Ms. Lyon’s article recounts the rediscovery of Russian Mormonism by American Mormon missionaries and takes an insightful look into the earliest evidence of their existence. Article published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 33, No. 1, Spring 2000, pages 1-24. The entire volume is available online as a PDF.
Professors Eliason and Browning incorporate their findings from research conducted in Russia in May 2000, comparing various accounts and making the first conclusions regarding the origin of Russian Mormonism. Published in BYU Studies, Volume 40, No. 1, 2001, pages 6-34. This journal is available online from BYU (Adobe PDF).
This Newsnet (BYU student newspaper) article describes the popular interest in the Russian sect. The article is available online and also below.
Russian religion claims to be branch of the Church of Jesus Christ
Two Church of Jesus Christ missionaries were sent to investigate this cottage in Mekhzavod village in June 1998.
By Sara Noelle On NewsNet Staff Writer 1 Mar 2001
Mission president Sheridan Ted Gashler was introducing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the mayor of a small Russian village, when upon hearing the name of the church, the mayor exclaimed, “We already have Mormons here.”
Rumors of earlier Russian “Mormons” began surfacing soon after the Russia Samara Mission opened in 1990, but were never officially acknowledged until Gashler felt inspired to send two missionaries to investigate the Mekhzavod village of the Volga River area in June 1998.
The missionaries were told by locals that these people called “Mormons” did not drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, had strong family ties, helped the poor and wore white at funerals, said James Scott, 22, a junior from Spokane, Washington, majoring in international business.
Scott, who served in the Russia Samara Mission from 1997 to 1999, was one the two missionaries originally sent to Mekhzavod.
There were also claims that a large, hand-written, red-covered book entitled “The Book of Mormon” had been preserved through the generations, Scott said.
Eric Eliason, BYU folklorist and ethnographer, specializing in American religious movements, encouraged Gary Browning, BYU professor of Russian and a former mission president in Russia, to participate in a research trip to Russia.
Together they went to Russia in April and May of 2000 to investigate the possibility of members of the Church of Jesus Christ in pre-1990 Russia, according to a report by Browning and Eliason.
They visited four cities: Barnaul and Omsk in Siberia, Orenburg in the Ural Mountains and Samara of the Volga River area, Browning said.
“These were places where there had been rumors that old-time ‘Mormons’ existed before the missionaries arrived,” Browning said.
“Based on what we had heard and read before our trip, we assumed the ‘Mormon’ groups could have arisen through one or a combination of the following four possibilities: missionaries, (church) materials, migration or misnomer,” Browning said.
Either way, Eliason said he was sure it would be an interesting project.
In the course of their field studies in Russia, however, Eliason and Browning found no connection between the subjects of his study and the Church of Jesus Christ — except in the nickname.
“We didn’t uncover any evidence at all that these religious groups were connected to the LDS Church,” Eliason said, although, on the surface, there appeared to be some similarities.
Eliason said the missionaries were reasonable to assume a connection between these Russian “Mormons” and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
So how did the term “Mormon” become associated with these Russian religious groups?
“On the basis of what we found, it appears that over the years, the term ‘Mormon’ came to be used to refer to dissident groups, that is, non-orthodox groups (in Russia),” Browning said.
Eliason said the Church of Jesus Christ was better known in the late 19th century.
“(American) Mormons were in the news on a very regular basis because of our conflict with the federal government,” Eliason said.
“The practice now of Russia using the term ‘Mormon’ to refer to small, religious groups is left over from the 19th Century,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tania Rands Lyon, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Princeton University, was in Russia for eight months during 1998 doing research on Russian families for her dissertation.
“I first heard this story from a pair of missionaries over a homemade burrito dinner on the Fourth of July.
“I knew well that no LDS missionaries had ever proselytized in the countryside, so how could there be any Mormons in a place like Bogdanovka?” Lyon said in an article to be published in “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.”
Intrigued by this story, Lyon made two brief trips to Samara and met in a confidential interview with an older-practicing Samara Mormon named Nadia.
Her interview would be an important contribution to Eliason and Browning’s research, because it was difficult to find members of these Russian religious groups who were willing to discuss their faith.
Nadia claimed she did not know the origin of her faith, but it was simply how she was raised, Lyon said.
“Whether or not the two religions had the same origins, she believed her religion to be very different from ours,” Lyon said.
As a folklorist Eliason was interested in researching the culture and oral stories that surround these isolated Russian religious groups.
