A Look into the Life of Nikonenko Family

This story about the life of the missionary family in Yakutia was recorded during the missionary conference in Rovno in January 2017
We believed and prayed

In 1990 Valentin and Lyubov Nikonenko left thier home with two little kids. Leaving their jobs and relatives in Ukraine they moved to Yakutia. It was a fresh start for  the new family. After the first three years in Yakutsk, Valentin went back to Ukraine and got a higher theological degree. He also taught at the Donetsk Christian University for seven years. Eventually the family returned to Yakutia and lived there for fifteen years. There Valentin bacame a leader of the Association of Churches of Evangelical Christians in Yakutia. Now he and his family live in the city of Dnepr, their homeland. Valentin is engaged in the publishing of Christian literature and often visits pastors in Yakutia.

Next year Valentin and Lyubov are celebrating their 30th  wedding anniversary, with their two daughters and two sons.

How we went to Yakutia

On November 2, 1990 our family left for Moscow and from there we came to Yakutsk. We were uncertain and did not know what waits us in Yakutia and how we can do evangelism among Yakuts.

But still we had peace in our hearts – we wanted to see God’s will. Of course, we were young, energetic, full of the desire to preach. We prayed a lot and believed external circumstances can’t prevent us from preaching the gospel. At the time of the atheistic Soviet press it was impossible to organize missionary work, but since 1988 the situation in the Soviet Union had changed. Probably nobody could imagine that a powerful wave of evangelism would come soon in the USSR through the ofiicial celebration of the 1000th Anniversary of the Baptism of Russia.

Eventually God gave us the opportunity to share His gospel. We really thank God for His awesome plans in our life! Many doors were open and we were welcome to preach in houses, theatres  and other public places. It was the time the missionary work spread throughout the USSR. There was created the first Christian mission  Light of the Gospel In Rovno –  the first officially registered mission in the USSR. I and my wife Lyuba became its members. Later we were sent for mission from  Light of the Gospel.

Then we did not have a theological degree yet and had no idea about missiology. But still God gave us strength to work on His fields for twenty-five years! Having a clear understanding of God´s call and being dedicated to Him we could courageously go on. This happened not only to us – at the same time about fifteen people moved from Ukraine to Yakutia. But we had an advantage – we moved with the whole family. We already had two kids: one-year-old Maria and four- year-old Anya. Just after we arrived we faced a real difficulty – the climate. The next day after our arrival in Yakutsk there was -35 Со (-31 Fо). Also, there was no water in the house (water was delivered to us from another place) and the toilet was outside.

But all this couldn’t stop us from doing evangelism in the area because there were many people who haven’t heard the Good News for seventy years! This inspired us not to lose heart because there was only one evangelical church throughout the territory. This news shocked us completely. In Yakutsk there was also an Orthodox church but nobody knew about this. That was all people knew about Christianity in Yakutia. [Total area –3 million km2. Approximately 5 times bigger than Ukraine, twice as big as Alaska or 5 times bigger than France – Ed.]

First difficulties

In 1990 on November 4, it was 0° С (32°F) in Moscow and -25 ° С in Yakutsk (-13°F), and the next day it got to - 37о С (-34.6°F) . Lyuba took along all the necessary things – warm winter boots, warm coat, and a big shawl scarf. But as she came outside the first day she was completely frozen. In such cold conditions a forehead must be completely covered and you must have a natural fur hat, felt boots or boots made of deer or cow. First two years and half Lyuba did not have such shoes and she was wearing valenki – traditional Russian footwear.

Lyuba’s younger sister Anya went with her to Yakutsk for a while. On the second day of our arrival Anya was really shocked. ‘Oh dear! How can you live here?’ she cried. Then she told Lyuba, ‘How could you come here? I have a back ticket for the next week. Let’s come back with me! I will help you. Let Valentin stay here for now and then he will also come back. ’ Anya did not understand how Lyuba could leave her flat in Ukraine with all the facilities, for in Yakutsk there were empty shelves in shops, no hot water, no milk. Lyuba knew this all was true. But God put her on heart to answer her sister ‘Anya, thank you for your care, but I am staying here with Valentin, and our kids will stay with us.’

