The Saratov Approach is playing at the following Calgary-area Theatres:
- Canyon Meadows Cinemas: Jan 24 - Feb 13 (4 shows daily at 1:30p 4:05p 7:20p 9:45p)
- Okotoks Cinemas: Jan 24 - Jan 30
We have recently been campaigning online to bring the movie "The Saratov Approach" to Calgary. This story about two LDS missionaries who were kidnapped in Russia in 1998 had a big influence on my mission, as I knew them both well and had some involvement in the story, including the legal proceedings that followed.
My journals and letters have been in storage for a very long time, but talking about this story prompted me to open them up. It has been very powerful for me to re-live the experience. It has been such a long time that the details had started to fade for me, but they came flooding back through the things I had written. These entries don't tell the whole story, so I will fill in other details that I can remember:
Letter - Sunday, March 15, 1998
[Note: this was written the same day one of the kidnappers showed up at church]
I went on splits with Elder Propst on Saturday. He was a bit depressed, and his recent transfer didn't make him feel much better, since he was being assigned as junior companion again, even though he has already been to Finland [for his 12-month visa renewal] and was senior companion in Zavodskoy for the last 5 months. He came out on his mission with a lot of experience teaching with the missionaries and was fired up to make a huge impact. He felt some disappointment in how things had actually turned out, and was further frustrated that his somewhat unconventional approach wasn't always understood or welcomed by others.
The Saratov First Zone (Zavodskoy District & Central District) in the Fall of 1997. Propst is in the light-coloured suit and I am just behind him.
Journal - Thursday, March 19, 1998
Now it's 9:30 am, and we can't find Elders Tuttle & Propst. I got a phone call from Elder Teerlink last night, saying that he couldn't get a hold of Elder Tuttle when he phoned. We've had trouble with his phone before, and seeing as I've sent Elder Drake numerous times to check on Elders whose phones just didn't work, i didn't bother to disturb him at 10:30 pm.
This morning I got a phone call from prominent member and former District President Sergey Lelukhin, saying that he received a ransom note on his doorknob this morning. Inside the bag was photocopy of each passport, polaroids of each missionary and a demand for money. He was kind of mad at me because I didn't know where they were. I guess we should have done something... but what?
Photos which accompanied the ransom note
We've sent Elders to check on them, but their neighbours haven't heard their door open or close since 7:00 pm last night. President & Sister Dupaix are talking to Salt Lake now, and I'm not getting more phone calls. We can't understand, or at all fathom the real depth of this whole situation. It doesn't seem real, so we just sit here, waiting. I think they're going to be alright.
[Note: Melvin Dupaix and his wife Carol were serving in Saratov as institute teachers when our mission president Cordell Wold was diagnosed with advanced cancer and returned to the USA for treatment. The Dupaixs were asked to run the mission on an interim basis until a new president could arrive in the summer. The kidnapping occurred only a few weeks afterwards. I vividly recall the conversation that we had that morning, and how President Dupaix's jovial tone evaporated when I told him the bad news.
Photo of President & Sister Dupaix with Elders Tuttle & Propst
I was instructed to contact all the missionaries in my zone and to tell them to stay home until further notice. Most of them complied without question. One sister pressed me for a reason and I sidestepped, saying (in Russian) that it was just a "poor atmosphere" currently, and we were better off indoors. She exclaimed, "There's something in the atmosphere?!" I replied, "Sort of." She probably though it was Chernobyl all over again, and I felt a little bit bad to freak her out like that.]
Journal - Friday, March 20, 1998
The problem still hasn't been solved. We haven't heard anything from the abductors since yesterday. They phoned Elder Teerlink yesterday afternoon, asking if they should demand more money. Elder Teerlink's apartment was the epicenter of all chaos for quite a while. The leadership has taken over now, and all we are to do is wait it out at home.
The news is fairly public knowledge, and the Church has made a statement to the press confirming the abduction of Elders Propst & Tuttle. Elder Teerlink's dad phoned him last night and Propst's dad sent a fax, asking for more details.
President Hancock (of the 70) is supposed to be here now (12:30 pm) with some American Embassy personnel. The Big Shots are doing a lot of moving around. I hope that means that we'll get Propst & Tuttle back soon.
[Note: I sat by the phone at Elder Teerlink's apartment most of the time, because he had a fax machine and because the kidnappers had tried calling his apartment. My companion (Elder Ayers) stayed with the others in our district at a different apartment most of the time. One day (probably Friday) he came through our apartment to get something and he got a phone call. The person on the line asked, "Did you get the letter?" Elder Ayers said, "What letter?" The person asked again, "Did you get the letter?" Ayers again said, "What letter?" Then the person hung up. Ayers didn't realize until later that he had been speaking with one of the kidnappers. Propst had given them our phone number and address as a contact to negotiate with, but we weren't home very much after we first got notice of the kidnapping, so they had to find someone else to communicate with.]
