On June 10, 1990, Galina Goncharova became the first member of the Church to be baptized in Moscow, in what was then the Soviet Union. In this interview she describes her journey to the Church, the ravages of alcoholism on her family, and how the gospel has helped her to forgive and given her power to change her relationships with others.
How was it for you to be the first person to be baptized into the Church in Moscow? Were you nervous or scared to join a church that was new to you, and that came from outside the Soviet Union?
I’ve contemplated this a lot. I had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, and there my friend gave me the Book of Mormon. I trusted him when I listened to him. I watched him, listened to his story, his description of his relationship with God. I felt the Spirit the very first time I took the Book of Mormon into my hands. At the AA group meeting he had asked, “Could you stay behind? I want to talk to you about something.” I heard what he had to say, how he felt God, how he would sometimes be close to God, and then sometimes distance himself from God, and how he sometimes was angry with God. I thought, “How can he feel the love of God? Interesting!”
My belief in God had generally been based on two ideas. First, I thought that God exists. My mother had sometimes said, “There is a God, and He sees everything, He knows everything, and He will give.” When I was a little girl I would lie down in the evening with my sisters to sleep. We would play and argue, and there was no way we were going to sleep. She would say, “Girls! Don’t you dare! Don’t play around at night! God will punish you!” So secondly, I knew that God will punish; and also that He protects in some way, but this protection for me seemed faraway.
I began to read 1 Nephi. I was reading the first chapter and came to a verse (Nephi 1:14) “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” At this moment I really needed God, that God which was living inside me, but who I didn’t know or understand. I immediately felt the Spirit so strongly, and it was a spirit of love. I cried and cried a long time. I sobbed and then I read it again. From that very moment I memorized this verse. The notion that God would not let me perish because he is merciful filled every cell of my body. He loves so much that He wouldn’t allow me to perish, or anyone to perish. And probably thanks to this, the fear left. He created in me courage I needed in important moments in my life. I had courage when my friend suggested that I go Sunday to the meeting on Leninsky Prospekt.
Could you describe that first church meeting in Moscow? How many people were there? What was it like?
It was the end of 1989. We had come to the place and there was a policeman standing there. He told me that yes, this was the building. There were six of us at the meeting in an American diplomat’s apartment. I felt such a responsibility. But there wasn’t any fear that would have normally gripped me, or a suspicion that this was some kind of dangerous cult, or the thought that I was doing something bad. No fear that I would be detained. I think obviously it was the Holy Spirit. I am really grateful to my friend because he conveyed to me that he really loved the Church. What he did for me, it’s simply a miracle. He passed on his spark of faith; he believed in God, he believed in Jesus Christ, he loved them.
Every Sunday I saw the policeman that stood guard. At subsequent Sunday meetings, I saw that there was a lesson, there was the sacrament. I went to other churches with my friend from work. I noticed many little differences — the subtleties. It’s the small things you judge, and I didn’t feel comfortable in other churches for various reasons. This confirmed to me that I was where God wanted me to be.
Tell me about your baptismal day.
I wore my own wedding dress: white crepe, silvery like a snowflake, with a flower. There was no baptismal dress in Russia. At that time we didn’t yet rent swimming pools or a public bath. So we waited for June. That June, spring came cold and late. I knew a place with a pond we had gone to with the children near where my husband, Sasha, was born. My husband had promised to go with me. He had been sober for six months. My sons and I found joy in this miracle, but it didn’t last. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday he was drunk. I didn’t know the way to the pond well. I cried and prayed. My son Sasha said to me, “Mama, I will go with you. Don’t worry. I know very well how to get there. Everything will be fine.” He was fifteen at the time.
