Long article: St. Petersburg paper recounts underground experience of Jehovah's Witnesses


by Nikolai Neliubin, 21 April 2017


Jehovah's Witnesses, who are now an organization banned in Russia, were on the "black lists" for the greater part of the existence of the U.S.S.R. Fontanka has tried to understand why at that time there were considered sectarians and now—extremists.


The Russian Supreme Court ruled the Jehovah's Witnesses an extremist organization and liquidated and banned its activity on the territory of the country. The court also converted the organization's property into state income. The Russian Ministry of Justice demanded banning the activity of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. The Jehovah's Witnesses promptly began preparing an appeal of the Supreme Court's decision regarding the liquidation of their centralized organization and 395 local organizations in Russia. And today the European Union condemned the decision to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia.


Besides the Russian federation, the Witnesses are not tolerated in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea. Experts questioned by Fontanka say that no one will stand up for the Witnesses in Russia because the historical memory about sectarianism in the U.S.S.R. is strong. However, in their opinion, they also do not feel drawn to the present extremists.


From where they came to Russia


According to the soviet political prisoner Viacheslav Dolinin, who crossed paths in the prison camps with those who were persecuted for their religious convictions, Jehovah's Witnesses (who are now forbidden in Russia) first came onto the territory of the U.S.S.R. after the annexation of Bessarabia and western Ukraine in 1940. "Before the war they hardly existed in the Soviet Union," an employee of the Memorial academic information center and scholar of the history of the persecution of dissenters in the U.S.S.R, Alexander Daniel, clarifies. "They appeared in small groups after the annexation of Bessarabia (Moldavia) and Estonia." One way or another, before the early 1950s, Jehovah's Witnesses lived unnoticed. "In 1950 the operation 'North' was conducted, under which the Witnesses were deported to special settlements in the Far East, eastern Siberia, and Kazakhstan," Alexander Daniel says. "They were exiled all at once. At that time there were thousands of persons. Many of them were taken into the camps."


The prolific "North"


It is curious that as the result of operation North, the number of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the country grew by dozens of times. "They dropped the pike into the river" or "They let the goat into the garden," are the ways Daniel characterizes this phenomenon. "They are active missionaries. And when they were resettled or sent to the camps, then the number of proselytes (proselytism is the attempt to spread one's faith and to convert others to one's faith and the attempt to establish one's religion everywhere—ed. note) grew by dozens of times." In the opinion of the Memorial worker, in this sense the Jehovah's Witnesses are unique, because Baptists or Pentecostals did not increase adherents by such a number and they were equally distributed about the country.


"They were the most persecuted, even after Stalin's death," Viacheslav Dolinin says. "When the Khrushchev campaign of struggle with religion and the church began, the first to fall under the blows were the so-called sectarians. Jehovah's Witnesses were just such a religious organization, which was subjected to the fiercest persecution. They were underground, unlike some of the Baptists, who emerged from the underground."


Anti-soviet believers


Alexander Daniel says that one can only guess about the real reasons why this national confession began to be persecuted fiercely in the U.S.S.R. "Their publishing center is located in the U.S.A., in Chicago, if I am not mistaken," the historian recalls.  "There the magazine 'Watchtower' is published in many languages. And it is distributed everywhere where there are Witnesses." At the same time, experts note, the organization does not have a hierarchical center. "At the peak of the Cold War they were perceived as agents of American imperialism," Daniel notes. "And it was very typical that in the prison camp sentences of Jehovah's Witnesses there always was article 58-11, 'organizing anti-soviet activity,' and not religious activity, for which Pentecostals, for example, were sentenced: violation of the law of separation of church and state or infringing the rights of citizens under the guise of conducting religious rituals."


