As you may recall from the last installment, I was just leaving the MTC and flying out to Russia. We made one stop in New York City before landing in Moscow, trudging through customs and meeting President and Sister Romney. There was a bit of culture shock, one of the things that I remember most was how cold it was, but that all of the girls and ladies were still wearing these short skirts.
I spent two days in Moscow before taking an 8-hour overnight train ride to Smokensk, Russia near the border with Belarus. We took a Taxi from the mission office to the train station late that night and the Taxi driver gave me a taste of Moscow driving by driving up on a sidewalk and honking at the pedestrians to get them out of the way. We made it to our train with plenty of time to spare... Smolensk is an ancient city (first mentioned in 863 AD) with about 325,000 inhabitants. The city is surrounded by a very old wall that is still standing in many places. It's a very interesting mix of old and new (new being built in the last 80 years). The city was opened to missionaries in 1998 and had 16 members when I arrived, including 2 temple-endowed and 1 holder of the Melchezidek Priesthood.
My first companion was Elder Rudenko from Kiev, Ukraine. He spoke Russian and Ukrainian and was learning English (but luckily spoke quite well). We spent a lot of the first few weeks trying to get me registered with the government and looking for an apartment. When we first arrived in Smolensk, we didn't have an apartment because we were opening a new area in the city (and increasing the number of missionaries from 6 to 8). We entered the apartment on Lenin Street that we would be sharing until we found our own and the first thing I saw was a huge poster of Britney Spears on the wall. I wasn't sure where I was.
We finally found an apartment right next to the Smolensk wall but it was on the first floor of the building and it didn't have a steel door so we had to wait for the door to be installed as well as bars on the windows. Our new landlord was our first investigator. I was very excited to be unpacking my suitcases 3-weeks after I had packed them.
The first couple weeks were cold and snowy or drizzly, which I would soon become quite accustomed to. The first time that I saw the sun in Russia was 11 days after I arrived. I remember that when we would be walking somewhere early during the winter, it wasn't uncommon to see stray cats and dogs frozen stiff next to the sidewalk.
We were able to receive mail and/or packages from home about once a month when we (the entire district) would travel to Moscow for Zone Conference. I was very grateful for the opportunity to send and receive emails to my family. We also loved going to Moscow because you could often find decent American food.
Thanksgiving morning we got up at 6:00 AM and met in a turret of the Smolensk wall. We would have watched the sun come up if it hadn't been so cloudy but we took a few minutes to think about the things that we were grateful for and to have a little Thanksgiving devotional as a district. It made the Thanksgiving very spiritual.
In Smolensk our main methods of finding were by teaching English classes, street contacting and sports nights (where we rented out a High School gym each week to play games). One week I was teaching shapes to my intermediate English class and we covered squares, pentagons, sexagons, heptagons and octagons. It wasn't until a few days later that I realized that there was no such thing as a sexagon. No wonder the class was laughing so hard.
Smolensk also has a very large, beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption. We visited it one day to take some pictures and I found it interesting that baptism was 100 rubles (about $3.35), marriage was 200 rubles (about $7.70) and repentance and forgiveness for 1 year of sins was on sale for 90 rubles (about $3).