This three-day series examines 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 2 explores the future of Mormonism in a land where missionary work is essentially barred. Part 3 explains why building a temple in Russia will be a tall order for Latter-day Saints.

Moscow • Russia’s campaign against Mormonism and other “new religions” is not unlike the devastating blockade of Leningrad during World War II, which killed 800,000 people trapped in that port city.

At least that’s how Latter-day Saint general authority Seventy James B. Martino described it this spring to a band of believers during worship services in St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad during the Soviet era).

The Texas native, who served as the church’s area authority, had visited the nearby Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, which honors those who mostly starved to death during the Nazis’ 900-day siege of the historic city, barring any food or goods from entering. At the memorial site, statues of men, women and children proudly represent defiant soldiers and workers in their collective fight against a vicious enemy.

In the end, Soviet troops broke through and liberated the city.

“They learned how to overcome difficulties to become a great nation,” Martino told his well-dressed listeners in the windowless chapel. “That is like the gospel challenge the church faces today.”

The closing song that hot June day was the rousing Mormon pioneer anthem, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” a homage to 19th-century members in their epic wagon and handcart journeys across the Plains to Utah.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Soviet citizens uniting to hold off the Nazis at the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad in St. Petersburg.

The comparison to the Leningrad siege is, of course, wildly hyperbolic — no one has perished in the battle for souls that Russia has been waging in recent years — but many minority faiths are under assault.

That’s because the mammoth Russian Orthodox Church, which is seen as synonymous with the national identity, is pitted against convert-craving newcomers from the West.

In response to — and at the urging of — Orthodox officials, the government passed a draconian amendment in 2016 to its anti-extremism law. Known as the Yarovaya Law, it forbids “preaching, praying, disseminating religious materials, and even answering questions about religion outside of officially designated sites,” according to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The law “effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state.”

Utahns know a thing or two about the mingling of church and state but not to this degree. Imagine the outcry if the Legislature — at the prodding of the state’s predominant faith and in an effort to prop up the primacy of that traditional religion — enacted and enforced a law that prohibited public proselytizing by any denomination not called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those are the choppy waters these fledgling faiths are struggling to navigate in Russia. Their pastors and preachers have been arrested, their buildings demolished or confiscated and their missionaries or evangelizers detained and deported.

The crackdown has thwarted the growth of these churches, even threatening their very existence in the vastest country on Earth.

It also has ignited a new kind of religious Cold War, which is altering Russia’s visible and spiritual landscape at a time of escalating political tensions with the West.

For many Latter-day Saints there, such hostility to spreading the Good News of their restored gospel is the work of Satan. It may also be God’s refining fire, says a Latter-day Saint stake president who serves as regional leader in St. Petersburg, forging more malleable members into sturdier believers.

Russia’s religious roots

Prince Vladimir, a ruler in the 10th century, chose Eastern Orthodoxy over paganism and other monotheistic traditions — he allegedly rejected Islam for its ban on alcohol, saying, “Drinking is the joy of all Rus[sians]. We cannot exist without it” — as a way to unite tribes scattered across the massive kingdom. Vladimir was baptized a Christian. He then ordered the populace to do likewise. Hundreds in Kyiv (formerly Kiev) took to the water July 15, 988, in a mass baptism that is still celebrated today as the “christening of the Russian people.”

By the time of Peter the Great seven centuries later, Orthodoxy was the supreme faith. But Peter took a cue from his cosmopolitan counterparts in Europe and opened the door to other believers — Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as well as Christianity — at the same time naming himself head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Thus, church and state were forever wedded — on cathedral walls (at St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg, paintings of czars hang just below saints), at the Kremlin (the walled complex that houses government offices and domed sanctuaries), and in Russian hearts.

From the 17th century until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Orthodoxy was a central part of daily life. Its ornate churches immersed the faithful in a world of beauty and wonder. Its artistry in mosaics and oils made biblical figures come alive with emotion and awe. Its mystical teachings were communicated in ritualized chanting and sonorous singing.

The czar was their political ruler as well as their conduit to heaven.

