The Young Guard is the youth wing of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia Party. They've tended to exist as a less intense, less Hitler Youth-like version of Nashi, a similar Kremlin-backed, pro-Putin youth movement who intimidate people who oppose Putin’s policies, go to rallies dressed as Star Wars storm troopers to distract from anti-government protesters and, allegedly, beat up critical journalists to within an inch of their lives.
Since part of the Young Guard’s role is to prepare young people to discharge their civic duties as stooges of the Putinist junta, they need to maintain an air of respectability. Not that this has stopped them propagating Putin’s cult of personality by making a video reenacting his most famous publicity stunts with sexy young women in the role of Vlad.
However, being respectable isn’t the same as being sane. Responding to President Putin’s recent statement on the need to “confront totalitarian sects” operating in Russia, rather than looking in a mirror and repeatedly slapping themselves, the Young Guard turned up to Mormon meeting houses last week in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities and picketed them, accusing Mormons of being “foreign agents” paid by the USA to brainwash young Russians. They also claimed that many young Mormon missionaries return to America to become members of the FBI and CIA.
When I heard that a group of brainwashed idiots in thrall to a vengeful, homophobic, polyamorous God were picking on the Mormons, I felt confused and sad at how stupid the world is. So I decided to talk to Elena Nechiporova, the Russian press contact for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The Young Guard presented the Mormons missionaries with a "one way plane ticket back to Washington", complete with CIA logo.
VICE: Hi Elena, how are you?
Elena Nechiporova: I’m doing great, thanks.
Great. So you’re not lying in a pool of your own blood after the Young Guard brutalised you, or anything?
No. They just picketed our meeting houses, but nothing was happening there on that day anyway. The picket was peaceful.
I see. Why do you think they are targeting the Mormons?
That question should be addressed to the Young Guard. We've never had contact with them before this. I don't think they know anything about who we are or what we believe. We're happy to start a dialogue with them, though. We have a lot of smart and worthy young people in the church who are the same age as Young Guard members. They'd have a lot of things in common to discuss.
Do you expect it to continue?
I don’t know. Hopefully the situation will be stabilised through increased understanding of our church.
How has it affected your community?
It was sad. At the same time, the situation united our community even more. We keep these young people in our prayers.
To be honest, I didn’t even know there were any Mormons in Russia. Can you tell me a bit of the history?
The first baptism was in St. Petersburg in 1895, performed by Elder August Joel Hoglund, a native of Sweden. We couldn’t grow under the Soviet government, but the church was officially recognised by the Russian government in 1991.
How big is the Mormon church in Russia now?
In 1991, there were 750 members. Now, there are 22,000 members in more than 120 congregations across the country.
Is there any truth in the Young Guard’s claims that the Mormon Church is an American sect?
We are Christians. We follow Jesus Christ. And most members of the church in Russia are Russians.
How about the leadership?
All leaders of Russian legal and ecclesiastic entities are Russians. We have one international branch in Moscow, too, where leaders are foreigners.
And how about the Young Guard’s claim that a lot of Mormons join the CIA or FBI?
To be honest with you, I don't know. I don't have any statistics related to that topic.
How convenient. The Young Guard says that the Mormon Church in Russia gives free English lessons as a way to entice young people to the Church in order to convert them. Is that true?
Well, they’re called “English Club” meetings and they’re free of charge. No diplomas or certificates are issued. But it’s just part of the humble service of missionaries to society – we just talk about culture, sport, weather, music and that sort of thing. We don't preach during the lesson.
Do you think things would have changed it Mitt Romney – a Mormon – had been elected President?
The Church is politically neutral.
Do you think there are any aspects of Mormonism that would be useful to a US secret agent who was trying to infiltrate Russia?
I do not want to fantasise or speculate. The Church is open for everyone to study it and its mission around the world is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to teach members to serve others and to be good citizens wherever they reside.
Okay, so I don't want to jump to any conclusions here, but did you notice she didn’t actually deny being a front for US state-sponsored espionage at any point? Yeah, I know. Still, it’s inconclusive and I'm no further in figuring out whether an openly evangelical Church originating in America would be a completely brilliant Trojan horse for state-sponsored pro-American agents in Russia, or a very, very stupid one.
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