“‘One of a City, and Two of a Family’: The Beginnings of the Church in Chernigov, Ukraine,” Liahona, Apr. 1999, 37
When Nikolay Shaveko traveled to Poland from his home in Chernigov, Ukraine, he thought the trip would be routine—just another long bus ride across the border to buy children’s toys to sell at an outdoor market back home.
The year was 1995, and many changes were taking place in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. “I was having great difficulties,” Nikolay says. Not only was he struggling with harsh economic challenges, he was also tasting religious freedom for the first time. He was hungering and thirsting for the truth.
In Poland, Nikolay met a group of Latter-day Saints from L’viv, Ukraine, who were also there on business. “They started speaking to me about God and about faith,” he says. When Nikolay returned home, he brought not only a load of toys to sell—but also a copy of the Book of Mormon and a great desire to learn more.
Nikolay’s wife, Lena, was frightened by his interest in a new religion. “There were so many churches coming into our country,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.”
As Nikolay studied the Book of Mormon, his faith grew steadily. Then the Church members he had met in Poland visited him and his family. Impressed by their spirit, Lena now shared Nikolay’s hunger to learn more.
“We tried to find the Church in Chernigov,” Lena says. “But we couldn’t.” In the city of 350,000, there were no missionaries, no branches, no known members. The closest branch was 150 kilometers away in the capital city of Kiev. “So we decided to follow all the commandments we knew of—to obey the Word of Wisdom and pray,” she says. “Our family grew closer. We started to spend more time together.”
But they yearned to have a greater understanding of the gospel, to make covenants with the Lord, and to have fellowship with Church members. On Sunday, 24 November 1996, Nikolay, Lena, and their daughters, Anya, age 10, and Yulia, age 7, made the 150-kilometer journey to Kiev.
“When we arrived at the branch, we met the missionaries for the first time,” says Lena. “They thought we were already members!” The Shavekos were amazed by the love and welcome they received. “It’s in our blood not to smile a lot,” she says, “so we were surprised to see all the people smiling. We loved the spirit we felt.”
That was the first of many trips the Shaveko family made from Chernigov to Kiev for Sunday meetings. For months they never missed a Sunday, even though the 300-kilometer round-trip journey took 24 hours each weekend, the temperatures dipped to -30 degrees Celsius, and the trains were poorly heated. The train always made several stops along the way, including a seven-hour layover in a crowded station in the middle of the night. The Shavekos would leave home at 8:30 P.M. Saturday and return home at 8:30 P.M. Sunday—or they would leave at midnight and return home the following midnight. In Kiev they would take buses and subways to the rented building where the branch met, arriving just in time for the 10:00 A.M. meeting. Afterward they would mingle with members, eat lunch, listen to a missionary discussion or two, and then head home.
Traveling by bus would have been faster—only three hours each way because of a more efficient schedule. But bus tickets were too expensive. As it was, train tickets for four Sundays each month cost nearly half of Nikolay’s monthly income.
But the journey didn’t seem burdensome, remembers Lena. “We were happy. Even the girls didn’t complain, although sometimes they fell asleep on the way. When we received the Liahona at church, we would read the whole magazine on the way home using the dim overhead lights on the train. The inconvenience of the trip didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t important.”
Two missionaries, Elders Kent Averett and Derek Rowe, obtained permission from the mission president, Wilfried M. Voge, to travel to Chernigov a couple of times to teach discussions to the Shavekos in their own home. Since the home’s heating wasn’t adequate, the family and missionaries had to dress warmly. “But the presence of the Spirit in our gospel conversations warmed us,” says Elder Rowe.
On 5 January 1997, six weeks after their first visit to the branch, the whole family—Nikolay, Lena, Anya, and Yulia (who had turned eight)—were baptized.
After Lena became pregnant a few months later, she was unable to make the long journey to Kiev every Sunday. So the mission president authorized a variation in the schedule. Two Sundays per month, Nikolay and his daughters continued to travel to Kiev for meetings. On the other Sundays, missionaries held Church meetings in the Shaveko home. Talks and lessons were taken from the scriptures, Church manuals, and the Liahona.
But along with joy came persecution. “Some neighbors said, ‘Oh, the Orthodox Church isn’t enough for you?’ And they started giving us problems,” says Lena. “Some of them are not as close to us anymore.”
On the day of their baptisms, the Shavekos received wonderful news. A member in Kiev told them that while serving as a missionary three years earlier in St. Petersburg, Russia, she had taught the gospel to a Ukrainian family—a single mother named Alla Kurnosova and her young son, Vitaliy. They had joined the Church and returned to live in Chernigov, where Alla works as a tailor.