This traces to the Byzantine Empire, with its “idea of caesaropapism, that the church should be subject to the state, and the ideal of ‘symphonia,’ where the state and Orthodoxy work in concert together,” says Elizabeth Clark, a law professor at Brigham Young University and associate director of the school’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. “This ends up meaning that Orthodox individuals are often more comfortable with direct state engagement in religious issues and see nationality and religion as intertwined.”

In 2000, the church canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family, the Russian rulers who were executed by the Bolsheviks.

Just like the past union of czar and cathedral, Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, both former KGB cronies, work in sync.

The czar once was seen “as God's chosen ruler of a Russian nation tasked with representing a unique set of value(s) embodied by Russian Orthodoxy, and was revered as ‘the Holy Orthodox Czar,’” Paul Coyer writes in a 2015 piece in Forbes. “Today ... many Russians are beginning to see Vladimir Putin in a similar vein — a perception encouraged both by Putin and by the church, each of which sees the other as a valuable political ally and sees their respective missions as being interrelated.”

In 2016, Putin installed a 52-foot statue of his namesake, St. Vladimir, just outside the Kremlin, and last year publicly dunked himself in a frozen lake in commemoration of Jesus’ baptism, traditionally celebrated in January.

“Without the Russian Orthodox Christian Church,” Putin has told worshippers, “it is impossible to picture either the Russian government or our culture.”

The clear message to would-be religious competitors: Don’t mess with the church or the government will come after you.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Recently erected statue of Prince Vladimir, who brought the Orthodox faith to Russia, near the entrance to the Kremlin in Moscow.

After the revolution

When the Bolsheviks took over, they killed the czar and tried to uproot all belief in God, Christ and angels, renaming cathedrals as “museums of atheism,” and razing or repurposing churches across the land. Before their reign, Russia had roughly 50,000 churches. In 1939, there were fewer than 500.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union began to unravel amid Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for perestroika, Boris Yeltsin’s promises of liberalism, and a grassroots clamor for Western-style freedom.

Many Russians rushed back into the arms of their former faith. They were baptized by the thousands, joyously celebrating their historic beliefs in the remaining cathedrals, and eager to reexperience the rituals of their parents.

Because the church had been suppressed for so long, it was not ready for the onslaught, says Father Dmitry Serov, deputy director of the international department at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Theological Institute of Postgraduate Studies in Moscow.

“A lot of laborers came to church and got baptized by immersion — between 300 and 500 day. We were unprepared for this huge number of people,” Serov says through a translator.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Father Dmitry Serov, front, performs vespers with Archpriest Michael Nemnonov in Russian Orthodox Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist in Moscow.

"We didn’t have enough priests who could serve. During the Soviet Union era, young priests were not allowed to do missionary work so they lost interest in doing it,” he says. “If one young priest wanted to study the Bible, he got a call from the KGB.”

That produced a generation of priests and bishops who could do formal, traditional work, Serov says, but “without the experience of preaching or taking the initiative.”

Since the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church has been working to reanimate its parishes and power.

According to the then-head of the church, Patriarch Alexy II, between 1990 and 1995 more than 8,000 Russian Orthodox churches were opened, doubling the number of active parishes.

At present, the church has around 30 seminaries to train future priests, Serov says. It constructs about three churches a day, bringing the total to around 15,000, even though fewer than 10% of Russians, according to a Pew poll, regularly attend services and about half believe in God.

That early religious fervor has dimmed somewhat in the 21st century, which Serov blames on secular ideas from the West.

“In the U.S., few young people are interested in church. Better to hang out with friends than go to church,” he says. “So we now are establishing work with youth in the regions.”

To him, being Orthodox means being conservative, which includes opposing multiple sex partners, gay marriage and maintaining “mystical traditions.”

But the church also has to adapt to changing times, to speak to modern society about “serious issues,” Serov says. “We need to find the line where we can change.”

What about foreign faiths?

The thoughtful deacon believes Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremists, who deny blood transfusions for their children.

“Russia has nothing against their beliefs, but in some cases they may seem dangerous. Laws against them were meant to save lives,” Serov says. “People ascribe bad motives to the government, but there was a reason behind the decision.”

