As the 19-year-old daughter of a Communist leader, Rostya defected from Czechoslovakia in 1969 after the country was invaded. Although raised atheist, a powerful conversion experience while living in Brazil has led Rostya to a lifetime of dedicated service to the church abroad, culminating now in her position as Director of National Director for Public Affairs for Czech Republic. From Prague, Rostya vibrantly describes her life of faith and revolution.
You left Czechoslovakia in 1969 after it was invaded by the Russians. How did you manage to defect?
I was born in a mountainous region of Czech Republic… and my father was a colonel in the air force. He was in the Communist Party. He always wanted to fly and the Communists gave him a way to live his dream. In 1968 when I was yelling at him and telling him he was the cause of the turmoil in my country, he said he would have sold his soul to the devil to fly and that’s exactly what he did.
My parents were very in to each other and my sisters and I were sort of accidents of their love. My father was tough on us. My name is a boy’s name. He wanted a son and he treated me like a son. He was a ski jumper and a very daring man, so I did skiing and gymnastics and figure skating.
I was basically raised by my grandmother and grandfather cause my parents traveled so much. Because of my grandmother, I am who I am. They had a factory that they lost to the Communists and then their only daughter married a Communist… That is a story that runs right through the Czech society. I had a very happy childhood: everything was paid for by the state, all my sports, my textbooks, everything. We had a cabin in the forest where we spent two months every summer mushrooming. I go mushroom hunting to this day because I love it so much.
But in 1968, the Russians invaded the Czech Republic and I was right in the middle of it. It was like a curtain opened and I saw a different world. Up until that point I had been sheltered because my father was such a big deal that I did not have to comply. No one questioned my loyalty. But when the Russians invaded I was 19, and I had to make a decision to join the Communist Youth or not. I realized that I couldn’t live there anymore.
What did you see behind that curtain that convinced you that you couldn’t live there anymore?
All of a sudden we could listen to the BBC or the Voice of America. We suddenly had access to correct history. I didn’t feel betrayed, really, but I just realized I didn’t want to live in that society. I said, “I’m not a child anymore. I will have to join the Party or become a dissident.” I wasn’t brave enough to be a dissident.
It was August 21, 1968 when we were invaded. I was going to go camping with some friends, but the phone rang and my friend was yelling, “The Russians invaded us! The Russians invaded us!” I rushed to the window and these tanks with the red star were rolling down the street with Russians behind machine guns pointing in the windows.
When you live in Central Europe you’re raised with the War because it is everywhere. I had friends whose parents survived concentration camps and had tattooed numbers on their bodies… You live it there, because it was there not long before. I always thought if a war came I would just go kill myself because I couldn’t be a hero. I couldn’t take it. I lived with these horrors from my youth; heard them from the mouths of the victims. It was an extraordinary thing though because I found myself doing the opposite: I found myself saying, “I’m going to stay and fight for my country.”
My college friends and I ran into the streets and started tearing down the street signs so the Russians couldn’t navigate around the city. Because we speak Russian, we staged a demonstration. There are several bridges over the river in Prague and we sat on one of the bridges. The tanks came and lined up opposite us and they raised their guns and aimed and they shot above us. Then we talked to the soldiers in Russian. Some of them didn’t even know where they were – they were young, some only 16 – and they thought they were in Germany so they were surprised we spoke Russian. We said, “What would your mother say to see you doing this?” And we would give them cakes and cookies. We basically talked them down. They were so demoralized they had to change the whole army division in Prague.
I took photographs of the invasion in Wenceslas Square and I handed them out to foreigners so the message could get out about what was happening to us. Because I did that I was taken to a police station and beaten, but then they found out who my father was and they let me go.
My father was put in prison and my mother left us all and emigrated to Vienna. I was left with my two younger sisters in Prague. I was 19, and my younger sisters were 18 and 11. I had no money. I hitchhiked to my grandmother’s house and stayed there until my father got out of prison. That was when I told my father I had to leave.
My father got me a passport through a friend in the Ministry of the Interior. But I still needed a visa. One of my friends, a boy from school, was Jewish and living abroad at the time of the invasion. He arranged for me to work as a nanny for a family in London. To get a visa, you had to have a letter saying a sponsor would pay for you and take care of you, and this family wrote that letter.
My father saw me off at the airport and he said, “I know that you are the only one of my children who will make it.” And those were his last words to me. I never saw him again.
I left on January 3, 1969. I felt like I was free. To celebrate, I bought myself a packet of cigarettes on the plane. This is 1969. This is the height of long hair and short skirts. My grandmother had told me in England the women were very elegant and so she made me a dress of brown and white checks, wool, with a white Peter Pan color and white cuffs to my wrists. We had no pantyhose, we had instead stockings, which were shaped like the leg and had seams in the back and were held up with garters. I must have looked a sight arriving in London in 1969!
