Yekaterina Steniakina is one of Russia’s young politicians, the leader of the influential pro-Kremlin movement called the Youth Guards. She has dyed blonde hair and a forceful voice, and she’s determined to change many things about the present state of her country—starting with the Mormons.
Steniakina is leading the charge to change Russia’s legislation and ban Mormon missionaries from the nation. Though the number of Mormons living inside the country is small—around 400 foreign missionaries and 21,000 registered members at last count—they are a relatively visible presence in Russia’s larger cities. The missionaries hand out the Book of Mormon to those who might be interested, give free English lessons, and spend three hours a day cleaning public places or helping people around their homes.
Steniakina, who says the Latter-day Saints are a “totalitarian cult” sent by the FBI and the CIA “to fool and covert” unwitting Russians, is making her anti-Mormon campaign her top priority for the next political season. Specifically, she’s agitating to add language that would ban “the West [from converting] our citizens into non-traditional religions”—i.e. anything other than Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. She already has a seat in Moscow’s city hall, and she is certain Russia’s president Vladimir Putin will back her push, if it makes it all the way to the Duma.
It may not be such a hard sell. This past fall, Putin called on police to monitor “totalitarian sects” supposedly threatening Russia’s internal security. At a meeting at his Novo-Ogarevo residence last October, he also hinted that religious groups might have less-than-holy motives for attracting members. “This is not just a hunt for souls,” he intoned. “This is a hunt for people’s property.”
Putin’s words set off a brief spate of right-wing hate demonstrations against Mormon missionaries. Three days after Putin’s speech, the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party sent hecklers to parade in the streets with placards proclaiming “Mormons, goodbye!” and “CIA hacks!” (The church complained to Russian prosecutors that the Youth Guards were violating freedom-of-religion laws, but a spokesman said the investigation has gone nowhere.) Steniakina has also been known to tote around a large mock-up of an airline ticket—one way from Moscow to Washington—outside the church’s headquarters in the capital.
Steniakina’s campaign is the first official attack on Mormons in the church’s entire two-decade-long presence in Russia. Once, in the late 1990s, the church’s followers were accused of being spies in some regional papers, but the furor quickly died down. Moscow’s Latter-day Saints (LDS) leaders say they’re not particularly surprised by the protests—there are plenty of vocal critics back home in America, even in the LDS stronghold of Salt Lake City. They tend to see the backlash as part of a growing anti-American sentiment in Russia. “I think this is part of the general attack on American-funded NGOs—we became victims of an anti-foreign-agent campaign,” says Andrei Filimonov, the church’s spokesman in Russia.
For her part, Steniakina insists, “they do not deny their money is from the CIA or the FBI. Who else are they but foreign agents?” (“Of course we are neither agents nor spies,” says Filimonov. “We never speak to people about politics, our religion forbids that.”) In Steniakina’s zeal to oust the Mormons, she said she spent “a long time” studying the history of the LDS in Russia, and that she even sent one of her young colleagues to scout out the church’s center in Moscow. She also consulted with an official at the Russian Orthodox Church—Alexander Dvorkin, who is responsible for “anti-cult activity”—and says he confirmed to her that the Mormons were indeed a threat. (On his website and in a recent book, Dvorkin has called the Mormon church a “totalitarian sect” but says that “only a court can decide to disband it.”
LDS officials seem resigned to the fact that they’re viewed with suspicion in Russia. “We offer our help to kindergartens or schools, but their directors say, ‘No, thank you, we do not need any help from a sect,’” Filimonov says. He added that it’s been an uphill battle winning new members in Russia, and said that the lack of credible information about the LDS mission was to blame for the church’s stagnant membership figures in Russia over the past decade. Russian newspapers, he said, would only publish announcements of church meetings in exchange for money, which is not a practice the church engages in.
Rumors about the church are relatively common. Steniakina repeats many of them, including the charge that the LDS has been inflating its membership numbers. “We heard that, in the 1990s, Mormons paid for access to the names of deceased people and baptized some of them—so maybe most of their 21,000 activists are actually dead souls,” she says. A member of the church’s administration in Moscow, Marina Kharlamova, clarified the practice: “Indeed, I can baptize members of my deceased family to unite my family, so all members are together,” she says. “But we also believe that, for instance, my deceased grandmother, who is in heaven, has the right to decide whether she wants or does not want to join our church.”
Steniakina says that, if her proposed legislation succeeds, she does not know where believers would go once she kicks the “American sect” of out Russia. But that’s really not her problem. “It is time,” she says, “for American Mormons to pack up their bags and leave.”