Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf is certainly no newcomer to Russia, first having flown as a Lufthansa pilot into the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, then as a Frankfurt, Germany, stake president accompanying the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its 1991 Europe tour into Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
And after his call as a General Authority in 1994, there were repeated return trips — as a Seventy, a member of the Europe East Area presidency, an apostle and later second counselor in the First Presidency.
So, when Elder Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as to Tallinn, Estonia, recently for a series of meetings with members and missionaries, many Latter-day Saints approached the Uchtdorfs holding photos and making a request.
“It was kind of a homecoming in many ways in these places,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “Some pulled out old photos where they were really young — or when their kids were really young — and with us. And they wanted another photo.”
It wouldn’t trouble Elder Uchtdorf if he saw the same faces again when he makes future visits. During his late April series of meetings, he admonished Church members in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe to remain in their native lands to help build up the Church and reminded them the newly announced temple for Russia gave them a greater purpose to stay.
It was similar counsel that the Uchtdorfs were given as a young family in Germany in the 1960s by the late Elder Theodore M. Burton — to stay in the country despite a dearth of temples in Europe at the time.
“Russia is losing, Eastern Europe is losing, a lot of good members immigrating, leaving the country,” he said. “So we told them to stay in the country, build the country, and show the leadership of the country that, yes, these are good people, these are people we can trust.”
With his new Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assignment s as chair of the Missionary Executive Council and primary contact for the Europe and Europe East areas, Elder Uchtdorf acknowledges the members’ eagerness both to help the missionaries — now called “volunteers” in Russia — and their anticipation for the temple announced earlier during April general conference.
“There’s a marvelous excitement among the members,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “They just hope that they’ll see tomorrow the excavation team showing up next to the Kremlin or in St. Petersburg downtown next to the Hermitage and that they’ll start digging.”
Noting that in Eastern Europe — and especially in Russia — that the wheels of administration roll slowly, Elder Uchtdorf said patience will need to be a practiced virtue. However, before any announcement of a selected temple city, a specific temple site, a groundbreaking and the start of construction, “our hearts have to be ready for the temple … and to prepare for this great future that Russia and Eastern Europe has.”
He added: “As I said, the construction crew will not show up the next few weeks to build the temple anywhere — but the construction crew has to come within. We have to be the construction crew to build, and when we’re ready, then the temple will be ready.”
Elder James B. Martino, the Europe East Area president, said the apostle beautifully tied temple preparation to the message of ministering.
“He promised the Saints that if they will allow the temple to be inside of them, then the ministering to others will become natural,” Elder Martino said. “And if we will reach out with love to those that we are ministering, then the Church will grow numerically and spiritually.”
Elder Uchtdorf recalled in the meetings a similar situation in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German), where members waited for decades before the Freiburg Germany Temple — the first behind the so-called Iron Curtain — was built and began operating in 1985.
“Like in East Germany, they waited for a temple forever, but they had current temple recommends and that’s what they aimed for,” he said. “And eventually their faith was rewarded — and that’s the same thing that will happen in Russia.”
The month before his trip to Russia, Elder Uchtdorf traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
“I told him what the Church is all about in Russia and that we are just good people — it’s Russians who just want to live their faith, nothing else. They want to be good citizens, and they’re law-abiding.”
The D.C. visit came a couple of weeks before the general conference announcement of a temple planned for Russia. “I knew it was in the pipeline, so we talked about the temple in the DDR and what happened there, and he was deeply impressed,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “And then it came — two weeks after the meeting with him, the temple (in Russia) was announced.”
After first speaking at the April 22 Sunday general session of the Moscow Russia Stake conference, the Uchtdorfs later met with volunteers from the Russia Moscow Mission and young single adults in the capital city on April 24. In St. Petersburg on April 26, they met with members there as well as volunteers from the Russia St. Petersburg Mission. And on April 28 in Tallinn, Estonia, they met with missionaries from the Baltic Mission and conducted a devotional with local members.
In all, they met with more than 1,600 members and investigators in the various meetings in the three cities.
One highlight, however, was not part of the scheduled itinerary. When Elder Uchtdorf learned that eight volunteers from the St. Petersburg mission were returning home the morning of the April 26 meetings there, he rearranged his schedule and worked with President Brent D. Rawson, the mission president, to have the Uchtdorfs and Martinos join the departing volunteers at the mission home for their going-away dinner the night before.
“We didn’t tell the volunteers they were coming — you can imagine their surprise as I introduced our dinner guests,” President Rawson said. “Their willingness to make time for these valiant servants of the Lord was an event we will always remember.”
Added Elder Martino: “The looks on their faces when the Uchtdorfs entered the room will never be forgotten.”
In speaking with the missionaries and the volunteers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tallinn, Elder Uchtdorf underscored the importance of effectively helping to grow the Church — not just in talking with nonmembers but also helping bring back less-active members. With volunteers in Russia limited in the kind of contacting and proselytizing their peers worldwide may do, he encouraged them to seek for opportunities to serve others, to speak to them and help raise their curiosity and interest and to help prepare the people for the future temple.
In turn, the missionaries and volunteers reported to their mission presidents great interest from those who attended the member meetings — investigators hearing messages of reassurance and faith as some committed soon after for baptism, less-actives returning to activity, and an increased number of referrals from members to teach in their homes.
Sister Samantha Lee from Mesa, Arizona, and Sister Andrea Palmer from Fairfax, Virginia, serving in the Russia Moscow Mission, reported a recent convert attended stake conference with not only her sister but also her sister’s husband in tow.
They were anxious to see what he would think of the meeting and the messages, but they were a little disheartened when they saw he was on his cell phone. Then they realized he was on mormon.org reading about the Church.
“When Elder Uchtdorf got up to speak, he was copying his name down from the program into Facebook, looking through the profiles of the apostles and following their accounts!” wrote Sister Lee to President Jeffrey D. McGhie, her mission president. “After virtually befriending our Church leaders, he put his phone down, held his wife’s hand and listened intently to the rest of Elder Uchtdorf’s message.”
For Elder and Sister Uchtdorf, it was their first time in St. Petersburg since the city’s name was changed in 1991. And it was the first time for them in Tallinn since conducting a mission tour there in 1995.
And Elder Uchtdorf still sees now what he did when he first arrived more than three decades ago.
“I could feel back then that the Russian people are a people of faith. You can see how they’re true to their families, true to their friends,” he said. “So, we were impressed back then, and now we’re back, there’s a brightness there. … The people there walk with a different spring in their step. You can see this with the members of the Church — wow, they are happy, they are radiant.”