When I arrived in the airport, the family that was sponsoring me was not there. I had made friends with a college boy on the airplane and he helped me call them. Even making a call on a public phone was new for me. It was a Friday evening around 7pm, and they said, “We have a houseful of company, tell her to come on Monday.” They had no idea what I had just gone through. I thought I would just live at the airport for three days, but the boy invited me to stay with some friends of his. Those college boys thought they got a pretty good deal with a Czech chick landing on their doorstep!
Life with those boys was a party. People were making out on the stairs and everywhere else. All these British college students wanted to know about the invasion so I was an instant celebrity. There were three boys I lived with: one was a Welshman called Dai, one was an Englishman named Nigel, and the last was an Irishman named Jim. Three characters! Jim studied Russian so I was speaking to them in Russian. 1968 was a big student movement throughout Europe, and at home in Prague we had been led to believe that the students were beaten and oppressed and poor because that’s the way capitalist countries worked. I was sitting on the floor one night with the boys, I remember, telling about ourselves and I realized, The communists were right. These poor university students were so poor they had to roll their own cigarettes! And they had to share them! I thought, “Well, look at me! I’m from a communist country but at least I have my own cigarettes. You poor things, you have to roll your own.” It took me a while to figure out what they were rolling was not the same thing I was offering!
These three boys decided to take me under their wing, even though I did move into the family’s house to nanny. One taught me how to drive a car, one taught me the rules of rugby and the last taught me how to drink Guinness. A perfect education. Life skills!
They took me shopping so I didn’t have to wear my wool dress anymore. We bought a miniskirt – which I still have to this day – tight sweater and boots, and we went to the hairdresser and then to tea. I had a feeling they wanted to talk to me about something, so as we were having our tea Jim said, “Rostya, is it against your religion to shave your legs?” I said, “I have no religion. I’m an atheist. Why should I shave my legs?” He said, “Look around you. You can’t wear a miniskirt and not shave your legs.” So we went back to the apartment and they gave me their razor. There was blood everywhere!
After about two weeks of working for the family as a housekeeper and nanny, I realized I couldn’t do that for long. That wasn’t the career I wanted. I was always a bit lazy at school; things came easy to me and I played truant. And so suddenly I realized without education I couldn’t get anywhere. I worked very hard. Took my English lessons, went to school, did my Cambridge Proficiency Exams and was accepted to London University. It took me a year and a half after I arrived to enroll in university.
They waved the fees for school for Czech immigrants because they felt guilt about giving our country away to Hitler in 1939, but we had to prove capable of supporting ourselves. I told them my mother lived in Vienna – which was true – and she would support me – which was not true. I had very little contact with her after she left. My father had to publicly disown me. I was tried and sentenced in my absence for two years in a rehabilitation camp if I ever returned. But the British immediately gave me asylum because they knew I was in danger because of who my father was, so thankfully I never had to fear being turned in. I was a really small fry anyway; the Czech government had bigger problems than me. The British gave me a work permit, a student permit, and asylum.
In the mornings, I used to go to a train station and sell newspapers in a booth and running along the train. In the evenings, after classes, I worked in a bar in a hotel shaking cocktails. I met my husband about two weeks into college at a party in a cellar. He comes from an upper class family. His father had been the military attaché to the Prague embassy, so he spoke Czech. I met Simon and we had a date and then he took me to his parents’ house for the weekend where there was a big party. As we were driving back into London, we stopped in front of Big Ben and he asked me to marry him. Our second date! And I said no. And it took two years until I finally agreed.
When we got married, we got a little house in Dorset and he went off on his first engineering job to Scotland and I started my graduate work. I got my teaching diploma. He was building bridges in Scotland, gone for long periods of time. He came home every 5 weeks for about four days. That was the shape of our marriage. Then he came back one day and said, “How do you feel about going to Brazil?” I reached for the suitcase and said, “How fast?”
We went to Brazil. I had a network of Czech friends in England, and my husband joked that once we went to Brazil he wouldn’t be hearing Czech for a long time. We belonged to a sports club in Brazil, and I was sitting there sunbathing and a group of American women there were very friendly and came up to me and introduced themselves. One of the women, Zaza, said, “Gordon-Smith is English. But Rostya sounds Czech.” And she started speaking Czech to me! Her family had left Czechoslovakia in about 1947 when she was a little girl, she had moved to America, married, and she was a Mormon.
