In one archive, in the town of Nizhni Novgorod, east of Moscow, the Church of the Latter Day Saints has paid ten US cents for each page of thousands of names of dead people dating mainly from the late eighteenth century to be put on a microfilm.
The idea, the last-ditch attempt of a cash-strapped archive to fund urgent preservation work, has caused fury among the predominantly Orthodox nation. The Mormon Church is angry at what it sees as an obstruction to its religious practices.
Father Igor Pchelintsov, spokesman for the local Orthodox Church, said: ‘The teaching of the Mormons about the conversion of the dead contradicts reason and naturally causes concern among the faithful and creates a tense situation.’
The work in the archive has been temporarily called off while a local government commission studies it.
Nikolai Cheromin, a local official, said: ‘Their work is not prohibited. It is suspended and a group comprising officials and prosecutors from the four traditional Russian religions – Christian Orthodox, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims – are studying it.’ He said the Mormons had been present in the town for 100 years, albeit clandestinely during the Soviet era.
Viktor Kharlanmov, head of the Nizhni Novgorod regional archive, said the project was the result of an agreement between the Mormon-linked Genealogical Society of the state of Utah and the Russian Society of Historians and Archivists in Moscow. He said it was ‘vital to save an important part of our archives’. Seventy per cent of the Mormon cash goes to the Moscow society, while 30 went to the local archives.
Orthodox experts and officials have expressed their severe concern over the offence the project might cause locals. Professor Alexei Dvorkin, head of the Sectology Department of the Moscow St Tikhon Institute, said: ‘The Mormon practice of proxy baptism or ‘baptising the dead’ is a well known ritual described in a lot of books. At the beginning of this practice they were looking for their ancestors with the aim of baptising them, but later they began to baptise everyone – Catholics, Muslims, Jewish, or Orthodox.
‘Any Christian will tell you that these rituals do not harm the soul of the dead. But it hurts the feelings of the believers who see these rituals with the names of the deceased as equal to the desecration of graves by Satanists.’
But Yevgeny Smirnov, from the Nizhni Novgorod Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and adviser to the Moscow Mormon region, said: ‘Our church aims to create a database permitting people to look for their ancestors. Our ceremony is not rebaptism; it only gives the soul of the deceased person the freedom of choice to accept our belief or to reject it.’