“Missionaries returning from Russia had been telling stories of groups of ‘Mormons’ that had been in Russia since before the LDS Church got there,” Eliason said.
The study of the Russian “Mormons” will continue as Scott travels for three weeks in April and May to Samara to conduct more field studies in a project funded by ORCA, a research grant offered to undergraduate students.
“Written evidence is really scanty at this point,” Scott said. “We’re all just guessing. We don’t really know.”
Scott said he hopes to document this religion he feels may soon disappear because there are only a few of these religious groups left.
“There’s a whole religion scattered across Russia that no one knows anything about and that may disappear in a year or a generation,” Scott said.
This is the story of Lyubov Korol, daughter of a Russian Mormon who joined the LDS Church in 1996. Korol knew little of the Mormon faith of her parents and joined the LDS Church believing them to be one and the same. The author of the article also makes this assumption, but Korol’s parents were likely Mormon refugees from Samara Oblast. Korol was originally from Omsk, not Minsk as the article states.
Russian Saints: Mormon communities in Russia thrive amid economic hardship and spiritual hunger; Russian Mormons Cling to Faith Amid Hard Times
The Salt Lake Tribune Published 12/19/1998 Page: B1 Paul Rolly
Editor’s note: Tribune columnist Paul Rolly recently traveled to southern Russia to pick up his daughter, Amy, who had just completed a Mormon mission in Rostov. This story is the result of his conversations and experiences with LDS members in Russia.
KRASNODAR, Russia — Lubov Sergeyvna Korol remembers peering from the hallway of her family’s small apartment in Minsk, Russia, as her father conducted secret Mormon church meetings in their living room.
“I loved the songs,” she said. “I was just a little girl. But the songs were beautiful.”
LDS Church activities had gone underground since the Russian revolution of 1917, a year after Korol’s birth, and the subsequent iron-fisted rule of the atheist Bolsheviks.
“In 1929, when I was 13, the leader of our branch, the bishop, was jailed,” said the 82-year-old “babushka” (old woman) from her meticulously kept third-floor walk-up apartment in downtown Krasnodar.
“My father fled because our friends said he might be jailed too,” Korol said.
Korol would not hear those cherished hymns for 67 years. And she never could have dreamed the illegal church would be in her life again.
After fleeing Minsk, her family settled in a region near Azerbaijan, by the Caspian Sea, and Korol’s father found work on the Turkish railroad. They lived in a boxcar.
The secret Mormon meetings ceased. The missionaries, who had proselytized in Russia since 1895, were gone. Her parents, who were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1910, would soon be dead from disease.
“I never again heard about the Mormon church. There were no books. There were no lessons or discussions. But I held the religion inside of me. My temple was here,” Korol said, pointing to her heart.
As she grew into an adult, Karol lived a relatively good life in Communist Russia. She moved to Krasnodar, several hundred miles south of her native Minsk. She became a doctor, married and had three sons.
The country was officially atheist, but Christianity persisted among much of the population.
Many of Korol’s friends were Russian Orthodox and they urged her to be baptized. She refused. “I knew I was something else.”
Two years ago, a friend told Korol in passing there were Mormon missionaries in Krasnodar. She sought them out, read Mormon scriptures for the first time, and was baptized at the age of 80.
She is one of about 8,000 Mormon converts in Russia since that country, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, officially recognized the LDS Church in 1991 and opened the borders to what began as a trickle but has grown to about 800 proselyting Mormon missionaries.
The document making the LDS an official national religion was presented by government leaders to Apostles Dallin Oaks and Russell Ballard during a banquet in June 1991, in front of about 100 influential Utahns brought to the USSR by industrialist Jon M. Huntsman.
The group also attended a performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which happened to be touring eastern Europe at the time.
That performance, at Moscow’s historic Bolshoi Theater, became a story in Russia for more than the musical renditions of the choir. The audience broke into long, seemingly unending applause after each song.
At the conclusion of the performance, the clapping-in-cadence continued for more than 10 minutes. Observers later speculated the unusually enthusiastic response had been planned and was sent as a message to government authorities that suppression of western Christian religions like Mormonism would no longer be tolerated by the masses.
The Mormon spirit first implanted with that visit continues to spread.
“This still is a largely atheist country, but there is a spiritual hunger among the people here,” said Robert Schwartz, president of the Rostov-Russia LDS Mission, which includes Krasnodar.
“Some people, when we begin spreading the message of the church, sop it up like a dry sponge.”
Other Western religions also have made inroads in Russia, and the Eastern Orthodox Church’s strong protests have persuaded lawmakers to curtail the activities of outside faiths.