I invited her to my house and we were chatting away in Czech. My husband thought, “Those darn Czechs, they are everywhere!” She invited us to her house for dinner about three days later and it was the weirdest thing cause she called our house and invited us to dinner but then she said, “Bring a salad.” I put the phone down and I said to my husband, “The strangest thing just happened. We were invited to dinner and they asked us to bring food.” This was unheard of in Europe! So we went to dinner and there were these two young men in short sleeved white shirts with little black nametags… I found them rather uninteresting at dinner and just ignored them.
Zaza, this Mormon friend, introduced me around to her friends and we started playing tennis with them. But none of them would show up on Sundays. We thought that was the oddest thing. We said, “Where were you?” And they were all at church. I said, “Well, fine go to church. Get it over and done with and then come play tennis with us.” And they said, “We go to church the whole day!”
You were raised atheist. Was there anything in your youth that suggested you were looking for the truth or for some spiritual meaning?
My grandmother wasn’t very religious, nevertheless, I remember every time I went out or had a test she’d make a cross on my forehead. I remember once she decided I should go and have some religious instructions, but it had to be all underground. So she signed me up for a Catholic Catechism class, but I was thrown out cause I drew a mustache on the Virgin Mary’s picture. That was the end of my religious education.
Zaza and her husband Don were fellowshipping us, and I said to my husband, “We need to be really careful cause they are Mormons and they’re the people who do exorcisms and roll on the floor when they pray.” I had no idea. Then, they invited us to a stake conference. President Kimball came to announce the temple being built in Sao Paolo. I remember President Kimball standing there, a very small man. Everybody was singing “We Thank Thee O God for the Prophet” and he was waving. I found myself in tears. I was really moved. My husband was moved. We felt something. We quickly wrote it off as mass hysteria. But then we were invited to a fireside at the mission president’s home and it was President Tanner and President Kimball. As we were standing around outside, President Tanner said to me, “I understand you are not a member.” I said, “I am certainly not a member and I have no intention of being one.” He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Don’t worry. You will make a good member.”
Zaza talked to me about the church all the time. She offered to drive me around to all my errands so she could trap me in the car and talk to me about the Church! Otherwise I wouldn’t listen. This way I couldn’t escape.
How did her approach not affect your friendship?
It was the way she did it. She was very gentle. I wouldn’t have listened except that she and her husband intrigued me. They were extremely good examples. They were ten years older than we were so they had children. I noticed how they talked to each other, the fun they had, how they were raising the children, and it struck me because I had come from a divorced family. They reminded me of my beloved grandparents. They were fun. They were normal.
At the fireside, we agreed that the missionaries could come teach us. The elders were taught to teach in Portuguese and they had this old system where they would bring a flip chart. And so they put a picture up of Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove and asked me, “Do you believe Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus?” And I said, “Of course I don’t.” They tried suggesting that my husband and I have family prayer: we should kneel down together or across from each other and hold hands… I said, “Elders, are you giving me a lesson about religion or about sex?” So that wasn’t going anywhere. Then, we got a new a set of missionaries who I think were the sharpest missionaries I’ve ever met. They took no nonsense from me. They put me in my place. They’d drop by my house and play cards with me some afternoons! It was perfect.
During one visit, the said, “The next lesson will be on repentance.” I, like anybody else, have a tremendous capacity to excuse my own wrongdoings so I thought, Bring it on! I’ll have fun with these guys. But during the lesson, the missionaries started describing the process of repentance and I stayed very quiet. “If the whole world did this,” I thought, “the world would be a different place.” It was a very profound lesson for me. The missionaries challenged me to pray about it, and I gave them my usual answer that I didn’t believe in God. They said, “That’s like standing in front of an apartment building and saying no one lives on the tenth floor. You don’t know that unless you’ve rung the doorbell.”
After they left, my husband was sitting on the couch reading the paper and I was sitting at the table and suddenly my life flashed before me – all of my wrongdoings, like a film. I turned around to Simon and said, “I need to tell you, I’ve lied to you many times.” I sat up through the night and wrote letters to people, I packed up all the books I had stolen from the library – they must have been very surprised at the library to get all these books back! The next morning, I was washing dishes and I started a prayer: “If you are there, God, you need to listen to me cause I feel really awkward about this. I’m going to test this, cause I really want to know. The reason I want to know is that I pride myself on living life fully. If you are there, I want to know because if there is a God, then I’m not living my life fully. Please, answer me. I am ready to know.” I knelt down and I said, “My father in heaven…” just like the elders had taught me. I felt this heat, like someone had poured hot honey all over me, on my head and then over my shoulders and in my chest. It was like someone put their loving arms around me. It was the most amazing thing. And it reminded me of when I was a very little girl and my grandma and grandpa would hug me and read me stories. I called again, “My father in heaven!” I was calling him now, and I felt it again. I started asking questions about the Book of Mormon and having a testimony. That was early in the morning, so I called Zaza and woke her up. “I got it! I got it!” I yelled into the phone, “I got that testimony you keep on talking about!”
