Thursday, March 27, 2014

Imperial Lessons: Russian and British Experiences

****UPDATE****** September 29, 2014********

For a quick comparison of the divergent directions of the UK and Russia in terms of their imperial past, consider the response to the desire for a referendum on independence in Scotland.  The UK allowed it and then engaged in open and peaceful debate.  In Crimea this year, Russia engaged covert forces and made use of plans that likely had been laid years before to push for an illegal referendum on independence in order to regain imperial territory (originally gained from the Tatars).  The UK was willing to give up a piece of territory without violence.  Russia utilized violence and the threat of violence in order to regain part of its empire.

An argument may be made that Russia was acting from a position of strength and the UK from a position of weakness.  That is, however, a very imperial type of argument.


Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, underwent a complex transition as a nation.  As the inheritor of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union was one of the last great empires to fall.  Other nations have been forced to deal with the loss of empires, empires that largely defined those nations—the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and others.  Each of those has gone from positions of dominance across the globe to regional powers at best.

Under the dynamic and forceful leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia is struggling with the concept of lost empire and influence.  The Russian/Soviet Empire was able to hold on for a bit longer than the others for some reason, even expanding when most were collapsing or had collapsed.   Perhaps the reason why it lasted so long, and the reason why it has been so difficult to let go, is because the empire was located in the near abroad rather than being strung out across the globe. 

Empires may be considered worth maintaining for a number of reasons.  Two of the most important are national and economic security.  Over the past few centuries, however, Russia missed out on the most important developments and lessons associated with an empire.  These developments directly impact national and economic security.

The impact of an imperial past, when comparing Russia to the Great Britain, is largely affected by geography.  Great Britain is an island nation with limited natural resources.  Development and control of natural resources for the purpose of trade and national defense was a necessity.  Since these resources could not be developed to a sufficient degree at home, they did it abroad.  The pursuit of wealth and security created the largest economic empire in the world.  Within the global and complex British Empire, capitalism and a market economy developed and eventually flourished.  As colonists and subjects enriched the empire they demanded and received greater political participation.  British political society, liberal democracy, is the result. 

Russia is a vast landmass with substantial natural resources.  It grew primarily in response to external threats.  Each piece was added to enhance national security.  While natural resources were harvested, utilized, and traded from vassal states and subjects, economic development was a secondary concern.  The command economy of the Soviet Union, while different in its focus on technological advancement as compared to that of the Russian Empire, was not an unfamiliar model to many Russians.  Economic and political power was the concentrated in the hands of a very few.  In response to internal and external threats, Russian political society was harsh and centrally controlled.  The general populace was not encouraged to participate in the economic or political system beyond the basic expectations that they work and comply with the will of the authorities.

Capitalism demanded the development of codified rules and expectations.  Law and order were essential to the participants in order to make risk taking in the development of wealth a worthwhile venture.  The command economy, combined with the strong central control, of the Russian and Soviet empires had the opposite effect.  Those in power felt free to exercise their will as they saw fit.  Rules and laws were not meant to bind the state, but to bind the subjects.

The collapse of empires, therefore, brought different results.

Many of the former colonies of the British Empire gained, along with their independence, a system of government and economics based on law and order and a market economy.  These former colonies, with some struggles, were able to move effectively into independence.  Some of Great Britain’s former colonies are now among their greatest trade partners and strong participants in the global economy—the United States, Canada, Australia, and India.  While the citizens of the United Kingdom no longer control a global empire, they do have in place a stable and secure society.

Many states and nations formerly controlled by the Russian and Soviet Empires, those who had limited history of independence, have struggled to develop stable economies and viable governments that maintain law and order.  The Central Asian states and Belarus have struggled to break free of the rule of totalitarian dictatorships.  Ukraine, despite efforts at the development of democracy and capitalism, has repeatedly elected officials who disregard law, order, and the needs of the nation in favor of enriching themselves and their families.  Economic growth remains stunted because of the lack of law and order. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians felt they made a good faith effort to embrace capitalism and democracy.  Rising and forward thinking Russian leaders implemented the tenets of the painful Washington Consensus in an effort to rip the economy out of a spiral and put it on the upward trajectory of capitalism.  The strict fiscal policies brought real fiscal pain to the average Russian people but were softened with the promise that things would get better.

Without the key ingredient of law and order, however, a successful transition to a market economy remained out of reach.  As Russia’s new political leadership, often the same Communist leaders with new political labels, took control, they used the state apparatus to enrich themselves almost beyond belief.  Market and democratic principles could not take hold in such an environment and the promises of something better fell apart drastically.  Newly wealthy and powerful leaders, instead of taking responsibility for their actions, lay the blame on the West and the decadent concept of a free market.

