He stands at the entrance of the bomb shelter, his arm resting on a massive steel door built to withstand the fallout from a nuclear blast. Alexander Mikhalchenko is a large man, red-faced and stern, but with a glimmer of levity behind his eyes that gives him more of the appearance of a kindly benefactor than of the chairman of the State Committee on Archival Record Keeping of the Republic of Belarus.
"This cellar was intended for use in case of military actions," he said, "in case of a nuclear attack."
The "cellar" is a series of tunnels that cut into the earth and honeycomb beneath the city of Minsk. Built in the 1960s and 70s, the tunnels were intended as a place for tens of thousands of citizens to huddle together and wait for the devastation of nuclear war to settle.
Today, the shelter has a different purpose.
"Now," Chairman Mikhalchenko said, "circumstances have changed. We are using these shelters to store humanitarian shipments from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Blankets, quilts, medical supplies, food, hygiene kits, wheelchairs, textbooks — the bomb shelters are stacked so thick with boxes, one can scarcely fit through them.
"All the assistance that comes to us is passed along into the hands of the people who need it the most," he said. "Children in orphanages, patients in hospitals, old people in homes. Charitable dinners are arranged. Everything goes — 100 percent — to those purposes for which it is intended. Not one drop of the assistance goes anywhere else."
Over the last few years, a bond of friendship and trust has developed between the Church and many of the people in Belarus. "The people of your church," Chairman Mikhalchenko said, "adhere to Christian principles. They do not drink, do not smoke. They are always pleasant. And you want to help and support (the Church) because when someone is offering help and is helping, in response, you have the same feeling — you want to help and support them in their goals."
Halfway around the world, the LDS Humanitarian Center prepares shipments to 150 countries throughout the world. In a wonderful twist of irony, the building that houses the humanitarian center in Salt Lake City was originally built as a factory that made munitions for World War II.
— By Neil K. Newell, Welfare Services