Russian handcart reaches New York -- Saints across Eastern Europe honor pioneers

In one of the biggest demonstrations of modern-day pioneer spirit, Latter-day Saints in Eastern Europe have sent to the United States a handcart they paraded throughout Russia and Ukraine in commemoration of the pioneer sesquicentennial.

The handcart, built in Siberia and sent on an 11,000-mile journey by train, plane, automobile and "foot power," will be part of sesquicentennial events in Salt Lake City July 22-24. (See Church News, March 8, 1997, for a report and photos of the launching of the handcart in Siberia.)The handcart arrived on U.S. soil June 20 after being shipped by air freight from Moscow to New York City where it was displayed at the opening reception of an exhibit on the Church at the New York Historical Society on June 25. From New York, the handcart will be sent to Salt Lake City. It will then be transported some distance from Salt Lake City to join a wagon train now wending its way to Utah as part of sesquicentennial commemorative events.

During its long journey, the handcart crossed eight missions in Russia and Ukraine, and made stops for local celebrations in the following cities: Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Ekaterinburg, Ufa, Samara, Rostov, Donetsk, Kiev, St. Petersburg, Petrozovosk, Kaliningrad, Vyborg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow, with members from many more cities attending the events in their mission boundaries.

One of the most appealing elements of the handcart's trek is its precious cargo: Its load is not food and clothing as was the case with the original handcarts Mormon Pioneers pushed and pulled across America's plains, but several thousand handwritten testimonies of Church members from throughout the Europe East Area. Members in St. Petersburg assembled their testimonies in an attractive blue velvet binder featuring a beautiful Russian seal on its front cover. The Saints of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia collected their testimonies in a beautiful book. Along the way, the handcart also picked up handmade dolls from most of the cities, close to 30 in all.

If there is one uniting theme in all the celebrations held along the handcart's route throughout Russia and Ukraine, it would have to be the faith and hope of these pioneers which unites them with other Church members as brothers and sisters in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church is so new, fresh and precious to the members of Eastern Europe that few of them take religious freedom for granted. For most, it is hard to imagine what it is like to be part of a Church so well established as it is in the United States and other nations of the world. Members here, like the original pioneers, often suffer consequences from giving up their previous lives and sacrificing many things, including associations with family and friends when they decide to join the Church.

The handcart, in many ways, also represents for many a hope to someday live in an environment where religious freedom is respected and where members will be respected for what they believe.

The handcart's journey began in Russia in the frozen depths of winter in Siberia last February, and continued through spring to the very eve of summer. Highlights along the way included festivities in Yekaterinburg and Ufa in the Russia Yekaterinburg Mission, where about 400 members took part in March during conditions that were still very cold and snowy.

Pres. Viacheslav I. Efimov, the first Russian-born mission president - himself a great pioneer - told those present about the trials of the original pioneers and emphasized the lessons to be learned from them. Several city officials attended the celebrations.

The handcart then traveled to the Russia Samara Mission where large celebrations were held which included a local traditional Russian folk dance group.

From there the handcart traveled to the Russia Rostov Mission for further festivities. Then mission leaders drove the handcart to the border of Ukraine and hand delivered it to an awaiting car from the Ukraine Donetsk Mission. Elder Samuel D'Ark from Orem, Utah, was put in charge of organizing the event there and in coordinating the arrival of the handcart and the arrival of the Extravadance group from Ricks College. About 400 members and spectators and four TV camera crews from various local stations covered the event, as the group performed western dances in front of the handcart during the parade through a memorial park.

Among members participating were Vladimir Sechov and his wife, Ludmilla, true pioneers in Ukraine. Baptized in June 1992, he is now a branch president. Helping them pull the handcart in a parade in Donetsk were their children, Krusha, Ekatenina and Anastasia.

That evening, 900 people watched the concert of Extravadance. A local television station featured the event and showed a very positive interview with Pres. Aleksandr N. Manzhos of the Ukraine Donetsk Mission. Another true pioneer, he is the first Ukrainian to serve as a mission president.

From Donetsk the handcart traveled to Kiev where the members participated in a successful celebration. About 400 members, including Elder Charles Didier of the Seventy and president of the Europe East Area, Elder Wolfgang Paul, an Area Authority Seventy, and Tom Kay, the area's legal counsel, attended. A parade headed by members dressed in pioneer-style clothing led through a beautiful park to a garden theater where members performed square dancing and traditional Ukrainian folkdances.

In the Russia St. Petersburg Mission, celebrations took place in four cities: Kaliningrad, Petrozovosk, Vyborg, and St. Petersburg. As part of a mission-wide youth conference, youth pulled the handcart for 20 miles into the city of Vyborg. In St. Petersburg, celebrations coincided with the 300th anniversary of the city of St. Petersburg. There, members gathered on Mars Square and after an opening prayer listened to talks about the pioneers and bore their testimonies. Then they pulled the handcart around Mars Square, right at the center of town, with local police serving as an official escort.

In the Russia Moscow Mission, the handcart trek came to a close in Eastern Europe. When plans were being made to send a handcart through Russia and Ukraine, Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy and second counselor in the Europe East Area Presidency, suggested that members build two handcarts. Plans had been to have both in Moscow. As June 14 arrived, the day for festivities in Moscow, the wisdom of Elder Porter's plan came to light. When Elders Aaron Jeffrey and Benjamin Petzinger, who were given the responsibility of coordinating the handcart schedules in Moscow, went to the customs officials to pick up the handcart upon its return from Ukraine, they were told to return on June 16, since no one could help them.

Fortunately, the members had a "spare" handcart. Celebrations were great with only the one handcart from Siberia on hand. About 300 members gathered at Izmailovky Park and pulled the handcart for about two miles to a nice area where talks and musical performances were given. Russian National TV was on site to cover the event. (A TV crew will also be flying to Salt Lake City to film the arrival of the handcart into the Valley along with the rest of the trek.)

On June 16, the customs official declared that a rather steep fee would be required for the handcart. Elder Jeffrey and Elder Petzinger were able to get it out the next day without having to pay any fees after they were able to prove to officials that the handcart was built in Siberia.

The celebrations in the two other cities in the Moscow mission were dedicated to service. Both in Voronezh and Nizhny Novgorod, members combined the handcart celebrations with cleaning up projects and were surprised to find out that both the print and television media had picked up on the events and gave them very positive coverage.

Pres. Donald Jarvis of the Russia Moscow Mission said: "When I first heard about the handcart from Siberia, I was a little apprehensive about the whole idea, but as it developed and now after the celebrations have taken place in the Moscow mission, I see it as great focal point for the local members, missionaries and media to share in the spirit and learn about the pioneers and their great achievements."

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