Vladimir Putin came to power as the people faced this second economic collapse.  He expressed the feelings of many Russians—that of sorrow at the passing of what had once been considered a great nation and state.  He desired and called for a return to stability and improvement.  By 1998 Russia was in a desperate situation as many internal institutions failed to perform their basic functions. 

Putin managed, to a noticeable measure, to bring a degree of order back to Russian government and to the economy.  Unfortunately, this change was not based on an increased role of the population.  Civil society in Russia remained largely a hoped for concept.  Central government control was reestablished.  The Russian government, however, was not completely subject to the rule of law and order.  While a form of a market economy and foreign direct investment occurred, economic growth was based on rising energy prices rather than on real economic development.

Today, with a sense of economic security and political control, Vladimir Putin is moving to reestablish Russia at least as a regional power with his eye toward perhaps something bigger.  In order to address the embarrassment of the 1990s and the encroaching threat of NATO and the EU, he has moved decisively to establish Russian willingness and capability to project its will abroad.  Central to his aims is to build a Eurasian Union, envisioned as an economic and security institution that will have considerable impact in the region.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Vladimir Putin has adopted a number of market economy principles, he has failed to learn the most important lessons of collapsed empires.  First, law and order matter.  Significant and sustained economic growth, despite cyclical ups and downs, requires the maintenance and state compliance with law and order.  Without this in Russia or a Eurasian Union, economic growth will be hampered and limited to the prevailing supply and demand of energy resources.  (With the advent of fracking technology, Russian dominance in the region may be nearing its end.)

Second, the use of overt compulsion and threats against neighbors and trade partners will not inspire confidence in potential trade partners who could help improve the Russian situation by opening new opportunities.  Such tactics will force existing trade partners to look for other sources as they become available and affordable.

Third, the invasion and annexation of a non-threatening state is unacceptable.  It sets you apart from the modern, civilized world.  Despite its problems, Georgia and Ukraine did not represent physical, imminent threats to the security of Russia or Russians.  Rather they represented opportunities to convey messages about willingness and intent.  In the case of Ukraine there was also the chance to regain a part of the empire, perhaps with the intent of gaining more.  Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine did, however, highlight Russia’s perception that the principles of liberal democracy from the West are not acceptable.

Which leads to the fourth lesson Vladimir Putin has failed to learn—liberal democracies tend to be more stable, in terms of security and economics, than states that discount and discourage the participation of its populace. 

What are the likely results of Putin’s failure to learn the important lessons of ailed empires?  Russia’s managed democracy and managed economy will fail to keep pace with the West and China.  Once again the leading world economies will prefer not to do business with Russia more than is necessary.  The lack of law and order and uncertainty generated by the control of a few will discourage investment and partnerships.  Russia’s few remaining friends and “vassal” states will have little to contribute or be incapable of contributing.  Russia increasingly will fall further behind those who they will view as threats and competitors. 

The West has not performed overly well in its relations with Russia either.  After the fall of the Soviet Union the West managed to make Russia feel like a failed state.  The eastward expansion of NATO, while understandable based on the historical predilection of Russia to move west, was not done in a way to engender trust.  Perhaps worst of all, the West has failed to understand or countenance Russia’s legitimate national security interests, assuming that Russia would simply fall in line because there was no other choice.

Responsibility for the consequences of Russia’s actions lies largely at the feet of President Putin and his associates in the government.  Without the ability or willingness to act, the Russian people are unable to control events.  The Russian people, however, seem to support President Putin in his actions and intentions.  It appears that President Putin is willing to trade the prospect of long-term economic and national security for greater political control at home.

Please see the additional posts on the Russia-Ukraine issue:
The Limits of Russian Expansion
 Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

Monday, March 24, 2014

Talks That Inspire: General Conference--October 2006

With General Conference approaching, I though I would share some remarks from the October 2006 General Conference that touched me recently.  We are truly blessed and loved to have a Heavenly Father who blesses us with counsel that pertains to our day and to our lives.

Salt Lake Temple

To each of us our Savior gives this loving invitation:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 

“Take my yoke up one you, and learn or me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

…At times we may despair that our burdens are too great.  When it seems that the tempest is raging in our lives, we may feel abandoned and cry out like the disciples in the storm, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (Mark 4:38).  At such times we should remember His reply: “Why are ye so fearful?  How is it that ye have no faith?” (v. 40)

The healing power of the Lord Jesus Christ—whether it removes our burdens or strengthens us to endure and live with them like the Apostle Paul—is available for every affliction in mortality.

…The Atonement also gives us the strength to endure “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind, because our Savior also took upon Him “the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11).  Brothers and sisters, if your faith and prayers and the power of the priesthood do not heal you from an affliction, the power of the Atonement will surely give you the strength to bear the burden.

In the lonely hours I have spent a great deal of time thinking about eternal things.  I have contemplated the comforting doctrines of eternal life.

