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MOSCOW — Pessimists may look at the LDS Church in Russia and see the glass half-empty, limited missionaries, past visa challenges, social ills including escalating alcoholism and divorce rates and a nation emerging from seven decades of atheism in the former Soviet Union.
But the optimists — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' leaders and members in Russia — see the church's relatively short history there, a second generation coming of age and a great opportunity for continued growth in years to come.
A glass not just half-full but getting fuller.
"You'll find the Russian members of the church to be just like members of the church throughout the world. They're trying to raise families, they value highly the standards we associate with the church, they have the same challenges as we do — financially, raising children and teenagers," said Elder Gregory A. Switzer of the Quorums of the Seventy and Moscow-based president of the church's Europe East Area.
"They want to be active in all aspects of the gospel," he added. "We think the future is very bright for the church in Russia."
The LDS Church's 20 years in Russia is a fraction of the oppressive Soviet rule of the 1900s, which itself is dwarfed by the region's Christianity roots dating back 1,000 years. Russian Orthodoxy re-emerged as the area's longtime predominant religion as Russia went from Soviet republic to a separate federation.
Early LDS Church leaders were mindful of Russia. In 1843, Joseph Smith appointed Orson Hyde and George J. Adams to prepare for a never-fulfilled mission to the "vast empire" of Russia, to which "is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days."
Russia's first Mormon converts were Johan and Alma Lindelof, baptized in St. Petersburg's Neva River in June 1895, many years after Lindelof heard the gospel in his native Finland, married, moved to Russia, worked as a goldsmith and petitioned the church's Scandinavian Mission.
Other missionaries occasionally visited the Lindelofs over the years, with Elder Francis M. Lyman of the church's Quorum of the Twelve offering dedicatory prayers in 1903 in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the wealthy Lindelofs were persecuted and exiled to labor camps or deported to Finland.
Some Soviet-era Russians converted to the Mormon faith outside their homeland. It wasn't until the late 1980s that Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Quorums of the Seventy made historic visits to Soviet Union leaders, with the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Branch created in 1990 and the church afforded official recognition in 1991.
Missionaries arrived from Finland and Austria missions, first on tourist visas. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russians took immediate interest in newfound freedoms and western lifestyles. Rapid membership growth led to missions and meetinghouses in Russia, the country's first chapel — in Vyborg — dedicated by a Russian district president, Andrey Semyonov.
Eventually, guarded attitudes returned as Russia's initial curiosities ended.
"It's not the right reason for joining the church — it's not the right foundation," said Stanislav Dilevsky, who as a husky, awkward St. Petersburg teenager found hope in the gospel and acceptance in the church as one of the earlier converts in 1991. "But when you struggle in life, you start looking for help. And you can find help from heaven."
Dilevsky is an example of what early Russian converts were expected to do — and did. He was called as a branch president at age 19 — missionaries aided as counselors — and several years later a temple worker to accompany Russian members traveling to the Stockholm Sweden Temple, all before serving as a missionary.
Dilevsky later met and married his Sochi-born wife, Olga, through LDS Public Affairs work in Russia; they're parents of a 6-year-old daughter.
Ivan Marchenko agrees with the foundation retained by Russia's faithful, remaining members. "Those who stayed were the really converted people — they had felt something very special and held firm," he said.
Marchenko did that himself, when his parents joined the church in 1993, but pressure from his grandparents meant he had to wait two years until at the age of 11 he could show them his conversion was really his own.
"The Book of Mormon became for me my iron rod," Marchenko said. "That was the first time I felt the Book of Mormon was a gift in our dispensation to help us be firm."
Marchenko's wife, Marina, was baptized in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1994 before studying 10 years in Moscow; they met as choir members, later married and have two young children.
Music admittedly "is the foundation of our relationship," said Marchenko, who traded a career in human resources to writing and performing music, including singing in a Russian choir at the Kyiv temple dedication and penning the Russian song for the Kyiv cultural program.
"Crave For Light," his six-member Moscow band that performs rock and popular music, is comprised of three LDS members and three nonmembers. Their latest CD is different from past releases — it features LDS hymn arrangements.
And Marchenko, who serves in a Moscow branch presidency, doesn't have to look far to see how that early foundation is now paying off in homegrown leadership. "I see it my branch presidency — I and the other two all attended Primary," he said. "We have been growing in the church."
For a number of years, church growth was tempered. Russians eventually struggled coming out of a state-controlled life to a free-market system and focused more on finding employment, making a living and creating new social connections. Membership numbers shifted — many from outlying regions moved to Moscow and other major cities, while members there moved to western Europe and the United States.
Missionary numbers and work also took a hit, after numbers in Russia once exceeded 800, but meeting strict visa rules often required missionaries to frequently travel great distances and even leave the country to renew visas. The result was a temporary suspension of new missionary calls to Russia as the government and church found solutions.
