Some Notes on Religious Freedom from the Former USSR

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.

20 comments for “Some Notes on Religious Freedom from the Former USSR

  1. Thank you for this contribution, Russell and the anonymous author. No need to worry? When we read about the trouble minority churches have there, even world religions that are not Orthodox, it seems many local governments in Russian regions and cities are able to create major problems, pushed to do so by local or higher leaders in the Orthodox Church. Among other watchdog-organizations, Human Rights Without Frontiers tries to document what is happening: click on countries -> Russia. Some documents mention Mormons. The titles are clear: “Orthodox Church tells Catholics to give up Russia missions”, “Threats to demolish churches and mosques continue”, “Strong offensive against minority religions in preparation” etc.

    It is true our Church tries to avoid conflicts by all means, obeys the laws, follows the rules, uses diplomatic channels to create goodwill, but much depends on the attitude and response by local leading personalities – in what is an immense country where decisions can vary from region to region and city to city. Moreover, the anti-sect movements in some West-European countries give arguments to Russia. This recent article in the Herald Tribune is also interesting to read.

  2. _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_.

    A pernicious thought, this. The Russian Revolution eventually brought Stalin to power and the needless deaths of thousands of people. Please don’t talk about it being good for Mormonism in Russia today.

  3. Thank you, Russell, and your friend for this info. This sentiment is bothering me but I’m not sure why:

    “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.”

    I’ve heard this before. (Even before the Iron Curtain fell, I heard it as a prophesy, as in, the only reason the Lord was allowing communism to flourish was to soften up the hold of the Orthodox church.)

    I’m not entirely sure why it is bothering me and/or if I am right to be bothered by it. I guess that having read just enough about Russia to sense the depth of the atrocities perpetuated in the name of the USSR, I am wondering about this justification, as if it somehow makes it all OK. And I’m thinking: we somehow broke the stranglehold of Christendom on all of Europe without sending half the population to Siberia to die. (I’m being a little flippant here, but I hope you see my point.)


  4. Julie,

    I’m not sure that the Lord “allowed” communism to flourish. After all, we deal with the pesky principly of agency every day. Perhaps, however, the Lord took advantage of communism and inspired the Church to push forward as the Iron Curtain fell.

  5. Russell, thanks for posting this. We felt the same when we lived in the former Soviet Union and my parents see this while they are on a mission in Russia now. But it’s hard to count on the miracles sometimes, especially when they are slower coming to some places.

    Julie, I was thinking the same thing, but specifically about Islam since there are a large number of Muslims who live in FSRs. Former communist Muslims are pretty much the only Muslims that are allowed to be baptized in their own countries. But I don’t really care to be excited about communism because of that (even though I’ve known several former-communist members of the Church who wouldn’t mind going back to the Soviet Union). But I don’t think that even if something bad is a fulfillment of prophecy that it makes it all okay. I’d guess that the Lord works through awful things that happen in a lot of people’s lives.

  6. Julie,

    I authored the piece, but need to remain anonymous because of my job here. I in no way sought to “justify” any of the atrocities committed during the communist period. I don’t think my piece did that. However, communism WAS a modernizing influence here, whatever wrong direction it may have taken. The Russians had an absolute ruler and an absolute state church as late as 1914 — a very backward state of affairs.

    In any event, the confusion may have stemmed from my own perspective that the Lord doesn’t micro-manage human affairs, so His “allowing communism to flourish” (I might quibble with that last word) is pretty much the same as his “allowing” murder, rape, molestation, war and whatever else to go on all over the world, in every country, for millenia. Just because something happened and one can interpret out it a silver lining (as I did) doesn’t, IMHO, mean it was somehow sanctioned by the Lord.

  7. part of a larger political, social and religious re-trenchment

    Or part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat (which could be born out of new-found confidence resulting from the above)–the US and other western countries are hardly keen on giving Russians visas either.

  8. You know… I’ve heard some Protestants say that Communist China was the best thing that ever happened for Christianity in Asia. Currently, China has a thriving and numerous Christian population. The Church is largely indigenous and adapted to its environment and people.

    They posit that this was due to all the foreign missionaries being booted-out. The Church was forced to “go indigenous.” Which spurred growth in a more sustainable way than it would have been if foreign missionaries had still been running the show.

    Maybe sending the foreign missionaries home isn’t all a bad thing?

  9. This may seem a small thing, but could former BYU basketball star Travis Hansen (now playing for the Moscow Dynamo) be helping things out a bit for the church? Apparently he is a big hit, and Putin personally signed papers granting him Russian citizenship, something that has supposedly only happened thrice in history for American bb players there, and which may allow him to play for the Russian national team for the olympics. This article seems to paint a picture of Hansen as someone with influence in Russia. (I don’t know how to insert links, so here is the web address:

  10. I think if one considers communism like the Babylonian empire which destroyed the Jewish homeland and the temple. Or the Romans for that matter or the Germans in before and during WW2.

