Friday, March 23, 2012

Welcome to Russia! Welcome to Siberia!

In the summer of 1994 I received my mission call to serve as a full-time missionary in the Russia Novosibirsk Mission.  I remember reading the letter out loud to my parents in our home in Duchesne, Utah.  My voice caught as I read the word Russia.  For years I had hoped for the opportunity to serve in Russia, even studying the language for a couple of years in high school while living in Pensacola, Florida.  While in Pensacola our Regional Representative spoke to the Young Men, promising us that some of there would serve our missions in Russian.  That was in 1988 or 1989.  The Regional Representative that gave the talk was Richard Chapple, a professor of Russian at Florida State University.  He would go on to become the second mission president in Moscow, serving at the same time I was in Siberia.

My call wasn’t just to Russia it was to Siberia.  The literal translation of Novosibirsk is New Siberian City.  Novosibirsk is located right in the middle of the vast expanse of Russia, one day’s train ride east of the Ural Mountains that separate Europe from Asia.  The Russia Novosibirsk Mission was new when I received my call.  It had broken off from the Russia Moscow Mission about the same time I submitted my application to be a missionary. 

At the end of my amazing two months at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, I flew off to the great cold unknown with a few fellow missionaries.  I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Elder Davis, Sister Watkins and Sister Naegle.  Very early in the morning on December 16, 1994 we landed in Novosibirsk.  Looking out the window of our Lufthansa flight as we came in for the landing I was shocked to see the runway covered in snow and ice.  Somehow the plane managed to stop before sliding off the runway as I had expected.

My excitement to be in Russia disappeared almost completely as our aircraft taxied toward the terminal and came to a stop.  I stepped off the plane into a frozen Siberian night.  I noticed a few young men in heavy winter coats and blue shapkas holding automatic rifles.  They didn’t seem too happy to be outside in the cold as our welcoming committee.  Quickly we were shepherded onto a bus with ice on the floor.  The bus drove toward the terminal as I stood holding onto the ice-cold rail.

Once off the bus we were shown into a hallway with a few more guys with guns hanging out.  We slowly made our way in a line up to a very grumpy Russian guy looking at and then stamping passports.  Once your passport was stamped you went through a door.  When my turn came he glared at my passport, then back at me, then back at my passport.  He mumbled something to me and then looked at me as if expecting an answer.  After over 24 hours of travel and a very limited understanding of the Russian language, I gave my best shrug combined with a look of budding terror on my face.  Disgusted with me he stamped my passport, handed it to me and gestured toward the door. 

Not wanting to risk being detained for any reason, I bolted through the door tripping as I fell through.  I landed on a large pile of luggage.  Looking around I realized that my fellow travelers were looking for their own luggage.  Pretty quickly I found mine, lying open with some of my clothing pulled out.  Apparently it had passed inspection.  On my knees, I stuffed everything back in and sat on it so I could zip it shut again.  Once I had it all ready to go I stood up looking for where to go next.  It was then that I heard the sweet sound of President Sherwood’s voice as he called out “Elder, Elder.”  Looking up I saw him on the floor above motioning for me to meet him in the next room.

Novosibirsk Winter

The drive from the airport to the mission home seemed a bit surreal, made so by the combination of being in a foreign place and extreme exhaustion.  I remember feeling comforted by seeing a STOP sign that looked just like the ones at home.  When we arrived at the mission home we were allowed to sleep for a few hours before getting up for a quick orientation meeting.  Before breakfast I remember looking out the window onto the city square below.  As I looked at the snow and ice on the roads and sidewalks, at the people in winter coats and shapkas, at the buildings and at the sky I felt an overwhelming presence of grey. 

As lunch finished up our trainers arrived to take us away.  My first memory of Elder Wetzel was looking up to find his face.  I’m not sure how tall he is, but he’s got me my about half a foot.  At some point that day we dropped my stuff off at our apartment, then we took off to buy me some new winter boots.  We bought them a little large so that they would fit with thick wool socks that we would purchase later.  With my new boots on I took off literally running trying to keep up with his long stride, which was driven faster because we were late for an appointment.  I’m not sure how many miles we walked that afternoon, but it was more than I had walked in months and I did it while trying to keep up with boots that were too large.

