A Daniel in Moscow
A Russian Follows God’s Call
By Andrew McChesney
The 29-year-old entrepreneur unabashedly shares the secret of his success—a chance encounter with a Seventh-day Adventist who pointed him to God.
“When I met David I was an ordinary man who had a family business with my father. I was a driver and deliveryman. That was my job,” Timofei said. “Now … we do business with almost every big retailer in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.”
Timofei is among a group of wealthy Russians whose lives have seen big changes after they started studying English with David Kulakov, perhaps the most unlikely of English teachers. A native Russian speaker, David studied atZaoksky Adventist University with a desire to reach out to Moscow’s more than 10 million residents from behind the pulpit.
But God had other plans.
David, 34, instead became something of a modern-day Daniel, a friend and adviser to influential people who might otherwise never be challenged to consider God.
“When Nebuchadnezzar started to interact with Daniel, he realized that Daniel did not fear for the future like other people. It’s the same with my students,” David said. “These people are usually very wise; they can see through you. They see if you have that fear for the future, and they see what troubles you. They see what makes you upset; they see which habits you have that are bad and good.
WITNESSING OVER A MEAL:Some of David Kulakov’s students from his English language classes, as well as members of the Moscow International Seventh-day Adventist Church, share a Sabbath lunch in David’s apartment. David invites his students to his home so they can get to know other Adventists and learn more about their faith.“You cannot preach to them,” he said. “That is why they do not go to church, because some have heard people preaching about eternal life and eternal treasures, but not managing earthly things properly.”
David did not set out to attract rich and powerful people when he started teaching English part-time more than a decade ago. But after God miraculously changed his life, he realized that God wanted him to teach.
After a few years, David had so many students that he prayed about the situation and then sharply increased his fees in a bid to regulate demand. The result is that David charges some of the highest prices for private lessons in Russia. His students, naturally, are wealthy businesspeople and well-connected government officials seeking the best English lessons that money can buy.
For the students who ask—and they inevitably do—David also offers something that money can’t buy: advice on managing their businesses and raising their children—straight from the pages of the Bible and the books of Ellen G. White. As the students follow the advice and see their lives improve, they quiz David about the secret of his wisdom. David credits God and presents them with the five books of White’s Conflict of the Ages Series, urging them to start with Patriarchs and Prophets. He also invites them to his home for Sabbath lunch with other Adventists to see his lifestyle in action.
Several students have accepted Jesus and been baptized; among them are David’s own wife, a politician, and a billionaire who was once profiled on the cover of Forbes magazine’s Russian edition.
“David is very successful with his personal ministry because he knows the Scriptures very well,” said Andrey Scheglov, who serves as treasurer of the Moscow Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and has known David for about a decade.
“These people would be hard to reach otherwise, but he brings them to church,” he said. “There is no question that the Holy Spirit is working through David.”
Timofei called David five years ago when he got tired of working as a driver in his family’s small business and concluded that speaking fluent English would jump-start his career. He already had an English teacher, but he felt he could do better, so he scanned the many newspaper advertisements for teachers. David’s ad jumped out at him.
It was the only one promising the ability to both speak and think in English, Timofei said. He called and arranged a meeting with David.
“In a short time I realized what kind of man he was,” Timofei said, speaking in fluent English. “I realized how great he was as an English teacher because I had experience talking with [previous] teachers and taking lessons from them.”
Then, as Timofei and David got to know each other better, Timofei began to confide in him about his aspirations. “I was an ambitious man, and I wanted a more interesting job to realize my potential. I wanted to learn English and enter some big company as an ordinary employee,” Timofei said.
David told him to think bigger. “During the lessons from David I learned that he also taught personal effectiveness, and during our lessons he gave me some points from his seminars. It changed something in my psychology, and my life began to change, especially my business life,” Timofei said.
Timofei took over the family business and soon earned his first million dollars. Astounded by his success, Timofei said, he asked David about his source of wisdom.
Timofei and his wife are now reading Patriarchs and Prophets.
“Without any doubt I can say David has helped me realize what God is in our life,” Timofei said. “God in our life is everything. I think that God is love. Our love to God and our love to people are related. When we start to love God, we start to love ourselves, we start to love other people, and we start to help other people.”
Timofei spoke on condition that his last name not be printed, saying that in Russia’s often-criminal business world, he feared for the safety of his wife and three young children if he drew attention to his wealth. He said he recently turned down an interview request from Forbes over the same concerns.
Timofei, however, agreed to talk about David because he wanted to “tell other people what kind of man David is and what he has done in my life.”
Asked how David had helped open his heart to God, Timofei said, “His words are similar to his actions. This really helped me to understand that there are people in our world who really do or try to do everything that we read in the Bible.”
Timofei, a Jew by birth, recently began attending the synagogue on Sabbath and paid his first tithe there. David is continuing to pray as Timofei reads towardThe Desire of Ages.
How David Started
A difficult youth left David’s mind brimming with thoughts that he desperately wanted to expunge when he rededicated his life to God. A keen student of psychology, David realized that it would be physiologically impossible to switch his impulses overnight because of the fixed pathways between brain cells, formed over years of undisciplined, irreligious thinking.