    I would agree then that the Lord sees how to best position the needed things to move along as we make our choices. The Nazis wholesale slaughter of Jews, Slavs and Homosexuals was something which has been the modern nightmare of the old Russian Pogroms come to life.

    Yet the Lord took this misery and agency and made something from which was positive, the end of the European conquests and colonization of the rest of the world, the end of thousands of years of maltreatment and outright genocide against Jews in various parts of Europe and it made the rest of us rethink our attitudes of allowing hate to continue and ignore the plight of the minorities in society.

    Through human agency there is a Jewish homeland for the first time in 2000 years.

    So while I think no one says the Lord wanted communism I feel that he knew that agency would win out and that he would almost work within those bounds to create something else. So Satan rules for now but the Lords work continues through small means to step along.

  11. Fifteen years ago when we moved to Washington state, we met a full time elder who had served his first 12 months in Russia, but had his visa suspended in a diplomatic tit-for-tat. The story is that another US elder was going home via Helsinki, and a Russian citizen (I can’t remember if it was an investigator or a member) asked him to drop off a package to a friend in Finland when he got to the airport. As he was going through customs, the package was opened, and found to contain a number of falsified passports and other documents. As a result, the Russian government suspended the visas of 4 or 5 US missionaries, who then had to leave immediately, and were reassigned to other missions.

    In this case, the elder did work with a number of Russian speaking investigators here, along with regular work with the English speaking natives of Puget Sound. Even then, he said, there were a lot of concerns in the Russian bureaucracy over the LDS, JW’s and other western churches who were active in proselytizing. I do think a very narrow window opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, that has narrowed even more in the last few years.

    Part of this is what appears to be a long-standing distrust of all things Western since the 1917 revolution. To a limited extent, in my recollection, some of the animosity towards the Tsarist government was a reaction to the influence of western European governments and cultures, including those pesky French with their neat clothes, big wigs, and the odd invasion or two. Russia has long suffered from an inferiority complex with the west, and worries about the Asian and Muslim neighbors to the south and east. I think we are seeing a continuance of the struggle for a true Russian identity.

  12. Thank you for the post. As a bit of background, I served in the Novosibirsk mission from 1995-1997 and can only speak from personal experience.

    Just a couple of thoughts. As far as the visas go, there were difficulties even then. As I remeber, not only was there resistance to granting too many visas for missionaries, but many of us had to go to Helsinki to get new visas (I couldn’t tell you the reasons why). These developments don’t seem new.

    It is always interesting (read uncomfortable) to me to hear the reasons why totalitarianism or violence are being used by the Lord to further the preaching of the gospel, be it in Russia or Iraq. Ironically, in my BOM reading this last week, Mormon’s comment that “we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people” regarding the conversion of some Lamanite soldiers really stood out to me, considering that it was after the slaughter of 1005 defenseless Anti-Nephi-Lehies. Anyway, I’m not sure that Communism, though “prophesied” to, ever did break the hold of the Russian Orthodox Church. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase, “My grandparents were Pravoslavny (Russian Orthodox), my parents were Pravoslavny, and I’ll die Pravoslavny.”

    I feel like it’s too complex a subject to discuss in a couple of lines, plus I was an ignorant 19 year old. It seemed to me at the time though that Russians were fascinated by America and it’s place in the world yet resentful that it wasn’t Russia. In many of my conversations, it seemed that they underestimated the socioeconomic turmoil that would ensue with the collapse of Communism. It was pretty rough. When Russians talked about a return to the old way, I never knew if they were being nationalistic or just hoping a return would some how make life easier. I always felt like the Russians had a very strong identity and were very xenophobic and distrusting of outsiders. I guess that it didn’t help that we missionaries were bright enough to be seen taking photographs of bridges, subway stations, and important state buildings:)

    My final thought regarding the building of the kingdom in Russia was the greatness of the souls of the Saints in Russia. I don’t pretend to understand Mr. Putins’ intentions or actions, and I worry about the future course of the nation, but I’m very optimistic for the future of the church owing to the strength of the members I knew there.

  13. The last decade has brought, \”Putin\’s Plan\” into a new authortarian light. Russia\’s move towards democratization, which is directly tied to the growth of the church, has completely stopped and has started to head in the opposite direction. Putin has successful gained control on the Russian oligarchs and has the publics support in shaking them down for money. Russia, according to Freedom House, has one of the worst scores relating to free and fair elections and harassment of political opposition. Putin has built large youth organizations that are state funded, who are taught that the opposition and american liberalism/individualism is harmful to the state. Putin has retained power now as prime minister with his protege medvedev in the president seat.

