The moment was approaching when Sunday School gospel doctrine class should begin in the Mount Ensign 4th (Russian) Branch in Salt Lake City, and most of the class was still out in the hall conversing. Luke Linscott, a member of the branch presidency, began to nudge them into the room for the class.
"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" exclaimed Sveta Permiakova, already seated in the class.
It was a wry allusion to the title of an American movie from the 1960s, but in a way it describes what has been happening in the Church for the past decade or so, a harvest of souls in what was once the Soviet Union, hence the existence for the past five years of this tiny branch in the Salt Lake Ensign Stake.
It happened that on this recent Sunday, the gospel doctrine lesson taught by Valya Masse included 3 Nephi 22, wherein the resurrected Savior visiting the Nephites quotes Isaiah's metaphor comparing the gospel to a tent that is stretched forth over the inhabitants of the earth and is strengthened by stakes (see verse 2).
There are no stakes in Russia proper yet, although one was organized in May in the former Soviet state of Ukraine. But since 1990, missions have been established with headquarters in Moscow, Novosibirsk, Samara, Vladivostok, Rostov, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. That a Russian-language branch would be established in the headquarters city of the Church is not surprising, given this growth of the Church in the motherland.
Ethnic and foreign-language branches are nothing new to Salt Lake City, but in the past they stemmed from the days when gathering to Zion meant literally immigrating to Utah. Since the advent of the 20th century, of course, Latter-day Saints have been encouraged to remain in their homelands and build up Zion where they live. That is no less the case in Russia and other former Soviet states. How, then, do the 60 or so members of the Mount Ensign 4th Branch come to be in Salt Lake City or its environs stretching as far south as Provo?
Branch President Michael J. Sorokine responds: "Some are refugees from countries of the Soviet Union. There are some students. There are some mixed couples where the husband is American and the wife is Russian or visa versa." In one or two cases, one partner doesn't speak Russian at all.
President Sorokine's background is perhaps representative if not typical of the branch membership. He started attending the Church as an investigator in 1990 in his hometown of St. Petersburg and joined a year later, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was touring Moscow and St. Petersburg. A year after that he received a scholarship to attend BYU for a year and was offered another for his remaining three years of schooling.
"My plan was to go back to Russia and get a fantastic job there with, you know, a Western type degree," said President Sorokine, who, with no hint of an accent, could easily pass for a native-born American. He found it difficult to look for a job in Russia while living abroad, so he accepted an offer in Utah during his last semester at BYU in his chosen profession as a computer analyst. That led to another opportunity, and eight years later, he remains in Utah. Meanwhile, he met his wife, Dawn, a returned missionary who served in Sumara, when she brought a member to branch meetings who didn't have a ride. They were married a year and a half ago and have a friendly college rivalry, as her hometown is Logan, Utah, where she attended Utah State University.
Anton Skripto, first counselor in the elders quorum presidency, was the first counselor in the branch presidency in St. Petersburg when President Sorokine joined the Church there. Later, Brother Skripto was called on a mission to serve in Ogden, Utah. "And he was, as far as we know, the first Russian-speaking missionary that was called from the former Soviet Union to serve anywhere, particularly outside of the country," President Sorokine said. On this particular Sunday, Brother Skripto was fulfilling a variety of functions: teaching the Melchizedek Priesthood class, providing interpretation for English-speaking members over headsets during Sunday School, and administering the sacrament.
Indeed, everyone seems to help out. Though in the heart of Salt Lake City, the branch has the flavor, character and solidarity of a tiny unit far away from the populous centers of the Church. Members are spread over a wide spectrum of ages, with some families, some single adults, some widows. Except for Relief Society and Sunday School, there are no auxiliary organizations; the branch relies upon other wards in the stake for Primary and Mutual activities.
"I heard many times from people who would come for the first time to our branch, 'I feel it is my home,' " said Alexander Malugin, past branch president, whose work as a biochemist brought him to Utah after he and his wife, Olga, joined the Church in Moscow.
Even so, many find their membership in the branch is transitional. The Malugins, for example, now belong to a conventional ward because their children, as they grew, desired a closer association with other young people in the stake.
Other branch members might make such a change; some may one day return to the land of their birth. Whatever the future may bring and wherever they may go, they can regard themselves as "fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19).
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