YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : Captain Marches to Grandparents' Drummer : Sven-Erik Ljungholm takes up the Salvation Army banner in Russia--seven decades after his forebears pioneered the campaign.


MOSCOW — The year was 1918, and in the thin, blue diary he was keeping, Otto Ljungholm recorded the suffering and turmoil of the city he was sent to save.

With the Russian Revolution still in ferment and World War I just ended, thousands of people were dying of cholera. Food was scarce, and people were starving. Horses lay dead in the streets, and dogs tore at the carcasses.

But Otto and his wife, Gerda, were committed and set about their task: to recruit Christian soldiers for what they dreamed would be the largest Salvation Army in the world.

Soon, Otto and his recruits were preaching in Moscow's streets. The Red Guard would descend on the gatherings, often arresting some of the faithful, sometimes executing a few. The incidents grew more frequent and frightening as the years passed. The police regularly ransacked Otto and Gerda's small apartment.

One day, Otto had to go to the morgue to identify the body of a Finnish Salvation Army soldier who had died of cholera. The flies were so thick on the bodies piled there that he found the woman only when he saw a glint of blonde hair beneath the black swarm.

Otto and Gerda gave up and went home.

Last autumn, their American grandson returned to finish their job.

As he prepared to swear in his first 100 Russian Salvation Army "soldiers" this week, Capt. Sven-Erik Ljungholm felt a curious sense of generational deja vu.

"It feels strange to be here doing something my grandparents did," the 47-year-old Ljungholm mused as he sipped tea from a samovar in the spacious offices donated by a government whose antecedents drove his forebears out.

Ljungholm said he believes the Russians invited the Salvation Army this time in hopes that the Methodist organization will eventually establish rehabilitation centers for alcoholics and drug abusers, similar to facilities it operates in the United States.

Since arriving last November, he and his wife, Kathleen, have set up soup kitchens and a chapel where about 350 people attend Sunday services and listen to Ljungholm's sermons through an interpreter.

Initially, Ljungholm was able to rent the same room in the Polytechnic Museum that his grandfather used for services. But when the crowds outgrew the space, he moved to larger quarters.

Ljungholm's grandfather originally registered the Salvation Army here not as a religious organization--frowned upon by the Bolsheviks--but as a newspaper. The hatbands on the volunteers' trademark blue uniforms read "Message of Salvation," and they would hand out the organization's religious paper.

"When the police weren't looking, they would reverse the hatbands and it would just say 'Salvation Army,' and they would go back to preaching," Ljungholm said.

True to the organization's motto of "soup, soap and salvation," Russians accepting gifts of food and toiletries from the Salvation Army today are invited to attend services, but not required to do so, according to Ljungholm. Everyone coming to a service for the first time gets a free miniature Bible in Russian.

"I don't advertise that or 10,000 people would show up," he said, "and 5,000 of the Bibles would end up on the black market."

Like his father, Ljungholm, a former pilot and businessman, drifted away from the family's Salvation Army tradition after childhood, only to return in midlife. He never got a chance to talk to his grandfather about his Moscow experiences.

"My parents moved us to the United States from Sweden when I was a 10-year-old," he said, "and I was too young then to care about Russia."

His grandfather's diary was misplaced last spring--ironically just after the Ljungholms got word that they were being reassigned from Sweden to Moscow. A bereft Ljungholm thought he had left it at a television studio and figured it had been thrown out.

"Then it popped up about a week ago," he said, speculating that the diary fell from a file cabinet or desktop during their hectic move and, thankfully, ended up in one of the cartons heading for Moscow.

Just as his grandfather witnessed things Ljungholm cannot fathom, his own Salvation Army duties in Moscow of 1992 would probably boggle Otto's imagination.

Last week, for example, the Ljungholms were trailed by television crews from around the world as they oversaw the distribution of food and medicine from the first U.S. emergency airlift to Moscow.

Ljungholm admits that the situation today cannot begin to compare to the grim reality of his grandfather's time in Moscow, amid the aftermath of war and the turmoil of revolution. But he still finds a few striking similarities.

"My grandfather wrote of very similar circumstances," Ljungholm said, "with lots of food lines and difficulty finding food, people going into the countryside to buy things to eat."

Los Angeles Times Articles