Handcart trek in Siberia – ‘a demonstration of faith’

Latter-day Saints in Siberia are commemorating in a big way the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley: They built a pioneer-style handcart, and launched it on an epic trek that will take it from Krasnoyarsk across six missions in Russia and two in Ukraine. The handcart will be pulled in small parades through key cities in Russia and Ukraine, and transported between cities by train.

After being sent across the Atlantic as air cargo, the handcart will join an organized wagon train from Winter Quarters, Neb., which will arrive in Salt Lake City July 22.The handcart's journey began in Krasnoyarsk, where there are a little more than 100 members of the Church, on Saturday, Feb. 22. Krasnoyarsk is the easternmost city in the Europe East Area.

Using plans of an original handcart provided by Steven Pratt in Utah, and adding a Siberian touch, local carpenters hired by Church members used native Siberian pine and spruce wood to make two handcarts. Both handcarts will be paraded through cities in Russia and Ukraine, but only one will be sent to the United States and on to Utah for the sesquicentennial events.

The East European routes include cities of the Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Rostov, Samara, St. Petersburg and Moscow missions in Russia, and Donetsk and Kiev missions in Ukraine.

A parade of 150 to 200 people, including many non-members, started at 3 p.m. at Krasnoyarsk's river station, with participants taking turns pulling and pushing the handcart down the city's main street. Three horse-drawn carts followed, carrying older members and those with young children. The others walked, and some spectators joined in for part of the distance. One eager-to-join onlooker asked, "A demonstration?" "A demonstration of faith," came the answer.

Police cars with flashing lights escorted the parade, closing intersections ahead to allow smooth passage for the entourage. The former police chief, Nicolai Salnikov, is a counselor in the branch presidency.

Once through the city, the parade crossed a bridge to an island where an advance group had already built three fires to warm the arriving participants.

Temperatures had begun to drop and snow was falling as the parade concluded. Members of the Relief Society served pilmeni soup (Russian ravioli) and hot cocoa, which they had prepared over one of the open fires. As snow coated the participants' hats, scarves and coats, the group sang several hymns that have been translated into Russian, starting out with "Come, Come Ye Saints" and "Joseph Smith's First Prayer." They were accompanied by a man playing an accordian.

Pres. B. John Galbraith of the Russia Novosibirsk Mission addressed the members. "You are brave pioneers. We love you," he told them. "It was on a day like today [150 years ago] that 13 brave Mormons froze to death. . . . Young mothers with babies in their arms had to bury their husbands in the snow because they could not dig the ground. Your hands are cold, and your toes are cold, but it helps us remember the trials of many people. We will remember you for your great faith. This is a symbol of the things that will happen in Russia."

As the sun began to set and temperatures plummented to many degrees below freezing, members and missionaries got out written copies of their testimonies and their personal greetings to President Gordon B. Hinckley and placed them in the handcart. They also put several dolls and Siberian bears handmade by the local members in the handcart. The written words of faith, and the dolls and bears will make the journey all the way to the Salt Lake Valley.

Added along the journey will be written testimonies of members throughout the missions in Russia and Ukraine. Also to be added will be dolls dressed in costumes representing each city along the handcart's route. An investigator of the Church, Olga Nikolaievna, made a doll by following an illustration from an old book to assure the authenticity of a traditional Siberian doll.

The weather got so cold that members had to leave for home. They left with a better understanding of the trials of those first pioneers. In such cold weather they could easily imagine the hardships of the early Mormon pioneers who were caught in snowstorms and who had no homes to go to.

Krasnoyarsk represents a true frontier of modern-day Church pioneers. It is one of the latest cities to open its doors to any kind of foreign influence. Founded in 1628, along the River Yenisey, Krasnoyarsk became a place of political exile and of serfs seeking freedom in Siberia from the tightly controlled western tsarist Russia.

Siberia's vastness is best illustrated by the 1982 discovery by Russian geologists of a family that had lived in hiding since the tsarist times in a remote region of the Siberia taiga (Siberian forest). The family knew nothing of the fall of the tsar (in 1917) and the rise of the Soviet rule. Covering 4.8 million square miles, Siberia extends from the Ural mountains to the west all the way to the Pacific Ocean, an area of nine different time zones.

Siberia wasn't opened to full-time missionary work until July 16, 1995. The first baptisms took place Sept. 25 of that year with the first three baptisms being two sisters, Nastya and Katya Tsvestkova, ages 12 and 18, and Aleksander Adamsky, 23.

The first missionaries to labor in the city were Elders David M. Russell and Greg D. Nelson. As of Feb. 22 of this year, there were two groups and one official branch in Krasnoyarsk, the branch having been created Jan. 27, 1997. Membership was 93 on the day of the handcart parade. However, the next day, Feb. 23, 10 investigators were baptized, bringing membership to more than 100.

Sister Tamara Talbot, a missionary serving in Krasnoyarsk, said, "The people are much like the pioneers who entered the Salt Lake Valley, except they live in a different century and in a different land."

An investigator who attended the handcart event with her family said, "This was the first time I was in such a gathering so big where no one smoked or drank, and where everyone had so much fun."

Three Siberian television stations covered the handcart trek. Sister Talbot said that people recognize the missionaries on the street and tell them that they saw coverage of the event and liked it. One producer was so friendly and interested that the missionaries left him a copy of the Book of Mormon. News people at another station expressed an interest in a follow-up story with interviews with the missionaries and members.

From Europe East Area headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, Elder Charles Didier of the Seventy said after the event in Siberia: "As the pioneers participated in the settling of the West, the Russians with the same spirit, participate in the settling of the East – in Siberia. Both groups of pioneers endured the same kinds of challenges and hardships of walking by faith and establishing new bridges of progress. That is why the present people of Siberia understand so well the celebrations of the arrival of the pioneers in Utah."