‘It’s finally over’: Latter-day Saint missionaries deported from Russia are returning to the United States

Kole Brodowski, left, and David Gaag were working as volunteers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia. Authorities there detained the men on March 1, 2019. They were released March 20.

Washington • Two missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had been detained for nearly three weeks in Russia have been released and are returning to the United States, the church announced Wednesday morning.

Kole Brodowski, 20, and David Gaag, 19, had spent about 19 days in detention after Russian authorities arrested them on suspicion of teaching English without a license, a charge the faith had denied. Missionaries for the church are not allowed to proselytize in Russia and are dubbed “volunteers” during their time in the country.

“The two volunteers detained in Novorossiysk, Russia, have been released and have left the country,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Wednesday.

(Photo courtesy Brodowski family) Kole Brodowski poses in this undated photo. Brodowski and his companion on his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were detained in Russia on March 1, 2019. They were released 19 days later.

Brodowski was nearing the end of his two-year mission and will return home to California, Hawkins added, while Gaag, who is from Washington state, will return to the United States for a short time for any help he may need after the ordeal and then head to a new mission.

“While in detention, the volunteers were treated very well and maintained regular contact with their families and mission president,” Hawkins said. “The church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law.”

The two men were detained March 1 at a local church, and a court later ordered them deported for teaching English without a license in violation of their visas.

Brodowski’s father, Kyle Brodowski, thanked supporters on Facebook.

“It’s finally over!" he wrote. “Kole is headed home, and his companion will receive another call. I want to thank the thousands of people worldwide that prayed for him/ us and sent messages of comfort and support.”

Gaag's mother, Lisa Krulish, said in a phone interview that her son would be back in the United States sometime Wednesday.

Krulish said her son was held in a holding facility for immigrants. Conditions were humane, she said, and his family was able to speak to him.

“He was treated well,” Krulish said.

She declined to say where in the U.S. Gaag will go first. But Krulish said Gaag will resume his mission “probably abroad.”

(Photo courtesy Lisa Krulish) David Gaag poses in this undated photo. Gaag and his companion, Kole Brodowski, were working as volunteers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia. Authorities there detained the men on March 1, 2019. They were released March 20.

Gaag’s father, Udo Gaag, provided a statement to the LDS Church-owned Deseret News.

“We are so relieved and happy about this news,” the family statement said. “We spoke with David and he is healthy and in good spirits. He is happy that the detention is over but sad to leave his Russian friends. It is clear to us that he enjoyed his experience serving the Russian people and truly grew to love them.”

The State Department declined to provide more information about any diplomatic efforts made to get the volunteers released from custody, citing privacy considerations.

“We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad,” a State Department spokesman said on background.

The Brodowskis, however, did get a personal call from U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman at midnight Tuesday, telling them their son was out of detention.

Huntsman "wanted us to know how proud he was of Kole and David for their courage and patience, [through] a long difficult process." Kyle Brodowski wrote on Facebook.

“We shared our gratitude. I thanked him and everyone there for their tireless efforts, and offered to send thank you notes, too,” the father wrote. “I’ll never forget his response.”

Huntsman told him, "No need. Kole and David are citizens of the United States of America. It’s my Job to guarantee their safety while traveling in a foreign land.”

The senior Brodowski “choked up,” he wrote. “My heart pumped with patriotism; I clinched my fist and shed tears.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, tweeted his support for their release.

“Very pleased that Russia has released the two Church volunteers," the senator said, “and that they are now returning home to their families.”

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, echoed that sentiment.

“Prayers have been answered with the return of these two elders serving in Russia,” Curtis said. “I am grateful for their release and may God continue to bless them and their families.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, said he and his wife, Jeanette, were grateful that the volunteers were headed home.

“We wish them well," the governor tweeted, “as they continue to serve and return home.”

Reuben Davis, of Provo, returned in June 2017 from a mission in Novosibirsk, Russia, about 300 miles north of where Brodowski and Gaag served. Davis said he was there when Russia passed the anti-terrorism measures that limited proselytizing.

In the first year of his mission, Davis said, he stopped Russians on the street and knocked on doors much like other Latter-day Saint missionaries. After the clampdown, Davis and the other missionaries in Russia switched to doing service work.

“We made ourselves available out in the community,” Davis said Wednesday. “We would be walking around and if we saw someone working in the yard, we would help them. We mostly tried to start friendly conversations and put ourselves out there.”

Much of the help was provided to Russian Latter-day Saints, but Davis said one day he dug a trench for a nonmember trying to get her yard irrigation working. If nonmembers asked questions about the Utah-based faith, Davis said, he would answer them, but he was taught to let the Russians begin the conversation.

Police stopped him a couple of times and asked to see his visa and other documentation, Davis said. He was never detained more than a few minutes.

Davis said the church might have to withdraw volunteers from Russia if conditions continue to deteriorate for them, but for now he favors the church keeping them in Russia.

“They do a lot of good, especially for the church members there,” Davis said. "A lot of the branches [small congregations], there’s only a very small portion of active members. The people who have the experience to lead those congregations effectively can be even smaller.

“So I think the volunteers do a lot of good and maintain a fairly positive presence there.”

Russian Latter-day Saints number barely 22,000 in a vast nation of 145 million. Church President Russell M. Nelson announced plans last year to build a temple in a “major city” there.

At this point, though, especially given the constraints on missionaries and proselytizing, that proposed temple seems more aspirational than operational. Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf visited Moscow later and tamped down expectations that a House of the Lord would be rising anytime soon in Russia.

Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.