During the three years since Alla Kurnosova’s baptism, she had corresponded with missionaries she had known in St. Petersburg. “Through letters, they gave me hope and strength,” Alla says. She and 13-year-old Vitaliy had continued studying the scriptures. “It seems Vitaliy knows even more than I do,” says Alla. “He teaches me all the time.” Both prayed that the Church would come to Chernigov.
Their prayers and patience were finally rewarded. Alla and Vitaliy became close friends with the Shavekos. The two families took turns hosting the twice-a-month Sunday meetings with the missionaries. Nikolay and Vitaliy were assigned as home teaching companions and visited both families together.
The meeting in Nikolay and Lena’s home on Sunday, 1 June 1997, is typical of the meetings during those days. Twelve people are in attendance: Nikolay, Lena, Anya, and Yulia; Alla, Vitaliy, and Alla’s nonmember mother, Vera; Katya Malihina, a 19-year-old Church member from Kiev attending law school in Chernigov; and four missionaries who have been teaching the group—Elder William and Sister Manette Murri, Elder David Sills, and Elder Chris Colton.
Elder Sills conducts the meeting. Sister Murri plays the piano. (She has been encouraging Anya and Yulia to learn to play several hymns. Before and after the meeting, the girls demonstrate how well they are progressing.)
The opening hymn is “I Need Thee Every Hour,” and Vitaliy offers the prayer. The sacrament hymn is “Jesus Once of Humble Birth.” Nikolay and Elder Colton prepare the sacrament on a small table covered with a simple white cloth and offer the sacrament prayers. Vitaliy passes the bread and water. Then, as sunlight streams through the living room windows, the members and missionaries express love for the Savior and gratitude for the gospel.
Lena weeps as she expresses how wonderful it is to hold Church meetings in her home. “There are very few people here; everybody fits into one apartment,” she says. “In other places, there are more members of the Church, and everybody does not have the opportunity to bear his or her testimony every time.”
She tells about a visit she had with a woman during the week: “I had a feeling in my heart that I should share the gospel with her.” In return, the woman, a member of a Protestant church, shared with Lena the steps necessary to officially register the LDS Church in the city—making a complicated process seem manageable. “The woman and I were happy to have the opportunity to talk with each other about religion. We became good friends, sisters in faith, even though we have different religions. We are all children of God. I know God will always help us and that the Church will grow here in Chernigov.”
Nikolay expresses appreciation for “being able to bear my testimony freely and to show my feelings to other people. How wonderful it is to come to know the truth and to have faith in God and in Jesus Christ, our Savior.” Then he bears witness of the Word of Wisdom. “By following it, we can have a clean heart and a clean body,” he says. “Before, I was often a drunk man, but today I am bearing my testimony! When I began to live the Word of Wisdom, there was a big change inside of me. I look at life a lot differently than before. I don’t want to go back to the darkness we had around us. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the truth and the commandments we should obey. We are coming closer to becoming like our Heavenly Father.”
Katya Malihina, the 19-year-old law student, says: “Yesterday I spoke with my friend about what Jesus Christ did for us. She asked me many questions.”
Young Anya Shaveko testifies: “I know Jesus Christ lives. The Church of Jesus Christ is true. It was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I hope we can get a branch here as soon as possible so people can come more quickly to the gospel.”
Alla Kurnosova says: “I love the Savior with all my heart, and I try to live His commandments. After our meeting last Sunday, I spoke to my cousin about the Church. She was very interested and wants to come to our next meeting.”
Then Alla’s nonmember mother, Vera, speaks: “This is my first time to come to church here in Chernigov, but I attended several times in St. Petersburg. I have noticed here today the same feeling I had when I went to that branch—peacefulness in my heart. My soul is softened today. I think I will keep coming.”
“Love at Home” is the closing hymn. Eight-year-old Yulia offers the prayer.
Since that Sabbath day in 1997, much has changed for the Church in Chernigov. Nikolay and Lena have had their baby—a daughter named Lara. Alla’s mother, Vera, has been baptized. Vitaliy, now age 14, is preparing to serve a mission. The Church has been officially registered in the city, and a branch has been organized—with Nikolay serving as branch president. Full-time missionaries now live and work in Chernigov. Several more people have been baptized. And the growing branch has rented a small building in which to meet.
But other things have not changed. The branch members still care about and watch over one another. They still share the gospel with people they meet. And the Spirit of the Lord continues to burn brightly in their hearts and in their homes.
Best of all, on 8 August 1998 the First Presidency announced that a temple will be built in Kiev, Ukraine. Soon, when the members from Chernigov make the trip to Kiev, it will be to attend the house of the Lord.