"WE ARE THE KIND OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU, BUT NOW WE ARE CALLED CRIMINALS AND EXTREMISTS"
The story of a prosecutor's office worker who became a Jehovah's Witness
Kommersant, 1 March 2019
In Russia's regions, the number of criminal cases against followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses (forbidden in Russia—Kom.) is growing; they are suspected of creating an extremist organizations. But against this background, the situation in Surgut stands out—there searches were conducted in homes of dozens of believers, many of whom complained that at interrogations, tortures with an electric shock device were used on them. One of those suspected of extremism was the lawyer Timofei Zhukov, a former assistant prosecutor in Surgut, who renounced a career in law enforcement agencies and became a Jehovah's Witness. In an interview with special Kommersant corresondant Alexander Chernykh, Mr. Zhukov described how his former colleagues treat Jehovah's Witnesses and analyzed in detail the legal errors of the charge of extremism, and at the same time he answered questions about his own religious belief. He also acknowledged: "Until recently I could not believe that personnel of law enforcement agencies may torture believers."
-- Interviewer Alexander Chernykh: How did the search go in your home?
-- Timofei Zhukov: At 6:15 a.m. my wife and I were still in bed, and then someone began banging loudly on the door, as if they intended to break it down. We were frightened, naturally, and decided not to open it. Everything became quiet. Half an hour went by. I had already gotten up and was getting ready to go to work. And suddenly there was a noise, a crash. Some people were breaking into our home through the balcony. They smashed the double-paned windows and broke the small vent. We actually live on the third floor.
At the time, I was in the bathroom. So the three of them pulled me out and threw me on the floor and handcuffed me.
One OMON troop kicked me, swinging his leg about my head, like a ball. Another pressed his knee on my solar plexus and pushed with all his weight. My eyesight was dimming, I wheezed, and I could not breathe.
Then they picked me up and placed me face to the wall and began beating my legs so that I spread them as wide apart as I could. Well, they banged my head on the wall several times; the blood remained on the wallpaper.
Only after this the investigator from the Investigative Committee of Russia (S.K.R.), Natalia Kalacheva, came into the apartment. There were three F.S.B. agents, one "expert," and another OMON troop with her. And a couple of witnesses, young fellows, students of the law school of Surgut University. I graduated there myself. No one wanted to take off his shoes, although our house is neat. You see, after this the search began.
--What were they looking for?
--They had a sheet with a template of what should be seized in the apartment. Not specifically for Jehovah's Witnesses, but in general, for any search. Listed in order: first laptops and telephones, then flash drives, then tablets and notebooks, and so forth. So they took all of this. They also seized passports, other documents, and bank cards.
--They demanded religious books. I showed them a Bible and our other literature. I try to read the Bible every day; I am not ashamed of this; I have nothing to hide. But it seemed they did not know themselves what they needed. They did not have any kind of list of "extremist literature."
So they first scooped all religious books into a big pile and then the investigator said: "You have to write a lot; let's take half and leave the rest."
The investigator continually went out to smoke and at those times the search was interrupted. At such a time I could not control myself and I said to her: "If you were to read the Bible then you would quit smoking."
--How long did the search last?
--About three hours. All this time I was standing spread-leg with my back to them. My hands were in cuffs behind my back, and my head was against the wall. While they continually beat my legs so that I spread them still wider. My wife was frightened and asked all the time: "Why are you beating him?" And they cursed us in response and accused us. The F.S.B. agents were saying all the time: "You see, you are Yankees." Although I was born in the Urals and I have lived in Surgut for 35 years now. The investigator also did not shirk. She declared that my wife and I "are corrupting the state." She said: "I will become a grandmother soon and I do not want my grandchildren to suffer because of people like you." In general, such unfounded accusations. I asked her to give one fact how we can be dangerous for the state. If you examine our whole Bible under a magnifying glass you will not find a single word against the state.
I refused to sign the protocol. I said: excuse me, but I was standing all the time with my face to the wall and I did not see what you were dealing with and what you seized. Then the investigator said to me angrily: "I will definitely put you in jail."
Then they took my wife and me to the S.K.R. department. But before we left home they suddenly removed my handcuffs: "We won't scare people." No, I replied, wait; let the neighbors see everything. They have known me all my life. You see, they will say whether I am a criminal or not. I have nothing to be ashamed of in front of them.