Journal - Saturday, March 21, 19998
The waiting continues.
I'm still over at Elder Teerlink's apartment, putting together a Harley Davidson puzzle with him, Drake, Veenstra and Wager.
Last night we were called down to make statements at FSB (former KGB) headquarters. It took a long time and I really had to go to the bathroom. I don't feel that my testimony is really important, anyway. They asked me a lot of questions about my phone conversations with Sergey Lelukhin Thursday morning.
President Hancock came in with Elder Pullman and Roman yesterday, and they'll be at the Volga [hotel] for now. Big Shots from all over are showing up, and the kidnapping is all over TV and radio -- clearly stating that Elders Propst & Tuttle were kidnapped in Saratov. The abductors are probably going nuts, seeing as they wanted complete secrecy.
I hope Propst isn't scarred for life when it's all over. I felt a lot better when Pres Hancock prayed with us. We'll just pray and wait.
Journal - Sunday, March 22, 1998
I miss Propst. I hope I get to see him again. I don't know exactly what's going on, because they don't tell us much, but I do know that they haven't found them yet. I wish I could help, but I don't know anything. I couldn't tell the FSB anything remarkable, and likewise I could not share anything special with Pres Hancock and Elder Tingey when I was interviewed by them last night. I know a lot about Propst. I can go on and on about Propst, but I don't know where the heck he is.
I guess that there are some leaks. The papers and TV stations have taken off with a handful of facts, and everyone knows that Propst and Tuttle are missing. I think that probably doesn't make the abductors any happier. We've been instructed not to phone/fax our parents. They have been contacted already, anyway.
Yesterday we spent most of our time putting together a 1600-piece Harley-Davidson puzzle. It consumes a lot of time and takes your mind off of it.
We have a private sacrament meeting today in Pres Hancock's room at the Volga Hotel -- just with our zone. Aza's baptism had to be postponed... again.
We're stuck in this place,
and we're low on buckwheat.
Journal - Sunday, March 22, 1998
Today we had our private sacrament meeting at the hotel from 11:00 to 12:30, whereupon I had an interview with Bryce Christensen of Church Security. He also wanted to talk extensively about Elder Propst, and about what he might have tried to say in the letter that we received. I didn't mention that letter before, because they were trying to keep it hush-hush. Anyways, Elders Propst and Tuttle got a note out (to me), saying that they loved their parents and that they were planning to die to help the work and the other missionaries. He also willed his CDs to me, and wanted me to "kick it" for him. I just about cried when I read it last night with President Hancock.
The investigators were trying to find the significance of the CDs, of "you kick it for me". They tried to find meaning in every word, but I couldn't come up with any. I can't even understand what frame of mind they must have been in when they wrote that note. They meant what they said.
As I was answering Brother Christensen's questions, the door opened and another Church serviceman was exclaiming that Elder Tuttle was on the phone! I couldn't believe it. They'd been released and were at Elder Ivie's apartment.
THEY FOUND THEM!
I don't know how, but they got to Klub Yunost' for our meeting, but we weren't there. After phoning all of our vacant apartments they got a ride from Aleksandr Strakhov to Ivie's, then to the Volga Hotel, where we were all waiting in the hallway.
They looked so haggard and beat when they came around the corner from the stairs. Elder Tuttle was missing his tie and looked dirty. Elder Propst's face was flustered red and he had a bruise around his eye. Tuttle just about pulled me over with a hug, and then Propst saw me and called out "Wride!" and the three of us embraced in the middle of the hallway. Propst even kissed me on the cheek. They were shaky-looking but in good spirits. It was a surprise to me that they weren't babbling maniacs. It's just Tuttle and Propst
... and they're back.
We only saw them for a few seconds, and then they left to go somewhere. I think they are working on catching the abductors now. Tuttle and Propst were released, but the armed assailants are still on the loose. I just want to talk to Propst. I am so glad that they are back.
Now we're all at the sisters' apartment, where we thankfully broke our fast and have been passing the time away playing childish games. We might go back to work tomorrow.
I just want to talk to Propst.
Journal - Wednesday, March 25, 1998
Propst and Tuttle left yesterday. We were the only ones that saw them. They were lost, then they were found, and then they were gone again -- all so fast.
