With Russia’s ban on missionary work, it’s up to members to keep Mormonism alive

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Two Latter-day Saint “volunteers” walk in central Moscow.

This is the second part in a three-day series examining how Western faiths, including the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are having to adapt to survive and grow in a nation where the government, with encouragement from the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, continues to put up barriers. Part 1 explores what Western faiths are up against in Russia. Part 3 explains why building a temple in Russia will be a tall order for Latter-day Saints.

Moscow • On a simmering, summery day in a dense neighborhood less than a mile from the Kremlin, three Latter-day Saints sit in an upper room of their neoclassical building-turned-meetinghouse, swapping stories about, of all things, couches and atheists.

In the Soviet era of their childhoods, apartments were standardized and furniture choices few. Every house had the same refrigerator, the same table, the same lamps. Residents put in a request for furnishings and took whatever they got.

“You had the gray sofa?” one asks. “We had the tan version.”

They laugh about it now, even as they note the other, darker aspects of that time. Faith was forbidden, and faithlessness — dictated by the state — pervaded the vast nation.

Even after the Soviets allowed some return of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1980s, Latter-day Saints say, their relatives engaged in religious rituals without any genuine belief in the divine. It was head more than heart; body, not soul.

The three — Alexey Samaykin, Kristina Nikogosyan and Sergei Antamanov — took different paths to membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But they all have found the tiny church from the West, with barely 23,000 members in Russia compared with tens of millions of Orthodox Christians, to be a spiritual oasis.

For these believers, Mormonism is bigger than nationality, bigger than tradition, bigger than the past. It is part of a global gathering.

And they all have missionaries — and their own full-time missions — to thank for that sense of belonging.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Red Square at dusk, the Kremlin, seat of the government, left, and St. Basil’s Cathedral on the right.

Given Russia’s current mandate against proselytizing, though, what would happen to their inner devotion, and their wider church community, without the constant influx of evangelizers from abroad to build the collective flock and the individual followers?

It’s no hypothetical question.

The political and religious climate in Russia could worsen for minority faiths, forcing them to rely exclusively on homegrown believers, who face their own restrictions.

Just like foreign missionaries, they cannot preach in public places. They cannot publicly share printed invitations to church. They cannot hand out to co-workers or neighbors copies of their sacred texts, church magazines or tracts. They cannot hold religiously oriented gatherings (sometimes called “cottage meetings”) in their homes with nonmembers. They cannot engage in online preaching.

“It is difficult to see a path to growth, or even maintenance of stable membership, without opportunities for personal evangelism,” says David Stewart, a Latter-day Saint physician in Las Vegas and an independent demographer who served his mission in Russia in the early 1990s. “Still, the LDS Church in Russia has a mature and committed membership base that is capable of surviving and growing even without foreign missionaries.”

It will be built, he says, on their “stories of great faith and personal devotion.”

Learning to cut back

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Book fair on Red Square in Moscow.

In the optimistic aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a crush of Mormon missionaries arrived from the United States to preach the American-born faith.

The number of Latter-day Saint missions soared to eight, spread across the largest physical country in the world. Enthusiasm was palpable in Salt Lake City and among the young pioneering proselytizers.

But the Russian government and Orthodox Church were not so eager to see their citizens joining a foreign faith.

In 2016, the country adopted its infamous anti-proselytizing law, and Latter-day Saint growth there essentially has stalled.

Alexandra Pospelova, a religion scholar in St. Petersburg, views the law as misguided.

“You cannot fight with someone else’s beliefs; you can only share yours,” she says in an interview. “When you try to force someone else’s beliefs, it makes them stronger.”

A lot of religious organizations, especially Protestants, “went underground,” Pospelova says. “They were not doing anything illegal; they were just trying to hide. Instead of cooperating with the government, they tried to distance themselves from it.”

She has heard speculation that the LDS Church might face the same harsh consequences as Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia — whose buildings have been seized — but she doesn’t agree. The Latter-day Saints are abiding by the law, the scholar says, and working to build bridges.

“I am thinking positive about the future of the LDS Church here,” Pospelova says. “I expect a liberalization of the legislation. As the country changes politically, a change in religious legislation will also take place.”

For now, though, the restrictions have affected Mormonism’s growth.

While there are about 23,000 Latter-day Saints in Russia, only 3,500 to 4,500 regularly attend services, according to Stewart’s research.

“Weekly church attendance appears to be in this range,” he says, “but there may be a larger number who attend occasionally.”

Plus, the number of missions has been pared to five, Stewart says, with about 50 — officially called “volunteers” — in each.