But they took me without handcuffs and put my wife and me into a microbus. Not some police vehicle but a civilian one, with the marking "Severavtodor" [Northern Roadway]. And this was not accidental. Other believers later told me that they also were transported in "corporate" vehicles. For example, in a "Surgut Neftgaz" microbus. Along the way the vehicle stopped and another of my believer acquaintances was also transported. So we also arrived together in the Investigative Committee of Surgut. Although they shared this building with the prosecutor's office: the S.K.R. was on the first and second floors and then the regional prosecutor's office, and on the fourth and fifth, the city prosecutor.
--What happened there?
--And there the whole corridor was packed with Jehovah's Witnesses; there were 22 searches that day. Part of the corridor was separated by a door and suddenly from there heart-rending screams rang out. My heart suddenly stopped and I thought somebody was being killed there. Suddenly loud music was turned on in the building, but it was impossible to squelch these screams. Real horror. I am a lawyer and therefore I began shouting to the others of our people: "Please, register the exact time; somebody is being beaten here." So that they would be able, in the event, to give evidence.
After this a F.S.B. agent came out from the doors and said: "Don't worry. Nobody is being beaten here. We have a drug addict sitting there and he is mad and banging his head on the wall." And I even believed that. Later our friends told what kind of horrors they caused behind that door.
So then they began "conversing" with me. They immediately began intimidating. The investigator declared that they will send me to the SIZO today. An F.S.B. agent said: "Did you see that door in the corridor? We will now take you there and there's a doctor who will 'fix' you."
--Did they say this in a lawyer's presence?
--They told me that although my status was that of a suspect, this was not yet an interrogation, and therefore a lawyer was "not allowed."
--What did they ask you?
--The investigator and F.S.B. agents mostly asked questions about how our worship of God was arranged: "Whom do you believe in? Where and how do you pray? Who is the elder and what are his functions?" For comparisons, this is like asking Orthodox believers in interrogation: "Tell us, what is a deacon? Well, tell us who is your patriarch and what functions does he perform? Explain why you light candles." You see, they asked me such questions. I had nothing to hide and I explained in detail. But they did not record anything in the report. So what do you want, I asked. "Self confession," the investigator declared. And she began to dictate: I, Zhukov Timofei, after the adoption of the Supreme Court's order regarding the ban of the organization, continued its activity. I organized it, I participated, I actively recruited. . . .
No, I said. Such wording doesn't exactly fit me. (He laughs.) I am myself a lawyer and I understand that the investigation has already committed a serious legal error in the order for opening the criminal case. They confused the legal person "Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia" and a natural person who believes in God and calls himself a Jehovah's Witness.
In 2017, the Supreme Court prohibited the legal person and the local religious organizations that constitute its structure. But this has nothing to do with me, since I never was a part of this forbidden organization.
--And where did they learn about this?
--Actually they should have checked this originally before starting the case. An organization has an official charter, a list of members, and so forth. All this documentation is submitted to the Ministry of Justice, and F.S.B. and S.K.R. personnel can easily get it. It is also possible simply to get an extract from the Uniform State Registry of Legal Entities, where all the members of a specific organization are indicated. I and my friends are not there. So then how can I "continue the activity of a forbidden organization," if I have never been a member of it?
But the important thing is that the Russian government itself stated in response to the E.C.H.R. that the ruling of the Supreme Court relates only to legal entities: the Administrative Center and local organizations. But this prohibition does not extend to the religious confession of natural persons. Because our constitution guarantees freedom of religious confession. Incidentally, the news media also often make a mistake in this matter, when they write: "Jehovah's Witnesses (banned in the RF)". This is incorrect; the specific organization is banned, but not the belief itself.
--And is it possible for you to conduct collective worship services?
--Before the order of the ban, we met in the house of worship belonging to the local organization. Then it was confiscated and therefore we study the Bible at home.
--But in whatever other place do you have the right to meet?