We left the house at 5:40 am to make the first train out of Moscow. It had rained all week and was still raining. When we came to the pond there was a fisherman who sat on one of the banks, but no one else. We began to walk along the shore to look for a place to change our clothes in the bushes. When we came out onto the banks to pray, we looked up to see the clearest blue sky appear. It was such a miracle. What person can do that? We prayed and then went into the water. It was the first time for all of us. It was all so new. He told me how to hold my nose, how to hold my hands. When he let me down into the water, and when he brought me up, the sun shone down upon me and there was such happiness. It was the sensation that something was born again inside of me. And we left smiling. When we arrived at Leninsky Prospekt for sacrament meeting afterwards, it was raining again. Is this not God? And I am His loving daughter. This is a miracle. This is the truth.
On the one hand I understand the gospel. To me it is truly a simple plan. It is only complicated when people are complicated. I was a difficult person. I had a complicated attitude toward life. I exaggerated much. I took a lot upon myself, a lot of which no one gave to me do. I had the impression that I must suffer, that I must endure, be tormented. But it turns out it’s not necessary! To learn to live with unsolved problems, this is the example of God. We have the hymn “And God No Longer Suffers.” He suffered. He fulfilled all, everything. And now He lives wonderfully, He is joyful—and He allows us to live with this freedom. On one hand He says, “Do you want to be happy? Then please, take this road, and you will come to joy. If you take the other road, then it is your own, and no one knows where it will lead. But I am not there.” That is how I understand the nature of God.
What was life like for you in the Church after your baptism?
In the beginning it was not easy. It was very difficult. I wanted everything to happen quickly, to do everything quickly—so that I could immediately be good and righteous. But the most unpleasant thing was that I wanted everyone around me to quickly become so pure, sincere, devoted.
I remember how during an interview with the first mission president I said, “Oh! President! I just can’t do it! I can’t watch these people, I can’t listen to them! They are so selfish. Oh! It is so terrible. I just can’t do it!” I am so grateful to President Browning. He was so wise and patient with me. My pride betrayed me, this judgment of other people. I thought I was obligated to speak up or we would be left with only selfish people in the Church. He so wisely said, “Sister Galina, It’s so wonderful that these people have the opportunity (he didn’t accuse them, didn’t defend them) to come to God, that they have come to the true church. It’s here that God gives them the opportunity to become cleansed from everything—this will be their work, and of course God’s work. All we have to do is be there with them.” But he also said “And we too must learn.”
I also judged the Russian Orthodox Church the same way I judged members of the LDS Church. I still very much respect the Orthodox Church, which really does have so many good and sincere faithful people. I no longer feel this struggle with them. I no longer feel this competition between who’s better, who’s worse. Truth does not contend, rather it simply lives its own life.
How did you find and become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous?
I was in terrible despair. I had put my husband in the hospital. I had tried going to different folk healers. He had already spent a year in prison. Our sons were growing up, they were fourteen and twelve. I tried going again to the substance abuse counselor and asked, “What do I do now?” I wanted to speak to a doctor, but the head doctor of the clinic had just died and his funeral was that very night. I later learned he was also an alcoholic. Even the doctors who worked with the alcoholics were alcoholics.
Two years earlier the leaders of the Ministry of Health had traveled to America to do something about alcoholism in Russia. They became familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous programs and our doctors and psychologists began to lead AA programs in one of the hospitals. In 1988 there were about fifteen alcoholics who had agreed to meet as the first group. One of them had been sober for six months, and he understood that if he would take this information further, these ideas, it would help. He went to the clinic in his area, where I also lived, and asked if he could post announcements. I read one of those announcements. I immediately ran there. They met me and said, “We understand you. It is difficult. We have been there. Please, come.” I gave Sasha the announcement and a booklet. If he wanted, it was there. We went together Saturday and Monday—I was allowed to go with him so he would go.
In the beginning Sasha also liked the idea of AA. Just as we say about the gospel, many people like it, many people want the results of the gospel—the joy, the happiness, the freedom, the sincerity, and even communion with God as if by telephone. But we also have to do our part—just like in AA. The way the program works doesn’t require or force alcoholics to do anything. They simply say Look at my life. That is why I believed. They told about their own lives, and that had been my life, exactly like mine. I am so grateful for those twelve simple steps. They are definitely like the plan of God. It is very simple.
