Saturday, June 15, 2013

Мормоны в России

After returning from serving my mission in St. Petersburg, Russia, I have followed what I refer to as the “Russian news” (news about Russia, not necessarily in Russian) closer than I ever did before.  The people I came to understand and appreciate and the places I shed tears over as the plane took off as I departed St. Petersburg meant a great deal to me and I wondered how their great yet still somewhat mysterious country was doing.  Just as I didn’t follow Russia much in the news before I left on my mission, I rarely followed what was happening with the Church in the news before my mission.  We always got the Church News in the Deseret News, but I rarely cracked it.  There was a feature on the back page that typically told a little story like the stories in the back of the Ensign, and I read it sometimes, but that was it, and that feature hardly qualified as news.  I tend to pay a little more attention to the news of the Church nowadays.  It is not much of a stretch to think that just as my mission made Russia more important to me, it made the Church more important to me.

Book.In Мормоны в России: Путь длиной в столетие (ISBN: 9-785-91189-005-6), or Mormons in Russia: A Century-long Path (my translation), by Sergei Antonenko, these two newer interests of mine are brought together in an academic, historical essay on the Church in Russia.  Antonenko gives a brief history of the Church, including its founding, Brigham Young leading the Saints to Utah, and its relative stability and growth since that time.  He also discusses in rather finite detail the theology of the Church.  The next big portion of the work is dedicated to what various pre-Soviet writers and intellectuals in the imperial Russia wrote and thought about the Church.  Dostoevsky and Tolstoy get specific mention.  Finally, the history of the Church in post-Soviet Russia is discussed.  Since this includes the late 1980s when missionaries traveled to the Soviet Union from Finland for the weekend only, it might be slightly inaccurate to say “post-Soviet Russia.”  As with the rest of the book, the writing about the Church in Russia has less to do with specific incidents such as organizational changes, legal registrations, or sensational events like missionaries being kidnapped, and more to do with how the Church has fit or not fit into Russian society and the general Russian consciousness.  It is, in places, a fascinating look into the perceptions — and souls — of Russia’s great people.

Overall, I thought the book was good.  I appreciated Antonenko’s even-handedness.  Discussions of Mormon doctrine can be fraught with misconceptions and sometimes outright lies when done by one who isn’t a member of the Church.  While Antonenko’s presentation wasn’t 100% doctrinally sound, it was very close.  I also found his pointing out of parallels in other world religions or in the scriptures to be refreshing.  His point over and over seemed to be that although Mormons have a bad reputation for believing some rather outlandish things, a person who is truly a student of religion would know that those things really aren’t that outlandish and are often rather mainstream thinking within certain groups or at certain times in the world’s history.  Antonenko is a religious studies expert and personally involved in multi-denominational cooperation efforts, which only adds to the respectability and sincerity of his presentation.  At one point he went so far as to note that he wondered why Mormons take so much heat from fellow Christians.  In fact, he couldn’t find anything wrong in being a Mormon and living a clean life free of alcohol and full of hard work, health, and effort toward strong family relations; it’s even better, he said, than claiming to be orthodox and being a drunkard, unhealthy, and having poor relationships with one’s family.  There were, of course, some things I thought could’ve been improved upon.  One, for example, was that I hoped the book would spend more time on actual members of the Church or the Church organization in Russia instead of so much discussion of Mormon doctrine and pre-October Revolution press about the Church.  Another would be the typical fascination with polygamy and other aspects of the Mormon Church that, although presented fairly and almost completely accurately, are secondary in a discussion of what constitutes Church doctrine.  More ink could’ve been spent on eternal families and the all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ.  Finally, I would’ve liked the book more had it been less philosophical and geared toward understanding the Russian psyche and more about the specific people and incidents that have given rise to two stakes of Zion in Russia.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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