SANDY, Utah — Gale Sears wanted to tell the story of the Great War from the eastern front, but figured she wouldn't find a Mormon family in early 20th-century Russia as the country — at times violently — went from the glitz and glamour of Imperial Russia through the tumultuous Bolshevik Revolution and settled into Communism.
So she planned to tell it through the eyes of a Christian family, as the Russian Orthodox Church had a strong presence.
"The Bolsheviks wanted to take God completely out of their society," Sears said. "My premise would be, 'How does faith survive and what happens to faith when something so catastrophic happens as an entire government desires to take God completely out of their society?'"
And she started the hundreds of hours of exhaustive research she typically does for a novel, which is all neatly organized in file folders.
What happened next, she says, was "such serendipity."
Sears came across an Ensign article from 1981 about the first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia, including the family of Johan and Alma Lindlof. After contacting the author, she received more of the research that LDS Church historians had completed in preparation for the rededication of Russia for missionary work in 1991.
It's through the eyes of the Lindlof family that she weaves a tale of faith in "The Silence of God."
The title refers to several layers of meaning, one of which is "the idea that the Bolsheviks attempted to silence God within society," Sears said. Many churches were repurposed as warehouses and barns or otherwise destroyed.
"God really isn't ever silent," Sears said. "The silence of God is not a truism. We may think he's not there, or a society may decide to not have him in their society, but he is always present. He is always there to whisper to us."
Sears also wanted to incorporate the beauty of the country and people she and her husband, George, saw on a quick research trip.
"The feeling I also imbue in the book is that of Mother Russia and the feeling of her being there," Gale Sears said.
Christianity in Russia
"The Silence of God" opens in 988 A.D. when Prince Vladimir and his wife, Princess Anna, a Byzantine empress, bring Christianity to the nation. A statue of Prince Vladimir is in Kiev, Ukraine.
A few years later, he established the Church of the Tithes, the ruins of which are on a spot where a pagan idol once stood, Sears said.
It was in 1917 that the Bolsheviks attempted to take God out of the country. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union began to have more of a religious openness and in 1988, the country had a 1,000-year celebration of Christianity, Sears said.
Russia was rededicated for the preaching of the gospel in the early 1990s.
"The LDS temple in Kiev is only about six miles from that original church that Prince Vladimir built, the Church of the Tithes," Sears said.
The Lindlof family
Sears had the basic facts of the Lindlof family.
They were originally from Finland, which was a republic of Russia at the time, Sears explained. Johan Lindlof's mother and another woman were baptized in Helsinki, Finland, in 1883 and Elder John Bloom, the missionary who baptized them, was jailed for 28 days for a "breach of the Sabbath."
Johan, a gold and silversmith, was 26 at the time, but didn't join then. He later moved to St. Petersburg, Russia.
"It was a wonderful place to ply a trade such as that with the tsar and the nobility close," Sears said.
It was in June 1895 that Elder August Joel Hoglund was sent to the Lindlof home in St. Petersburg. After a night-long gospel discussion, the Lindlofs asked for baptism, and they considered it a miracle to find a quiet place on the Neva River for the ordinance. The growing family also received a visit from Elder Francis Marion Lyman, the European mission president and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, who dedicated Russia for the preaching of the gospel in 1903.
The Lindlofs had eight children, but seven were alive in 1917 during the time of the revolution.
They were arrested in the early morning hours on a cold January day in 1918, and their belongings were confiscated.
"It was such a tragedy for the family," Sears said.
Six of the seven living children were sent to the work camps. Johan, Alma and their youngest daughter were deported to Finland. Two other daughters died in the work camps.
Arel, who was also known as Axel, was the only sibling known to have survived the camps, and he went on to marry and have children.
Missionaries would periodically check on the family in Finland and include notes about them in reports to mission headquarters, said Sears, who used many of those notes while writing "The Silence of God."
While remaining true to the scant details she has of their lives, Sears created fictional characters close to the Lindlofs who were sincere believers in the Bolshevik ideology. One character, Natasha, is a friend of Agnes Lindlof, and Natasha struggles to understand the Lindlofs' belief and faith God.
"That tenderness of spirit was a joy for me," Sears said of writing about Natasha and Agnes. "It shows that even though they were so opposite in terms of their faith and ideology, they genuinely loved each other as friends." As members of the LDS Church, the Lindlofs didn't subscribe to either the Russian Orthodox faith or the Boshevik philosophies, and that also aroused suspicion.
When Natasha sees her friend and her family taken away, she starts to question her own beliefs as she sees the unfolding of many of the revolution's events.
Since the "Silence of God" has been published, she has heard from the descendants of Bloom, who was jailed for baptizing Johan Lindlof's mother, and has heard from some of Arel Lindlof's descendants, who are living in the United States, and from many others who have read "The Silence of God."
She also recently met with descendants of the Hoglund family when they were in Salt Lake City.
One of the chapters in the book that was pared down was about the baptism of the Lindlofs, and Sears was able to share that with them along, with other research she had found.
"I just love the people that I meet," Sears said.
e-mail: [email protected]