Alcoholism is a constant battle within one’s self. An alcoholic struggles within himself. When the light is lost then the battle begins. I also struggled with my husband’s alcoholism. I thought, “How is this possible? He loved me, and I loved him-we truly loved one another. How is it possible that love can’t conquer this?” Even love cannot conquer alcoholism. When there is alcoholism there is always injustice—it isn’t fair. Alcohol deceives the alcoholic. It promises joy and freedom, promises to solve his problems. But it is a lie, fulfilled only in his mind.
Since that first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you have participated in the founding of many AA groups in and around Moscow. Do you still attend AA meetings?
Yes, I absolutely continue to attend twice a week. In the first place, I need to. Alcoholics Anonymous has been working for 76 years and in more than 150 countries. In Russia, even in some faraway corners and small villages there are AA groups established. When I came these people were there for me, and now I want to be there for them. If it wasn’t for them, where would I be now?
How did alcoholism affect you and your family and your relationship with family members?
On the one hand, I considered myself completely worthless. On the other hand, I had a lot of power. In families of alcoholics, if the husband is calm and quiet, then the wife is the head of the household. She controls everything and plans everything. And that’s how it was with me. I upgraded our apartment, I arranged for the children to go to summer camps, and so on. And even though my husband was highly educated—he was a wonderful doctor, a wonderful person— I was the one who got him hired at two or three different jobs. I did it all. I elevated myself above him; there was nothing good about it. It’s never good when one family member elevates herself above another. We say that the husband is the patriarch of the family, but that doesn’t mean he exalts himself above his wife. It is so incredibly important to know and understand this, for both the husband and the wife. It is not God’s plan to force another person to be someone. It doesn’t help to try to force people. You can’t rule over them.
Once, my husband took the children on the train to visit his father. He and his father got so drunk they couldn’t find their way back to the train. The children came home terrified! It was after midnight. I understand now that he didn’t do this to me or to them, but at the time I was in such a rage! I wanted to kill him! I was furious! They were crying, it was winter, I was running around, I didn’t know where they were. There were no telephones. Where was he? And where were the children? There was no note, nothing. It was madness, insane actions that caused terrible harm. I blamed myself; it’s really difficult to live with that kind of guilt. When I felt malice I felt despair. I had a husband, but I was always alone. I understand now that while I was suffering he was also suffering from my actions. We were in such a state that we couldn’t be together.
Alcohol not only destroys the lives of people who drink. I quickly learned it had an absolutely destructive effect on me and so I quit. I felt that I was becoming a completely different person. But there is always a danger. This kind of dependency might be emotional. The family I grew up in wasn’t healthy either; my father and mother also had problems with alcohol. For relatives of alcoholics, codependence is also an illness–a deep melancholy that arises inside. I am only where I am today because of the pain I experienced. It’s a blessing from God that I found Alcoholics Anonymous as well as the Church on my path. Now I remain involved with both.
How did you reconcile the problems within your family and in your marriage?
I counseled with a Church leader and asked what to do. He said that perhaps a physical separation would lead to a resolution. The separation did help. I calmed down emotionally, I began to feel safe. Sasha never hit me, but I was afraid that he would steal our money. I worked. He hadn’t had steady work for several years; he would leave at night and return again at night. I was afraid of who he would bring home with him. This tension did not allow for the kind of freedom and the love we once had. I am grateful to God for helping me when I had to tell my husband, “I don’t know where you will be. There’s the hospital, there’s the AA group, friends, the Church, a lot of help, but I don’t know how to help you.” I tried to save him. But I myself was dying.
Because of the decision to separate, I developed warmth, charity, and compassion, and I came to better understand him. I told him he could return if he didn’t drink for six months, but by that time he no longer wanted to return. It was more comfortable for him with his illness to be with his mother. But he and I still stayed close.
How were you able to find peace and forgiveness?
