptized into the predominant church while living briefly with her grandmother. When the couple’s daughter, Marina, asked to be baptized into that church in 1990, Sergei began to reflect on the importance of religion.
“I started reading many religious books. … The central point I came to understand was that for a believer, the church is the foundation of one’s life. When I knew I could find the strength within myself to lead a religious life, I decided to be baptized.”
Sergei and Marina were baptized into the Orthodox church in November 1990. But they continued to feel a spiritual hunger. While on a business trip in June 1992 to Donetsk, Ukraine, Sergei met some Latter-day Saints. 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 quickly crossed the street, but an unfamiliar [feeling] prevented me from continuing.
“These two young men caught up with me and asked me how to get to one of the streets in the city. I said I could show them to the 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 Leliukhins joined the missionaries at the first Church meeting held in Saratov, located 675 kilometers 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.”
After completing the discussions, the family members were baptized in November 1992. They learned the gospel quickly, served cheerfully, and fellowshipped others joyfully.
“The opportunity to serve the Lord in his Church has helped us in our spiritual development,” says President Leliukhin, who became the first branch president in Saratov. “We feel our own growth so much as we try to help other Saints grow.”
The family’s baptism left them confident and happy but caused concern among some of their relatives. “After our baptism we encountered misunderstandings and even some aggressiveness from our relatives,” President Leliukhin recalls. “But we were confident we would endure. Even though a total understanding is still far away, relations toward us have become more tolerant.”
The Leliukhins were sealed in the Stockholm Sweden Temple in March 1995. Today President Leliukhin serves as a district president in Saratov.
In June 1843 the Prophet Joseph Smith appointed Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve and George J. Adams as the first two missionaries to “that vast empire” of Russia. In announcing their appointment, the Prophet stated that to Russia “is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days.”3 While Elder Hyde and Brother Adams were not able to accomplish their mission, Russian Latter-day Saints today are laying a foundation for the fulfillment of that prophecy.