We had two or three meetings that day.  I have no idea what was said or the names of any of the people with whom we met.  During each visit we removed our boots before entering the apartment.  In one apartment I remember breaking into a sweat as they had one or two strong place heaters on in the living room.  My layers that protected me on the cold street were not helpful in the confined space.  At each visit I did my best to smile through a fatigue induced haze compounded by my inability to understand anything that was spoken.

River Ob. I have a picture of me by this bridge my second or third day in country.

As the day ended, in the dark, because the sun went down around four in the afternoon, I was happy to be heading back to our own apartment and to go to bed.  Entering the apartment I took my first good look at it.  It was a run down affair with the bathroom right off the entrance with one main room where our beds and chairs were located and a tiny kitchen.  We were on the ground floor looking out into a courtyard with other apartment buildings.  It was in one of the famous Krushchev five story buildings.  The apartment was not particularly clean and I didn’t do much over the next couple of months to make it cleaner.

That was an exciting apartment where the landlady liked to pound on the door at all times of the day and night, drunk wondering why we were in her apartment.  Once or twice during those two months the police stopped by to check our passports and visas.

Anyway, there I was at the end of my first day in Russia trying to comprehend all the experiences of the past 30-40 hours.  As exhaustion started to overtake me, I leaned down to pull my socks off.  Pulling on the first one, it strangely felt stuck to the back of my foot.  Being the gentle, careful person I am, I yanked it hard and screamed.  I had developed a large blister on my heel because of my oversized boots without the wool socks.  The blister had popped and the blood and scab had attached to my sock.  Once I had the second one off, removed much more carefully I crawled into my new bed with the blanket stuffed into a sheet.  While I was thinking how it was one of the most comfortable beds I had ever been in I drifted off to sleep.

I remember my dream that night.  I was safely backed at the MTC, telling them I thought I ought to stay for another couple of months.  No longer was I in a hurry to get to Russia.  Then someone started to yell at me over and over again.  I’m not sure how long it took me but eventually I opened my eyes to find the good Elder Wetzel standing on his bed with the light on yelling at me and laughing.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to go home.  It was the beginning of what I thought would be a very long and uncomfortable two years.

- Jarad Van Wagoner


Derek said...

Great to read this. I haven't thought about my first day in Russia for a while. I arrived about a month before you along with President Sherwood - in Ekaterenberg rather than Novosibirsk. I just remember sleeping on an army cot since we didn't have enough beds for all the missionaries. I got some nasty sickness and laid on that thing for a couple days nearly unconscious. I remember my fever breaking finally when I felt the spirit while listening to the mormon tabernacle choir. The only worse sleeping arrangements was when my senior companion decided to switch me beds and I slept on the hardest 2 "matress" halves I've ever felt. I called the the ten commandment tablets :)

J. Sherwood said...

You Elders NEVER told us about these things! Although, at times it seemed you were not having the times of your lives!

Jarad said...

President Sherwood, I did have the time of my life. I just didn't realize that I was doing so during those first couple of weeks.

Derek, at least I didn't get sick upon arrival. I remember one elder sleeping on boxes of books for a couple of months with just a thin mattress over the top.

Next installment will be more positive and address the time of my life.

Michelle said...

Thanks for posting this! It brings back some real memories. I really enjoyed it and I'm going to make my mom and my husband and my sister read it. :)

Unknown said...

Jarad, this is a great blog topic! I remember your first day also, although from a slightly different perspective. I was somewhat sympathetic to your plight since I wasn't too far removed from that experience myself since I arrived in September. It is funny because since each of us remembers different aspects of the same day. Did I really stand on my bed? That old cot was pretty rickety and I'm surprised I didn't hurt myself!

Jarad said...

Kevyn, I think I remember you standing on your bed, but maybe it's just that I still wasn't accustomed to your height. I think you were nicer than I was to a few greenies, not that I was ever mean, just not as sympathetic. It was great to serve with you twice!

Steven said...

S. Luna - I slept on boxes of Books of Mormon under me for two to three months. It actually wasn't that bad. (Fall of '95 with Lawson, Beck, and Done all having real beds).