--The Bible calls us to respect the laws of the state, even if we consider them unjust. And we will not arrange such meetings so as not to irritate the authorities once more. Of course, I personally continue to worship God. I pray, I sing songs, I study the Bible. I continue to discuss the Bible with people. You probably know that Witnesses are known for their witnessing (adherents of the teaching of Jehovah's Witnesses consider that they are required "to bear good news about Christ" to other people—Komm.). And article 28 of the constitution permits me, as any citizen of the RF, "freely to disseminate religious and other convictions."
But if a person says: "I am not interested in this," I excuse myself, thanking him, and I do not approach him any longer.
I explained all of this for a long time to the investigator and F.S.B. agents, and here they backed off. But they all the same encouraged one another. They continually said, well there is no Stalin for them; under Stalin we would have put them all in jail.
--It is strange that they do not recall Hitler; after all he also hounded the Jehovah's Witnesses.
--They probably do not even know about that. You see, Stalin is recalled, and often. I said to them at such a time: you beat me during the search and handcuffed me—and all this suffering for faith. International organizations call people like us "prisoners of conscience." They began distinguishing the policy: they say that the international sanctions were originally against Russia and that's all. I say: fine, but even Russian rights advocacy organizations also consider us prisoners of conscience.
--And what did they answer?
--The F.S.B. agents replied: forget the rights advocacy organizations; here we are in command.
--When the Supreme Court ruled the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses to be extremist, one of the arguments was that Witnesses allegedly declare the exceptionality of their teaching and thereby "inflame inter-religious strife." Did they talk about this with you in interrogation?
--Yes, of course, I also explained this point for them. I asked the investigator: "And who are you by religion?" She said: "I do not believe so strongly, but I am Orthodox." I said to her, tell me please, is your religion true or false?
You understand, yes? You know, this is a rhetorical question. No believer calls his religion false or secondary. He always will think it true and important. I think that this is logical.
--And what did the investigator respond about her religion?
--She said: "Well, I am not such an intense believer. I have my own god, a universal god, in which I believe. He is within me, in my heart." In general, she dodged my question. Well, I am not an investigator and I could not pressure her. (laughs)
I am not about to deny that we consider our religion the only true religion. But after all, every religion thinks itself true, and there is nothing extremist about that.
--How did the "conversation" end?
--By evening they brought in a public lawyer and in about forty minutes they conducted an official interrogation, with a protocol. Then they released me, without even my signed promise not to depart. To be sure, they did not return my passport. You are some kind of inconsistent guys, I said to them. (laughs) If I am such a fearsome extremist, that it is necessary to break in through the balcony and to handcuff me for three hours, then why do you release me?
Go away, they reply, and say thanks to the state. Well, thank you, state, that you busted my whole balcony.
I will tell you, not as a believer but as a lawyer—these investigators and F.S.B. agents simply do not know what they are doing. They did not understand anything--whom they are coming to search, what kind of people these are, what they are accused of.
It seems that the command told them: "Bad people live there and they are corrupting the state structure. Go and do what you want with them."
You see, I enlightened them for a whole day. And in the end the F.S.B. agents themselves asked me: "So why are they banning you?" Good question; and it demands an answer.
--And why do you think they are banning you?
--If one takes the point of view of the Bible, then nothing in this is surprising. You know, Jesus also was banned and the apostles were called sectarians.
--And your personal opinion?
--I could suggest a bunch of versions, but where the wind really blows from I do not know. Perhaps because we are so active. . . .
This happened this way for some reason, especially in our state. Under Stalin we were imprisoned; under Khrushchev we were imprisoned; under Brezhnev we were imprisoned; and under Putin we are being imprisoned.
But you know, Vladimir Vladimirovich himself said that the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is "some kind of nonsense." Remember, the rights advocate said to him at the conference: in our country there is a list of 489 extremist organization, and 404 of them are Jehovah' Witnesses. The president replied: "It is necessary to deal with this." As if it were the first time he had heard about it.
So you see, they have now begun torturing us. Apparently they have begun to "deal with this." Only I do not know with whom or with what.
I was not personally tortured; I was just beaten during the search. But with respect to my comrades, there were real atrocities.
