The Church’s history in Russia stretches back almost 170 years when the Prophet Joseph Smith called Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve and George J. Adams as the first two missionaries “to that vast empire” of Russia, to which, the Prophet stated, “is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days” (History of the Church, 6:41).
Recently one of Elder Hyde’s apostolic successors, Elder Russell M. Nelson, presided over another historic moment in Russia — the organization of the nation’s first stake.
On June 5, more than 1,100 people gathered inside Moscow’s Amber Plaza Auditorium to participate in the organization of the Moscow Russia Stake. The new unit includes six wards and three branches. Yakov Mikhaylovich Boyko was called to preside over the stake, with Vladimir Nikolaievich Astashov and Viktor Mikhaylovich Kremenchuk serving as first and second counselor, respectively. Vyacheslav Viktorovich Protopopov was ordained as stake patriarch.
In an email to the Church News dispatched from Russia, Elder Nelson rejoiced in the creation of Russia’s first stake.
“On this historic occasion, my feelings are those of heartfelt gratitude to our Heavenly Father,” he wrote. “He loves His children and wants them to find joy and peace. He is helping His children in Russia to find their faith, to desire to repent, be baptized and keep His commandments. They are developing a deep desire to return to Him, endowed and sealed to their families.”
Elder Nelson added that he witnessed scores of “dear people” weep for joy when their stake was organized.
“I thought of the leaders, missionaries and members on both sides of the veil whose efforts have helped to make this possible. I remembered in the early 1990s when food was scarce, dear Russian members waited in long lines for food for missionaries so that they could teach their friends and families.”
Elder Nelson was accompanied at the stake organization meeting by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson. They were joined by his son, Russell M. Nelson Jr., who served among the early group of missionaries to Russia in 1991-93.
Elder Gregory A. Schwitzer of the Seventy and president of the East Europe Area and his wife, Sister JoAnn Schwitzer, also participated in the stake conference. A special participant at the event was Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander, an emeritus Seventy who has played an instrumental role in the organization and growth of the Church in Russia.
During the meeting, Elder Nelson counseled the members of the new stake to find unity in their faith. “Pray for your new leaders. They will need your prayers,” he counseled. “Be valiant in every possible way to live the gospel, especially in teaching your children as your read the scriptures together.”
There are more than 21,000 Latter-day Saints in Russia, worshipping in 116 congregations. The Church’s interest in this European nation goes back to 1843 when Joseph Smith called Elder Hyde and Brother Adams to serve as missionaries in Russia. That mission was never fulfilled because of the martyrdom of the Prophet and the Church’s departure from Nauvoo. Sixty years later, in early August of 1903, Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve offered prayers of dedication in the Russian cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Missionaries arrived in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in the early days of 1990. Announcement that the Church was formally recognized in Russia by the Soviet government was made on June 24, 1991, coincident with the concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In 2002, President Gordon B. Hinckley became the first Church president to visit Russia, where he spoke to a gathering of 2,300 members. President Hinckley returned to Russia three years later.
Elder Nelson himself is no stranger to Russia. He made his first visit in 1966 — decades before the fall of the Soviet Union — with a small team of doctors representing the American Heart Association to teach Russian doctors. He returned to medical meetings in 1971. Years later, in 1990, as an ordained apostle, Elder Nelson offered prayers of rededication in Leningrad and Moscow.