And Mormons?

“I don’t think we have them here in Russia,” Serov says, even though a Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, meets in a nondescript building a few blocks from his seminary.

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

Dedicated for Mormonism

Representatives of the Utah-based LDS Church touched down in Russia on a few occasions in the early 20th century.

In 1903, apostle Francis M. Lyman offered two prayers of dedication — one in Moscow and one in Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace Garden in St. Petersburg. More than 50 years later, then apostle (and future church president) Ezra Taft Benson, as the U.S. secretary of agriculture and a famously fierce foe of communism, preached at the Central Baptist Church in Moscow.

But the real action for Latter-day Saints began April 26, 1990, when apostle Russell M. Nelson, today the church’s 17th president, found his way to the same spot in the St. Petersburg garden where Lyman had offered his dedication decades before.

There, Nelson found several Romanesque statues of buxom women — one named “Flora” (the name of Benson’s wife) and one named “Camilla” (the name of former church President Spencer W. Kimball’s wife). Across from the Camilla bust was another female, labeled the “allegory of virtue.”

That was, the apostle told his Russian hosts, the right place.

(The statues in the park have one or two breasts uncovered, respectively, while a painting of the dedication moment that hangs in a St. Petersburg stake center depicts the statues as being full-bodied rather than just torsos — and the women’s bosoms are tastefully draped in fabric.)

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) A composite painting that hangs in the St. Petersburg LDS stake center depicting Francis M. Lyman in 1903 and Russell M. Nelson in1990 dedicating Russia for missionary work.
(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Flora in the Summer Palace Garden in St. Petersburg.

A little more than a year after Nelson’s prayer, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation recognized the church as a centralized religious organization, according to the faith’s official website, just as the world-renowned Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performed in the Bolshoi Theater and later in St. Petersburg.

It was a time of unparalleled excitement for spreading the American-born faith across the world’s largest country.

The LDS Church kept adding missions until the number reached eight and congregations were distributed across the land.

It was during this halcyon phase of 1990s that Alexey Samaykin first met this unfamiliar religion.

Samaykin was a 17-year-old college student in Saratov, when his university professor, who was a member, invited a Mormon missionary to explain Latter-day Saint history and teachings to his class.

“I was curious,” says Samaykin, now the father of three, who attends a Moscow ward.

He went to a church branch, a smaller congregation, near his school to learn more, Samaykin says, and was not sure what he believed about its theology but was “impressed by the feelings I had in the building and that the Book of Mormons was special.”

His parents were nominally Russian Orthodox but were atheists who did not practice any religion. When Samaykin asked to be baptized as a Latter-day Saint, his mom and dad balked.

“They loved me so much and wanted to protect me,” he says. “They were scared. They were not sure what I was getting into.”

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

Those outside the scope of traditional faiths “become suspicious,” Samaykin says. “People wonder if you have been tricked or spiritually imprisoned by an American church. They think you are part of a ‘sect,’ which is like ‘cult’ in the U.S.”

But he downplays those objections as a matter of misinformation. A colleague once asked him, for instance, why his church “baptizes the dead,” Samaykin says with a laugh, alluding to the Latter-day Saint ritual of vicarious baptisms for departed ancestors.

Eventually, his parents gave their approval and now are proud of their son and his Mormon family.

Samaykin, who now works full time as a welfare and self-reliance manager for the church in Moscow, has never had people who “stop conversing with me or being a friend because of my religion.”

Any pushback, he says, is aimed at institutions, not individuals. “It’s not personal.”

It started with Muslims

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Moscow's Cathedral Mosque.

The first anti-extremism measures were instituted in 2002 as a means of dealing with radical Muslim groups and alternative Islamic preachers, explains Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based nonprofit organization that conducts research on nationalism, racism and relations between churches and secular society.

“They were aimed not only at immigrants,” he says, “but also at those who came to a regular mosque and engaged them.”

The government was looking for a way to weed out potential terrorists, who had entered the country to try and win over moderate Muslims.

