Novikova, Olga & Laine, Heikki: A Journey to Samara. The Voice of Zion 7/2001.
W
e left St. Petersburg, Russia, by train on March 4th for Samara. After traveling for a day and a half, we arrived in Samara and were met by local believers. We heard "Smiron Boga!" [God's Peace!] from every direction. How beautiful it was to see those happy faces around us; at last our much-awaited meeting was occurring! The nervousness and tiredness of travel disappeared quickly.

From the train depot we went to Larisa and Sergei Chernishkov's home, where we were lodged for the following week. In the afternoon more people came to the house, and in the evening we had services. Russian speaker brother Yuri Serov spoke. In Samara and surrounding area there are 30 believers who gather for services every weekend in different homes and at a church. There is one local speaker, Yuri Serov, and five or six times a year the Zion of Samara gets services with Finnish ministers.

Russian Zion's Destiny

It seemed unbelievable to be at services this far into Russia. We felt the Heavenly Father's miraculous acts as if we could touch them with our hands. When our strength runs out, God arranges things on our behalf. A person can't comprehend everything, and the destiny and fortune of Russia's Zion goes beyond our comprehension. How, so deep inside Russia, could this small flock of believers be preserved throughout the Soviet era? We had many questions with which we bombarded Yuri. Late into the evening, he tirelessly told us of the Russian believers' lives. the periods of heresy, and of the contact they finally made with Fin- land's believers. We wanted to engrave each word into our minds; we even recorded part of our conversations. The stories made us both laugh and cry at the same time.

A Wonderful Visit

The Samara believers had arranged a wonderful schedule for us. We skied on the Volga River. One evening we visited a small country village for sauna. The gentle steam of the Russian sauna was a surprise even to Finns accustomed to sauna. One day we toured a Lada factory in the nearby city of Toljat. The factory's immensity dumbfounded us. Our guide reported that 250,000 employees work at the factory or in jobs directly related to it. This year the plant will manufacture 750,000 cars, all of which will be sold on the Russian market.

At the City of Samara's War Museum, we heard interesting stories about Russia's war history. To the Finns on the tour, the guide's narratives were really interesting, and the stories about past wars weren't in conflict with the Finns' understanding of the wars.

On March 8th we celebrated International Women's Day, which is really popular in Russia. We also partook of the Russian tradition and remembered the women with small gifts and

flowers. The Finnish guys sang

Finnish folk song, sa kasvoit neito kaunoinen.

IThe five days we spent in Samara flew past like one day. Each evening there were services in homes and the evenings often streched late into the night.

History of the Russian Zion

At least for now, the history of Russia 's believers has not been researched exhaustively. As oral traditions, however, stories have been passed down to new generations. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution there were about 1000 believers there. They lived in various localities across Russia-St. Petersburg, Moscow, Pskov, Samara, as well as the Lithuanian capital of Riga, which later came under Russian control. Russian and Finnish believers maintained close con- tact. The first Russian language Laestadian hymnal was published in 1901 in St. Petersburg.

Persecution

After the Revolution, the national border separated Russian believers from those of Finland. The difficult years of Soviet rule began. In 1937 and 1938, many believers were exiled to the work camps of Siberia because of their faith. A few returned home from exile, but the greater part of them died in the poor living conditions in Siberia. Matvei Gerasimovich Orlov, of St. Petersburg, returned to his home town after a 20-year exile and found God's children. The congregation was then experiencing difficult times, and Orlov immediately noticed that there was an inflamed spirit in the group. There

as a strong preacher in he congregation who gathered much power for himself. After Orlov arrived, and partially because f his instructional endeavors, the situation cleared up and the preacher, who had been spreading the false spirit, left the congregation.

During Orlov's time believers registered their association and Orlov's home served as their meeting place. These believers were called "Old Believers." Orlov was called to St. Petersburg a few times to appear before the Committee on Religious Activity for interrogation. The officials asked him difficult questions. Orlov had to answer without offending the Soviets, but still remain faithful to the HeavenJy Father. He was questioned in this way: "We are communists and we also want peace, love, and all the best for people; will we get to heaven ?"

"You will if you confess Jesus," Orlov answered.

Further they asked: "The Bible says “Thou shall not kill”. If a person is in the army, he may have to kill someone in war. What does a believer do in this instance?"  Orlov replied: "The Bible teaches us to be obedient to government, and if it commands us to kill people, the government becomes responsible."

In Samara, Feodor Ivanovich Vdov served as speaker. There were 15 believers in Samara at that time. The group was not officially registered, but the local Commit- tee on Religious Activity, had a list of the believers. The committee's inspector came to the services now and again and gave the believers permission to gather. The Russian believers were in touch with each other through letters. There was active correspondence between St. Petersburg and Samara.

Contact with Finns

The Russian believers knew that their faith had reached them from Finland, but they weren't sure if there were still believers there, because their letters went unanswered. Orlov had a dream of a men's choir singing, which he took to represent Finnish believers. Before his death, Orlov emboldened Yuri Serov to seek contact with Finns, because he wasn't up to it any longer.

Due to the breakup of the Soviet Union, hope of again meeting Finnish believers grew. Seeking them, however, was difficult, because even the foreign believers' name wasn't clear. They only knew that they sought "living faith." In June of 1990, Yuri Serov was in Moscow on a business trip. He searched a bookstore and found a book about the world's religions. From it, he recognized the name Laestadius, by which a Finnish revivalist movement got its name. The nature of the revivalist movement was familiar, so Serov focused on Laestadianism. In August of the same year, he listened

to a spiritual radio program on which a Finn was preaching. On the program they gave addresses to which listeners could write if they had any questions. Serov wrote a letter to the Finnish preacher's address and asked if there were any Laestadians in Finland. Two years later the Finns made contact with Serov. The letter sent by the SRK's Voitto Savela felt good to those in Samara, and Serov relates being warmed by Savela's words, "you dear brother, can also believe that your sins are forgiven." For the first time after the Soviet era, Russia's "old believers" met the believers of Finland near St. Petersburg in Volodarskaya in November of 1992.

Olga Novikova, Heikki Laine