“In order to build up new connections between the brain cells I needed a real miracle. I knew that our thoughts could not be changed at once. It takes time,” said David, a tall, burly man with silver-rimmed glasses and a booming baritone voice. The smile that always seemed to lurk around his lips vanished for a moment.
David, incidentally, initially expressed a reluctance to share his story, saying if anyone deserved to be profiled it was his mother, a faithful Adventist who witnessed many miracles during Soviet-era repressions. After several days of prayerful soul-searching, David agreed in hope that his experience would further glorify God’s name.
HAND-COPIED BIBLE: In order to allow God to bring his thoughts under divine control, David Kulakov copied the entire Bible by hand. Within two and a half years he prayerfully copied the Scriptures onto sheets of plain white paper, then bound the pages into a volume.He set two conditions, however: that his photograph and the identities of his current students, with the exception of Timofei, not be published. He said he didn’t want to inadvertently hinder God’s work in a country where paranoia can be strong about any religious organization not linked to the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, especially if the group is mistakenly labeled a United States sect.
David said he wanted to prove with his work that Seventh-day Adventist Christians can be trusted and, if asked, faithfully serve others in their businesses, families, and the life of the country.
David began studying English in the early 1990s, and he perfected it by working with American missionaries.
Back in 1997 David prayed earnestly that God bring his thoughts under divine control. On November 28, he resolved to copy the entire Bible by hand. During the next two and a half years, he prayerfully copied the Scriptures onto sheets of plain white paper. At the same time, he reread the Conflict of the Ages Series and the nine volumes of Ellen G. White’sTestimonies for the Church.
The Bible-copying exercise took a combined 800 hours, and the results were astonishing, David said.
“I foresaw the changes that God would make in my life if I copied the Bible by hand, but I later realized that I had correctly predicted only 3 percent of them. I could not even fathom how global the changes would be,” he said.
Among them, he said, was a newfound ability to think in a concentrated form, which he described as having fewer but more potent and useful thoughts. With the Bible imprinted on his mind, he also found it simpler to distinguish between truth and error, particularly in secular writings.
“At that moment, probably, a desire arose deep in my heart to become like Daniel,” David said. “I realized that God has always needed men like Daniel, because He needs people who can present His truth to the powerful people in the countries where they live.”
David prayed that God would allow him to become an effective witness.
Then he abruptly realized that his students already included a number of prominent people, and several of them had become Adventists, including his wife, Anna, and the billionaire featured in Forbes. The billionaire, who accepted Jesus while David was halfway through copying the Bible, currently lives outside Russia.
Ellen White and Self-discipline
With his interest in psychology, David combed through dozens of books on personal effectiveness, compiling a dossier with passages from authors such as Stephen R. Covey and Jim Collins that conformed to the Bible and Ellen G. White’s writings. A common thread that David found in all the writings is the need for self-discipline and diligence—the same skills, incidentally, that students need to learn a foreign language. So David incorporated some materials on self-discipline into his English lessons.
Students began asking David if he had more information about self-discipline and if he could advise them separately from the English lessons. So he developed one-on-one seminars about personal effectiveness and leadership skills. “Little by little God led me into a field that I had not dreamed of before,” he said. “I was really amazed that extremely rich people were not ashamed to say that they really desired to have that self-discipline and the discipline of emotions and character that they saw in me that I don’t see in myself.”
David reads and rereads The Desire of Ages for lessons from Jesus on how to interact with prominent people. One of his favorite stories is the banquet at Simon’s house, when Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and tears. Simon, a wealthy businessman, looked at her in contempt, certain that Jesus would not allow this outpouring of affection if He knew of Mary’s sinful past—a past he had played a key role in. At the same banquet sat the disciple Judas Iscariot, criticizing Mary’s actions as a waste of money.
Filled with compassion, Jesus told the parable of the two debtors, managing to rebuke both Simon and Judas without humiliating them in front of the others.
“Ellen G. White shows in The Desire of Ages how Christ was confronted with difficult situations, and He always had the great wisdom to touch other people’s hearts without offending them and at the same time making the greatest possible impression on their hearts,” David said. “She actually uses psychological terms to explain all that. You can find the terms she uses even in modern psychology books.”
David said he gains new insights every time he prayerfully reflects on how Jesus treated rich and prominent people and the crowds.
“Rich people are very strong-minded; they know how to influence people and they know how to scare people if they need to,” he said. “You have to know how to rebuke them strongly without insulting their self-esteem or personal dignity. This is what The Desire of Ages has taught me.”
Wealthy businesspeople quickly understand that they cannot rattle David, just as Nebuchadnezzar found Daniel could not be frightened. David said peace despite adversity is a lesson he is learning from Jesus’ trial the night before the crucifixion.
“They could rip His skin to shreds, they could spit into His face, they could do anything to Him, but they saw that He had that self-dignity,” David said. “That is why they actually killed Him, because they saw they could not insult Him.”
David said Jesus’ quiet love and compassion during the trial has taught him that it is impossible to upset a person who has a close relationship with God, who has confidence in God’s care and leading.
“Rich people are looking for the best lessons for their own survival in this world,” he said. “Of course they want to know what gives you self-dignity and self-worth.”
When Timofei and other students ask for the secret, David points them to the answer—God.
Andrew McChesney is a journalist who has lived and worked in Russia for the past 12 years.