They described how their clothing was doused with water and their damp clothing was zapped with a stun gun. They even pushed the shock device deep into their crotch and zapped there with a shock, through wet clothing. They suffocated them with a bag over their head. Understand—they treated adults like this, for the fact that they are believing Christians. They tortured Artem more than two hours; they tried everything. Or Viacheslav, a forty-year-old man; he is such a healthy man, weighs 120 kg. He told me: "I have not shed a tear in my life, but during these tortures I cried." Now after this mistreatment you begin talking with him and tears flow from his eyes (we note that on 22 February the S.K.R. and the ombudsman for human rights in KhMAO stated that they had begun an examination of information about tortures—Kom).
Of course, I am not hostile to our authorities. But I am very insulted. I am 39 years old and I have worked half my life and the state uses my taxes. I am an ordinary person. I work as a legal advisor in a construction company and I have not committed any crimes. Moreover, previously I worked in the prosecutor's office.
--Wait; you worked in the prosecutor's office?
--Yes, in 2003 and 2004 I was an assistant prosecutor in the prosecutor's office of Surgut. Now, incidentally, our city prosecutor is a person whom I once did an internship under.
After the interrogation I went and talked with some investigators whom I know from my old life. "What is going on with you?" I asked. But their response was simple: "Timofei, what are you doing with such nonsense; do you believe in a forbidden god?" I explained everything to them in detail about the legal error. And they answered me: "If you would sit quietly at home, then nothing would happen with you. Why do you need all this?" And I say: I am exercising article 28 of the constitution; this is what I am doing. Meanwhile, we Jehovah's Witnesses are doing your work, to a great extent.
You are investigating crime, but you have a problem with prevention. And I come to people and say: "It is bad to steal, it is bad to lie, it is bad to smoke, it is bad to curse." And the state persecutes me for this.
--When you worked in law enforcement agencies, in those years were there also such harsh searches, beatings, tortures?
--I worked in the supervisory body and our task was to put an end to various violations. The police feared us. If we came to the station with an inspection and saw that a citizen was being held longer than a proper time, the epaulets flew off instantly. Now I do not know how things are, but in 2003-2004 we were fighting with this in the city prosecutor's office.
About tortures—it is difficult to say, to be honest. Of course, detectives always behave brutally. There were many complaints in this regard, but most often they get away with it. Maybe it was so in our time; but still with respect to notorious villains. In addition, after all, it is true that such things happen. People beat their heads against a wall and then they declare that the officers beat them. And here it is really difficult to establish the truth.
So that is why I myself, even though I heard screams from behind the doors, could not believe until the end that they were beating the brothers. After all, the F.S.B. agents said that this was some drug addict screaming. And at the time I was not able to believe the truth, that the law enforcement personnel could torture believers.
They found extremists! You know, we never take up arms. Jesus said: "Whoever takes up the sword will perish by the sword."
In countries where there is no alternative military service, our bothers are put into prison because in our faith it is impermissible to learn to fight. In Germany they put up monuments to our brothers who chose to go to concentration camps so as not to go to fight. The Nazis tortured them and beat them; but they did not take up arms. And now our country is torturing us.
As a lawyer I consult with our brothers who want to go to alternative military service. Well, you know, they help old women in homes for the elderly. Because the young men do not want to take up arms. This was easy earlier; but now after the decision of the Supreme Court, problems have begun. Military commissions say: "Now you have been banned and that means you do not have the right any more to alternative service." The brothers fight in the courts, but for some reason they are forced to go into the army.
So I have a younger brother, my own, he is not a Witness. And he leads a bad lifestyle, to be honest. Mama has twice tried herself to send him to the military commission. She thought maybe the army will somehow straighen him out. So the military commission does not take him; they say they do not need him. But they require our Witnesses to serve.
--That is, you are not a hereditary Witness? Could you then describe how you came to this faith? It is a very unusual conversion—from the prosecutor's office to the pacifists.
--I worked a long time in the prosecutor's office, immediately after university. I left because it is very difficult—there is no pay at all and there is a lot of work, dawn to dusk and practically no days off. You know, after searches I arrived on Saturday and they are sitting like on a weekday, all in place. I said to an acquaintance who had already worked 15 years there: "Why are you sitting here; it would be better to go to your wife and kids. Spend some time with family." Yeah, well, he says, I am fed up with everything and waiting for my pension as fast as possible. They count a year as a year and a half.
And how did I come to faith. You know, once I was riding in a car and I thought: "God, do you exist or not?" (laughs). But let's start a bit earlier.
