"RUSSIAN SECT NICKNAMED 'MORMONS'
Mission president Sheridan Ted Gashler was introducing The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints to the mayor of a small Russian village, when
upon hearing the name of the church, the mayor exclaimed, "We already have
Rumors of earlier Russian "Mormons" began surfacing soon after the Russia
Samara Mission opened in 1990, but were never officially acknowledged until
Gashler felt inspired to send two missionaries to investigate the Mekhzavod
village of the Volga River area in June 1998.
The missionaries were told by locals that these people called "Mormons" did
not drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, had strong family ties, helped the poor
and wore white at funerals, said James Scott, 22, a junior from Spokane,
Washington, majoring in international business.
Scott, who served in the Russia Samara Mission from 1997 to 1999, was one
the two missionaries originally sent to Mekhzavod.
There were also claims that a large, hand-written, red-covered book entitled
"The Book of Mormon" had been preserved through the generations, Scott said.
Eric Eliason, BYU folklorist and ethnographer, specializing in American
religious movements, encouraged Gary Browning, BYU professor of Russian and
a former mission president in Russia, to participate in a research trip to
Together they went to Russia in April and May of 2000 to investigate the
possibility of members of the Church of Jesus Christ in pre-1990 Russia,
according to a report by Browning and Eliason.
They visited four cities: Barnaul and Omsk in Siberia, Orenburg in the Ural
Mountains and Samara of the Volga River area, Browning said.
"These were places where there had been rumors that old-time 'Mormons'
existed before the missionaries arrived," Browning said.
"Based on what we had heard and read before our trip, we assumed the
'Mormon' groups could have arisen through one or a combination of the
following four possibilities: missionaries, (church) materials, migration or
misnomer," Browning said.
Either way, Eliason said he was sure it would be an interesting project.
In the course of their field studies in Russia, however, Eliason and
Browning found no connection between the subjects of his study and the
Church of Jesus Christ -- except in the nickname.
"We didn't uncover any evidence at all that these religious groups were
connected to the LDS Church," Eliason said, although, on the surface, there
appeared to be some similarities.
Eliason said the missionaries were reasonable to assume a connection between
these Russian "Mormons" and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
So how did the term "Mormon" become associated with these Russian religious
"On the basis of what we found, it appears that over the years, the term
'Mormon' came to be used to refer to dissident groups, that is, non-orthodox
groups (in Russia)," Browning said.
Eliason said the Church of Jesus Christ was better known in the late 19th
"(American) Mormons were in the news on a very regular basis because of our
conflict with the federal government," Eliason said.
"The practice now of Russia using the term 'Mormon' to refer to small,
religious groups is left over from the 19th Century," he said.
Meanwhile, Tania Rands Lyon, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Princeton
University, was in Russia for eight months during 1998 doing research on
Russian families for her dissertation.
"I first heard this story from a pair of missionaries over a homemade
burrito dinner on the Fourth of July.
"I knew well that no LDS missionaries had ever proselytized in the
countryside, so how could there be any Mormons in a place like Bogdanovka?"
Lyon said in an article to be published in "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon
Intrigued by this story, Lyon made two brief trips to Samara and met in a
confidential interview with an older-practicing Samara Mormon named Nadia.
Her interview would be an important contribution to Eliason and Browning's
research, because it was difficult to find members of these Russian
religious groups who were willing to discuss their faith.
Nadia claimed she did not know the origin of her faith, but it was simply
how she was raised, Lyon said.
"Whether or not the two religions had the same origins, she believed her
religion to be very different from ours," Lyon said.
As a folklorist Eliason was interested in researching the culture and oral
stories that surround these isolated Russian religious groups.
"Missionaries returning from Russia had been telling stories of groups of
'Mormons' that had been in Russia since before the LDS Church got there,"
The study of the Russian "Mormons" will continue as Scott travels for three
weeks in April and May to Samara to conduct more field studies in a project
funded by ORCA, a research grant offered to undergraduate students.
"Written evidence is really scanty at this point," Scott said. "We're all
just guessing. We don't really know."
Scott said he hopes to document this religion he feels may soon disappear
because there are only a few of these religious groups left.
"There's a whole religion scattered across Russia that no one knows anything
about and that may disappear in a year or a generation," Scott said.
This story was posted on Thursday, March 1, 2001