To become worthy, we make choices that will enable us to return to our Heavnenly Father’s presence.  We do those things which will qualify us to claim all the blessings that He has in store for us.  This is the reason we are here on earth—“to see if [we] will do all things whatsoever the Lord…shall command.”  It is through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that we can resist temptation.  Our faith will enable us to shun evil.  It will be repulsive to us because “light cleaveth unto light” and “virtue loveth virtue.”

To become unspotted from the world requires not only faith but repentance and obedience.  We must live the standards and do those things which will entitle us to the constant companionship and guidance of the Holy Ghost—for the Spirit cannot dwell in unholy temples.

Thirty-eight years ago my husband and I were married in the Salt Lake Temple by President Gordon B. Hinckley.  The counsel and direction he gave us that day have become a beacon for our lives…[He] counseled us to remain worthy.  He said, “Always live in such a way that when you need the Lord’s blessings, you can call upon Him and receive them because you are worthy.”  He said: “There will come times in your life when you will need immediate blessings.  You will need to live in such a way that they will be granted—not out of mercy but because you are worthy.”

We who hold the priesthood of God cannot afford to drift.  We have work to do.  We must arise from the dust of self-indulgence and be men!  It is a wonderful aspiration for a boy to become a man—strong and capable; someone who can build and create things, run things; someone who makes a difference in the world.  It is a wonderful aspiration for those of us who are older to make the vision of true manhood a reality in our lives and be models for those who look to us for an example.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, speaking in this meeting in April 1998, gave specific counsel for young men:

“The girl you marry will take a terrible chance on you…[You] will largely determine the remainder of her life…

“Work for an education.  Get all the training that you can.  The world will largely pay you what it thinks you are worth.  Paul did not mince words when he wrote to Timothy, ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel’ (1 Tim. 5:8)

Good men sometimes make mistakes.  A man of integrity will honestly face and correct his mistakes, and that is an example we can respect.  Sometimes men try but fail.  Not all worthy objectives are realized despite one’s honest and best efforts.  True manhood is not always measured by the fruits of one’s labors by the labors themselves—by one’s striving.

Though he will make some sacrifices and deny himself some pleasures in the course of honoring his commitments, the true man leads a rewarding life.  He gives much, but receives more, and he lives content in the approval of his Heavenly Father.  The life of true manhood is the good life.

Circumstances change, but our message does not change.  We bear testimony to the world that the heavens have been opened, that God, our Eternal Father, and His Son, the risen Lord, have appeared and spoken.  We offer our solemn witness that the priesthood has been restored with the keys and authority of eternal blessings.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

Today many, particularly those in the US and in Western Europe, are struggling to come to grips with the actions of Russia relative to events in Ukraine.  It seems incomprehensible that in today’s world, more than 20 years removed from the collapse of Communism, that any democratic state would invade or attempt to manipulate political realities of another democratic state to the degree that Russia has done in Ukraine.  The audacity of one state to so blatantly defy international law and normal expectations of state behavior is unsettling. 

In 1939 Winston Churchill said the following about understanding Russia:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”

Not just for decades, but also for centuries, others have struggled to understand the rhyme and reason behind the actions of the Russian state in its various guises—the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. 

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both sought to modernize the Russian Empire by bringing it closer to the ideals of western civilization.  In their shift toward the West, Peter, Catherine and other “progressive” Russian leaders were willing to go only so far.  They held on to many of the core concepts that made Russia, well, Russia.  Technologies, fashions, and institutions may have been adopted and adapted, but the fundamental relation between the Russian state and its people remained largely unchanged, as did the way that the Russian state interacted with its neighbors.

Josef Stalin undertook the most extreme technological modernization program in the history of the world (followed soon by the Chinese).  He forced industrial and scientific development, through brute force and blatant theft, in order to bring the backward Soviet Union and its peoples up to par with the western world.  Again, the fundamental relationship between state and people remained largely unchanged.  The Soviet/Russian view of the outside world also remained largely unaltered in principle, but perhaps magnified in its intensity.  The invasion of Nazi Germany elevated the sense of the outside world as a threat.  Years of Cold War mentality and counterbalance against the West were the result of that perception--the outside world could not be trusted.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin collectively have moved the Russian economic system toward capitalism more than ever done previously.  While not perfect, these market reforms marked a distinct break with communal and Communist based economies of the past.  Despite the most recent rounds of drastic changes in the political and economic systems, the fundamental relation between the Russian state and its people remain largely unchanged.  After a brief fling with “friendly” international relations under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, there is a sharp return to a more “normal” system of Russian foreign relations under Putin.

Let’s complete the quote from Winston Churchill:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.  That key is Russian national interest.

This has been the challenge for the West—understanding Russian national interests.  What are the aims of Russian national interest?  From whence do they spring?  The key to Russian national interests is affected heavily by historical and cultural factors.  Absent a familiarity with Russian history and culture, their national interests can be difficult to comprehend.  American and European national interests do not coincide easily with those of Russia. 