That evening, I told Simon, “I’m getting baptized. I got this testimony that they keep talking about and I know that it’s true. So this is what you do to get one too: you kneel down, you say, ‘My Father in heaven,’ and this is what you will feel… So go, go go.” And I shooed him off into the bedroom. He went to the bedroom, and comes back and says, “Nothing.”
“Well, did you fold your arms just this way and bow your head?”
“Go back and try again.”
So he went back a second time and still nothing. So I said, “I don’t know what you are doing wrong, but this is what I felt and I know it’s true. If someone put a gun to my head and said deny it, I couldn’t.”
Simon said, “I’m going to get baptized with you because even though I didn’t feel the same thing, I trust you that something happened to you and the Mormons are good people.”
Our baptism was scheduled quickly, but before then we went to a fast and testimony meeting with Zaza and her husband Don. That was a problem. Everyone crying. Afterwards, Don asked what I thought. I said, “I’ll tell you what I thought. It was a mass hysteria.”
The Sunday before we got baptized, it was stake conference and Elder Faust was presiding. Our friend Don was in the stake presidency and he announced, “Elder Faust would like some people to come up and bear their testimony.” My heart started to pound, but I thought, “I’m certainly not going to get up there and give my testimony in front of all these people. I am not even baptized yet!” But Elder Faust was scanning the audience and nodded at me. I stood up and went to the podium, and cried and cried and shared my testimony with all those people. So much for the mass hysteria. Simon, being an Englishman, wasn’t crying along with me and afterwards Elder Faust came up and put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Simon, I know how you feel.” And then Simon cried.
About 10 days after we got baptized, we got a phone call from the bishop. “I’ve got a job with the Church,” Simon said after he hung up.
“Excuse me?” I said. “I am the one with the testimony. How come they gave you a job?”
“I’ll be the sports director.”
“No, no. They know you don’t have a testimony and they just want to keep you busy so you’ll keep coming to church. This is not an inspired calling.”
So the next Sunday, I marched into the bishop’s office and I said, “This is not an inspired calling. He doesn’t have to be in this church to kick a ball around. He can do that on the beach. So you need to think of something else where he can actually gain a testimony.” The next month, Simon was called to be in the Young Men’s and that’s where he gained his own testimony.
How about the relationship with your extended family?
It was a disaster. We sent a letter to my parents-in-law saying we had joined the church. They sent a telegram back saying “We beseech you not to do join that sect.” My father-in-law said, “I don’t want you to bring the Book of Mormon into this house. I don’t want you to talk about your church. I don’t want you to pray in this house. And I don’t want you to muck about in your temple with me when I am dead.” He blamed me, the foreigner, for leading his son down this path to a cult. He felt Simon had been raised right and I had ruined him. This went on for years. Two of my children were born in England, then we went to Canada for a time, my father-in-law died and we went to visit my mother-in-law. She lived far away from the closest church branch, and so my three little kids said, “Let’s go to granny’s church instead!” I had gotten married at the local Church of England church and I’d taken them there so they knew about it. But before we went I told them, “You will go to the children’s Sunday School at granny’s church. You don’t say anything. If they say God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are the same person, you don’t say anything. We will discuss it later and I will explain to you but this is granny’s church and you don’t talk there.”
During the sermon, it just so happened that day that the minister spoke on the passage from Matthew chapter 10 about how missionaries go two by two and shake the dust off their feet… And then he proceeded to talk about missionaries: they come, they knock on your door. They try to brainwash you, they talk about love but they don’t really love you… All this stuff about other religions. I heard a voice say to me, You need to bear your testimony to this man. I said, “No I don’t! I gave my children strict instructions that they are not to say a word and I’m going to bear my testimony?” Again I hear, “You need to bear your testimony to this priest.” I felt the spirit really strongly. People filed out and the priest stood by the door saying goodbye to the people. My mother-in-law and I approached him. I walked past him and walk out of the door. I stopped in my tracks and turned around. I said to him, “I am Mrs. Gordon-Smith’s daughter-in-law.” And his eyebrows went up and he said, “Ah, yes.” “I really liked the scriptures that you read, but I need to tell you I am a Mormon and I believe that Christ is my Savior. I consider myself a Christian.”
