by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Two years ago as a missionary in Russia, Elder Andrew Probst was kidnapped. Now he tells the story behind the headlines.
Two years ago in March in a bleak Russian city called Saratov, 800 miles southeast of Moscow, Elder Andrew Probst had one of those moments every missionary hopes for. He was just leaving the old rented gymnasium where church was held, when a stocky young man in his twenties approached him, who had recently read a story in the newspaper. It was a story that intrigued him and seemed to answer the financial desperation the man was feeling. The Mormon Church, he had read, was wealthy, a robust American church, whose net worth, it was guessed, would put it in the Fortune 500 if it were a business. He and his friend owed money to the mafia. They were fearful and anxious, and so he approached the missionary,
“Are you LDS?” Elder Probst nodded. The man said that he had a friend in another part of the city who was a member of the Church, and he was interested in learning more. He wanted the missionary lessons.
To Elder Probst, this was a golden opportunity. People in Russia didn’t seek out the missionaries like this. People eager for spiritual knowledge didn’t come up to them on the street. An appointment was made for Wednesday, March 18, and Elder Probst and his companion Elder Travis Tuttle rejoiced. “Wow. This is the greatest.”
No shadow of foreboding hung over them as they shopped for flour and beans in Saratov’s open markets and scrubbed their laundry by hand on their p-day. As they got ready for their discussion that Wednesday, they joked about their golden contact, “Either he’s sincere, or he’s got something cooked up,” but neither of them meant it. Without cares, they walked the few blocks to the address, passing a monotonous parade of high rise buildings. In Saratov, they pack people dense and they pack them high, but for this appointment, the elders had only to climb two flights of stairs.
Elder Andrew Probst with Russian military friend.
The elders knocked on the door. A man with dark eyes answered. He was reserved, intimidated, a little edgy. This was Nicholai, the man Elder Probst had met on the street.
As was the custom for visitors, the elders took off their coats and their shoes. When Elder Probst leaned over to slip on his indoor sandals, he heard a startling crack, followed instantly by a high, piercing sound in his right ear-like an audible dog whistle. A large, brutal man had hit him from behind with a notched bat like a homemade policeman’s stick. He dropped with a jerk to his knees, hitting his head again. Now, everything went black and white, like an old-fashioned movie image before technicolor, then everything was silent.
Still he wasn’t knocked out. Out of the corner of his left eye he could see that Elder Tuttle was being beat by Nicholai. It was too much to comprehend, to wrap his brain around, but something instinctive in Elder Probst told him to get out of there. He shielded his beaten head with his left hand and reached for the door handle with his right hand. This only fired the wrath of his torturer, and he hit him again four times, fracturing Elder Probst’s index finger. Elder Tuttle had stopped struggling, and Elder Probst rolled over on his back and got his first glimpse of the terrifying, hunk of a man in a black mask named Sergei. He heard a gun cocked as Sergei stuck a 35 caliber in his face, mumbling something in Russian to him that doesn’t translate well. “Enough,” Sergei bellowed. “Be still.”
Oh no. This is it. I’m about to buy the farm, Elder Probst told himself. “I’m not going to make it.”
The two kidnappers rolled the elders over on their stomachs, handcuffed their hands behind them, and dragged them into the kitchen. They taped their mouths, noses and eyes closed. It was deathly quiet. All the elders could hear was the gas burners on the stove which were lit and high. Elder Probst couldn’t feel his head yet, except for a throbbing, a pounding that didn’t hurt-yet. What was excruciating to Elder Probst were his hands where the handcuffs had been placed as tight as tourniquets. He felt his hands grow cold and blue as the cuffs strangled his blood supply. The pain was tormenting, almost unbearable. It was a pain so piercing it was hard to endure for a second, let alone for a prolonged period. “Oh, please, please loosen our handcuffs,” the missionaries pled.
Elder Andrew Probst (right) with Elder Zach Elmer by Russian train. (Elder Elmer, who was Elder Probst’s first companion and missionary trainer, was not the other elder kidnapped.)
“No, No.” the men mumbled. They wouldn’t loosen the cuffs. The missionaries laid there for an hour or more on their stomachs, sometimes pleading for relief. Elder Probst thought, “It would be easier for them to end my life than endure these handcuffs any longer.” Finally Sergei stomped over, straddled Elder Probst, stuck a gun in his back and said, “If you’re not going to be quiet, I’m going to take care of you.”
A couple of minutes later, the two men picked up Elder Tuttle, put his coat back on him and took him out to the car. Elder Probst waited alone in the kitchen, his wrists throbbing in agony, his head beginning to ache. Twenty minutes later the men came back, put him in his coat, thrust a stocking cap over his face, and threw him in the car on top of Elder Tuttle.