So, what drives Russian national interest, domestically and internationally?  It requires a look back through the centuries.

In the 13th century Kievan Rus’ suffered the Mongol invasion.  Lasting over 100 years, the Mongol occupation changed the political and economic landscape of the Rus’.  These changes helped to shape the culture and history of the people.  Two primary issues stand out.  First, one must consider the effect of such large-scale invasion and occupation on the national psyche.  It solidified the perception of the outside world as a threat.  Second, it exposed them to the impact of oriental despotism.  The result was a confusing and complex mix of western and eastern political, economic, and religious philosophies.  These philosophies contribute to competing desires to be part of and accepted by the West while retaining eastern thoughts and practices.  Additionally, international relations came to be viewed as a zero-sum game where there are only winners and losers.

The Romanov Dynasty and the Soviet Union expanded and maintained their territory.  Access to warm water ports and the establishment of buffer states were established and regained as necessary.  Peter the Great worked tirelessly to expand against the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, Lithuania, and Poland.  Stalin sacrificed blood and treasure to expand and maintain the buffer zone further into Eastern Europe.   

Today our perception of the “New World Order” is clouded by our perception of the changes that followed from the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We envisioned a world in which Russia and the former members of the Soviet Union had abandoned their previous philosophies and joined with the West.  Francis Fukuyama, a renowned American political scientist posited the following after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin and his siloviki either didn’t read or agree with what Professor Fukuyama wrote.  The “universalization of Western liberal democracy” has not occurred in Russia (or in China).  Since the year 2000 Russia has tacked sharply back to its historical and cultural roots in terms of both international relations and state-citizen relations.  Putin feels that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geo-political disasters of the 20th century.  It is unlikely that he mourns the collapse of an ineffective economic and political system.  It is more likely that he is mourns the collapse of Russian influence and satellite states—or in simpler terms, he mourns the loss of the Russian Empire because of the national interests that are derived therefrom.

The eastward expansion of NATO is viewed as a significantly potential threat against the interests of the Russian Federation.  A former political, economic, and military adversary now stands at the door without a buffer zone in place.  Along with perception of increased risk there is a substantial decrease in Russian influence in the near abroad.  This expansion is perceived as a real threat to Russian national interests. 

This expansion has caused Russia to draw a line in the sand.  They have made a determination to stop the expansion of not just NATO but the EU as well. This line in the sand exists not just to stop the physical expansion of borders but also the expansion of unwelcome political ideology across national borders. 

So, what are the Russian national interests in Ukraine?

First, many Russians see the Ukraine and the Ukrainians as part of the same nation and state.  To lose them and any influence over them is a blow to national pride, identity, and influence.  If Russia can’t maintain strong relations and influence with their close cousins, how can they be expected to maintain or expand influence in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Baltics, or Far East Asia?  A loss is Ukraine could lead to a loss elsewhere.

The move away from the Russian sphere of influence is not in line with Russian national interests.

Second, the expansion of the EU and NATO represent real and physical threats as well as decreasing international influence.

The likelihood of closer Ukraine-EU relations is not considered to be in Russia’s national interests.

Third, the expansion of western political and economic philosophies into neighboring states, as well as into Russia itself, has the potential to disrupt political order.  A disruption in the political order of the post-Soviet dictatorships and neighboring states potentially will result in the rise of a democratic government which likely would decrease Russia’s influence.  Of even greater risk is the possibility that these ideologies would spread among the Russian populace and result in political disruption and change.

The 2004 Orange Revolution and the Maidan Revolution are seen as direct threats against Russian national interests.  Putin wants to stop the idea that such revolutions are desirable or effective.

Fourth, Russia sees a strong naval presence in the Black Sea as vital for national security.  The Russian people never saw the deeding of the Crimea, formerly considered a Russian possession, to Ukraine by Premier Khrushchev as legitimate.  The threat of losing a military presence there is seen as unacceptable.   

Fifth, Russia's place in the global market and their economic well-being at home are dependent on the export of natural resources.  Gas pipelines from Russia to Europe transit through Ukraine.  Any political unrest in Ukraine has the potential to disrupt the flow of gas to Europe.  Equally any deterioration of influence over and relations with Ukraine represent a threat to the current economic model.  Much of Russia's remaining influence in eastern and western Europe is founded on their supply of energy resources.

Map of Russian Pipelines through Ukraine

What is Russia trying to accomplish?

Putin is seeking to reestablish Russia as a major world pole by fortifying, expanding, and reestablishing their influence.  Political disruption in Ukraine has provided them both the impetus and, in their view, legitimates the opportunity to take drastic steps to reestablish their influence in Ukraine.  If Russia can bring Ukraine successfully back into their sphere of influence, it will win several other potential battles or struggles they may face in the future with other states.

