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Focusing on LDS pioneers in Russia

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A new Sesquicentennial Lecture Series, focusing on LDS pioneers in areas of the world where the Church has been established more recently, began at the Museum of Church History and Art on Oct. 30.

Gary Browning, former president of the Finland Helsinki East and Russia Moscow missions, was the first speaker in the series. He spoke about members in the former Soviet Union, primarily in Russia. The series will continue with Elder John K. Carmack of the Seventy speaking Nov. 6 about Latter-day Saints in Asia; Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Seventy speaking Nov. 13 about members in Eastern Europe; and Nov. 20 with Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy speaking about LDS pioneers in Africa. Each lecture begins at 7 p.m. in the theater of the museum, 45 N. West Temple.Brother Browning, a professor of Russian at BYU, had made more than a dozen trips to Russia before he was called to preside over the Finland Helsinki East Mission in 1990.

He began his lecture by presenting a brief overview of a bill passed in September in Russia. Although the bill provides a provision restricting the activities of religious groups that have been in the nation for less than 15 years, Brother Browning said, the LDS Church and other established religions have been given assurances regarding their well-being in Russia. He referred to the Oct. 4 issue of Church News in which Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke with optimism pertaining to the future of the Church in Russia.

Brother Browning presented a few highlights from the history of the Church in Russia:

- 1843 - The Prophet Joseph Smith called Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve and George J. Adams to serve "in the vast empire of Russia." However, various circumstances, including the Prophet's martyrdom, prevented the fulfillment of that mission. Brother Browning noted that had the mission been accomplished, Russia would have been one of the first foreign-language missions of the Church.

- June 1895 - Johan and Alma Lindelof were baptized as members of the Church in St. Petersburg; their children were baptized later. It is possible, Brother Browning said, that there were other Latter-day Saints in Russia at the time.

- Aug. 6, 1903 - Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve offered a prayer of dedication in St. Petersburg's Summer Gardens. Two days later, on Aug. 8, he offered a prayer of dedication in the Aleksandr Gardens of the Kremlin in Moscow.

- November 1917 - The Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Revolution in 1917 brought an end to religious freedoms in what became the Soviet Union. "I don't believe that there were any new churches that were registered in the Soviet Union from 1917 until after Gorbachev's rule, which began in 1985; it was not until 1988, 1989, 1990 that most of the registrations occurred.

- 1988 - Missionary work began among Russians in Finland.

- October 1989 - Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve informed then-Finland Helsinki Mission Pres. Steven R. Mecham and Austria Vienna East Mission Pres. Dennis B. Neuenschwander that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve had decided the time had come to take the gospel to the peoples of Russia and Estonia.

- July 1990 - The Finland Helsinki East Mission was organized with four cities: Leningrad, Vyborg and Moscow, Russia; and Tallin, Estonia. Brother Browning was its first president.

- Feb. 3, 1992 - The Finland Helsinki East Mission was divided into the Russia St. Petersburg and the Russia Moscow missions.

Brother Browning described his first Sunday as president of the Finland Helsinki East Mission when he and Baltic District Pres. Jussi Kemppainen made a three-hour trip to Vyborg. Brother Browning said he had visited Vyborg many times, the first in 1963 when a train he was on at the end of his mission to Finland made about an hour-long stop. Another visit, he said, was in 1985, just after Gorbachev had begun his tenure as leader of the Soviet Union.

Brother Browning contrasted the visits in 1990 with the one in 1985, telling how he had gone to Russia with 100 students, 11 of whom were from BYU. He said that prior to going, he had received assurance from an official in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., that he and the students were permitted to take personal copies of the Bible and Book of Mormon into the Soviet Union. However, as they entered Russia the scriptures were confiscated by customs officials.