The kidnappers drove the elders about 45 miles, then turned off onto a bumpy road. Finally, they arrived at a forgotten shack in the country with only a bedroom and a kitchen. Sergei and Nicholai dragged the elders into the ramshackle building, handcuffed them to the radiator, and took their wallets, passports and name tags-any shred of evidence that could identify the missionaries. Then they stole their watches and took polaroid pictures of them. The intent was clear. These men wanted ransom money.
“Who are the leaders of your Church here? What are their phone numbers? What other phone numbers do you know?” The missionaries told them everything they could remember, but they didn’t know many phone numbers. Few people in Russia had phones. The men were brusque, impatient, especially Sergei, who was mean, happy in their torture. He reminded Elder Probst of a heavy, powerful Russian leader like Krushchev, pounding out his demands in a powerful, deep voice.
Then began the elders’ five-day ordeal. Their emotions were a strange mix of panic, worry, and boredom. They tried to determine what the men would do with them, and they got mixed stories. They told the elders that if they didn’t get the ransom money, they would kill them. Yet, they were unsure, skittish.
“They were amateurs,” said Elder Probst, “and that made us more worried than if they’d been professionals. We came to the point where we thought we didn’t have a chance of getting out of there. We knew of the policy of America and of the Church. Paying a ransom would be impossible and endanger all the other missionaries in the world. America doesn’t negotiate for hostages, period. We knew there wasn’t going to be a ransom paid.”
During the day Sergei would disappear to go to work and the elders would be left with Nicholai, the more humane of the two. They sat, eyes taped shut, listening to radio reports of their kidnapping, and worried about their families. “My mother is such a worry wart. I knew she’d be miserable,” said Elder Probst. Other concerns ate like acid. “The other missionaries will be forced out of Russia and it will be all my fault. Eternal souls will be lost because I was kidnapped,” worried Elder Probst.
Sometimes the missionaries worried about death; even more nagging was the possibility of torture.
The elders were fed once a day-hot dogs or Russian ravioli, but they didn’t have any water. Thirst made their tongues thick. The shack had no running water and the kidnappers didn’t want to go to the well for fear they would be seen. Once in a while, the Russian men took a bucket, scooped a little snow from the doorway and let it melt. “That’s when I was glad to be blindfolded so I couldn’t see the color of the water,” Elder Probst laughed.
The missionaries tried to bide their time playing rhyming games with each other, twenty questions-anything to keep their minds busy. They practiced Russian grammar, talked about characters in the Book of Mormon. Once on the radio a Beatle’s song came on, “Will you still need me, when I’m 64?” they sang, and Elder Probst cried, “I thought it would be the last Beatles song I’d ever hear. And would I ever be 64?”
Mostly, however, the missionaries prayed–sometimes for hours at a stretch. At first they prayed for their own safety-that they would see their families again, that they wouldn’t die. But something happened to them as they prayed-an indefinable something, a change of heart and a different way of seeing. They started to pray for their captors-especially Nicholai.
“Guide us with patience,” they pled. “Help us not to say the wrong thing. Help us to feel love toward our captors, not hate.” Elder Probst said, “If they did something to hurt us, we wouldn’t let them know it was bothering us. We stayed cool, laid back, like we were in control. The Spirit gave us that confidence.”
When Sergei was gone, the missionaries slowly developed a relationship with Nicholai. “We wanted him to see us as people like him. We wanted to get both of them to the point that they liked us so much that they didn’t want to kill us,” said Elder Probst.
A strange friendship began to emerge as the Spirit worked upon the missionaries and the kidnappers. Their talk changed from using the formal form of “you” in Russian to the personal, intimate one reserved for closest friends. “I held Nicholai’s hand and we prayed for him. I prayed that things would work out for him,” said Elder Probst. “He opened up and told us about his family. I told him that I really love my mom. He said he really loved his mom, too. We shared stories from our childhoods.
“When we talked to Nicholai about our future, I grabbed his hand,” said Elder Probst. “‘I know you don’t want to do anything to hurt us,’ he said, ‘you just got put into a difficult situation. No matter what happens, we forgive you.”
Because Nicholai was close to the missionaries’ age, they talked to him about music and sports. They listened to his tales of being a middle-weight boxer.
“We saw all these little hints that at heart, he was not so different from us. You put people into a situation where they are frightened and can abuse power, and they do strange things. I knew inside these kidnappers were scared to death. Every time they heard a car, they went to the window and cracked the blind. The KGB is the wrong branch of law enforcement to tangle with. They have none of the legal restraints our FBI has.”
When Sergei came back at the end of each day, he slammed the door, stamped his feet, and took his frustrations out on the missionaries, cocking his gun in their faces. He stuck pieces of paper in front of them and made them write notes to the authorities.
On the fourth day, Sergei came home fuming. He was a blunderer at hostage negotiations and nobody was responding to his demands. “Your friends are trying to get you killed,” he blared at the missionaries.