Effectively, Putin is seeking to increase Russian national security by reestablishing a form of the Russian Empire or Soviet Union.  The approach, however, has changed somewhat from past iterations.  While Putin seeks to regain geographic influence and greater domestic control, he wishes to see Russia grow and expand as a meaningful player in the world economy.

How is Russia trying to accomplish their goals?

Putin effectively has regressed to using methods that are historically familiar.  Brute force and political manipulation are considered legitimate in the pursuit of national interests.  The first and basic goal of their current actions is two-fold.  First, to let the West know that there are limits the perceived encroachments that Russia will endure.  Second, they are making it clear to Ukraine that they will remain an influence and maintain significant ties and relations.

These first steps are being accomplished through the presence of Russian troops in Crimea, the massing of troops along the border, and the referendum.  It is likely that Russia effectively will annex Crimea.  The question remains whether or not that will be sufficient to achieve and maintain their national interests.  Or, will they feel compelled to push into eastern Ukraine as well.

Other posts relating to events in Ukraine and Russia:
Ukraine: The Delayed Civil War 
The Limits of Russian Expansion
Ukraine: The Prism of Russian National Interest

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Living on the Edge: Mafia and Guns in Russia

River Ob'
Russia in the mid-1990s was exciting.  Law and order among the people had broken down to perhaps the worst level since the Reds gained control over the Whites and established national control.  The new capitalists of the 90s largely were made up of two groups: former members of the state security apparatus and young people.  Of course, in many cases, the term new capitalist was synonymous with belonging to a mafia.

This wasn’t necessarily a new development, just the expansion of secret combinations into a more visible presence.  Guns, US Dollars, drugs, and foreign merchandise were the order of the day.  What was the black market was now the main market.  Crime syndicates would approach the owners of any money making venture to offer their protection in return for a cut of the earning.  Entrepreneurial success, even for the law-abiding and honest, was a dangerous proposition. 

There was a member of one of our branches who managed to make some decent money using his ingenuity.  He was wise.  He didn’t flaunt his money.  Instead of buying a new western automobile, he purchased a used Russian one that was in working order.  He didn’t make any major renovations to his apartment.  For the time that I knew him he tried to keep his money quiet.  The only times I saw any outward sign that he had money was when he purchased a new washing machine and when he paid for the use of some land for the members of the branch to plant some potatoes in the countryside.  I think he paid for the seed potatoes as well.  I hope and pray he was successful through those years at avoiding the attention of the mafia.

I remember when one gentleman wasn’t so lucky at avoiding the mafia.  We had gone to visit an investigator who was preparing to be baptized.  We had been to her apartment several times.  It was near the school where we met on Sundays in the middle of a large housing project.  On this particular day as we made our way up the stairs near the bottom level we saw some biological material splattered on the wall with a large chalk circle drawn around it.  Quickly we pushed past the scene and the smell to our destination.

Our investigator told us of how a trucker who had brought in a load of valuable merchandise had stopped in the building to stay with some friends for a day or two.  The mafia, learning of his “unprotected” wealth, stopped by the evening prior to offer their help in return for a cut.  The driver refused their offer.  Strong words and threats were exchanged.  Early that morning, as the driver attempted to leave the apartment he was accosted by one or more thugs.  They shot him in the head and fled.

During my time as a missionary I remember having two very distinct conversations with individuals who told us they were members of a mafia group.  At the time there were only a handful of stores that brought in western merchandise and food.  Occasionally, being homesick for something familiar, we would shop at these stores knowing that the mafia owned and operated them.  I’m not certain, but I’m convinced that the mafia had a role in the real estate market and was involved with most of the apartments that were available for rent. 

They knew us.  They knew where we lived, where we shopped, and what we did.  One day as my companion and I were walking along the sidewalk near the center of Novosibirsk, a man and his friend stopped us. 

“How do you like Russia?”

“We love it.”

“Good.  Good.  I know you’re here to teach people about God.”  He pulled out his crucifix to show us.  “I donate to the Church and God forgives me.”

We smiled waiting for him to continue.

“I’m with the mafia.  You know us?”

“Yes, we know who you are.”

“Good.  Good.  We want you to know that we know who you are and that your safety is important to us.”

For a brief moment I was worried that he was about to offer his “protection” in return for some type of payment.

Noticing our discomfort, he said, “No, my friends don’t worry.  We value your business and your money.  And we wouldn’t want to offend anyone of a religious nature.  If anyone causes you problems, then you tell me and we’ll take care of it.  Do you hear me?  Any type of problems and we’ll take care of it.”

He gave us his name and number, slapped us on the back and moved on.

Several months later on the left bank of the River Ob’, an older gentleman approached us. 

“Greetings.  Are you Christian missionaries from America?”

“Yes, we are.”  We took a few minutes to introduce ourselves.

