Rather than fantasizing about an ancestral American holy land or rallying behind high-profile Mormon Mitt Romney’s Republican bid for the U.S. presidency, Russian Mormons say they are focused on building up their faith in Russia.
“To say it’s a particularly American religion is, to me, not entirely true,” said Vasily Sapozhnikov, a 29-year-old musician who converted about ten years ago, and who, with his tousled blond hair, looks every bit the Western pop star. “It’s not about where it started, but about one’s inner feelings – and about God.”
Founded in the 19th century in the United States, the Church sees itself as a restoration of the church founded by Jesus Christ. Emphasizing the individual connection with God, it operates a far-reaching hierarchy across the world.
This is greatly bolstered by the steady stream of missionaries that proselytize and conduct humanitarian activities in nearly every corner of the globe. Even with a congregation of just 14 million, it is both well-funded and well-represented.
Russia is home to about 20,000 Mormons, and church members have largely stayed out of the high-profile, inter-faith tussles that have increasingly pitted Russia’s Orthodox Christians and Muslims against one another in recent years.
But it’s not always easy being Mormon in Russia. Russian Mormons say they have long battled with stereotypes about the faith that makes them easy targets. “Not a lot of people know about the church, and those whose do, don’t know the right things,” said 23-year-old Mormon Igor Pavlov. “They know its name and all the rumors.”
Vanik Arutyunyan, a world-famous Karate champion, spent a long time searching for faith. He was in his early 20s, and as the Soviet Union collapsed around him, he found himself grasping for some semblance of peace and stability.
“It was only in the army that I started thinking about why people are bad or good, why some are killed and others do the killing – it left me pondering these eternal questions” he said.
He shopped around, chatted with proselytizers from the numerous new faiths that flooded Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse. None interested him, until one day he happened upon two Mormon missionaries in Moscow near a metro station. After initially turning away, he says he was hit with a “burning feeling” that forced him out of the metro station and back to the missionaries.
“My heart began racing and my cheeks grew bright red. Something inside told me, ‘Get out of here,’” he said. “As soon as I left, everything faded away and I became calm.”
The day an American missionary asked him if he was ready to join, it was an easy choice for the ethnic Armenian. “When I looked at him, I felt a moment of such intense joy that I told him I was ready to commit to every word he said,” Arutyunyan says. “I thought that if I was christened, I would feel like that all the time.”
None of Arutyunyan’s friends, however, came to his christening.
Members of the LDS Church are often criticized for their church’s controversial practices, such as performing baptisms for the dead and maintaining strict secrecy over its finances. Critics also target the church’s clampdown on internal dissent and the limits on its members’ intellectual freedom.
In Russia, experts and church members say, a persisting sense of misinformation colors many people’s perceptions. Whether it’s the abstinence and chastity or the aggressive street proselytizing in Moscow and across the country, Mormon customs – at least the way Russians understand them – strike many as inherently foreign.
“If you ask a random sample of 100 people about what Mormonism is, you won’t receive any kind of reasonable answer,” said Ivar Maksutov, of the Center for the Study of Religion at the Russian State University for the Humanities. “In the best case, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s some kind of sect.’”
To be fair, Mormonism is an uncommon faith by most measures. Even in the United States, members account for just 1.9 percent of the population. More puzzling, then, is what attracts Russians to a largely foreign – and particularly American – religion.
Church members, however, dismiss any idea that pro-American sentiment was a driving force in their conversion.
The closest connection to America, says Pavlov, whose mother converted when he was six, is that many Russian Mormons speak English, due to their close contact with American missionaries who provide English lessons as part of their work abroad.
“Mormonism is largely about family values,” said Roman Lunkin, a religious expert at the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “It’s not necessarily about Americanism in particular, but about its basic values that attract [Russians] to the religion.”
Russian Mormons say the myths and stereotypes about their faith – particularly those portraying them as a “cult” or a “sect” – have been cultivated by ill-informed media reports and a dearth of reliable information.
“It is not the worst thing when people criticize my religion, because I can understand that,” said Timur Kodirov, 29, a small business owner. “But when they make fun of it – that’s when it gets difficult.”
Kodirov, a recent convert who says his faith helped get him off the streets and into the boardroom, added that negative stereotypes have, in part, taken root because in Russia “people are afraid” of the unfamiliar.
Sapozhnikov says he was treated as if he joined a cult. “People were really skeptical after I converted,” he said. “They were less interested in it and more inclined to criticize it. They would say, ‘We’re on the side of good, while you’re on the dark side.’”
Although Mormons dismiss any “American connection,” Russia’s authorities clearly remain unconvinced.
Following nine months of protests and widespread anti-government feeling, the authorities seem to be set on their course of clamping down on what they perceive as external influences in domestic affairs.
Experts have said Moscow’s experience during the “color revolutions” that took place in Moscow’s backyard, with varying assistance from the United States, shaped the Kremlin’s fears of foreign interference.
They now say this is so hard-wired into the Kremlin’s mentality that it has extended even into the delicate area of religious affairs.
Lunkin says the government has consistently sought to stymie Mormon activity in Russia. “They issue xenophobic accusations, saying ‘Well, these must be foreign agents who we have to fight,’” he said.
The LDS Church was forced to reroute Russia-bound missionaries in 2008 after Moscow introduced a restrictive new visa regime for humanitarian workers, which include missionaries.
Such incidents, Lunkin says, play into the larger narrative of suspicion and intolerance of everything that is unfamiliar in Russia.
Church officials, however, largely dismiss allegations of official intolerance.
While Elena Nechiporova, the church’s public affairs director for East Europe, says the church now and again runs into small difficulties – such as the visa affair and unsuccessful attempts to build new meeting houses amid Moscow’s land shortage – she notes that the church hasn’t felt significant pressure from the state.
“We never complain that we find ourselves in circumstances of intolerance,” she said. “Our goal is to build a dialogue [with the authorities] and to have friends, and I think we have been quite successful in our efforts.”
Times Are Changing
But some Russian Mormons find signs of hope: things are changing, they say, not necessarily at the government level – but in society.
Sapozhnikov feels that there is a noticeable shift in society toward greater tolerance. He said his faith has piqued people’s interest in a religion that remains largely unknown in Russia.
“I can say with certainty that there are more people today who are interested in understanding more about it,” he said.
Others note the continuing generational divide. Lyuba Koshleva, a 19-year-old student born to a Mormon mother, says that while younger people are generally more accepting, the older, “Soviet” generation is typically more conservative.
“And I can understand them, because it’s difficult to accept that there are more churches in Russia than just the [Russian Orthodox Church],” she said.
Koshleva added that her grandmother was a skeptic, but that her views gradually changed.
“During the past 20 years, my grandmother saw how we were raised in the church, and now she calls her other daughter to say, ‘You know, your son should join this church, it will change his life.’”
Kodirov also believes times are changing – and that the old stereotypes are bound to run their course.
“Time is the best medicine for intolerance,” Kodirov mused.