But the law has not slowed the growth of the Mormon church.
In the Rostov mission alone, which includes the southern Russian cities of Rostov, Krasnodar, Volgograd, Sochi, Taganog and parts of Armenia, 1,500 people have joined since 1994.
“There is a different relationship between the federal and local governments here than there is in the United States,” said Schwartz. “The federal Duma can pass a law, but if local authorities choose not to enforce it, it doesn’t mean much.”
Indeed, in most communities with active LDS missions, Mormons practice their religion unmolested. One missionary, a Utah native, reported being threatened by some strident nationalists. It was only talk.
“I don’t know why they pick on me,” he said. “I must look like a smart alec.”
Until 1917, Russia was devoutly Christian, a tradition that began in 988 when Vladimir, “The Prince of Kiev,” was baptized and the entire Russian population was simultaneously converted along with him.
Nearly 1,000 years later, it became an atheist nation the same way — by government decree.
The Mormon missionaries say they have found a deep curiosity among the Russians for an American church that emphasizes an individual’s “free agency.”
But it’s the women of the families, said Schwartz, who usually lead the way toward conversion.
“The men, quite frankly, had their family responsibilities taken care of by the communist government for 70 years,” he said. “The women were the backbone who kept the families together. They were the ones who provided the spirituality in the homes.”
In Volgograd (the old Stalingrad), the site of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, some of Russia’s most famous patriotic monuments stand boldly in the frigid air above the imposing Volga River. There, members of one of two Mormon branches converged on a kiddie pool at the local YMCA on a Saturday morning last month for a baptism. Suited Mormon missionaries stood in the warm, humid room and bore their testimonies in Russian as the congregation of about 40 members sat in folded chairs. Outside the room, reserved for an hour by the Mormons, normal recreational activities continued.
After the baptism, the members scurried off in car pools to a large building where the branch rents an eighth-floor apartment for church activities.
It was a typical Mormon potluck party, with each member contributing a homemade dessert.
The party also provided a glimpse of the Russian spirit, both hardened and wounded by a stagnant, dying economy in which much of the work force hasn’t received a paycheck for several years.
As with every Russian Mormon get-together, whether a branch party or small family gathering in a private home, Mormon hymns were sung.
(A few days earlier, a group of young Mormon women in Rostov had quietly sung a hymn at a downtown cafe before eating a meal with their American visitors. The peculiar ritual seemingly went unnoticed by the other cafe patrons absorbed in their own discussions and thoughts.)
Some of the men at the party wanted to talk to the Americans about ways to get a work permit to come to the United States. Their questions were met with resistance from other branch members who insisted the local Mormon converts need to stay put and help build an LDS foundation in Mother Russia.
One of the branch leaders, an older gentleman considered one of the region’s strongest pillars of the church, spoke longingly of the days of communism. Life was better then, he insisted. The two doctrines — Mormon and communist — could co-exist in his mind.
For Sunday services, the members of that Volgograd branch meet in a wing reserved for them once a week at the Volgograd Hospital.
“It is probably the only place in the world,” said one member, “where the sayings of Joseph Smith and the sayings of Lenin are displayed on a wall side by side.”
This article on organized crime mentions “the organized criminal group known in Orenburg as the Mormons”. Continuing, the author explains that “the leader of the group and chieftan of the Cossack village of Sofievka, Ivan Ivanovich Zhabin by name… could perhaps win elections and legally organize the Mormon bandits as a legitimate Cossack band.”
This newspaper article by Orenburg police investigator Igor Moiseev describes how the native Russian Mormon sect has become a powerful business syndicate, that Orenburg Mormons descend from the “old original Mormons” and still hold to some religious principles. I have also provided an English translation of the relevant paragraphs below:
“The Mormons are one of the most influential criminal associations in Orenburg today. They originated from the old actual Mormons who, like the Molokans, were at one time in disfavor with the regime, being driven and scattered for their beliefs all across the Russian countryside. In Russia today there are three large centers of Mormon population: the Samara region, Birobidzhan and Orenburg. Outwardly the Mormons are no different from other Russians; their surnames are quite typically Russian. People say that the Mormon banditi still adhere to the old faith too, observing fasts and avoiding situations that would lead to sinful compromise (all of which does not prevent them in the least from shooting up their competitors).
“The area of Orenburg inhabited by the Mormons is appropriately called Mormonovka. It is sharply distinguished against the profile of other urban blocks, by the cleanliness, order, and well-tended appearance of the houses.