“Ah, I’ve seen you around.  Listen. I am Jewish but my wife and daughter are Christian.  You may be aware that at times the Jewish people get it, if you know what I mean, from the government and other groups.  They like to blame us for their stupidity.  Well, I belong to a local Jewish mafia that works to keep us safe and exact revenge on those who harm us.  Let me know if anyone causes you problems.  We can help take care of it.  Who knows?  One day you may be able to help get my daughter to America.”

We took his contact information and moved on.  I never did get in touch with any of my new mafia contacts for help, even when my apartment was burglarized a year later in a different city.

For six months of my mission I served as a branch president in the Yugo-Zapadni (Southwestern) micro-region of Novosibirsk on the left bank of the River Ob’.  The housing development itself was around one square mile and housed upward of 20,000 people.  People, no matter the weather, were always out and about.  The crime rate was high in the neighborhood forcing us to be careful at all times.

There was a group of young boys, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years of age, which roamed the area.  They loved to share their favorite lines from American action movies, often those that involved a lot of profanity.  They would ask us to translate for them.  We would make up some funny translation into Russian and they would laugh, knowing already what they were saying.  Often they would ask us for a dollar.  I would respond with:

“I’ll give you one American Dollar for 100,000 rubles.”

They would laugh and run away. 

One day I and another elder had to go to a meeting together so we put our two junior companions together with instructions to contact people on the street.  A couple of hours later we arrived back to my apartment to find the two junior companions looking scared and near tears.

“What happened?”

“We were robbed.  They took all of our money.”

“Were you hurt or injured?”


“Who took your money?”

They looked at each other and then down at the floor, neither wanting to answer.

One of them looked up at me and said, “The children.  They all ganged up on us and made us give them our money.”

“Did they threaten you?”

“We think so, but we’re not sure.  We just couldn’t get them to leave us alone.”

I don’t remember how much money they lost to the group of the miniature mafia, but we did spend some time practicing how to be firm, authoritative and assertive in the Russian language.

Shortly after that experience that same companion and I were leaving a discussion with a young couple that lived with one of their parents.  One of the husband’s friends had joined us.  The husband and his friend walked us down the stairs and into the courtyard to wish us farewell.  Before we left our investigator asked us if we wanted some sunflower seeds for the walk home.  We quickly accepted.  He reached his hands into his pockets and gave us both a handful of seeds that we quickly deposited into our own coat pockets.

Just as I removed my hand from my pocket I heard the action on an assault rifle and the words, “Put your hands on your heads and do not move.”

All four of us quickly complied and a squad of five or six police in body armor and carrying AK-47s surrounded us.

The leader of the group asked, “What did he give you?  Did he give you drugs?”

“No, he gave me sunflower seeds.”

“Who are you?  Where are you from?”

“We’re missionaries from the United States.  We share with people about God and Jesus Christ.”

Looking at one of his officers who were standing behind me, the leader said, “Check his pockets.”

He reached in and pulled out some seeds and paper copy of our church meeting invitation that we would give out to people we met.  He dumped the seeds on the ground and looked at the paper.

“What does it say?” the leader asked.

“You are invited to attend our church meeting on Sunday morning at 10am at the school on…”

Quickly the order was given to lower the guns.  The leader proceeded to lecture us about the area being much too dangerous for foreigners.

“If I can’t keep you safe here, I’m not sure that God can either.  You should move somewhere else in the city.”

As we left I actually felt a little safer knowing they were in the neighborhood.

Despite the offers of help I received from the mafia, they were the only ones to press the business end of a pistol against the side of my head.  I think there was one pressed into my abdomen at the same time, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly. 

It was in the winter of 1996.  I was assigned to MZhK micro rayon on the right bank of the Ob’ river.  I was a new zone leader trying to figure out my new responsibilities.  On this particular night I was on splits with an elder from the UK.  It was bitterly cold and we didn’t feel like walking very far to tract.  We decided to tract in the same building where I lived.  It was a large horseshoe shaped building that likely housed 6,000-10,000 people. 

We started on the other end of the building.  As always we started on the ninth floor, making our way down.  After making it through only a few of the floors we heard multiple vehicles pull up on the snow right outside the entrance.  This was odd because at night Russians, who had vehicles, would have to park them at a parking lot or facility that was often some distance from the building. 

We ran to the window to see who it was.  Two brand new Ford SUVs had just pulled up and several men jumped out.  They ran for the door of the entryway in which we were tracting.  Immediately we knew it was the mafia or some other group that was after someone. 

I looked at the other missionary and said, “We need to get out of here now.  I’ll see if I can tie up the elevator.  You start ringing doorbells to see if we can get into someone’s apartment.  It won’t be good for us to see who they kill or what they do.”

We tried desperately to get into the elevator or an apartment as we heard them running up the stairs.  The elevator was too slow and nobody would answer his or her doors. 