Forgiveness, as I now understand, doesn’t mean that I forget. Forgiveness is freedom from the pain I’ve lived through. Most importantly AA helped me understand that I suffered. He suffered. Those who are now alcoholics suffer. Alcoholism is a disease. Sasha didn’t plan to become an alcoholic. There had been love between us, but it dissolved in a pool of alcohol. I had tried everything, to endure it all personally. But it didn’t amount to anything. Before his death forgiveness did come. Little by little God helped me. I came to understand, to sense that if I continued to blame him, then I wouldn’t be working on myself—nothing good could come of it.
My mother-in-law is also a member of the Church. I know that she loved her son very much. It was very difficult for her, especially because he lived with her the two-and-a-half years prior to his death. More than ten years ago everything was painful for me. She supported her son and blamed me. She believed I was at fault. She said he hadn’t been an alcoholic with her, but became an alcoholic at home with me. There were misunderstandings on her part and on mine. There was a time when I blamed her too, just like she blamed me. I blamed his father for drinking with him. There were times when we all behaved like children. That’s all going away now, leaving a deeper place inside me for more love and understanding.
Miraculously, for the past ten years I’ve had a wonderful relationship with my mother-in-law. She came to understand Sasha’s alcoholism was an illness, that I wasn’t the reason he drank. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, as she had accused. I’ve forgiven her. It’s all forgiven. Now my relationship toward her is sincere. She is ninety-six. Once or twice a week I go to her house, prepare her meals, wash her floors. We read and we pray together, tell each other things. God does not force me to forgive at gunpoint. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness is when gradually I understand.
With the help of the AA program together with repentance in the Church, with these two inseparable parts, I am somehow whole.
The repentance process is continual, thank goodness. I need to repent of the mistakes I make, some of which might be very serious, but it is a great privilege. I wish I could take a pill, drink some water and wake up humble, patient, loving and kind. But that is not God’s plan. The most important thing in AA is to be honest with yourself. In the gospel, too, you have to be honest with yourself. The gospel also helps me be honest with others and before God. If I feel that something is not right, then I can change it. If I feel something is amiss in my life, then I can change. Not just change in the sense that I can drink coffee one day and the next day not drink coffee. Not that today I engage in dubious activities and tomorrow look upon the cross. That kind of repentance is, of course, important, but beyond that, I can change the way I relate to another person. The first commandments are to love God and your neighbor. God is not here among us, our neighbor is. I think that this is the opportunity to change.
I was afraid of all my weaknesses, my sins, my imperfection, and therefore, I was afraid of others, people who displayed weakness; when one looks on from the sidelines, others’ weaknesses are always so much more apparent. But little by little there was more friendship, more trust, and more openness. In this soil, love blossoms ever wider and wider. This is my life and I have a place. I have people around me who know me and understand me, and I have a personal relationship with God.
You’re a psychologist professionally. Do you enjoy your work? How does being a member affect your relationship with your colleagues?
Very much. It’s a big part of my spiritual growth. My colleagues know that I am a member of the church and they very much respect my religion. I talk with them about the gospel in simple terms. They like the principles, and even more that I live these principles, not just that talk about them. They don’t suggest I work on Sunday. They don’t swear in my presence, they walk away from me when they smoke. I try not to participate in gossip and bad jokes. I’m responsible and can be relied upon. I don’t elevate myself above others.
It’s amazing what kind of work God is doing inside of me. There’s never a guarantee against mistakes; we should notice errors and ask “How can I do better the next time?” I think mistakes are part of our growth. Without mistakes it is impossible to know what is better—how to do better, become better. In the Church I continue to learn much, to humbly step back from my controlling nature. How wonderful it is to love God and know that although He is far away, there is something godly in each of us.
At A Glance
Galina Ivanovna Goncharova
Location: Moscow, Russia
Marital status: widow
Children: Two sons, 36 and 34
Convert? June 10, 1990
Schools Attended: Srednaya Technological
Languages Spoken at Home: Russian
Favorite Hymn: “Love At Home”
Interview produced and translated by Marintha Miles. Portrait by Marintha Miles.