“We began to feel a little desperate and hatched an escape plan,” said Elder Probst. It was a dramatic plan, a scheme of the frightened who had been slammed on the head, imprisoned, and deprived of water for day after relentless day. It went like this. One of the missionaries would call a kidnapper into the room, ask for the key to unlock his handcuffs to go to the bathroom, and then quickly undo his companion’s handcuffs at the same time. Then Elder Probst would throw a blanket over their captor’s head while Elder Tuttle hit him with an iron. In the melee and confusion, the elders would grab the handgun and run to the car.
The kidnappers had grown to be fairly trusting of the missionaries, and finally the time came to enact the escape plan. Elder Probst asked to go the bathroom, Nicholai tossed the keys to him, he unlocked himself from Elder Tuttle and did a little trick so that each would be unlocked while still appearing to be cuffed.
In an instant, both elders were free. They had prayed about this escape plan. They prayed urgently now. The Spirit settled on Elder Tuttle, “I have the overwhelming feeling that we shouldn’t do this.”
Elder Probst argued back. “That’s crazy. This is our chance to get out of here. This is our chance to escape.”
They continued to pray, and according to Elder Probst, “Something powerful happened as we felt the Spirit. We felt keenly that we were not to escape-not even attempt it. Instead, we were to be the best hostages those kidnappers could possibly have and do exactly what they said. God made it clear that we there for a purpose, and it was God’s purpose. We had to be ready to sacrifice everything. If we were going to die, we were going to die, but we were in God’s hands.
“After that,” said Elder Probst, “everything was easy, almost merry. We felt we shouldn’t interfere with the Lord’s plan. We were relaxed. If they were upset, we weren’t upset at all. We could feel the prayers of the people around the world, the prayers of our family members and those in the temple. From the beginning, prayers had everything to do with it.”
A day and a half later Sergei came barging in one morning, and said, “OK, guys, this is it. Get your coat on and shoes. We’re leaving.”
“Did you get the money?” the missionaries asked.
Elder Andrew Probst with friend Karl at local rest home in Russia.
The kidnappers grabbed the missionaries, masked them and put tape on their mouths again. Then they shoved them in the car, drove for 45 minutes, and again turned off on another bumpy road-a road that took them to lonely, untraveled fields.
“Not a word was spoken by anybody,” said Elder Probst. “I prayed the whole time.”
Finally, they stopped the car, pulled the missionaries out, laid them face down on the ground and the missionaries shivered, “This is it. They’ve taken us here because they don’t want anybody to hear a gun shot.”
In that moment of unbearable tension, the missionaries suddenly heard the motor start on the car and the men drove away. They lay still for two minutes, unsure what to expect. The sound of the motor lessened and then disappeared until only silence reigned.
Suddenly Elder Probst got up, ripped off his mask and ran headlong into the field, thinking any moment they might change their minds and come back and shoot them. In his weakened state, after about 50 feet, he ran out of steam, and Elder Tuttle yelled, “Come back. If they changed their minds, they could follow your tracks in the snow.”
Elder Probst came back, the missionaries hugged each other hard, and then fell to their knees to give thanks.
They began walking, somewhat wobbly, and, after about an hour, came to the main road where they caught a ride into town.
“I was a different man, walking along that road, because I had come to know that God was my good friend. I had come to a foreign country, different from anything I had ever known. I was without my family. I had been kidnapped by foreign strangers who hurt me, but I was never alone.
“From this experience I would not be traumatized or sick or mentally injured because I knew for myself how close God is.
“Every day I am still learning about the blessings from this experience. Some of them I saw immediately, some of them I am still learning to see.”
While Elder Probst was held hostage, the mission president in Oregon had to send a flood of extra missionaries to his home town to answer all the questions people had. Andy Probst, kidnapped in Russia, was front page news, night after night and people wanted answers. Missionaries were sent to give them.
One of the men who called for a visit from missionaries was Andy Probst’s middle school music teacher. He told the missionaries, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say about religion, but I do want to hear everything I can about Andy.” Two months later he was baptized, and three months ago his family was sealed in the temple. He is the mission leader and his wife the choir director in their ward.
A few months later the mission president was interviewing stake presidents in the area, brainstorming about ideas to increase the missionary work. Finally Andy’s stake president was called in, whose numbers of convert baptisms in his area had recently leaped. “I expect a good answer from you, because of how the baptisms have risen in your area.”
Elder Probst has been able to give many firesides on his experience in Russia. At one in Boise, a beautiful young woman, Shonda Hessing, was translating his words into sign language. She met him after; they started to date; and were married a few months later.
The apostle Paul, who knew something about being held against his will, who had tasted the bitter ashes of persecution and prison wrote to the Romans, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
If Elder Probst had lived or died at the hands of his captors, he would have borne the same testimony. He said, “I have faith in God’s purpose.”
Sergei and Nicholai were apprehended five days after the missionaries were released. Elder Probst finished the last months of his mission in the England Bristol Mission. He was called back to Russia twice to testify against his kidnappers whom he regarded with sympathy. Sergei received an eleven-year sentence and Nicholai a four-year sentence.