Dear Future Russian Missionary

I remember when I got my call to serve as a Mormon missionary in Russia. My literal thought was, “Seriously? I’ll go, but I’m gonna die.”

When I submitted my mission papers, of course there were places I would have liked to serve — England, Australia, SPAIN (ugh, little brothers) — but I was okay serving anywhere. I didn’t have very many friends on missions, so I didn’t have to compare whether or not I was going some place “cool.” I was okay serving anywhere — EXCEPT Russia or Asia (which, ironically …). The cultures of those places didn’t interest me and the languages seemed impossible to learn (which, ironically …).

So when I got the call, I called my twin sister Meredith (who was graduated from college and married and pregnant and WE’RE NOT REALLY TWINS) and our conversation was basically, “Russia for two years … that sucks.”

But I knew the call was from God. The Russian people needed the gospel just like everyone else on the planet, even if they had a weird culture and language.

As I prepared to enter the MTC everyone had something to say about what life as a Russian missionary would be like:

“They don’t like Americans over there.”

“You’re going to see poverty like you’ve never seen before.”

“They don’t smile over there.”

“The people are hard to crack, but they’re real nice on the inside.”

“They’re all communists over there.”

“You’re going to be in the MTC for 12 weeks?!” — it’s 9 weeks now — “That’s torture!”

“You won’t get a whole lot of baptisms over there.”

Or my favorite from a lady who captured everything she knew about Russia in one sentence: “Cold Russian wind blowing through Red Square … Stalin!”

None of this really scared or surprised me since I already figured I might die. But the only piece of useful advice I got came from brother-in-law who’d actually served his mission in Russia. He told me to go without any preconceived assumptions. I didn’t know what it would be like to live outside the US or be a missionary, so it was better to figure my new life out as it happened than to expect the best or the worst.

And he was right! There was so much on my mission I saw and experienced that I would have overlooked if I had been expecting to see something else.

For example, on the bus from the airport to the US embassy, I saw real Russians walking down the street, laughing and smiling, holding hands and talking. These weren’t the tough-to-crack, communist drones I’d heard about. They were real people who laughed and smiled just like Americans. If I had only expected to see unsmiling faces and unhappy people, I wouldn’t have noticed their smiles.

Russia was a lot safer (although still crazy) than I expected it to be. My previous notion of dying on my mission had been based more on ignorance than bravery.

And when you get down to it, everybody who told me about Russia had never actually been there (everyone except my brother-in-law). Everything they knew about Russia, they’d learned from Cold War politics (which are still alive) and James Bond movies (which are also still alive). They knew as much about Russia as you do right now.

So prepare yourself by being willing to see what very few Americans will ever see or believe: that Russians are normal people.

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Rant #1 in the series Rants About Russia.

If you have any questions about serving in Russia (what to pack, etc.), hmu on my contacts page. I’ll be posting more about it too.

Why it’s worth going to Russia.

Almost six years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, “Crap. Russia.” I didn’t want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn’t seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that had no technology, not even have cars or indoor plumbing.

When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.

No technology
First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I’d learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I’ve ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.



Unfriendly people
Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I’d heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who’d told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?

Climate
Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word “cold” before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I’d lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I’d ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.

They’d laugh and say, “You know it’s going to get colder, right?” and I’d laugh and say, “That’s not even possible, right?” But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn’t typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable.

I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn’t Russia if your nose hairs don’t freeze.

Hard language
Yeah, Russian’s hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said.

So the language is daunting, but it isn’t everything.

Uninteresting history and culture
So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They’ve existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they’ve had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.

Of course, I didn’t know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I’d seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you’ve been to Russia before and you’re wondering “What the eff???”

So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ….