Vilnius, Lithuania • The three-week detention of two Latter-day Saint volunteers-cum-missionaries in Russia earlier this year may not be ripe for a James Bond action thriller or even a real-life kidnapping saga like “The Saratov Approach,” but the prolonged ordeal was still a quiet drama for the pair and their church.
It began on an unremarkable Friday night in Novorossiysk, a city near the Black Sea, when two fresh-faced young men from the United States who were serving full time for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited locals to come to their weekly game night at the faith’s meetinghouse, where the guests could practice their conversational English.
The March 1 event started at 6:30 p.m. with about 15 participants, going around a circle, introducing themselves. About 20 minutes into the exercise, the door opened and four police officers — two in uniform — and three cameramen strolled in.
In that moment, 19-year-old David Gaag, who had been in the country for barely a month, felt his stomach drop.
The earnest Latter-day Saint from Bothell, Wash., wasn’t afraid, feeling divine comfort that he and his companion would be OK, Gaag recalled in an interview this week, but he knew in a flash that “my mission would never be the same.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Gaag and his 20-year-old companion, Kole Brodowski of Garden Grove, Calif., were arrested that night, charged with violating their visas, and put in a deportation facility for nearly three weeks.
Whereas the 1998 abduction and eventual release of two Latter-day Saint missionaries in southwestern Russia, depicted in the gripping 2013 film “The Saratov Approach,” garnered global headlines for its true-crime suspense, this detention became big news for other reasons: It highlighted the heightened diplomatic concerns about Russia’s 2016 anti-terrorism law — which prevented proselytizing and led to Latter-day Saint missionaries being officially designated as “volunteers” — and demonstrated the increased scrutiny faced by all minority faiths, especially those with U.S. ties.
Of course, the geopolitical forces at play took place at high levels of government far above Gaag and Brodowski. For these Gen Zers, their experience was not political, but deeply personal, one they could never have imagined when they first learned the Utah-based faith was sending them to Russia.
“Through it all, I knew that there was some reason we were there, some lesson we had to learn or some lives we had to touch,” Gaag said in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is now assigned as a Russian-speaking proselytizing missionary, and where he proudly wears his black nametag, a simple act forbidden in Russia.
Gaag has no idea what prompted the police to show up that particular night. The volunteers talked to many people and were always inviting them to events, he said, but not to church services. That was against the law, and they knew it.
“It’s possible that someone who had come before informed the police, but nothing we did was illegal,” he said. “We were becoming pretty well-known in that small city so it’s possible that word just got around.”
The police definitely kept tabs of Latter-day Saint volunteers in the area (Gaag and Brodowski were the only two there at the time), Gaag said. “They knew where we lived, where the church was, and how long we’d been there.”
Gaag and Brodowski tried to get church members to attend their activities, but the branch (a small congregation) only had four families, and they lived outside the city, so coming in for a weeknight evening was tough. That night there were no Latter-day Saints at the game night besides the two Americans.
When the local authorities entered, they announced the charges and asked to see everyone’s passports, while also calling an independent translator. The young men used a phone to call an attorney from the church, an instruction they had been given by the mission president if the police ever stopped them.
After the interpreter arrived, the police interviewed Brodowski, while Gaag asked about the cameras. Were they from the media? When she said yes, he asked, “Do I have the right to ask them to leave?”
Apparently they did, so two cameramen left, while one stayed to record the exchange for police records. It captured images — later found on YouTube — of them being taken away in a police vehicle.
At the station, they initially were interrogated, Gaag said, for about a half-hour.
The main policeman that night “was very cold and gave off the impression that he thought we were trying to spread our ideology to Russia,” Gaag recalled. “He asked us lots of questions and would get a bit frustrated when we wouldn’t answer in the way they wanted. He would accuse me of lying and act smug like he caught me and knew I was lying,”
During other interactions outside of formal interviews, the young volunteer said he tried to reach out to the man “as one member of the human race to another, trying to see him as Christ would,” but the officer “shut me down.”
The two Americans had to sign a statement that night saying they understood the charges — violating their visas, which listed them as religious volunteers not as English teachers. They thought they would be sent home but instead were sequestered in a jail cell at the police station.
The church attorney told them not to answer any more questions or sign papers without the lawyer present, Gaag said. “He helped us know our rights and what the police could and could not ask us to do.”
