In a statement issued Monday July 14th, 2008 the church’s Missionary Department said:
“A recent change in Russian immigration law now requires foreigners on humanitarian visas, including missionaries, to leave Russia every three months to renew their visas.
The Church is working to find an alternative solution to the 90-day renewal requirement. Until an appropriate alternative is identified, new missionary assignments to Russia will be limited to those nationalities not needing visas.
Missionaries currently serving in Russia are not being withdrawn, and the missions are fully staffed. Missionaries needing Russian visas who had not yet left for Russia have been reassigned.”
Like all non-native missionaries serving in Russia’s eight LDS missions, Ben Wade, a returned missionary from the Russia Samara Mission, was required to leave Russia once a year to renew his visa. “We would fly to Moscow or St. Petersburg and then take a train to Tallinn, Estonia,” Wade said. “We would spend about four hours there and then go back.” The trip, which took two or three days, was required once a year for all the non-native missionaries to renew their visas. The cost of the trip was more than just monetary, as groups of missionaries were routinely pulled out of their areas.
But renewing visas has become more complicated. Effective October 4th, 2007, non-Russian citizens are required to return to their native country every 90 days to renew their visas, according to http://www.russianvisa.org/, a Web site which assists travelers in obtaining Russian visas. In addition, the law requires that for every 90 days spent in Russia, the visitor must spend 90 days outside of Russia, although this latter provision hasn't been enforced.
And it's not just missionaries who are affected. Russian language teachers at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah have also been impacted by the change. While no instructors will lose their jobs, they can't hire any additional instructors until the problem is resolved.
LDS parents have been sending their children to Russia to seek converts since 1990, when two missionaries from the church's Finland Helsinki Mission arrived in Leningrad. Later that year, the church established the first branch, or congregation, in Russia, and the government first officially recognized the church.
The church now has about 20,000 members, 121 branches and eight missions spread across the country — Moscow, Moscow South, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Rostov, Vladivostok, Samara and Novosibirsk. Click on the highlighted links to visit the respective mission's website.
But the additional expense of shuttling missionaries back and forth every three months is burdensome. "It's terribly expensive to travel to another country, wait for a visa and return," said Gary Browning, the first president of the Finland Helsinki East mission when it opened in 1990 with responsibility to begin missionary work in Russia.
Now an LDS patriarch, Browning traveled to Russia this spring. He sees an opportunity in the new situation.
"The church really is growing in its maturity," he said. "All of us would love to have the missionaries remain there. There could be a silver lining to this cloud, because this may give the members an additional incentive to play their roles more effectively, and to find relatives and neighbors and work associates who would be interested in the church."
The Church can still call missionaries from countries not requiring visas to enter Russia, or even Russians themselves, bring them to the MTC for training, then ship them to Russia, so it's not a total loss. Besides, sending North American missionaries to foreign countries where there is already an established LDS presence seems redundant. Let foreigners start "redeeming" their own kindred.
But apparently the last is easier said than done in Russia at this point. A person named Jared posted the following comment to this blog post that provides some insight:
There are nowhere near enough native Russians to supply those missions. Sadly, there probably aren’t even enough European missionaries to supply them unless they sent virtually all Europeans to Russia. Latin Americans and Africans are rarely sent there because, unfortunately, racism there is similar to what America had in the 50s and 60s. The church is definitely a world wide church, but for some reason the large majority of missionaries are still from North America, especially when you aren’t counting Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.
The native missionaries, as pure as their testimonies are, usually need a non-Russian companion to help them understand how to be a missionary and to teach them doctrine. I’ve known Russian missionaries who still think that we believe in the trinity as taught by the Orthodox church. This is simply because the vast majority of them are new to the by less than 5 years. For some, by the time they go home, they will have been an LDS missionary longer than a non-missionary member of the church. It is difficult when there are areas (which there already are) that Americans can’t serve in because then it is almost entirely Russian missionaries and like I said, their faith is pure, but their common sense about the church and how to be obedient, etc. needs reinforcement.
The reason the church did this (in my opinion… which isn’t worth much other than having recently served in the area) is because of the tremendous difficulty and expenses associated with North Americans serving there (not the cost of living, but the cost of visas and paperwork and lawyers and trips out of the country to renew visas, etc.). Within the last year major problems have developed for LDS missionaries there as a result of A - Political attitude toward the West and B - A strong effort from the Russian Orthodox Church (the primary religion in Russia that is very much involved in the government) to end the success the Church is having there. I know there have also been lots of problems with the mafia and entire missions being forced to not wear their name tags or even proselyting clothes for weeks at a time.
And here's a source of information from the "front lines" of the Russian mission. Click HERE to visit Elder Chad Dewey's blog; he's currently serving in the Yekaterinburg Mission. He seems to have a very positive attitude.