As they came around the corner, somebody yelled, “Who is it?  Grab them.”

Forcefully and immediately both of us were grabbed by multiple men and pushed against the wall.  I had one gun pressed against the side of my head and one into my solar plexus.  Trying to look around I saw the other missionaries face.  I saw stark terror that I am sure mirrored my own.

One of the group started yelling at us, “Are you he?  Are you he?  Tell me now, are you he?

“No!  No!  I am not he.  I don’t know who you are looking for.”

Both guns seemed to push into me harder yet.

“Who are you?  Tell me who you are!”

“We’re missionaries!  Missionaries!  Check my coat pocket.”

He forced his hand into my pocket and pulled out an invitation to our church meetings.  As he read I wondered what he would do once he realized that we were not his targets.  Would he feel the need to get rid of us, to dispose of us in some way?  I was sure my knees were going to give out, that I would collapse.

He looked up from the invitation, “It is not he.  Let them go.”

Grabbing me by the arm he hurled me down the stairs.

“Get out of here now!  Run!”

We did.  We ran down the stares with abandon.  Clearing the door we hit the cold air and started to run across the courtyard.

One of us, I don’t remember which, pointed out that maybe we should go somewhere else to hide for awhile rather than show them where we lived.  We did.  We walked and ran for several minutes, not staying in one place and trying not to be seen.  Eventually we made our way back to the building.  The SUVs were gone.  We slipped up to the apartment.

I’ve always wondered what happened after we left.  Despite my curiosity, I never did try to find out or to associate myself with anything that happened that night.  To this day I am grateful that I had that invitation in my pocket.  It was the second time an invitation to church had rescued me.

My last day of tracting in Russia as a missionary, at the beginning of September 1996, almost ended with a bang.  My companion and I went a to a building in our area that hadn’t been tracted out previously.  We made our to the ninth floor and rang the first doorbell.  Through the two locked and bolted doors, a lady asked us what we wanted.

“We’re missionaries and we’re sharing a message about God today.  How do you feel about God?  May we share a message with you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’m interested.”

We turned ninety degrees to face the next door.  After ringing the doorbell we again were speaking with a lady through the door.  Suddenly a booming voice yelled at us through the first door.

“Who are you?  What do you want?”

I turned back to the first door while my companion tried to carry on a conversation with the person behind the second door.

“We’re missionaries.”


“We’re missionaries.”

“What do you want?”

“To speak with you about your feelings about God.”

“You want to speak about God?”


I hear a cabinet opening behind the door.  He starts to unlock the first bolt.

“God?  You want to talk about God?  I’ll help you meet God.”

Immediately I grabbed my companion by the arm and shoved him toward the stairs.

“Run! Run fast!”

We cleared the first two landings by the time the man in the first apartment got his second door open.  Looking up, I hear him pull back the action on his pistol as he leans over trying to see us. 

It was the last doorbell I ever rang as a missionary in Russia.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Living on the Edge: Tales of Danger Abroad, Part I

Plodding up the steps from Gagarin Metro Station, I tried to catch up to my companion.  It was the end of a long day of missionary work and we were just about back to our apartment.  The sun had set hours previously, one of the curses of the long Siberian winter.  Looking up through my fur shapka, I could see my companion ahead of me by a full flight of steps.  I had been in Russia for about one month.  Adjusting to the long nights, the language, the food, and walking everywhere proved to be difficult.

I couldn't find a picture of Gagarin Station.

As I began to make the extra effort to catch up, I suddenly felt a hand on my arm.  I stopped to see a lady, a pretty lady with a bit of her blonde hair sticking out of her shapka.  With darting eyes she started to speak to me rapidly in Russian.  The language was still incomprehensible. 

In my best Russian I asked, “Will you please repeat yourself?  I’m not Russian.”

Shaking her head, she muttered something else and started to walk away.  At that moment my companion made his appearance.  Looking back he had seen me struggling to converse with a possible investigator and returned to help.

He quickly picked up the conversation.  At first she shook her head as though she didn’t want to speak with us any longer.  Then she nodded and turned to walk up the stairs.  My companion followed her, turning to tell me to follow.

Unsure of what was going on, I again tried to catch up.  As I followed I saw a large man standing at the top of the stairs looking nervous.  The lady looked at him quickly and almost imperceptibly shook her head.  I don’t think my companion saw it.

We turned toward the nearest apartment building.  As we entered I realized that we were being set up for a robbery.  My companion realized it about the same time I did.  I turned toward the door ready to attack her accomplice.  The lady, suddenly seeming nervous and scared, quickly said thank you and ran up the stairs.

Looking at my companion I said, “I think we’re about to get robbed.  What did she say to you?”

“She said that she was scared of someone at the top of the stairs and asked if we could escort her to her apartment building.  But she acted very strangely, especially once I walked up.”

