From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Now, we bring you the next story in our series exploring the transformation of Russia through one city in particular, Chelyabinsk. When Soviet rule ended in 1991, there were almost no working churches in the area and few church buildings. In Soviet times, Chelyabinsk had been a city built around its factories and a doctrine of atheism. In the '90s, the Russian Orthodox Church had to start almost from scratch, and it had to compete with a flood of foreign missionaries. NPR's Anne Garrels reports on the battle for souls in Chelyabinsk.

ANNE GARRELS: When I was first here in the early '90s, foreign missionaries could pack a public hall with hundreds of curious and anxious Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church in Chelyabinsk was not in a particularly strong position to respond. The local archbishop didn't know how to take advantage of the new freedoms. There were rifts within the church. But since I was last here, the Orthodox Church has grown and expanded.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

GARRELS: There are now about 200 Orthodox churches in this region where there had been almost none. This large church complex was recently built by a factory director who's since moved to Moscow to work with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin, a former KGB operative, now wears a cross and is a staunch supporter of the Orthodox Church, which has become the de facto official religion. At the Baptist church, 34-year-old pastor Vitaly Sobolev says the freedom of the early '90s when his church was founded is over.

Reverend VITALY SOBOLEV (Pastor, Baptist Church, Chelyabinsk): (Through Translator) The Orthodox Church thinks of itself as the Russian Church and doesn't like it when we do something publicly. They say we are Western, that we are not loyal Russians. We don't have serious problems with the local authorities, but it all depends on the bureaucrat.

GARRELS: Pastor Sobolev has an impressive building, a loyal congregation of 500, a vibrant Sunday school program, and a choir that can rock.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

GARRELS: But he's now cautious about taking his message outside the church.

Reverend SOBOLEV: (Through Translator): If we are too active, too loud, I am sure there would be problems. We understand we need to be prudent.

GARRELS: Religious groups, other than the Orthodox Church, are no longer allowed in schools.

Reverend SOBOLEV: (Through Translator) We are supposed to be allowed in prisons where we've had success, but the Orthodox Church is trying to stop us from working there too. Access to hospitals can also be a problem.

GARRELS: Sobolev doesn't protest these restrictions, lest he make the situation worse. He takes what he can get. Right now, the regional authorities find they need Sobolev and other Protestant church leaders to battle growing drug abuse. They've allowed them to open up a dozen rehab centers.

Mr. PAVEL SEMIKASHOV: (Russian spoken)

GARRELS: Twenty-eight-year-old Pavel Semikashov was a heroin addict for ten years. After successfully going through rehab, he's a new member of Sobolev's congregation.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: There have been considerable numbers of Protestants in Russia since the second half of the 18th century. Pastor Sobolev's great-grandfather died in Stalin's labor camps for his beliefs. As a Baptist, he says his church has better relations with the authorities now than some of the other newer denominations.

Reverend SOBOLEV: (Through Translator) I can't say we have a good dialogue with the Orthodox Church, but I think the Orthodox look at Baptists better than others. We are more or less normal in their eyes.

GARRELS: Polling results show that while 70 percent of Russians now identify with the Russian Orthodox Church, regular attendance remains low. Drawing on the success of competing Protestant churches, youth leader Alexander Akulov is trying to bring in more teenagers. Wearing a belted peasant shirt, with trousers stuffed into high boots, Akulov wants the next generation to find their Russian roots. He uses the derogatory term "sect" for many of the non-Orthodox churches in Chelyabinsk.

Mr. ALEXANDER AKULOV (Youth Leader, Russian Orthodox Church, Chelyabinsk): (Through Translator) Baptists, Lutherans, those who have long existed here are one thing, but we consider other religions like Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists destructive and dangerous. As for Pentecostalists, who fall about and cry, we don't think they are normal. We don't understand them.

GARRELS: The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the state-run media often broadcasts Orthodox harangues against the so-called sects, suggesting the West is using them to infiltrate Russia. In many parts of the country, local officials, the Orthodox Church, and the increasingly powerful security services have harassed the so-called sects. Chelyabinsk has pretty much left them alone, so far.

(Soundbite of people chatting)

GARRELS: It's hard, though, to find the meeting house for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There is no sign outside the commercial building where the Mormons rent a floor. Twenty-eight-year-old Elder Kevin Pulsifer is one of 10 foreign missionaries here. Like him, most are American. After hearing stories about the problems Mormons have had elsewhere in Russia, he was prepared for trouble on the streets.

Elder KEVIN PULSIFER (Mormon Missionary, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Chelyabinsk): We get that stuff like every now and then, but honestly, it's a lot better than I thought it would be.

GARRELS: He says it's worth it.

Elder PULSIFER: I have participated in a couple of situations where a person has been baptized. There was one young man who kind of just changed his life around, and that was just awesome to see. He quit smoking and drinking. And it is a great feeling.

(Soundbite of congregation singing)

GARRELS: About 200 Mormons regularly attend Sunday services and Sunday school. Twenty-one-year-old Kostya Chuvashov was one of the first converts.

Mr. KOSTYA CHUVASHOV: (Through Translator) My brother thought it was really cool to meet Americans and learn English. That's basically how it all started.

GARRELS: He's paid a price.

Mr. CHUVASHOV: (Through Translator) I had trouble at work. They threw me out. By law, they can't do it, but they find ways.

GARRELS: The Mormons have hundreds of missionaries across Russia, but they've decided to cut back on the missionary program. All foreign missionaries now have to leave the country to get their visas renewed every three months, and it's taking longer to get those visas. This costs time and money. Sergei Chuidkov, a crane operator and the head of the local Mormon church, says he will just have to adapt.

Mr. SERGEI CHUIDKOV (Crane Operator; Head, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Chelyabinsk): (Russian spoken)

GARRELS: After the initial explosion of interest in foreign religions in the 1990s, finding converts now is much more difficult. But Chuidkov says his church is strong enough now to provide its own missionaries. And he thinks given growing nationalism, it will be better if the church's message comes from Russians and not foreigners. Anne Garrels, NPR News.

NORRIS: Tomorrow, we'll visit hospitals in Chelyabinsk as Russians look for solutions to health crises.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from