The next day, they were driven by car to a detention center about five hours away near Krasnodar. There, they were held in a room with eight other, much older men, few if any spoke English and all were curious about these Americans. How did they end up in the same place as the locals?
“It was intimidating at first,” said Gaag, who left for his two-year mission straight after high school in Washington. “You feel like everyone wants something from you. You showed up in a shirt and tie and everyone thinks! ‘Whoa, who do we have here?”
But the outgoing duo, he said, “eventually developed friendships with them.”
Eric and Elizabeth Ottesen, the mission president and his wife, as well as the attorney visited them every day, providing fresh food, fresh clothes, copies of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, and other religious reading materials.
“Living conditions were suboptimal,” Gaag said. “The food was not good but at least we had food. Showers were not good, but there were showers. Toilets were not good, but there were toilets.”
They spoke by phone to their families every day, keeping them informed of every development in their cases.
And, as they waited, they prepared for their trials.
The first case against them was the charge of violating their visas. They pleaded not guilty, but the judge ruled against them. The fine was about $15 and immediate deportation, Gaag said.
The church appealed that decision, while the police began building a second, more serious case: illegal proselytizing on the street.
Authorities said they had videotaped evidence of the volunteers passing out religious pamphlets and three witnesses.
“That was completely false,” Gaag said.
The two then were interviewed separately for three hours each — again, Gaag added, trying to catch them in lies.
The pamphlets they allegedly distributed were printed in the 1990s and have not been used in recent years, he said, and the three witnesses’ testimonies were alike — word for word. That made Gaag suspect that the statements were rehearsed or coordinated.
This time, the duo had a court-appointed lawyer, rather than the church attorney, who was present but said little.
Brodowski felt it was pointless to challenge the evidence, but the spunky Gaag couldn’t let it go. In the end, the video wasn’t shown and the witness accounts were accepted as they were.
“‘They signed their documents and they can’t lie,’” Gaag recalled the judge declaring.
Again, the two entered separate not-guilty pleas — the church denied all along any wrongdoing by the pair — and the same judge ruled against them.
This time, the fine was $500 and immediate deportation for five years.
A staffer from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow came down to help, and Gaag heard the name “Huntsman” mentioned repeatedly. Jon M. Huntsman is the U.S. ambassador to Russia and a former Utah governor.
Gaag does not know why it took almost three weeks to deport them, nor what negotiations took place outside of the court but, on March 20, Brodowski got on a plane bound for California (he was scheduled to finish his mission soon).
“It’s finally over!" Brodowski’s father, Kyle, wrote on Facebook at the time. “Kole is headed home. ... I want to thank the thousands of people worldwide that prayed for him/us and sent messages of comfort and support.”
For his part, Gaag jetted to New York for three days then was reassigned to the Baltics.
Back in the field
After his brief stay in the United States, Gaag returned to missionary work in Riga, Latvia, until his transfer to Lithuania at the end of May.
He currently is working with two other Russian-speaking elders, Benjamin Stone of Denver and Elijah McQuivey, also of Denver, who was with Gaag in the Missionary Training Center in November.
Both had heard about the detention and wondered about all the “crazy rumors” that surrounded it, so they were glad to find out what really happened.
These days, the three spend their time seeking Russian-speaking converts in this capital city.
“It’s not an easy mission,” said Stone, who has been serving a year.
There are about 1,000 members on church rolls in Lithuania, but a much smaller number attends and participates. Vilnius has two branches, one Russian speaking, the other Lithuanian, with an average attendance of 40 each.
The missionaries volunteer weekly at a disability center and a food bank, said McQuivey, as part of their service obligations.
They talk to everyone they can on the streets and on buses — a taboo tactic in Russia — seeking especially young converts. And, yes, in this country they can and do host free English classes.
For his part, Gaag continues to reflect on his short sojourn in Russia and its impact on his faith.
“From the moment the police walked into English club, I felt God reassuring me that everything would be all right,” he said. “I felt his comforting hand as I prayed day and night.”
It was a sense of peace in the midst of “chaotic circumstances,” Gaag said, a feeling he will never forget.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, is a brother of Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman.
Correction • June 30, 3:45 p.m.: The location of the Russian city of Novorossiysk was misstated. It is near the Black Sea.