I was always interested in spiritual matters. For example, when I was about 20 years old I became interested in the system of Porfiry Ivanov, I showered in freezing cold as is required there. Then at 23 I became very Orthodox. Perhaps more Orthodox than all my relatives and friends. I kept all the fasts, took communion regularly, and made my confession. Our priest once asked me to stay after confession and he suggested: "Perhaps you should go to seminary? Study and become a priest; you have all the makings." I do not wish to say that I was the best parishioner, of course not. But its my nature. If I am doing something I try to do it all deliberately and to get into the very essence. If I go to church, then it is not simply for show.
I had a friend who was the same. He looked for the spiritual. We studied together. He worked as an investigator and reached major, and he quit. He and I did not talk for a long time, but then we met and it seemed that he had found himself. He had become an avid Muslim. Not radical, of course, but very much a believer. He observed it all, and he reads the Quran. We began talking again and he asked: "Are you sure that you are believing correctly? That it is in the church there is God? Perhaps you will read the Quran." I read it, and wow—Muslims also worship God and they also urge goodness. I went to the mosque with him and I saw that everything there was arranged. And my head spun. Where is the truth? Perhaps it is not at all either in the church or in the mosque, but somewhere else?
So once I was driving the car and my heart was breaking. I am thinking, where is the truth? Where is God? And I turned to God and said: "Listen, put me on the true path." Of course, in an hour I forgot thinking about this. I drove past a bus stop and I saw out of the corner of my eye two persons standing there waiting for the bus. Here the temperature in the winter is minus forty. I drove on, and in my head there suddenly was somebody's voice: "Hey you saint. You are in a warm car thinking about God and people are freezing on the street." I turned around and went back to the bus stop. Hop in. They refused but then they got in. We talked, and the man asked: "Why did you pick us up? You acted just like the Bible says." At the time I thought that if I keep the fasts, that means I live according to the Bible. And that's what I answered. "And for a long time?" "About three years." "But I have done it for thirteen years now." Oh, wow, I thought. And he seemed to be a normal person (laughs). So I already understood. It turned out they are Jehovah's Witnesses.
We exchanged phone numbers. About three weeks later he called and began talking. He asked: "Do you know the Our Father prayer?" Of course, I said. I recite it every day. And he began reading like in an examination. He says: now hold on there. Here are the words: "Hallowed be thy name." And do you know which name to hallow? "Let thy kingdom come,"—which kingdom is that? I wondered—it's true that I go to church often and keep the fasts, but I do not know such things. And he said to me: "Let's take the Bible. Do you want yours or want mine, without any difference. Let's see what this all means." So there is no question; I reply, let's.
And you see, we began examining the Bible and then I understood which name and what kind of kingdom. I learned where they go after death and what hope the loved ones of the deceased have. And the main thing is that I got all the answers from the Bible. Not from another person, but directly from sacred scripture. My interlocutor always stressed: if I say something, question my words. Is it correct? The most important thing is are such words in the Bible.
For me, as a lawyer, that's clear. One can say many words in court, appealing to the law. But if it is not written in the law itself, then your words will be incorrect. In the same way it is possible to say much about religion, but if it is not confirmed by the foundation, the Bible, then it is not true.
And that's what I believed. I began reading the Bible regularly and going to meetings where they discussed the Bible and its truth. In any questions—family, life, finances—I began relying on the Bible.
I began learning to live; you know, that is not taught in the institutes.
Who would teach me in the institute how to treat my precious wife? Nobody for sure. To be honest, our family used to be in a half-broken state: constant cursing, and we had already started talking about divorce. I relaxed with friends and she with girlfriends. We had come to a rather bad state. We got offended for weeks and did not talk with each other. But when I began applying the advice from the Bible, then everything fell into place. Husbands, love your wives as yourself. Wives, respect your husbands deeply. And it all worked, understand? Our family became very strong. Now we go to visit friends together, and friends come to our house.
Some pity the Witnesses. They say, you do not celebrate birthdays and you live without holidays. Guys, we do have enough other holidays. We are ordinary people. My wife and I like to sit in front of the television on Friday and drink a beer and have fun with friends. We are the kind of people like you, but now we are called criminals and extremists. (tr. by PDS, posted 6 March 2019)
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