New milestone in Russia St. Petersburg becomes home to nation's second stake
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As for memorable birthdays, few can measure up to the one Elder Russell M. Nelson had on Sept. 9, 2012. On the day he turned 88 he organized the St. Petersburg Russia Stake.
"It was my birthday present," Elder Nelson said of the opportunity he had of creating the second stake in Russia. The milestone event came just a little over a year after he organized the first stake in Russia — the Moscow Russia Stake — on June 5, 2011.
Elder Nelson has an association with Russia that dates back several decades. Before he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1984, Elder Nelson was a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon who had traveled to many countries — including Russia — to teach at various medical schools and hospitals. He made his first trip to Russia in 1966, and to what was then Leningrad 41 years ago, on Sept. 3, 1971.
"Not counting my earlier visits when I went there as a medical doctor but since becoming an apostle, this was my seventh visit to St. Petersburg; half of those visits were during the time it was Leningrad," Elder Nelson said during a conversation with the Church News on Sept. 21.
One cannot speak of the Church in Russia without mentioning Elder Nelson's role in bringing the gospel to the people there and other countries of Eastern Europe, including those that had once been part of the Soviet Union.
He has been going to St. Petersburg from the days, he said, "when we had no members there, until the year 1990 when we filed for recognition for the Church."
He and Elder Hans B. Ringger, then of the Seventy, began meeting in 1987 with the Council of Religious Affairs in Moscow, seeking the establishment and recognition of the Church in Russia.
Elder Nelson said, "The whole sum and substance of the story of Russia, particularly Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, is that we did not have a way that we could meet the legal requirement of getting 20 adult Russian citizens in one political district to certify that they were members of the Church. We didn't have one. But the Lord then got them. He moved Yuri and Ludmilla to Budapest, Hungary, where they and their daughter found the Church and were baptized before they came back to Leningrad. The Lord moved Sasha to Poland where he found the Church before he returned to Leningrad."
He spoke of Svetlana, a citizen of Leningrad who had a great desire to obtain a Bible in the Russian language. "She traveled to Helsinki, Finland, where she found under the cover of autumn leaves in a park a Bible in Russian. She ran with excitement to a mother with a child in the park. That mother was Raija Kemppainen, wife of Jussi Kemppainen, then president of the Baltic District of the Finland Heksinki Mission. Sister Kemppainen asked if she would like to receive another book about Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, in the Russian language. Svetlana was baptized and returned to Leningrad with her family."
Elder Nelson said that those first few converts had friends and relatives, with whom they shared the gospel. "We had the first branch in Leningrad just three years after the minister of religious affairs told us what the requirements were. We couldn't have reading rooms. We couldn't send students. We couldn't send missionaries. But the Lord filled in the gap. We had done all we could do and He moved upon the people to make it so we could qualify, according to their own law. We submitted the papers for recognition of the Church. That was granted in the city of Leningrad in 1990; we were given recognition for the whole country of Russia in 1991."
Further, Elder Nelson said, "This is total evidence of the power of the Lord who said, 'I am able to do mine own work' (2 Nephi 27:20) and 'I will hasten my work in its time'" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:73).
Asked what he thinks about when he visits Russia, he said, "I think what a blessing the gospel is for these dear people who now have access to the enlightenment of the gospel, living centuries in darkness and now they have that light. The joy that comes in the lives of these people as they embrace the gospel is a sight to behold. They're smiling, they're happy. They have hope."
The conference at which the St. Petersburg Russia Stake was organized was held in an LDS meetinghouse, which is now the stake center. Some 650 members attended.
Assisting Elder Nelson in forming the stake was Elder Larry R. Lawrence, president of the Europe East Area; Elder Gvido Senkans, an Area Seventy, and President N. Warren Clark of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission. They were accompanied by their wives — Sister Wendy W. Nelson, Sister Laurel Lawrence, Sister Velga Senkans and Sister Marilyn Clark.
Andrey V. Klimash was called as stake president. His counselors are Meruzhan R. Bagdasaryan and Boris A. Leostrin. Mikhail A. Zaretsky was called as stake patriarch.
Elder Nelson said that after the stake conference, he and the area and mission leaders went to the Summer Gardens, where Elder Francis M. Lyman first dedicated Russia in 1903, and Elder Nelson rededicated it in 1990. "We found a group of young single adults, about 18 of them, who had assembled in the gardens trying to recount their own history. One of them said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if Elder Nelson could be here to tell us about this.' As soon as that remark was made, we walked into the gardens. All of the group immediately just shouted for joy."
Elder Nelson said that he located the exact spot where he had knelt to offer the dedicatory prayer 22 years ago.