Sunday morning they spent with the police, reporting all that had happened to them. [One of the kidnappers was arrested on Sunday evening, and the other was arrested a day or two later.] We continued to stay indoors until yesterday morning, when we got the "all clear" signal and we could go back to work. We were preparing to leave when the Sisters (Behling & Jukes) phoned, saying that some strange man had knocked at their door. Just to be safe, we escorted them from their apartment to Elder Drake's apartment in a taxi, and missed a discussion at 12:30 with Lena.
Propst also phoned us to say that he was leaving, and that he wanted us to take all of his extra stuff. We (Ayers and I) went to Propst's apartment, where they were frantically packing, sorting and tossing every article and item. Pres Hancock was there, with Bryce Christensen (Church Security), Kevin Reale (C.S.), Elder Pullman (A.P.) and Roman (driver).
We have to finish clearing their apartment because they left. They took the van to Samara, and then they'll fly to Germany for 8 weeks until they are reassigned. I gave Propst my Canadian flag and my name tag. He gave me his and a whole bunch of other stuff. We got some pictures together, and then they were gone... for good.
We still haven't heard all of the story, since no one has had an opportunity to talk to them. Elder Propst recounted to Ayers a large part of the story.
They were headed to that D that they set up with "the man at the church" on Wednesday night. As they were stooped to change their shoes, the attackers cracked them over the head with a bat. Propst tried to shield his head and they broke his finger. [The scuffle stopped when the kidnappers pulled a gun.]
Photo of the apartment building where the two Elders were kidnapped
They were handcuffed and put into a car, whereupon the assailants drove 45 minutes out of the city to a small, private home. There they were handcuffed to the radiator, and forced to sit on the floor for most of 5 days. They were completely ready to die.
[Propst had also recounted to me how they had worked out an escape plan to use an iron to attack the man who was guarding them, but they ultimately decided not to go through with it.]
On Sunday the kidnappers took them on another 45-minute drive, stopped, ordered the Elders to put their heads in the snow, and drove away. Propst & Tuttle expected a bullet while their heads were down, but came up free. Then they started searching for us.
Because we had our own missionary sacrament service at the Volga, we were nowhere to be found. They came to our apartment, which was close to where they were set free, but saw no one but an angry neighbour. Then they went to where we meet for church. Having alarmed everyone present, they continued to phone everyone they could. No one was home. Confused, they got a ride from Aleksandr Strakhov (EQP) to Elder Ivie's apartment, where he contacted the hotel.
It was sad to see them go. Propst said that he doesn't want to leave, despite whatever feelings he might have had just 2 weeks ago. They are changed. They came to the brink of death and they are completely humbled. Propst said before "the incident" that he's changed -- that he wasn't the Andrew Propst that he was before his mission. Now I'm surprised that he's anything but a basket case.
They say that they'll write us and tell us more. They'll have plenty of time while they are in Germany.
Photo of Tuttle & Propst with Bryce Christiansen of Church Security a few days after their release (Propst is wearing my nametag)
Letter Home - Wednesday, March 25, 1998
I am sorry that I didn't write last week, but my P-Day was on Friday and on Thursday I found out that 2 Elders had been abducted. I tried writing you, but all that I could think about was the kidnapping, and it was useless to write about the unresolved calamity. We got our Elders back Sunday and saw them off yesterday. They are going to be reassigned to another mission in 1 or 2 months.
I don't know how much you heard about the whole ordeal on TV, but it happened in my own backyard. I serve in the Dachny branch, which is in the the NW. Elder Propst and Tuttle served in the Solnechny, which is just a little further north from us. You may have recognized the names of the Elders from my letters -- I served in the same district as Elder Propst for 4 months in Zavodskoy branch before we both moved to the North side of the city. In fact, I was on a split with Elder Propst the Saturday before he was kidnapped. We were best friends and I love him to death.
[Recount story as detailed in journal entry above]
They went through a lot, and are changed people. They were not only held captive, but they were also sure they were going to die. In the few minutes that I talked to Propst he said he is a changed man. I don't see how they can ever be the same.
So they won't.
...Now that it's all over we have to pick up where we left off. There will likely be some changes in this city (especially in our zone) due to the kidnapping. I think I will stay here still. I can't imagine leaving Saratov. Elder Tuttle was in 2nd place when he left, having served 11-straight months in Saratov. I had him beat by 1 month, but I've served in 3 different branches and he's been in one area that whole time. Propst was 3rd with 10 months. His weren't quite consecutive, because he was in Togliatti (by Samara) for 2-3 months.
I miss Propst already. In memory of the Faithful Departed we are going to the banya today.