These emissaries cannot wear their iconic black nametags. They cannot offer free English classes with the hope of converting attendees. They can speak of their religion only in their own worship spaces.

But the church still taps Latter-day Saints, many from the United States, as mission presidents — and, yes, they’re called “mission” presidents, not volunteer coordinators — who set mission goals and seek to add more members.

Earlier this year, two volunteers in Novorossiysk, a city near the Black Sea, were detained for nearly three weeks, accused of violating their visas for hosting a game night at the church’s meetinghouse.

On that Friday night in March, when four policemen and three cameramen entered, 19-year-old David Gaag 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 told The Salt Lake Tribune, but he knew in a flash that “my mission would never be the same.”

He wasn’t wrong. He was deported after barely a month in the country and now is finishing his mission in neighboring Lithuania — and cheerfully wearing his nametag in public.

Learning to serve

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-Saint Kristina Nikogosyan stands at gate of the central Moscow meetinghouse.

It was a free English class that attracted Kristina Nikogosyan to the church.

She grew up in a small city south of Moscow with atheistic parents, who believed that any religion outside of Russian Orthodoxy was a “cult.”

The family had little money, so in 2001, when Latter-day Saint missionaries were offering free language lessons, 14-year-old Kristina eagerly joined her older sister at the class.

Soon, the siblings started attending church activities as well, and, within a year, came to see members as “normal people.”

Before long, they were baptized and became fully immersed in Mormonism.

By then, her mom had died, she says, and her dad was an ardent communist. Still, he was supportive.

Nikogosyan’s cousins, however, all thought the young women had been “brainwashed,” she recalls. “It is hard for people who are taught one way to see things differently.”

At 21, Nikogosyan served a full-time mission in Ukraine, which she says was an unforgettable, “glorious and inspiring” experience.

After she returned, the young Latter-day Saint earned a law degree, lived and labored in St. Petersburg, then moved to Moscow, where she works for the church in its travel department. She has attended congregations for singles, even serving on stake (regional) Young Single Adult councils.

“It’s still a challenge to find someone to marry,” Nikogosyan says ruefully. But she treasures the faith’s teachings about women.

In Russian society, women are “treated as a product who need to be beautiful to get married,” the poised professional says. “In job interviews, you have to send photos. For most husbands, you need to be able to cook, clean house, and raise kids.”

Nikogosyan compares that to what she learned as a teen from her adopted religion — that every woman is a beloved daughter of a Heavenly Father and Mother, meant to be cherished for herself and not for her appearance.

“In church, we are encouraged to use our talents,” she says.

It may have an all-male priesthood, but, Nikogosyan notes, it teaches that “husbands and wives are equal.”

She says Russian members — calling themselves “saints” doesn’t work here because the Russian Orthodox use the term for their exalted members — are just “trying to live gospel-centered lives.”

Learning to witness

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Though missionary twosomes have to be circumspect in public, at church they can wear those verboten nametags.

On that Sunday in June, two “sister,” or female, volunteers stroll through the chapel, amid the clatter of stacking chairs and chattering toddlers, greeting stalwarts and newcomers alike. Some members are impeccably dressed in their Sunday best; others show up in jeans and T-shirts.

One of the sisters goes to the podium to “bear testimony,” sharing a witness of her faith.

“Jesus Christ knows our problems,” the young woman from the Netherlands tells the assembled believers. “He gives us peace and confidence.”

Fewer and fewer of the volunteers are Americans, says Alexey Samaykin, and members don’t dwell on the anti-proselytizing edict.

Learning to parent

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Alexey Samaykin in the Latter-day Saint central Moscow meetinghouse.

Mormonism taught Samaykin how to be a father. He certainly didn’t learn it from the men in his life.

Under the Soviets, the state had control over the children.

“When you are 5 years old, you are put into school and the school parents you,” he says. “When you graduate from the university, the government gives you an assignment.”

His father in particular, Samaykin says, had no idea how to deal with kids.

Samaykin converted to Mormonism as a university student in Saratov and soon applied to serve a full-time mission for his newfound faith.

His parents weren’t thrilled to see their son join this foreign church. Now they were expected to let him go for two years?

On his mission, Samaykin was astonished to see his American mission president kissing his wife in public, an act he had never seen his own father do.

“I learned from them how I wanted to treat my future wife,” he says. “Not the way my grandfather treated my grandmother, or the way my father treated my mother.”

Now, as the father of three, Samaykin looks to Latter-day Saint teachings about the eternal nature of the family, about Heavenly Parents, and about Jesus’ divine role to guide him.