The Witnesses were held in special settlements longer than others, until the mid-1960s, although the widespread existence of soviet citizens in special settlements disappeared back in the 1950s. "Back in the 60s, Jehovah's Witnesses were held in our 'political' camps," Viacheslav Dolinin recalls. "At that time they were sentenced under the article 'Anti-soviet agitation and propaganda.' Then they began to act more cunningly. They began giving 'religious' articles and sentencing them not to strict regime but general regime in common camps." Viacheslav Dolin was arrested in 1982. After 1986 he was in exile. "I will not say that those who were sentenced for religion were treated more harshly," he recalls. Of course they tried to re-educate them, but that was a hopeless task. In the main they did dirty tricks on them. Now they permit the Bible and then they take it away. I was imprisoned with various people, including with Orthodox believers. In particular, with Father Gleb Yakunin. With Catholics. Including the present head of the church in Kaunas in Lithuania. Sergei was my camp comrade. This does not mean that various believers in prison were treated the same. I recall that Jehovah's Witnesses were underground. The Orthodox Yakunin was not an inhabitant of the underground. He acted openly. He had the Committee for the Defense of Believers' Rights, which operated relatively openly. In essence it was an affiliate of the Moscow Helsinki Group."


On the whole, the story has developed that Jehovists in the U.S.S.R. were persecuted more harshly than others. "Their searches and arrests were total," says Viacheslav Dolinin. "Why they were so feared is a question for the agencies," Daniel says with his hands. "But it is a fact: they were very well organized, including in the underground. Even in the camps they regularly contrived to receive their magazine, 'Watchtower,' from Chicago. Even in Siberia."


And so, in various years the count of persecuted Witnesses was in the hundreds. In the 50s, in the thousands. In the 80s, in the dozens. "They categorically rejected military service, they refused to take the oath, they refused to bear arms. And the consequence was the camp. For Jehovah's Witnesses this is a 100% refusal," Daniel calls one of the possible reasons for the dislike on the part of the state.




The persecution ended with perestroika. In 1991 Jehovah's Witnesses received official registration. The mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s allocated to the organization several parcels of land within city limits and also 7 hectares in Solnechnoe, where the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia is located. According to information in news media, in 2012 the number of adherents in Russia was 168,000. The organization's website says that "the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses is actively professed in Russia by 175 thousand persons. A total number of approximately 300 thousand Russians attend their services at least once a year. Throughout the world, the number attending Jehovah's Witnesses' meetings is 20 million persons."


To the underground again?


Now the common person who does not particularly follow the fate of the Witnesses may probably recall of them only that they refuse blood transfusion and organ transplants. To be sure, several years back Fontanka wrote about the tragic story where Witnesses laid claim to an inheritance of a businessman who died suddenly.


Lawyers are hesitant to comment on the news that the state recognized this organization as extremist. A number of top Russian experts on legal matters have distanced themselves from assessing this topic. Boris Gruzd, a lawyer of the St. Petersburg City College of Advocates, assessed the decision of the Russian Supreme Court by delving into complex historical parallels. "In Hitler's Germany the Jehovah's Witnesses were banned and persecuted," the lawyer recalls. "They were especially singled out in concentration camps; they had a special badge, a purple triangle," Daniel explains. "Jehovah's Witnesses do not bear arms out of principle," Viacheslav Dolinin recalls. "They did not conduct mass demonstrations and they will not. But in the soviet mind for decades the thought was injected that 'sectarians are enemies' and that 'they cause nothing but evil.' The authorities understand very well that society will not rise to the defense of Jehovah's Witnesses. They are a safe opponent."


Alexander Daniel gives as one of the reasons for the current persecution of one of the largest religious 'sects,' the indicators of a totalitarian state. "If people by virtue of their religious distinctives consider themselves free from the rules which the state imposes on them, that is intolerable from the point of view of the totalitarian state," he explains. Incidentally, as Viacheslav Dolinin specifies, it is unreal to find today former prisoners of the soviet camps among Witnesses. "In their office in Solnechnoe there is a small museum. There is presented their samizdat and reproduction equipment which they used when they were underground," Dolinin notes.


"Persecution and discrimination for any reason is unconstitutional," Boris Gruzd is certain. "Both the wearers of the triangle and the camps did not appear all at once. Everything has its development. And this trend in Russia does not call forth optimism." "Unfortunately, Russia is now at the same level of legal consciousness and of ensuring religious liberties and freedom of conscience as North Korea," Alexander Daniel is sure. (tr. by PDS, posted 25 April 2017)

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