Journal - Saturday, March 28, 2013
The endless parade of splits is in full swing. In the last 24 hours I've been on a split with everyone in the zone except my comp and Voelkel, because they were home sick. The split with Drake went well. We celebrated his hump day with chocolate pudding. It was so tasty. We taught a 1st D together on a park bench.
We then went to Karl's place, to sit with him on the steps of his Dom. He has no legs, so we helped him get dressed. He's quite old and weak, so we have to do a lot for him. Drake picked him up out of his bed to put him in his wheelchair. Karl's nice. He's really grateful to us for coming. He's had it rough since the kidnapping, because Elder Tuttle always came Mondays and Thursdays to sit with him. I assured him yesterday that more Elders would come to fill out the schedule.
Photo of Elder Tuttle pushing Karl's wheelchair with Elder Leer the winter before the kidnapping
Letter - Thursday, April 9, 1998
...If you didn't already know, everything here is settled down. No one else has been kidnapped or anything. I don't remember what I've written you since all that happened, so bear with me. If you wondered, all that happened in my zone. Elders Tuttle & Propst were in the other district, though.
I was on a split with Elder Propst only 4 days before he was kidnapped. I'm glad that they're back. It sucks that they had to leave again already. Propst was my best friend in the whole mission. Did you ever wonder if I got kidnapped? I bet my mom was freaked when Church Security phoned her.
[Note: My parents were actually contacted by their Stake President. My mom said he sat down next to them at my brother's high school basketball game and the first thing he said was that I was alright. They had no idea about the kidnapping, so they didn't know what he was talking about.]
...I'm sorry that I haven't written for almost a month. It's just been really hectic -- with the kidnappings and all.
Letter - Thursday, April 9, 1998
Hardly a soul in Saratov is unaware of us and the plight of the released Elders. I've heard numerous reports of increased interest from people to hear discussions because they heard the news.
Letter - April 1998
...I got 2 letters from Elder Propst from Germany, where they stayed for several weeks to recover before they were reassigned to missions in England. In one he provided a very detailed account of the events of the kidnapping.
Letter - May 1998
I just got a letter from Elder Propst, saying that things are going alright. he wrote the letter from Germany, but I just heard this week that he's been reassigned to England.
...With 6 weeks gone by, things are right back to normal. Some people ask, "Was it you guys that they kidnapped?" But that's the main impact that I've seen from it all.
Elder Propst has been slightly more affected. He says that he's told every detail of the the story so may times that he'll never be able to forget it. It's a nasty story. They were completely certain that they would die. Propst says that he isn't taking his "second chance" at life for granted even one bit.
Journal - Tuesday, June 23, 1998
So we're kicking it here in the Hotel Volga, in the happy river valley of Saratov.
Sunday we came in stealthily from Samara with Roman. No one knows we're here. We bailed out without telling anyone but Elder Scott that we're gone. Why? Because Elders Propst and Tuttle are here to talk to the KGB. I guess they're putting the case together and they are going to identify the kidnappers today.
Yesterday we spent about 4 hours in a small, hot, hot office, while we helped translate specific questions about money that was taken off the two while captive. The rest of the time we spend keeping a low profile. We promised President Hancock that no one would hear about it until it was long over. That would be easy, but their [Propst/Tuttle] priorities aren't quite the same as ours, and it's been tough to still preserve a good relationship. They want to go out and see the city again, which is perfectly understandable, but that clashes with our plan of secrecy. So far, they just buy a lot of CDs, and there's no big problem.
It's cool to just kick it in the Hotel room, but I'm going to be glad when we don't have to be all secret. We feel like like we're babysitting, but we don't know why. We just follow them around. I don't dig the whole situation, but it's sure cool to be back chilling with Propst & Tuttle.
Journal - Wednesday, June 24, 1998
Today is a rough one.
Yesterday we had busy work at the KGB that occupied our time. Today is P-day for the local missionaries and Tuttle & Propst want nothing more than to visit members and missionaries. We don't have to be at KGB until tomorrow morning, so we're stuck in a musty hole.
Journal - Tuesday, June 30, 1998
Everything in Saratov turned out fine. From Wednesday morning to evening there was an attitude change. It was a much nicer atmosphere to be in. It was too bad to see them off to England... but it was nice to go back home. Elder Ward and I just walked back into the hotel, changed into our track pants and cleaned the place and left. Roman stopped for shashlyki on the way home. Sunday night President Gashler flew back from his training in America.
Journal - Saturday, August 8, 1998
Life grinds to a halt...
The fast pace of zone conferences & traveling dropped off into complete idleness today. The last zone conference was today and President already left for Samara. Elder Thompson and I are now here until the trial is over. We have directions to keep a low profile, so tonight we just sat around and chewed the fat for a few hours. Tomorrow will be more of the same, although we'll get a chance to walk around the town a little. We're planning on heading up to "Victory Park" just outside the city limit, where you can see the whole city. I think that will be much more fun than sitting here all day.
