The prayers of millions in the Western world for religious tolerance are being answered in the Soviet Union, but many in the United States find it hard to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost is affecting religious worship there.

Yet years of pent-up religious yearnings have been released all across that nation, as ministers are invited to openly preach Christianity and Bibles are distributed to Soviet citizens without fear.That's the message a Soviet clergyman, the Rev. Benjamin Fedichkin, shared recently as he toured the United States with a group of 17 other Russian officials. During a visit to Salt Lake City, he handed out his business card, flashed a broad smile, and expressed a sentiment that aced any preconceived notions: "I'm from Russia - with love."

For 17 years, the Rev. Fedichkin has served as superintendent for the Moscow, Vladimir, Ivanov, Kostroma and Jaroslavl Districts of the Evangelical All-Union Christian Baptist Church. He says that today there are 80 Baptist churches in these districts, and 57 of them have their own buildings. Total membership as of January 1988 was 3,280. That figure has increased significantly during the past year.

"American people are very much surprised when they find out these figures," he said. "American believers used to pray that the situation would change for the better in the Soviet Union. Now, when they are told it has changed, they don't believe it."

Although the Baptist Church has tallied 121 years of history in Russia, its situation has changed dramatically during that time. During the German occupation in the early 1940s, religion was suppressed. In fact, Rev. Fedichkin's father, who was a lay preacher, was imprisoned for 10 years as a people's enemy.

From 1959 to 1964, the churches in Russia faced even greater suppression. Members continued to meet privately, but this was a time when members had to demonstrate great endurance and faith, he explained.

By 1965, the stranglehold on religion began to ease somewhat. In October, a Baptist church was built and the minister was allowed to preach, to baptize and to lead funeral services.

"Although there were limitations, we were satisfied," he said.

He added that 1985 was the "transitional year." Clergy were permitted to preach in public places. They could go into hospitals and minister to people.

"In 1984, that was not possible."

Today, the Russian government is encouraging ministers to preach in public places.

The Rev. Fedichkin said that on Nov. 21, 1988, James B. Irwin, the American astronaut, was invited to speak in a Baptist church in Moscow. The church advertised throughout the city, and even placed printed announcements in the subways.

"3,500 members and nonmembers crammed into our small church like sardines in a tin can to hear him speak about religion," the Rev. Fedichkin said.

The government is now allowing children's choirs and children's Bible classes.

"Before 1985, nonbelievers were afraid to touch a Bible, let alone look at it," he said. "Today, many are anxious to own one. They are hungry for religion.

"Three years ago, people avoided me. Now they respect me. I have given out 35 Bibles on the road in the last six months - some to traffic policemen when they they find out I'm a Baptist minister."

Rev. Fedichkin said that during 1988, over 300,000 Bibles have been distributed in the five districts he supervises.

"I believe that next year, the Soviet Union will become a member of the United Bible Society," he said. "And I believe that Bibles will be printed in the Soviet Union in the near future.

"The Soviet citizens want to have them. These Bibles help them see the world with new eyes."

The Rev. Fedichkin is very grateful to American believers who prayed for church members in Russia during those difficult years.

Russian believers have waited patiently. Today they realize that those prayers have been and are being answered.