He said, “Well, my dear, I feel you’re sincere. But you really don’t believe in this Bible. You’ve got your own Bible.”
“I just felt I needed to tell you that I believe Christ is my Savior and that He is the Son of God. I’m sorry you’re not hearing me.”
I headed back to the car where my mother-in-law was waiting, and I just felt she was going to let loose on me. Here it comes. She said, “May I know what you talked to the vicar about?”
“I told him that I know that my religion follows Christ and that He’s my Savior and the son of God.”
She was quiet for a minute, and then said, “You know, Rostya, I never thought I would tell you this, but I admire you for doing that. I could never stand up for my religion like you did.”
That afternoon, over lunch, she said, “I understand that you bless your food before you eat. Would you like to say the grace?” That night, I was kneeling beside the bed with the children and they said, “Let’s ask Granny to join us.” And she did join us, in fact she said the Lord’s Prayer with me and the kids that night.
That’s why I had that prompting. It wasn’t for the darn vicar, it was for her, to change her attitude towards our beliefs.
When I talk about conversion, the baptism was just the physical act of it. But the conversion of my mind and my whole being and my desires and my goals and values… those were a revolution in my life. The first revolution in my life was when I left home, and the second one was my conversion to the gospel.
I did have a third revolution. That was when I realized that people in the Church are not perfect. It took me quite a while to realize that. I was in a honeymoon period in the church for a long time. After Brazil we went back to England, and then to Canada. I really started having different eyes when I went to Canada and I got mixed up with Americans. For me, the church was church, it had no gender, it had no nationality. I loved everybody and everybody loved me cause we were brothers and sisters. And then in the mix of Canadians and Americans, it was American church. I remember fighting with somebody cause they wanted to put up an American flag in the church on the Fourth of July. On Halloween, we would have church Halloween parties. And I said, “Show me in the scriptures, show me in the manuals, where it says we have to celebrate Halloween at church.” I would even get rid of Santa Claus because it has no bearing at church. It’s not that I would be purist; I just did not like the penetration of these things. Then I realized that there are two different things: there is a gospel and there is a culture. A folklore. For me that folklore is really dangerous because people begin to be sheep, and I don’t mean the sheep of Christ. Sheep in a sense that they are comfortable, and they go through the motions, and it seems they have blinders on. And then they become judgmental, intolerant, you have to fit a mold, in dressing, in speaking, in hairstyle. So there was a third revolution for me when I had to reconcile my testimony and my belief and figure out how to keep my faith pure.
What are the tools that keep your faith intact?
I learn for myself if things need to be essential parts of what I believe or if they’re not. For example, after we got baptized, we were surprised to learn about garments. We didn’t know about those before we got baptized. I was angry to learn about them. In Brazil, clothes under your clothes in the middle of summer? It seemed crazy. It really bothered me. I knew I wouldn’t go through the temple until I had a testimony of the garment. So I prayed and prayed. And one night I had a dream. I was taken up on the top of a busy street in our city in Brazil, and I was hovering over. A voice talked to me and said,” Look down. Do you see the lights?” I saw people walking below, and some people had light coming off of them. They were brighter than others. And I heard, “Those are people who wear the garments.” So when I need confirmation, I get it.
I very strongly believe that it’s dangerous to blindly follow. I don’t take my commitment lightly. Even though some things about the church organization drive me nuts sometimes, I believe nowhere, no other organization, has people who so closely do what they say. As a group, we are strange, we’ve got righteous and unrighteous people, we’ve got honest and dishonest members… I have no illusions, no rose-colored glasses. But I think that as a group, we are the closest to doing what we say we believe. Our church is an enormous movement for good in this world. I want to be a part of it.
I have served in the church in many callings. From Relief Society President to Young Women’s president. I served in Sunday School, and participated in many activities. Now I have a calling that I feel I have prepared for all my membership years. I have been called to be the National Director for Public Affairs for Czech Republic. I love this calling because it challenges my belief, faith and strength and gives me the opportunity to talk about our faith to non-members. I love the challenge and I feel my Heavenly Father’s guidance and support. This year, particularly, is interesting as the “Mormon Moment” ideas penetrated even into my country. My main challenge and the goal I was charged with when I was called is: “To bring the church in Czech Republic out of obscurity and darkness.” I shall do my best!
At A Glance
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Marital status: Married 40 years
Children: Four – 35,34,33,26
Occupation: CEO of a consulting and training company in Human Resources Development, called People Impact
Schools Attended: Czech elementary and high school, University of London, UK, Simon Frazer University, Canada, Macquarie University Hong Kong/Sydney Australia
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Czech, Portuguese
Favorite Hymn: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”
On The Web: LinkedIn Profile