For years, politicians and Orthodox religious leaders had been pushing for anti-missionary laws, but the government resisted.

By 2016, these proponents finally found a way to do it — use the fear of Muslim infiltrators to rally the security forces against would-be proselytizers, Verkhovsky says. “When attached to the anti-terrorism package, it couldn’t be rejected.”

It declares that any person “who would try to make any religious convert had to have permission from an official priest or religious organization,” the SOVA scholar says. “If somebody talks to people too much about religion, police can ask if they have permission. If not, he is a violator.”

Of the 177 political prisoners who were jailed by the government for their religious beliefs in 2018, the State Department report says, most of them were Muslim.

But the extremist laws also have been convenient tools against Pentecostals, Hare Krishnas, New Age believers and others from so-called modern religious movements, blocking their growth.

“All these religious groups are seen by the Russian Orthodox Church as competitors,” Verkhovsky says.

The government lumps them together as “sects,” says BYU’s Clark, who has written extensively about Russia.

Much of the opposition to these perceived new “Western” religions, she says, “is based on the importation of American anti-cult ideas from the 1980s.”

The charge was brainwashing and control, allegations that often hounded the LDS Church.

Matthew Luxmoore writes in a recent piece for Radio Free Europe that “Russian state media have long portrayed Mormonism as a dangerous cult, with the church’s wealth and U.S. origins held up as proof that it’s used for espionage and sedition.”

Georgy Belodurov, an Orthodox priest in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow, tells Luxmoore that Russian Latter-day Saints are lured by the prospect of prosperity in the West.

“For some people, America is a safe haven where paradise reigns and you live in a land of milk and honey," the priest says in the piece. “And the Mormon church is first and foremost the temptation of a better life.”

So is it Latter-day Saint theology or rituals like baptism for the dead that most rankle the Orthodox Church — or is it the site of its birthplace and headquarters?

Theology or geography?

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saints enter the St. Petersburg stake center.

Ironically, the religious bodies that have most felt the pinch of persecution have been ones that share similarly pessimistic views of modernity.

Mormons, Witnesses, Adventists, evangelicals and Muslims share the Orthodox belief that today’s young people are awash in contemporary ills — including disbelief, drugs, secularism, materialism and promiscuity.

So why aren’t they spiritual compatriots against these problems rather than rivals?

To the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s not what these groups believe or what they profess that is most worrisome. It’s where they hail from.

Such religious movements “have been increasingly seen as a security concern for Russia because of their ties to the West,” Clark says. “They come under fire more for that than the substance of their beliefs, which are largely unknown or exaggerated.”

The country’s law enforcement “always underscores,” said SOVA’s Verkhovsky, “that the most evil things are imported from outside.”

Given the long-standing tensions with the U.S., he says, Russia views religions from there “as potential spies who could be undermining their population and moral authority.”

In 2012, a group of pro-Putin youths protested outside Moscow LDS meetinghouses, according to an NPR report, alleging that the church was an "authoritarian sect” with links to the CIA and FBI.

Mormon missionary attire sometimes feeds those mistaken notions with their mandated dark suits, white shirts and ties.

Russia has deployed various tactics to stunt these faiths.

“The Foreign Agent Law of 2012 made registration for outside groups difficult,” says David Stewart, an independent Latter-day Saint demographer who served a two-year mission to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, “incurring extensive audits and mandatory public disclosure of activities.”

That seems to be working, he says. “Many nongovernmental organizations have left. Foreign missionary visas are restricted and cumbersome. Increased costs and loss of productivity are incurred by requirements to leave and reenter the country every three months.”

Foreignness always will “trump any similarities,” Stewart says.

(Photo courtesy of David Stewart) David Stewart, second from right, who had served a mission in Russia in the early 1990s, with a convert and her family in a chapel in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Russia may be open to Western clothing and music, but the government most fears “Western ideas and stances toward democracy and human rights.”

It especially frets about “faiths that have allegiance to a foreign authority,” he says, and a “high commitment in their members.”