It is “amazing how quickly Russian members find happiness and joy in simple things,” explains Samaykin, who works for the LDS Church in Moscow, with about 40 other employees, “how modest the lifestyle is.”

His parents now admire how he fathers his children, loves his wife, and worships his God in his new church.

And, he says, he has never lost a friend for being a Latter-day Saint.

Learning to get along

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Sergei Antamanov, LDS Church spokesman, in the central Moscow meetinghouse.

Sergei Antamanov likes to say he was born in 1988, exactly 1,000 years after Christianity arrived in Russia. Like so many others of his generation, his parents were nonbelievers but, in the 1990s, when the country opened up to religion, his grandmother became Baptist.

“There was something in her countenance I could feel was a result of her faith,” the 31-year-old LDS Church spokesman explains in the 2014 book “A Global Testimony: Sixty Different Countries, One Powerful Message.” “I became interested in what she was telling us about God and Jesus so I started reading a children’s Bible.”

In the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk, he, too, met Mormon missionaries through a free English class. He and his mother began attending. Then he learned the proselytizers had organized sports nights as well. He was all-in.

“There was no cussing, no aggression,” he writes. “Everyone nice and fair” — a far cry from the rowdy reputation of the clawing, elbowing, shoving and punching of church basketball games found in Mormon lore.

After a soccer game one night, an elder invited him to Sunday services. He eventually was baptized into the Utah-based faith “in a rented pool,” accepted callings, or positions, in the lay-ministered church, and then served a two-year mission to Ukraine.

On the 10th anniversary of his baptism, Antamanov proposed to another Latter-day Saint, Vera. Today, the couple have two children.

The young father now spends his time traveling around Russia and other Eastern European nations representing the church, engaging with scholars, seminarians, religious leaders and reporters. He regularly participates in interfaith activities.

“I believe in diversity and dialogues,” he says. “We are all in the same boat.”

Nothing makes him sadder, he adds, than seeing “smaller faiths fighting among each other.”

Russian Mormons, he says, “tend to judge less and think more broadly.” That, he believes, is part of his faith.

So is following the church’s 12th Article of Faith, namely “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Learning to live with invisibility

Complying with the anti-proselytizing law means fewer hassles with security forces but also less public awareness.

“There were even more negative feelings about the church back when missionaries used to walk the streets and talk to people,” 77-year-old Olga Trunova, a member in Saratov, told The Moscow Times in February. “On the other hand, back then, a lot more people came to church. Now there is less information available.”

It has also made some Latter-day Saints feel isolated and misunderstood.

“One reason why I’m still in the church is I don’t have any other group to stick with,” a 31-year-old member named Alexander told The Moscow Times. “I was abandoned by my friends when I joined the church. I stopped drinking and partying with them; I changed my behavior. If I would leave right now, I would have nothing to do at all.”

Learning to lead

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Boris Leostrin, president of the St. Petersburg LDS Stake.

The Russian government is making it increasingly tough for volunteers to do what they were sent to the country to do. Their former methods are now taboo.

Finding those who had been baptized but no longer participate, for instance, has become an arduous and grueling task.

The only solution, says Kirill Ananich, the lay bishop of a Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, in St. Petersburg, is for members to shoulder the responsibility to build God’s kingdom, rather than relying on others.

“We need to be stronger than missionaries,” he says.

To Boris Leostrin, the stake president in St. Petersburg, limiting foreign missionaries is not all bad news.

Leostrin, who joined the church with his mother in 1993 and served a mission himself in Rostov, sees it as a chance for Russian Latter-day Saints to talk more about their faith.

During the past couple of years, “we’ve learned to work closer with the missionaries,” he says. “So far we’ve had the greatest number of people give us phone numbers to give to missionaries.”

It’s not the “quantity of missionaries that matters,” says Leostrin, who owns a tour company, “it’s the quality.”

These young volunteers spend their time improving their language skills, responding to questions and working with members.

They are focused on “thinking outside the box,” he says, “but within the fence.”

Currently, there are still a few congregations where volunteers from outside the country serve as “branch presidents,” overseeing smaller congregations, he says, but that is changing.

When the law came out, members were asking him: What do we do now?

Russian Latter-day Saints will rise to the challenge, Leostrin says. “We have had some branches where there were no volunteers and they were fine.”

Come what may, he says, they will still be fine.

Correction • Sept. 9, 2019, 11:15 a.m. • Sergei Antamanov has two children. A previous version gave an incorrect number.