It will be strange to sit around and not proselyte.
Photo of Elder Propst (with backpack), Elder Thompson (nearest to trolleybus) and me (right) boarding a bus in Saratov the week of the trial.
Journal - Monday, August 10, 1998
Today we start court session. I wonder how much i will really have to do. I'd like to have had a day to listen to the words before I really have to start translating.
Yesterday we did nothing but tour the city-center on foot and teach an awesome 1st D in the taxi to the airport.
Journal - Friday, August 14, 1998
Photo of Elder Tuttle posing in the cage used to hold the accused while a court officer stands by
In trial again today.
Right now Yemtsov, the "Boss-man" of the two kidnappers, is under cross-examination. He's somehow related to a branch president, is a former member of the church, and I remember him being a total cherry-picker when he played soccer on P-Days with the missionaries way back in my first area.
[The accused spent the entire proceedings seated in a cage on the left side of the courtroom. It was constructed just like a jail cell, but the size of a closet. When addressed, they would stand to speak. The elder of the two kidnappers had some oozing sores on his hand that he continually dabbed with a cloth.]
The man finished his statement and I was startled by the differences in the stories. The accused styled himself as a softy -- a loveable uncle Kidnappy. He changed the parts regarding the threat of death and intimidation.
The judge is getting him pretty good. It's good that Propst and Tuttle went first, because we can pick out all the lies. That's how I interpret the differences... as a lie. The truth is slowly coming out, but the judge has all the answers anyway.
[Yemtsov explained that he owed someone $100,000 from a business venture, and he came up with the kidnapping idea as a way to raise the money.]
The thing that I don't get is who the two ladies are who sit on each side of the judge. They are yet to say a word or blink an eye.
Now, as the judge goes deeper, the accused is slower and and slower to give a straight answer.
We had 15-minute break, and now the other of the accused is up. Each of the defendants has testified in a completely monotone voice and has told VERY few jokes.
I'm confused by discrepancies. It seems that Propst really did take off his coat, and neither of the accused will own up to the theft of Propst's wallet. They both insist that they didn't take it AND that it was in the 2nd apartment. I wonder if someone, or ALL of them are confused.
This whole time we've had trouble with the translator. I was supposed to translate from the beginning, but the law doesn't allow it. There's no law against Canadian translators, but it's because I'm also one of the witnesses, and that is not permitted.
Well, Monday we scrambled for a good translator and by 11:00 am we had Sister Hatfield and Yulia from the Center Branch. Despite Yulia's excellent qualifications, the court decided to bring in a non-biased translator from a local university. Yulia's been to london several times for extended periods and is well-versed in conversational English. I think the closest our translator has been to a real American is when she watched Independence Day.
Yesterday both Propst and Tuttle gave testimony. It took many long, LONG hours. She could not understand them well enough to translate. Much of the missionaries' energy was directed at correcting her translations. Propst ended up doing most of it himself.
[Note: The two kidnappers were found guilty. 44-year-old Sergey Yemtsov got a 4-year sentence and his 19-year-old accomplice Aleksey Skryabin (aka Nikolay) got time served and a period of probation.]
Yemtsov (left) and Skryabin (right) escorted by police at the trial.
Letter - Saturday, August 22, 1998
I'm so happy to be back in Samara. It was interesting to be at the trial, but I can't stand being so idle for so long. The case wrapped up on Wednesday morning, and they will announce the verdict on Tuesday or Wednesday this next week. Elders Tuttle and Propst flew home on Wednesday morning and I came back to Samara on the train.
On March 26, 1998 the Russian-language news outlet "Kommersant" published a reasonably complete account of the events as told by the Russian FSB at a news conference. The report notes that the kidnappers rented out an apartment for the purpose of carrying out the kidnapping and that the missionaries were held captive in a small cottage in/near the village of Dubki, which is north of the city of Saratov, about ~15km from the place they were first abducted. This publication indicates that there were 3 kidnappers involved, which is incorrect.
On August 25, 1998 Kommersant published another article following the trial, noting that Sergey Yemtsov had been an active member of the LDS church circa 1994, but had been inactive since then. The cottage in Dubki belonged to Yemtsov's brother-in-law. There are a few quotes from the trial, including comments from Yemtsov ("I came up with the idea on my own"), Tuttle/Propst ("It will be good for your son in jail -- he can get more education") and me ("we trusted in the Lord and prayed for the release of our brethren").