He then described the experience of going to Vyborg in 1990 and walking into a sacrament meeting, held in a music school and attended by 60 people. "All of the seats were taken," he said. "I cannot tell you the astonishment I felt . . . as I walked into the room and saw these people holding Bibles and copies of the Book of Mormon on their laps. After all the visits, after all the experiences, all the fear that I had witnessed in people who wanted to know more about religion . . . here they were.

"Six Primary children, girls aged about 3 to 9, sang `I Am a Child of God.' I was still reeling from seeing people with the scriptures, and listening to them pray, but when the little girls sang `I Am a Child of God' - in Russian! - That touched me to the very core."

Brother Browning said that he was witnessing for the first time the profound extent of the changes that had occurred since his first visit to the Soviet Union 27 years earlier. He described the experience as witnessing a miracle. He said that there are now seven missions in Russia. In addition, there are two missions in Ukraine and one in Lithuania.

Describing further the pioneering spirit of members of the Church in the former Soviet Union, Brother Browning drew upon stories of faith and conversion recorded in his book, Russia and the Restored Gospel. One was the account of a youth conference held in Leningrad in June 1991 at which each branch presented some form of entertainment. Some had songs, others dances or poetry readings. The one he remembered best, he said, was a skit presented by youth from Tallin, Estonia. He said that the skit had three brief scenes. In the first, a husband and wife were shouting insults at each other. In the second, the husband slouched on a chair and watched television while his wife tried to carry on a conversation with him. It was obvious, he said, that the first two scenes portrayed a couple before they learned about the Church. In the third segment, the husband returned home from work, embraced his wife and sat down with her to enjoy a meal together. They bowed their heads and asked a blessing on the food, and then, while sharing the meal, asked about each other's activities.

"That scene struck me with such force because I realized that none of those young people who were from the Tallin Branch had mothers and fathers who had joined the Church," Brother Browning said. "They were the first; they were the real pioneers who made the commitment and had kept to the gospel. They had not seen models of what an LDS family is, but they imagined, they projected what an LDS family should be like. It was a dream they had, a commitment they were making to have that kind of home."

Brother Bowning referred to experiences and conversations with members during a weekend in one city that was representative of the faith, commitment and dedication of Russia's LDS pioneers. He said that in that city on a Saturday evening, he spoke with: parents who were saving an unexpected bonus for a young child's mission; two brethren who were preparing to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood; a young couple who asked permission for missionaries to speak at their wedding reception about eternal marriage; and a young man who had "accepted the gospel with his mind," but desired a strong, unmistakable testimony before being baptized.

"The next day, Sunday, I was at the priesthood meeting when a young member of the Church - not in age, but a young time in the Church - was teaching a priesthood lesson . . . from photocopied material that had been translated in the mission and duplicated. . . . It was a standard lesson. I wouldn't characterize it as memorable, until on two occasions that he looked up from the paper that he was essentially reading and shared a couple of experiences from his family. Those I'll never forget. They were so impressive. I'll tell you about one of them.

"He said that a few weeks earlier his little son, in the lower grades in school, had come home and his cheek was badly bruised. He assumed he must have been in a fight. He said he was wondering if he had gotten the better of the other boy, how he had defended himself. The little boy didn't want to talk about it, but with a little urging, he said that the school bully had been tormenting one of the girls in his class, making life miserable for her. He had gone up to the boy and said, `You shouldn't do that. That's not right. Leave her alone.' The bully turned around, doubled up his fist and hit him as hard as he could. The little boy fell over and the bully walked away.

"Some of the little boy's friends came running up and said, `We saw what he did. Let's all go over and teach him a lesson.' This little member of the Church said in response, `No. I've been reading in the Bible that you should not do mean things to people, even if they do mean things to you.'

"The father had lived his whole life according to a very different ethic. As he related that story, he admitted that although he had read the words of the Savior, it was not until his little son had shown him what they meant that he was able to comprehend them. . . .

"I'm not pretending that [these kinds of experiences] occur only in Russia," Brother Browning said. "It is common everywhere, but while it does occur around the world we had the experience of witnessing it there in Russia."