Russian Pioneers

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“Russian Pioneers,” New Era, July 1998, 28

Russian Pioneers

They’re entering new territory, discovering new things, preparing the way for others. Wouldn’t Brigham Young be pleased?

Like millions of Latter-day Saints all over the world, LDS youth in Russia joined in last year’s sesquicentennial commemoration of the 1847 arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. Like the others, they relived the trek of those who traveled by wagon and handcart to Zion. But perhaps as much or more than any other group, they truly understood what it means to be a pioneer.

A joyful journey

“Vperiod!” Brother Brigham shouts. “Forward!” He raises his hand high and points straight ahead. The pioneers grab their handcart, grimace at the effort of pulling it, and continue past a row of apartment buildings.

Wait a minute! That’s not how the Saints got to Utah!

Not to worry. This is Vyborg, Russia. The man playing the role of President Brigham Young is actually Aleksandr B. Tomak, a district president. And the pioneers, who have only a single handcart among them, are Russians from the St. Petersburg area, gathered at a youth conference to celebrate their heritage.

Their heritage?

Yes, these are young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That means that not only is the journey of the pioneers part of their history; so is the visit of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ to the Prophet Joseph Smith. So is the translation of the Book of Mormon. And so is the Restoration of the gospel in the latter days, with living prophets, temple work, and missionaries all over the world.

That’s why, as the handcart they are now pulling has journeyed from Siberia on the east to Vyborg on Russia’s western border, the “Mormons” in each location have not only pulled it through forests and mountains but also through the streets and parks of the cities where they live. They are celebrating, not only the pioneers that were, but also the pioneers they are—young people eager to live the truth and to share it with anyone willing to listen.

All over the world

“I love Russia,” says Katya Medvedeva, 16, of the Nevsky Branch. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. And at the same time, I love being a Latter-day Saint. I know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. It is a worldwide church. You see the members here? They are strong and happy. They believe in Heavenly Father and in Jesus Christ. They believe the gospel has been restored to the earth.”

As she walks the pioneer trail, Katya can’t help thinking about the trials faced by Church members of an earlier era. “They were driven from their homes. They faced storms, starvation, and a journey of more than a thousand miles,” she says. “Here we are on paved roads in the sunshine, when many times they had to push through the mud and shiver from cold!”

Not that today is free from challenges. “We have different tasks before us,” Katya continues. “We’re blazing trails in new ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling people about the Word of Wisdom. When people drink tea or coffee or alcohol, or when they smoke or use drugs, they think that if they stop they won’t have freedom anymore. But if you stop you don’t lose freedom; you gain freedom because you’re not dependent on those things anymore.”

Blazing trails. Preparing the way for others. That’s what pioneers do.

Happy trails

Vitaly Yakushev, 18, says that, thanks to the youth conference, he has a deeper understanding of why early pioneers went through so much to gather to Utah. Local Church leaders gave him permission to take the train from his home in Kaliningrad, located in a small slice of Russia on the Baltic Sea, across Lithuania and Latvia, then back into Russia and on to St. Petersburg and Vyborg. The distance isn’t that far, but since the train stops in nearly every town, it took 21 hours.

That might seem like a lot to go through for a youth conference, Vitaly explains. “But I believe Jesus Christ lives and that he restored his Church through Joseph Smith. To be with so many others who believe the same things brings me happiness and joy. My soul wanted to be here.”

Vitaly’s physical journey parallels the spiritual journey of another young man, Dema Nicholayev, 18, of the Tosno Branch. A year and a half ago, “I was rebellious,” he says. “I listened to heavy metal music, I had brightly colored hair, I was looking for some kind of direction, and I thought I had found it.”

Then he met the missionaries. “At first, I didn’t believe them,” Dema continues. “I didn’t believe another lifestyle could be better than mine.”

Then the missionaries introduced him to a teenage member who bore his testimony. “That touched my heart, and slowly I started to believe what they were telling me. It changed my life.” As he grew in gospel knowledge, he wanted to share what he knew.

“Now,” he says, “I’m here at the conference with two of my friends that I baptized.”

Truth is marching

As the youth walk and walk and walk, they sing. Someone strums a guitar, and everyone joins in folk songs. At other moments, silence reigns. And every once in a while, it just seems right to sing a hymn. “Come, Come, Ye Saints” is most popular, and those who sing it sometimes cry.