The first church in Yakutsk

Yakut concept of the church is different from ours. In the early 90s there were no religious groups in Yakutsk except one Orthodox group . I found only four evangelists and a small group of ten Christian believers. God started His work through one old lady who prayed a lot about a new church in this area.

First, our family lived in the church. On Sundays I preached and Lyuba perfectly played the piano. Six months later all rooms were filled with more than seventy people. Again God showed us His mercy and gave us a larger building in the city center.

People came to Christ in different ways. For example, in February 1991 I was at work in the hospital as I am a doctor. Lyuba and the kids were at home. There was a sudden knock at the door – two women and a man came in, asking ‘Is the church here?’ The man explained: ‘I am the director of the State University Library. These women are my colleagues. Our students always ask us for the Bibles or the New Testaments but we don’t have a single copy! We’d like to have them!’ Then Lyuba offered them free Bibles. The guests couldn’t believe it! After that Lyuba invited them to the Sunday service, telling them about weekly prayer meetings and a Bible study. The visitors asked her more questions about life, creation and the Bible itself. And Lyuba could answer all the questions! They also questioned about the kids and where our family came from. Lyuba saw a great respect from their side. The guests said they really enjoyed speaking to Lyuba. After they were gone, Lyuba burst into tears, praying, ‘ Dear Lord, thank you I am not in my two-room apartment in Ukraine, dusting off the shelves and doing other housework. I am so thankful to you I can share Jesus being home with my children.’

Now we can clearly see God’s hand in our life. We started with the big cities of Yakutia that are dominated by native speakers of Russian. The churches consisted mostly of Russian people, but we kept on praying for local northern peoples as well. Today there are twenty-two churches in Yakutia, about thirty evangelical Christian groups, six national Yakut churches holding their services in native language and pastored by Yakut brothers. All thirty churches are located in Yakut settlements. Thus, our Association mainly consists of the indigenous peoples of Yakutia, such as Evens, Evenks, Yukaghir, and Chukchi.

I think this information is the best answer to the question ‘What is the main goal of missionary service to indigenous peoples?’ In the very beginning of our service we believed our brothers and sisters inYakutia would continue our work after us. And God did so.

Donetsk Christian University

After three years in Yakutia I was invited to work in the Donetsk Christian College (later Donetsk Christian University). It was a new start for us. I spoke on Spiritual formation, Marriage and family, History of the evangelical movement in Ukraine and Russia. Also, I was in charge of administrative work and was involved in the study.

In April 1999 I passed by the advertising board and saw a piece of paper on it. It was a student’s prayer need for the creation of the Bible school in Yakutsk. I knew the new churches of Yakutsk could send for the training only a couple of students every year. But there were much more people wishing to learn.

It was also clear to Lyuba. But she noticed an interesting thing. As soon as we began praying for missionaries, we became missionaries. Now she was afraid to pray for the Bible school in Yakutsk because God could send us there as well. It was the only time in Lyuba’s life when she couldn’t support me in prayer. She told me, ‘Well, you pray’.

Her arguments were quite logical – we would have to change the country again, cross the border, look for a new house for the big family. Also, a language was also a problem for our three kids who studied in Ukrainian school. But later Lyuba said she was ready to follow me wherever I wanted. I replied her that God didn’t make someone to minister, but He sent those who were ready.

After two years our family made a firm decision to return to Yakutia. Our kids of 12, 11, 10 and 6 years old had the same vision. In July, 2001 our family moved to Yakutsk the second time to create the Bible school and serve to the churches of Yakutia.

Witnesses of God’s miracles

Winter in Yakutia starts early. In the beginning of October 2001, ice thickness of White Lake reached 10-15 cm. Just then I had a conversation with a converted woman named Dora. She lived in a small village on the opposite bank of the Lena river. It is 120 km from Yakutsk. The river was almost covered with ice crust. Ferries could barely get to the opposite bank. Dora had to come back to her village. But she told me she wouldn’t come home until she didn’t baptized. And Dora was baptized in the ice-hole despite it was -10°С outside (14 °F). After that, she went home with great joy. For now, Dora has a big love for God and continues sharing Jesus with her people.