    Yukos oil exec Mikail ( something or another ) has been arrested in large part to his financial support of the democratic opposition. The state control of radio and television is absolute the propaganda has lead the public to believe that Russia\’s problems come only from the oligarchs. Putin is enjoying legitimacy from oil revenue but that will not last forever. Putin knows this and has been building an authortarian goverment to control the backlash when it comes.

    This is scary for the church whose prospects are directly tied to the growth of democratization. Latin America\’s decline in freedom saw large numbers of missionaries expelled due in part of the church being seen as a negative western influence.

    Russia\’s economic condition is in shambles even though they possess more billionaries than anywhere else in the world. Putin\’s goverment will eventually lose its legitimacy and when this happens the church will feel the heat.

    I wrote this very quick at work but for those interested read:

    Democracy in Russia by Fish ( forgot first name)
    The Third Wave: Samuel P Huntington
    Transitions in Democracy: Lisa Anderson

    Frontline: Russia


  14. One might as well stop speaking of the importance of the Protestant reformation in opening the way for the restoration if a little or a lot of bloodletting along the way is a bar to that discussion. Although Stalin and Hitler were able to harness the industrial might of their nations in the grisly business of killing in a way that leaders in the 16th and 17th centuries could not, the reformation spawned a horrific spate of bloody wars (try the 30 years war, anybody?) that wiped out huge numbers of Europeans.

    But I don’t hear anybody suggesting that we cannot point to the Reformation as an important preparatory step for the Restoration.

  15. On April 24 the “NYTimes” ran a front-page story (with a full-page continuation) on the status of religion in Russia,. The thrust of the story was that the Russian Orthodox Church has assumed (re-assumed?) the role of a virutual state religion under Putin and that members of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations were under heavy pressure. There was a lot of discussion in this piece about the fate of the Methodists and Seventh-Day Adventists. I kept scanning the article — apparently written by an American — for references to the Latter-day Saints, but to my amazement there was not a single mention of Mormonism, Mormons, or LDS missionaries. I mention this not to dispute the essay by Russell’s anonymous friend but rather to point out that the “NYTimes” may need some smartening on the Mormon experience of the LDS Church in Russia today that so concerns the readers of this blog. BTW, the “Times” article attributed religious persecution of R.C.s and Protestants primarily to the factor identified by Russell’s friend — the non- “patriotic” (Russian) charcter of these religions — as well as to a another factor unmentioned here (although hinted at in #11 above), i.e., the perception that Protestant denominations are tied not only to America but to American intelligence-gathering agencies and their work. Would Russell’s esayist-friend care to comment on this latter factor? Is the high regard in which CIA, FBI, and NSA recruiters hold BYU’s alumns a talking point in Russia these days? If the April 24 “Times” story has already been discussed on T&S, my aplogies for plowing up old ground.

  16. Not having any direct experience in Russia or any former Warsaw Pact nation, I offger an opinion anyway, as an hypothesis.

    It seems to me that the actual effect of the Communist Interregnum was to freeze the social development of all of the nations under Soviet domination. For 70 years it was impossible to have open social discussion about topics like religion and ethnicity, and so the prejudices were clung to without analysis, under a veneer of marxist rhetoric.

    Thus, in former Yugoslavia, the old ethnic and religious hatreds that were suppressed under Communist rule demonstrated that they were just as strong as ever as soon as the lid came off. Basically, Russia and the rest of the Former Soviet Union are, socially and religiously, like entire nations that have traveled in time from 1917 to 1990, and are lost and disoriented in a world that has developed without them.

    It seems to me that Russia has to a great extent fulfilled the prediction of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the post-Soviet government being strongly nationalistic and authoritarian.

  17. Bill,

    I too read the April 24th NY Times article and looked for references to Mormonism, finding none. As far as associations between Mormons and the United States Intelligence community, I’d say the association the Russians make relate to all Americans, not just to the Mormons. They haven’t scrutinized the issue that closely, to my knowledge.

  18. This is very timely– a friend is serving his full-time mission in Russia right now, and two other elders in his zone were just deported last week!

  19. This discussion reminds me of Elder Groberg’s comments about his mission. Back when he served in Tonga, the Tongan government limited the numbers of foreign missionaries that it would let in. Because of this, the Church called local members, some of them young married couples, to serve as full-time missionaries. This had the effect of strengthening the Church and making the members less dependent on American missionaries than they may have been if an unlimited number could come. Elder Groberg saw that as a blessing in disguise. A large percentage of Tongans are now members of the Church and they “export” missionaries from Tonga to other countries. Maybe we’ll see the same in Russia in 40 years?

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