“We need to be careful going out that door in case someone is waiting for us.”

Carefully we made our way out the door.  Nobody was waiting for us and we made it home safely.  After discussing the situation we realized that she thought I was alone and a possible target.  Once she realized that I wasn’t a Russian and that I wasn’t alone, she no longer wanted to speak with us.  At the top of the stairs she was waving off her accomplice realizing the risk of robbing two foreigners may not be worth the gain.

It was an early lesson about being careful, especially in strange, foreign places.

Throughout my travels abroad I’ve had a number of what might be considered dangerous and frightful situations.  Here’s a quick spoiler alert: I didn’t die during any of these events, nor did I even get injured in any meaningful way.

In the hopes of providing not only some entertainment, but also some travel safety tips, I’m going to share some more of my experiences.

Russians love to celebrate the New Year.  It’s the biggest national holiday of the year.  Families and friends gather for dinner and celebrations.  The night often culminates in a walk after midnight.  My first New Year’s Eve in Russia rolled around after just two weeks in the country.  As 1994 came to a close, my companion and I wrapped up our few teaching appointments.  We rushed out to the street hoping to find a taxi to take us to a party with some members of the branch. 

Getting a taxi in Russia normally is a simple affair.  You stand next to the road and put your hand out.  Any driver of any car may decide to pull over to offer you a ride.  Sometimes they charge something and sometimes they do it just out of the goodness of their heart.  On this night, however, there were few cars on the road and the drivers who were out were rushing to their own parties.  Walking in the general direction of our party we continued to try to flag down a driver.

Just as we were about to accept the fact that we would have to walk a few miles in the cold and dark and arrive late, a Lada pulled over.  There was a driver with his friend in the front seat.  My companion quickly negotiated a fare for our destination and we climbed into the backseat.  As our driver accelerated the car on the icy road the smell of alcohol hit me.  Both our driver and his friend were quite drunk and were in a hurry to get us to our destination. 

It was my first experience riding in a car with a drunk driver.  For fifteen minutes, that felt like an hour, I was in a car with a drunk driver who was driving fast on an icy road.  As I pictured myself lying on the side of the road with my body mangled, I realized that many of the other drivers on the street likely were drunk as well.  Sitting in that car, fearing that I might end up dead or in a Russian hospital, I thought of the Lord’s promise in Doctrine & Covenants 84:88:

“And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face.  I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”

As we slid around corners and narrowly avoided hitting other cars I knew that promise was being fulfilled at that moment.  Of course, following that experience, I always tried to check for a strong scent of any alcohol before I would climb into a vehicle.  We had a wonderful party that evening with great food.  We walked back to our apartment.

Taxis have been a source excitement and adventure for me during my time overseas (and a few times in the States as well).  A few months after surviving the drunken New Year’s Eve ride, another elder and I were flagging down a taxi to get to a baptismal interview.  We were thrilled to see a black Volga pull over to speak with us.  Volgas were larger than most other vehicles on the road at the time so it was much more enjoyable to be inside them. (Not to mention that they tended to have nice radios, affording us an opportunity to listen to some music for a few minutes.)

Russian Volga

The driver quickly agreed to take us.  I got into the front seat and we took off.  The driver kept glancing over at me.  Figuring that he was just interested to see an American, I got ready to speak with him about the church. 

Before I could open my mouth he asked, “Are you from America?”


“Are you one of those Mormon missionaries?”

“Yes.  Have you heard about the Mormons?”

He reached down to the floorboard, pulled out a .45 caliber pistol, and rested it on his lap.

“Yes.  I know about the Mormons.  Our priest told us about you.  You here from America to ruin our Russian culture and Orthodox faith.”

I swallowed hard, looking from the gun to his face and back again to the gun. 

Waving the gun he said, “I ought to just shoot you now.  Why shouldn’t I just shoot you now to protect our Russian Orthodox faith?”

With that I explained what I knew about the love of Jesus Christ and his desire to help and love everyone.  I expressed my certainty that Jesus would not condone the killing of someone who simply was trying to share his message with others. 

Eventually we arrived at our destination.

“Are you going to shoot us?”

“No, I won’t shoot you today, “ he said as he tucked the gun back under the seat.

“How much do we owe you for the ride?”

“Nothing.  I enjoyed the conversation.”

After saying farewell, I and the other missionary were ecstatic to be alive still.  That, however, wasn’t the end of the story.  A week later we were in the same place trying to flag down a taxi.  The same driver pulled over. 

Looking in the window I smiled and said, “Hello.  Are you going to shoot us today?”

“No.  I won’t shoot you today.”

“Will you give a ride at no charge.”

“Yes, no charge for the ride.”

We again made it to our destination safely.  But the next time we needed a taxi, we flagged it down from a different street.  Sadly this was not my most frightening ride in a taxi.  That would come years later.