By Serena Miezientseva

BYU-Idaho student Kylie Hullinger was a missionary in Russia when proselyting was outlawed in Russia. She believes the law change was God’s will.

In July 2016, Russia passed what is known as the Yarovaya Law, a set of anti-extremist laws meant to curb terrorist activity. Shortly after, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would be obedient to the new law. Since then, the LDS Church no longer sends missionaries to Russia. They now send volunteers.

Mormon volunteers in Russia no longer wear nametags. Proselyting on public property is illegal, and fines as much as $780 per person await those who preach outside permitted places, or without the proper permit, according to Deseret News.

“I think it is wonderful,” Hullinger said. “This is what the Lord has been wanting, and we haven’t been listening.”

In 1843, Joseph Smith called two missionaries to serve in Russia.

“Introduce the fullness of the Gospel to the people of that vast empire,” Joseph Smith said. “(To this) is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days, which cannot be explained at this time.”

They did not fulfill those mission calls, according to LDS.org.

Russia became Christian in 988. Although religion was stifled during the Soviet Union, many Russians now consider themselves Eastern Orthodox Christians, and twenty percent regularly attend the Orthodox church, according to A Brief History of Russia by Michael Kort.

Since the Yarovaya law passed, many religions in Russia other than mainstream Eastern Orthodoxy have faced increased difficulties in meeting, proselyting and worshipping, according to Deseret News.

“People stormed in,” said Maria, a Jehovah’s Witness who was present during a service which the Russian police interrupted, according to Life.ru. “Some of them were in uniforms … Many people started feeling sick. They were even interrogating little children. They were asking for our passport information. How did we come here? Were we being forced to come or not?”

The Supreme Court of Russia banned them from operating in the country on April 20, 2017, according to their official site.

Alexander Verkhovsky, founder of the non-governmental organization Sova, told Ria Novosti the court banned the religion from practicing because Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine asserts their faith is the only true faith, and because the religion propagated illegal extremist literature.

“Most likely, only one option remains, that is, to meet in the private homes of fellow believers,” said Yaroslav Sivulsky, a member of the governing body of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, in an interview with Portal-Credo.ru. “But that is a serious restriction of freedom.”

One Russian law defined extremism as violence infringing on public safety, even though Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for their peace, according to Anton Omelchenko, a lawyer representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Even their most critical opponents cannot deny their neutral position in political and military affairs, which cost them thousands of lives in military conflicts throughout the 20th century,” Omelchenko said in the trial.

With the court decision will come government seizure and liquidation of all Jehovah’s Witnesses church property in Russia, according to Ria Novosti.

But some recently returned Mormon missionaries see the law as an asset to the growth of the LDS Church in Russia.

“Introduce the fullness of the Gospel to the people of that vast empire,” Joseph Smith said. “(To this) is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days, which cannot be explained at this time.”

Hullinger remembered what it was like during the transition to the new law.

“Every time they called us — put your tags away, hide your area books, do this and this — I got a little more excited,” Hullinger said. “Like, ‘let’s see how the work is going to go now!’ ”

Hullinger said, in the week before the law went into effect, mission leaders encouraged missionaries to cancel preparation day and devote all free time to finding new people to teach.

“I was serving in Saratov at the time, and people didn’t want to talk to me,” Hullinger said. “But in this last week, people were actually stopping us … One night it was 8 p.m., and we were all out of books and pamphlets. We had nothing left to give out. That’s a miracle!”

After the law passed, volunteers could no longer approach people on the street, so they became more involved in their local communities.

Hullinger made sock puppets for charity, rebuilt a house which had burned down, and beautified local gardens.

Lena Wilson, another BYU-I student and volunteer in Russia during the law change, recorded a children’s book with her companion.

“It was more fun stuff, but it was also more effective because we weren’t attacking the same type of people,” Wilson said. “We weren’t having as many disagreements on the street, and people weren’t yelling at us, and the police weren’t after us.”

Hullinger spoke of one set of volunteers who regularly went to a gym instead of proselyting. A man approached them and expressed interest in the Church. He was baptized six weeks later.

“You don’t have to go up to people and be awkward about it, like a missionary is,” Hullinger said. “You just become their friend and they’ll eventually become curious about what you believe, and that’s when you introduce the gospel.”

The law forced volunteers to be more straightforward about their intentions.

“This is why we’re doing it,” Hullinger said, “We’re going to teach you about the Church, and if you want to come, come. If you don’t, don’t.”

Opposition against the LDS church still arose after the law passed, but it paled in comparison to the benefits which emerged.

“It helps people in the gospel determine if they’re really, truly committed to it,” Wilson said.

She said, it was meant to be an anti-terrorism law, but the Yarovaya Law brought better relationships between members of the Church, volunteers and investigators.

“I think it’s definitely what the Lord wants,” Hullinger said. “Elder Kacher of the Seventy came to our mission, and that’s what he told us. This is not the work of the devil. This is the work of the Lord.”