“Maybe I’m a little tired from walking so much,” says Natasha Kulenech, 16, of the Kolpino Branch. “But I feel the Spirit so strong that I know I can keep going. Life is like that. Sometimes I get tired, but then I think about the gospel. Before I became a member, my life was like a black-and-white film. Now it’s living color!”

“I think I’m just a normal member of the Church,” says Genia Slepukhina, 17, of Vyborg. “I can maybe go on a hike like this, in good weather with all of my friends. But I don’t really know what it would be like in the winter without food and fuel and shoes. I don’t know if I could do what they had to do.”

But Genia has already proven she can do some things they had to do, like endure persecution. When she first joined the Church, former friends at school scorned her.

“They said, ‘You are not like we are so we won’t speak with you,’” Genia explains. “One teacher said, ‘I will quiz you every day on my subject. Every day. And I know Mormons must be truthful, so don’t lie to me if you’re not prepared.’ That was hard, because I have six or seven subjects each day, and I must prepare for every one.”

Sometimes classmates would even hit her. “But my family, Church friends, and the missionaries really helped me,” Genia says. “They gave me great examples to follow. One of the missionaries showed me Matthew 5:10–12 [Matt. 5:10–12], where the Savior says if you are persecuted because of your faith, you will be blessed. So I kept after it. I always tried to testify of the truth. I think a lot of people thought my belief was just a temporary thing, and in time it would go away. Now they know it’s here to stay.”

New frontiers

“For us the LDS Church is new,” says Katya Pyshnyak, 13, of the Avtovo Branch. “Nobody in our branch has been a member for more than six or seven years. So we are the first, and that makes us like pioneers. We’re trying to be examples to others, like the pioneers who crossed the plains are examples to us. They had love and believed they would reach the right place and everything would be all right when they got there. They knew that God would help them.”

She and her friend Tanya Kuznezova, 16, also from Avtovo, foresee the day when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be a major influence in Russia.

“The true church must have its beginning in some country,” Katya says. “It isn’t important where it began. What is important is that it is true.”

“I think the LDS Church will be very big in Russia, that many people will want to be members,” Tanya says. “Right now people don’t understand that this is the only way we can live once again with our Heavenly Father. But some day they will understand how important it is and that they can know, as I know, that it is true.”

The right place

What do pioneers do? They go where others have not gone before, discover new things, mark a path, and prepare the way.

The Vyborg-St. Petersburg handcart company reaches the end of the trail at the shore of a lake in the forest. Here, workshops will be held and lunch served for those who have “safely completed the journey to Zion,” as President Tomak proclaims.

“Vot eto mesto!” he says, in his best Brother Brigham voice. “This is the place!”

It’s a phrase that was true 150 years ago in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. It is now a phrase that is equally true from Siberia to Vyborg, all across a vast country where modern pioneers are embracing the restored gospel today.

A Cart Full of Heart

Two handcarts were actually used in various cities across Russia, one as a backup in case of trouble or in case activities were planned in two places on the same day. When the celebrations were through, one cart remained in Russia. The other was shipped to Church headquarters, where it was presented to President Gordon B. Hinckley, then displayed at the Church Museum of History and Art.

Members filled the handcart bound for Salt Lake City with souvenirs. The youth of St. Petersburg were eager to be part of the sharing, but what could they add to such a collection?

A perfect answer: each youth conference participant was given a sheet or two of paper. They were instructed to write their testimony, addressed to President Hinckley. Then all the testimonies were bound together in a blue velvet book trimmed with gold braid and bearing the Russian coat of arms.

Though there were many items in the cart, from teddy bears to dolls dressed in native costumes, none were more precious than the book of testimonies, a true gift from the heart.

Photography by Richard M. Romney

It is their heritage these young Russians celebrate as they brave the pioneer trail. It is the heritage of Latter-day Saints everywhere. It includes the understanding of what it was like to have enough faith to cross an unknown wilderness. It includes faith that God hears and answers prayers and helps us in our trials. And it also includes the knowledge of the Restoration of the gospel and what that means for LDS pioneers throughout the world today.

At rest stops, some young women aren’t content just to sit. They weave grass into garlands and dandelions (previous page) into crowns. During the trek, they improvise with a wheelbarrow-turned-handcart. The testimonies of all the participants at the conference, bound in a blue velvet volume bearing their country’s coat of arms, join other souvenirs in a handcart that eventually will make its way back to Moscow, then on to Salt Lake City.