Almost a quarter of a century ago, on May 10, 1993, President Russell M. Nelson addressed a large crowd — which included very few Latter-day Saints — in Minsk, Belarus.
The following day, he offered a prayer on the land and the people of Belarus, a country of 2 million located between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Four days later Mikhail Davydik — who had heard President Nelson speak less than a week before — entered the waters of baptism with his wife and family.
Today, he is president of the Minsk Belarus District and a former mission president.
During a recent trip to Eastern Europe Oct. 13 through Oct. 22, President Nelson reconnected with President Davydik — a faithful pioneer member in Belarus.
The visit marked the first time an apostle had visited the country since President Nelson, now president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the land in 1993.
“It is not the scenery; it is not the climate; it is not the history. The things you remember best are the individuals you meet and have learned to love,” said President Nelson of his recent trip. “The other things provide context.”
As part of the trip, President Nelson, 93, visited seven countries in 10 days, addressed members and missionaries, met with government leaders, and conducted a review of the Church’s Europe East Area. He visited Samarkand, Uzbekistan — a city that dates back to 800 B.C. and prospered from its location on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean — and Astana, Kazakhstan — a new capital city with new beautiful buildings and modern architecture.
“You have to love people who love the Lord,” said President Nelson of Latter-day Saints in Eastern Europe. “They love the Lord, they keep His commandments and they find joy even through days of hardship.”
President Nelson was accompanied by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson; Elder Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy; and members of the Europe East Area Presidency: Elder James B. Martino and Elder Christoffel Golden, both General Authority Seventies, and Alexey Samaykin, an Area Seventy.
Elder Kearon said the Church’s Europe East Area is vast — the area’s great distances span 13 countries and 11 time zones — and includes rich variety and diversity of places and people, including “wonderfully faithful Latter-day Saints, all united by the gospel.”
Elder Golden said within the borders of the nations of the Europe East Area stand some of the greatest geographic features of the earth: “the Himalayas, Caucuses and Ural Mountains, the Volga and Dnieper rivers, and the Euphrates and Ararat of the Bible (or at least thought to be the mountain of the same name in the Bible). Beyond this some of the great inland seas or lakes such as the Black Sea, Caucasian Sea, Lake Baikal and the Aral Sea provide beauty and plenty to its peoples.”
Elder Martino said President Nelson understands Eastern European members — as he has participated with the Church in the area before the first days the gospel was taught there. “The members were overjoyed to see President Nelson. The chapels were filled long before President Nelson arrived.”
He said President Nelson spoke to the members about faith and hope. “He taught them about how the gospel gives them an understanding of our Father’s plan for them. He encouraged them always to remain worthy to attend the temple and to remain faithful even when they face trials.” He bore his testimony in the Russian language.
Elder Golden said President Nelson’s history with the East European nations and saints and understanding of the Church in Eastern Europe “provides him with a unique perspective of the capacities, needs and challenges of the people. This was felt by many as he interacted with the saints and shared his witness, teaching, love and affection with them.”
Elder Golden said although the Church is young in Eastern Europe, many faithful members have a sound understanding of the gospel and are living it. “We are now beginning to see the second generation Latter-day Saints enter the mission field as full-time missionaries. Being raised in the Church has prepared them for lives of devotion and service. Over time, they will become the future leaders of the Church and provide enormous strength to the Church and the communities in which they live.”
In Kazakhstan, President Nelson met with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, chairman of the Senate in the Kazakhstan Parliament, and Nurlan Yermekbayev, minister of Religious Affairs. The leaders expressed appreciation for the Latter-day Saints in their country and for the influence of the Church, said President Nelson.
And in Belarus, President Nelson met with Oleg Kravchenko, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, and Leonid Gulyako, minister of Religious Affairs.
“This is a very special area in the Church,” said Elder Martino. “The Church is new and faces many cultural, legal and social challenges, but we have seen great faith in the area. Once members are converted, they are strong examples to those around them.”
President Nelson visited the cities of Moscow and Yekaterinburg in Russia, a huge country that has gone through recent periods of political change. In recent years, laws have become more strict, because government leaders “want to protect their people from unwelcome influences,” he said.
“The laws are for the benefit of their own people,” he said, noting the Church always recognizes and works within the law.
Current laws in Russia “help us to do missionary work in the most effective way — through member referral,” he said.
LDS missionaries — called “volunteers” in Russia — follow all the rules, he added.
“I love the people of Russia,” said President Nelson. “I love their language. I love their faith.”
During the trip, Elder Kearon visited Ukraine, where he met a Relief Society president that was being released after 8 years of service.
Like so many other members in the Europe East Area, she was “vibrant, brimming with energy and light and an example to all of us anywhere,” he said.