Also, many different teachers came to faith in Jesus. It was a great blessing for Yakutia. Irina, a woman from Sakha people and a Physics teacher of the Yakutsk State University, began visiting church services. She was really interested in faith. She turned out to be seriously ill. Our brothers and sisters at church prayed for her and God lenghtened her life. She continued to teach at university and became a humble desciple of Christ. Later, it was found out she was a daughter of an outstanding scientist of Yakutia Arian Ilyich Kuzmin, a rector of the the Yakut State University for thirteen years!

Sometimes we experienced difficulties and trials which might not be in Ukraine. However, our children have good memories of that time. They say they liked plenty of guests in our house. They also say their parents never complained. All children successfully finished gymnasium and music school. The eldest daughter Maria also graduated from college, Danil and Michail entered the State University of Yakutsk. The second daughter Anna graduated from the Dnipropetrovsk Medical Academy. All four children were led to Christ and baptized. Just now, all of them are in different places but they still share a warm feeling of those wonderful years.

Factors of missionary work in Yakutia

Every period brought many different ways to reach the peoples of Yakutia. In summer we used water transport to get to the most isolated places. However, summer here is too short to use water transport. Usually it takes a long time to travel from place to place. The best time for trips is winter. There are ice roads (frozen rivers and lakes) that are used by local people to get to isolated areas. We used an all-terrain car for seven years but soon it died because of such extreme conditions.

In 1991 we met missionaries from Alaska. We planned to use small aircrafts to spread the gospel around Yakutia. We even sent one of our brothers to Alaska to learn to fly airplanes. In the USSR there was no a legal framework, no light aviation at that time.

We always believed and prayed for the project Light aviation. In 2014 our dreams came true and in 2015 July our brother Ivan Sobolev graduated from the School of Aviation and obtained the Light Aircraft Pilot Licence. We believe this event is one of the historical moments for Yakutia. Now it was possible to visit isolated places in any season, especially in summer. There already were small sanitary aviation airfields in most places. It was good for us to use these airfields. Our four-seat plane can fly in the radius of 500 km around Yakutsk. We thank God for this opportunity! There are wonderful words in the Holy Scripture that characterize our today’s strategy of missionary service in Yakutsk "Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you." Mark 5:19

We encourage all the converted Yakuts to share the gospel, telling them they are the best messangers for their people. I noticed preaching in Russian doesn’t affect them a lot. Many times I could see indiffirence on the faces of listeners, they listened just out of respect. But if Sakha Christian starts preaching in Yakut language, listeners ‘wake up’ immediately. Then follows a conversation and the Holy Spirit touches a person’s heart. The time of massive evangelistic projects already passed. I am not surprised when I hear testimonies how the grace of God works through Sakha Christians who have believed recently.

Yakut ancient religion is shamanism. The locals still believe shamans have special supernatural powers and can be the conduit between otherwordly and the real world. There were periods where Soviet authorities persecuted shamanism. Almost all shamans were killed. But Yakut religious beliefs helped us to bring them the gospel of Jesus. They also believe in the existence of the spiritual world, God’s angels and opposing angels. They have a clear understanding of black and white. Yakuts believe there are three words: the upper (heaven), medial (earth) and lower (underworld) worlds.

Sometimes it is difficult for our Sakha brothers to fight with local beliefs. For instance, Evens have to go through fire after funerals. They believe it makes them clean from evil spirits. Christians from Evens don’t follow these rituals, and are persecuted by the locals, suffering from them a lot. This is because they are afraid evel spirits can hurt them and their village.

When we started the missionary work in Yakutia, the Yakut people did not have the Gospel in their native language. The translation of the Gospel into Yakut language was started as soon as first Yakuts believed.

In 2004, in fourteen years, the Sakha people could already read the Holy Gospel in Yakut language! It became an extraordinary historical event for Yakutia. In the following years two books of Bible were translated into Yakut language as well – Psalms and Proverbs.

Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk, 1990 Before the trip 


Yakutsk, 1993


The Nikonenko family


Written by Arkady Sleza, Tatyana Arterchyk

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