“High commitment” is an understatement for Latter-day Saints. Their church is led and staffed by volunteers. They eschew alcohol and tobacco, give 10% of their income to the faith, attend two-hour Sunday services and strive to minister to one another during the week.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Roman Lunkin, director of the Institute for Religion and Law in Moscow.

Russia’s anti-missionary laws have “revived the fears that existed in Soviet times,” says religion scholar Roman Lunkin, director of the Institute for Religion and Law in Moscow, “and returned to Soviet-style tactics.”

Citizens could report their neighbors for supposedly illegal activities, Lunkin says. “Every Protestant and evangelical could be against the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons if they are seen as disloyal to the state.”

The laws, which don’t define “religious activity,” have given license to security units across the country to interpret as they see fit.

“If people are meeting in private homes, for example,” Lunkin says, “any police force could interpret that gathering as breaking the law.”

And they do.

“Law enforcement is a kind of game, very selective, all foreigners involved in religious activity take a risk,” Verkhovsky says. “We have an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from the U.S. who has worked here for years. Then suddenly he was deported without any explanation, not even a visa violation.”

Detention and deportation

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) From left to right, Elders Benjamin Stone from Denver, David Gaag, from Bothell, Wash., and Elijah McQuivey from Denver on "preparation day" near Old Town Vilnius, Lithuania.

In response to Russia’s clampdown, the LDS Church spelled out new rules for its proselytizing force.

Missionaries now are called “volunteers.” They don’t wear their nametags or talk about religion outside of chapels. No longer do they erect street displays, pass out pamphlets or invite strangers to hear about founder Joseph Smith, his view of deity, or how families can be joined for eternity.

They can respond only to questions and never can initiate a religious conversation.

Even with that compliance, however, Mormonism remains seen as foreign and suspicious.

In March, four policemen and three cameramen entered a Mormon meetinghouse in Novorossiysk just as two Latter-day Saint “volunteers” were hosting a game night in which visitors could practice their English.

Kole Brodowski of Garden Grove, Calif., and David Gaag of Bothell, Wash., were arrested on the spot for allegedly violating their religious visas, which did not allow them to teach English. The two were held for nearly three weeks, endured two trials and ultimately deported.

Gaag had been in the country barely a month.

“From the moment the police walked into English club, I felt God reassuring me that everything would be all right,” Gaag told The Salt Lake Tribune in Lithuania, where he was transferred after the deportation. “I felt his comforting hand as I prayed day and night.”

That same month, “authorities tore down an ‘unauthorized’ Pentecostal meetinghouse [and] banned the Seventh-day Adventists gathering,” according to Christianity Today.

Novorossiysk is “strategically important to Russia,” Stewart notes. “It is one of the few warm weather ports that operates year-round with access to waterways from Europe.”

It is not, he says, “an ideal place for foreigners right now.”

So not only do the security enforcers differ from city to city, so, too, do the perceived security threats. Such a patchwork of paranoia makes implementation of the anti-missionary laws spotty and unpredictable.

“Legal problems the LDS Church and other minority groups face vary greatly from region to region,” says BYU’s Clark, “depending on the attitudes of local administrations and security forces.”

Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two largest and most tourist-appealing cities, have seen the fewest punitive actions. All across the land, though, the brunt of the law’s consequences has fallen squarely on one faith: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The case against Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses, a millenarian Christian faith launched back East in the 1870s, arrived in Russia more than 100 years ago. As part of their faith, members share their testimonies and teachings for a certain amount of time each month. They often can be seen walking in pairs, distributing their religious pamphlet, “The Watchtower,” to all takers.

Russia’s political powers have always opposed Jehovah’s Witnesses, who number about 175,000 adherents in the country, partly due to their resistance to military service and their unwillingness to bow to any government. So it was added to the list of “extremist faiths,” a fate the LDS Church has managed to avoid.

Witnesses agreed not to distribute literature with the claim that it is the only true church and haven’t brought any into the country since the law took effect, says Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative for the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But, he insists, the Russians have planted some in members’ apartments and charged the group with distributing the materials.

“It was unjust and unfair,” he says. “We were accused during a Supreme Court trial that we continue to possess extremist literature. We tried to prove this isn’t true, but the judge was not inclined to listen.”