"We worked with government leaders to comply with Russian law and still have time for proselyting," Elder Schwitzer said. "We don't see it as a major barrier any more," he said. "The church and the government did not view it as a specifically targeted effort against a specific church."
It's no surprise that Russia is the predominant nation in the LDS Church's Europe East Area, claiming eight of the area's 14 missions and two-thirds of the more than 30,000 Latter-day Saints. That would be expected of a country spanning two continents and three times the size of the United States.
But those eight missions only have some 300-plus missionaries to cover expansive Russia. The Russia Moscow West Mission alone stretches from Belarus and western Russia (Moscow is its own separate mission) to Kazakhstan.
President Ken Woolley of the Moscow West Mission compares his mission to the United States and found his boundaries reached the equivalent of Pocatello, Idaho, and Rawlins, Wyo., to Carson City, Nev., and Flagstaff, Ariz. — and then stretching to well beyond the east coast of Florida.
Woolley said missionary efforts now combine proselytizing with strengthening inactive LDS members. "And I think that effort is going to be very fruitful," he said. "When they have joined and when they've gone through the fires of commitment, they're rock-solid. They're staying, and they're not going away."
Timur Kodirov is rock-solid, despite teenage years that saw his wealthy father disappear — assumedly kidnapped and killed by associates owing him millions of dollars — and his mother subsequently die of cancer. Left alone, Kodirov turned to the Rostov streets and a life of gangs, crime and bitterness.
Little by little, Kodirov was touched by religious matters — he read the New Testament, and encouraged a Muslim uncle in Uzbekistan to convert to Christianity and found the power of prayer.
"When I think about it, all my life Heavenly Father was trying to convert me — he tried to give me principles," he said, citing prayer as a prime power. "I was not in his church, but with prayer, every time I got answers. No matter what, no matter who I was, I got answers."
Eventually, the same uncle — who had since joined the LDS Church — got Kodirov pointed to the Mormon faith. After approaching two missionaries buying neckties at an open-air market, he was taught, attended meetings and converted four years ago.
"They pushed me to know more. No miracles, no angels came. But when we prayed, it was a great spirit," said Kodirov, who traded his "ghetto friends" for missionary service and has since relocated to Moscow.
Vladimir and Nataly Kabanov, married for 10 years and parents of three young girls, are trying to raise a second generation of Latter-day Saints while setting an example to friends and neighbors.
"As a family, we believe the best testimony and example we can give others is to be happy," said Nataly Kabanov, who as a St. Petersburg teen read the New Testament when scripture reading was first allowed in Russia but felt uncomfortable with her exposure to various religions.
"I didn't know which church was true, like Joseph Smith," she recalled, adding, "I was confused by memorized prayers of the Russian Orthodox; I felt like I wanted to pray to God by myself, in my own words."
Introduced to the Mormon faith by a family friend, she converted and later served a mission in Rostov, Russia.
Her husband learned of the LDS Church as a linguistics student in Moscow in 1992, wondering why some 20 exchange students from Utah and the United States there weren't going on Sunday outings but instead attended religious meetings in a local hotel. Soon, he found himself using missionary discussions as linguist study materials, and Vladimir Kabanov eventually became one of the first Mormon converts in his native Voronezh before serving a church mission in Arizona.
He is using his linguistic skills as a translator, including LDS materials and having translated for the late church President Gordon B. Hinckley during his historic visit to Moscow in 2002. Together, the Kabanovs produce handmade greeting cards, selling them to some 80 Moscow flower and gift shops as well as online and hoping to get a headstart in Moscow on scrapbooking supplies.
Russian LDS members understand the nurturing from the outside of the past, the growing pains of the present and the possibilities of the future.
"I would say 'thank you,' on behalf of the Russian Saints, to the American Saints for all the blessing you provide us — church buildings, church literature and all," Kabanov said. "Your strengths come here — we recognize that."
They work hard to break down the misconceptions and stereotyping their Russian peers have of Mormons.
"As long as they have this block, they will not hear information about the church from us but from other sources," Dilevsky said. "And that information from other sources is not always going to be good. That block is the hardest thing to break."
Added Kodirov: "I know God will break all the stereotypes. I don't know how. Maybe through Kyiv — the temple will give us a good example. Maybe through us in Russia. Maybe through angels. I don't know how — but God will."1 comment on this story
Meanwhile, Russian Mormons look and work for future solidifications — they anticipate a first Russian stake and hope to follow Kyiv's lead in receiving a temple of their own.
"The church will continue to grow," Kabanov said. "I envision the stakes of Zion here, a temple. I'm sure it will come."
Marchenko agrees, understanding the effort required in Russia. "I sense we will have trials to overcome," he said. "But I feel very strongly that the Lord wants us to do this and to fulfill our responsibility. It's not temporary — it's eternal work."