An old friend of mine (a former bishop, for whatever that’s worth) whom I keep in touch with by e-mail has spent much of the past decade working for the U.S. government in different capacities in Russia and Ukraine. In response to some recent news items regarding limits on visas to the former Soviet Union, I asked him to comment on how the church and the missionary program is fairing there. This is what he has to say. For security reasons, he asked that I post it without his name attached.
Mormons from the West who live or visit the former Soviet Republics and find themselves sharing their testimonies in front of LDS congregations in this region regularly comment on what a “miracle” it is that the Church is here and that the Gospel is being preached and accepted in this part of the world. That is the big news, and the good news. But the current state of play is not without wrinkles.
Recently, the Russian government has established visa policies making it much more difficult and expensive for individuals from outside of Russia to serve full-time missions here. In short, there is a new requirement that individuals living in Russia on the type of visa that religious workers typically receive must leave Russia every three months and apply for re-admittance. We have been informed by local and regional Church leadership that this may mean a substantial dip in the number of North Americans and others from outside of Russia serving as full-time missionaries here.
That is the long and short of the current situation. The backstory, as I understand it from 10 years of traveling to and living in the former USSR, suggests that these recent developments are far from surprising and shouldn’t be seen as a severe blow to the Church’s prospects here.
The general consensus among Mormon visitors that it is truly a “miracle” that the Church is here at all is more correct than they know. And that is not necessarily because of Russia’s 70-year experiment with “godless communism.” In fact, the years of Communism and and the chaos that followed after its preciptious fall may have brought Russia into the modern world in ways that actually have made it easier for the Church to establish a toehold in the former USSR than if the 1917 Revolution had never happened.
The current change in policy effecting foreign LDS missionaries is part of a larger political, social and religious re-trenchment going on (at least in Russia) that is not at all a return to the official atheism that was propounded by the government during the Communist years, but rather a more conservative, more traditional return to “Russian values” that suggest that the “true Russian” is and must be the following: patriotic (obedient to and supportive of the government) and devout (obedient to and support of the Russian Orthodox Church). Anything outside this paradigm is perceived as a threat and, when possible, that threat is eliminated through all available means — political, legal, social, relgious.
While Mormons regularly talk about a “conversion” experience that even individuals born into the Church must go through at one time or another in their lives, that concept is foreign to (and is perceived as antithetical to) traditional Russian Orthodoxy. The idea that a person can or should “choose” their own religious path is as ridiculous to this mindset as the idea that a person can or should be free to choose their own ethnicity. It simply does not compute.
These attitudes are rooted much more in the “Old World” than they are in the state-sponsored atheism under Communism, and they are much more deeply ingrained than the socialist sensibilities that still survive in the former USSR. After years of hearing stories about the “New World” being attractive to the first European settlers because of their quest for religious freedom, I finally understand the conditions from which they were escaping. And I understand more and more now the claim one regularly hears among Mormons that the Church could not have been established anywhere but in America, where religious diversity, although not existing without resistance, at least existed in the early 1800s.
In Russia of the 21st century, many influential people (the President being the most prominent among them), believe and promote the traditional idea that the Russian is born Orthodox and must die Orthodox, and any deviation from that path by individuals or groups is a serious and foreign-based threat to Church and Country that must be met head-on through all available means, including the passage of legislation and the implemntation of governmental policy.
This affects the lives of the non-native LDS members living in Russia very little (aside from the full-time missionaries). I feel very free to be practice my own religion here, and the Russian government doesn’t try to interfere with that, largely because I am an American and the Russian government doesn’t care about my particular religious persuasion. However, these attitudes have larger implications for the growth of the Church within Russia, among the Russians.
Just as it is a miracle that the Church is here now, the future growth of the Church in Russia will be just as significant of a miracle, given these conditions. But we are a Church that believes in and depends on miracles. So, while we should be concerned, we need not worry.