After exhausting all Russian avenues, both local and national, Witnesses have taken their case international.

“We have 41 applications in the European Court of Human Rights,” Sivulsky says, “as well as complaints with the United Nations’ Center for Constitutional Rights.”

Since 2017, all Jehovah’s Witnesses meetinghouses, called Kingdom Halls, as well as their headquarters in St. Petersburg, have been either confiscated or closed, Sivulsky says, so people have gathered in homes to read the Bible and study their common faith.

But such gatherings sometimes are deemed “extremist activities,” he says, so heavily armed police often raid them, remove literature, seize electronic devices and arrest the attendees. The believers are then thrown into detention for days, weeks or months.

On Feb. 15, 2019, a particularly egregious incident took place in the city of Surgut, where law enforcement officers tortured seven male Witnesses after conducting searches of the homes of Witnesses in the area,” the faith’s website reported. “The victims were stripped naked, suffocated, doused with water, beaten, and shocked with stun guns. The torture occurred on the first floor of the Russian Investigative Committee’s office in Surgut.”

Putin has called the classification of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists “complete nonsense,” says Sivulsky, but he has done nothing to prevent it.

It is difficult to say who is behind the systematic oppression, he says, but the Orthodox Church leaders have publicly criticized Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Russia’s Federal Security Bureau “is very active in persecuting Witnesses.”

SOVA’s Verkhovsky doesn’t think Russia’s sweep against Jehovah’s Witnesses will ultimately win the day.

“Hitler couldn’t stop them. Stalin couldn’t. I doubt Putin can, either,” he says. “Witnesses are very stubborn. They will never stop.”

Sivulsky gently corrects the scholar.

Witnesses aren’t stubborn, he says. They are the real Christians, the resolute Christians.

“We are very peaceful people. We don’t participate in the army, not even in the Second World War,” he says. “To blame us as extremists is absolutely ridiculous.”

For Baptists, the solution may be political

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) The Central Baptist Church, where Ezra Taft Benson preached in 1959, in Moscow.

More than half of all cases of alleged illegal proselytizing last year “were against evangelicals,” according to an analysis by Forum 18, a news service covering religious freedom issues in Russia and surrounding countries.

“Of the 159 individuals and organizations prosecuted for demonstrating their faith in public, 50 were Pentecostals and 39 were Baptists,” the service reported.

Though the Central Baptist Church in Moscow has been a fixture in the capital city since the 1830s — it’s where Latter-day Saint leader Benson once preached — its members still are cautious about too much exposure.

“Local members do their mission work at train stations,” says Deacon Anatoliy, who declined to give his surname. “They share their message with others about our Central Church.”

A lot of attendees come from Ukraine, Moldova and middle Asia, Anatoliy says. In 1992, famed preacher Billy Graham spoke from the pulpit at the stunning church with a historic organ and a stained glass window that carries the words, “God is love.”

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Deacon Anatoliy in Moscow's Central Baptist Church.

Last year, Graham’s son Franklin Graham addressed the congregation from the same podium.

The younger Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, worries about the future of religious minorities in Russia.

His church members “have suffered a lot there,” Graham says in an interview. “And it has a lot to do with politics.”

Moscow’s relationship with the U.S. “began to deteriorate with the Obama administration’s imposing sanctions and continued in the first two years of the Trump administration.”

Sanctions hurt Russian evangelicals, too, he says. They are mystified as to why the U.S. doesn’t try to resolve the political tensions.

“I’m not sure evangelicals are persecuted,” he says. “But they are seen as second-class citizens.”

The best strategy for evangelicals, Graham says, is to build positive relationships with people in the Russian Orthodox Church and the government.

“I spoke with President Putin a few years ago and shared what we evangelicals believe,” he says. “I’m not sure anybody had ever done that before.”

The Russian leader was cordial, Graham says, but made it clear that his country was meant to be Orthodox.

Just speaking to Putin, he says, incurred criticism in the U.S. He’s still the No. 1 guy there “whether we like it or not,” Graham says. “It’s a country that has a huge amount of power and we need to be talking with them.”

)Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Thousands gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol several years ago to listen and pray with Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.

On the flip side, Graham believes evangelical Christianity appeals to the young people who are turned off by historic Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church is isolated outside of its homeland, he says, “and doesn’t have many friends around the world.”

Graham is trying “to be a friend to them.”

Latter-day Saints building bridges

In response to the security forces’ pattern of detaining and deporting, some religious groups are openly defiant, while others have tried their best to comply with the law, no matter how capriciously it is executed.

To Latter-day Saints, the key has been to develop “relationships with authorities,” says SOVA’s Verkhovsky. “They get involved in local councils.”

Twice a year, the St. Petersburg stake presidency and members have been invited to join with other faiths to put flowers on the graves of those killed in the Leningrad siege, says Mikhail Kotov, a Latter-day Saint convert and tour guide who lost several of his own forebears during the Nazi blockade.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Mikhail Kotov, center, stands at the LDS Russian dedication site in the Summer Palace Garden in St. Petersburg.

“We are involved in lots of interfaith activities,” he says.

Senior missionary couples as well as young Latter-day Saint evangelizers spend time going to cultural events and serving as volunteers in places like the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

“We take a shift every Friday,” says Max Wood from Delta, Utah, as he helps tourists navigate the museum’s entrance. “We love it here. People are so respectful on trains and buses.”

Since the March detention of two volunteers, says Wood’s wife, Marilee, church attorneys reviewed all mission rules to make sure they were in compliance.

“While we don't always agree with the restrictions or regulations placed on our volunteers and missionaries,” says Salt Lake City-based church spokesman Doug Andersen, "we always abide by those rules and teach our volunteers and missionaries to do so as well."

Indeed, one of Mormonism's Articles of Faith declares that members believe in “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Andersen reiterates that sentiment, saying that the church “encourages its members to be loyal citizens in the country where they reside and to be engaged in service to their country.”

With all this opposition, the church’s growth has slowed and stands at about 23,000, according to Stewart’s cumorah.com, which tracks Latter-day Saint membership trends. (Statistical information about Russia is no longer listed on the church’s website.)

In St. Petersburg, the number of members attending services is actually less than it was 25 years ago, Stewart says. Between 1993 and 2000, the number of branches mushroomed from 33 to 112 as new cities were opened to missionaries.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

There were 15 branches by the summer of 1994 in St. Petersburg alone, according to Stewart’s almanac. Today, there are four wards and no branches.

Similar consolidations happened in Moscow and other cities, the demographer says, as the church worked to retain its members amid decreasing convert baptisms.

Then came the anti-proselytizing law and a reduction of missions across the country to five.

There are now only three meeting places spread across St. Petersburg, which means it takes a long time for many members to travel to services, Stewart says. About 300 people regularly attend Sunday meetings in those branches.

On top of that, birthrates among Russia’s Mormons are quite low, economic opportunities slim and marriage to a member less likely.

There’s been “a migration of young Latter-day Saints out of Russia,” he says. And they’re not coming back.

Boris Leostrin, president of the St. Petersburg Stake, remains undaunted.

“The church has great potential here,” he says, pointing to a map with pins where he hopes to grow his stake.

He exults about the possibility of a Latter-day Saint temple in the country, which Nelson announced more than a year ago would be built in one of Russia’s “major” cities.

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

According to most experts in that former Soviet country, a Mormon temple is a far-off dream, not much more than a fantasy at this point.

Still, Leostrin, who owns a successful tourist company, is a glass-half-full guy.

When the two missionaries in the Rostov Mission were detained, the little branch where they served had about 10 members, he says. After their story became public, it doubled in size to “20 or more, with lots of investigators.”

To the exuberant leader, that demonstrated “how the Lord is aware of everything in our lives.”

Such opposition will not defeat them but rather strengthen the Latter-day Saints, the optimistic convert says. It is but “a little challenge, like snow in April.”

But, he insists, the brutal Russian winter “is not coming back.”

This current autumn, though, is bitter cold.