“In illegal business operations the Mormons have had a jump start on everyone else, establishing an excellent basis for their future power. The Mormons have historically found their way into many of the leading posts of industry and commerce in the city. They have also established strong support in the local power structures of Orenburg. The local management of GazProm, for example, has consisted exclusively of Mormons. In Orenburg it is said that “when you see one Mormon, you can expect a Mormon invasion.”
“As early as the 1970’s many Mormons involved in finance and industry began to delve into the more illegal aspects of business. They leased refrigeration trailers, purchasing meat at local state farms and selling it at a profit to Tatars, Bashkirs, and Udmurts. This proved enormously profitable. The first upper-end housing appeared in Mormonovka long before Perestroika. The Mormons were also the first to begin purchasing Volgas, “Niner” automobiles and other expensive foreign-produced brands.
“Beginning with Perestroika, when organized crime began to acquire considerable power in the region, the previously peaceful Mormons found it necessary to protect their hard-earned capital. From their midst gangsters were recruited. A multitude of mafia brigades grew and strengthened, from neighborhoods like “Shanghai”, “Stepnoe”, and the 23rd Block.
“Compared to other crime rings, the Mormons are distinguished by their rigid discipline and strict group solidarity, similar to the Italian mafia. At a moment’s notice they can muster more than five hundred men at arms for any type of job. But if caught and interrogated by the police, they keep silent and, like fish, realize that among the Mormons “a long tongue is the fastest way to the cemetery”.
“During the undivided reign of Babnishchev only the Mormons were able to defend their sovereignty. Though they had more than sufficient reason to launch an all-out gangster war, the Mormons (who are inextricably tied up with oil and gas interests) conducted themselves quite reasonably. They offered a compromise and sacrificed a part of their interests (which truth be told did little to weaken their financial might). After the death of Babnishchev any real competition against the Mormons had disappeared from the city. However, during all of this the Mormons had the presence of mind not to bite at any of the more tempting morsels available at the time. Their leaders quickly understood that grabbing a piece of the pie would only instigate gangster warfare, and declined to join in the dance of death.”
An overview of the history and development of various faiths in the Samara region. Kirill Serebrenitskiy is a leading ethnographer of Samara Province.
This excellent resource documents the Molokans, a native Russian religious movement that contributed to groups that were later called Russian Mormons. Maintained by A. J. Conovaloff. Click here to visit his site.
Donald Mackenzie Wallace traveled among the sectarians of the Samara Region during the 1870’s. He documented the rise of Ivan Grigoriev’s sect, a group later known to Orthodox priests as Mormons. Chapter 27 of his book Russia provides information and opinions about other related groups as well. Online book.
The Bulletin represents the single most important primary source in analyzing the history and practices of the Russian Mormons. Published beginning in 1866 and discontinued with the onset of Bolshevik power after the 1918 issue, the Bulletin contains articles, news, and advertisements written by Orthodox priests from many parts of the Samara Eparchy (geographically equivalent to Samara Province). The publication was issued twice monthly.
Collections of some of the issues of the Bulletin can be found in the following locations: (information updated 2006)
Samara Regional Archives. 25 Molodogvardeyskaya St., Samara, Russia, 443099. Tel. 7 (8462) 33-62-72.
Samara Theological Seminary, library. 2 Radonezhskaya St., Samara, Russia, 433110. Tel. 7 (8462) 36-35-11.
Between these two sources, not all issues were found. The earliest known mention of Mormonism was in 1869 with Rozhdestvenskiy’s article calling Ivan Grigorev Kanygin a “Molokan-Mormon”. There is also a likely mention of the Mormons in 1879 by a certain Professer Asher. However, I have been unable to locate either of these Bulletin issues. The earliest information regarding Mormonism that I have personally found in the Bulletin is dated 1891; the last was in 1915.
One of the fundamental considerations in using the Bulletin as a source is that its principle authors were Orthodox priests and missionaries. Orthodox clergy were often either unsympathetic or openly violent in their opposition to sectarianism, and Mormons fell under heavy persecution by both religious and secular authorities. The village priest often worked in close tandem with the military and police in order to contain anti-Orthodox elements. Other priests, like Nikola Stroev, the author of a lengthy 1907 article on Mormonism, were friends with prominent Mormons and sought to dissuade them peacefully from their faith without resorting to official persecution. However, reports and interpretation of historical events by Orthodox writers must be taken into consideration when evaluating the Bulletin.