Russians Treasure Freedom of Worship
SINCE THE DISSOLUTION OF THE SOVIET UNION IN 1991, PEOPLE LIVING THERE HAVE ENJOYED GREATER FREEDOM TO WORSHIP GOD. SUCH FREEDOM HAS ALSO BEEN TREASURED BY THOSE WHO HAVE EMIGRATED TO OTHER COUNTRIES.
FOR many who live in the former Soviet Union, the freedom to assemble openly to worship God is a cherished delight—one that they were deprived of for many decades.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, it became dangerous in Russia to read the Bible, and few people risked their freedom to do so. Jehovah’s Witnesses were an exception. In fact, Newsweek magazine of April 16, 1956—nearly 44 years ago—quoted a youth in East Germany as saying: “Nobody but Jehovah’s Witnesses reads the Bible.” Yet, for holding Bible study meetings and for preaching the Bible’s message, Witnesses were put in prisons and labor camps. Wherever they went, however, they focused attention on their Bible-based hope, as the accompanying box shows.
When the Soviet Union began to dissolve in 1991, the Witnesses there held seven conventions featuring a program of Bible instruction. Altogether, 74,252 attended. In 1993, just two years later, 112,326 assembled at eight such conventions in 4 of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union. * Many of those thousands had spent long years in Soviet prisons and labor camps. These faithful Christians were extremely grateful for their freedom to worship God without hindrance.
Every year since 1993, people from the former Soviet republics have treasured the privilege of meeting freely at Christian gatherings in their homeland. Last year, for example, a total of 282,333 Jehovah’s Witnesses and their friends were delighted to worship together at 80 “God’s Prophetic Word” District Conventions held in former Soviet republics. And a total of 13,452 were baptized.
Surprising as it may seem, last year there were also Russian-language conventions in other countries in the world. A total of 6,336 persons attended four such gatherings in countries outside the former Soviet Union! Where were these held? And why do so many Russian-speaking people have an intense interest in the Bible? Let us first briefly consider the latter question.
They Recognize a Spiritual Need
Russia has a rich religious history. Its ornate cathedrals, built centuries ago, are among the most famous in Christendom. Yet, the Russian Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, has kept people in ignorance of the Bible.
“The Bible,” explains the recent book The Russian Tragedy—The Burden of History, “has never been a principal part of Russian Orthodoxy.” The result, according to Russian religious scholar Sergei Ivanenko, is that “the lack of Bible knowledge of Orthodox believers has led to the fact that many parishioners of Orthodox churches are more susceptible to the influence of superstitions, occultism, and magic than unbelievers.”
The famous Russian writer Tolstoy made a similar observation. He wrote: “I convinced myself that the doctrine of the [Russian Orthodox] church was in theory a cunning and harmful deceit, and in practice a collection of the grossest superstitions and sorcery, which completely conceals the whole meaning of the Christian teaching.”
This situation proved to be a fertile ground for the rise of Soviet Communism with its atheistic propaganda and well-known refrain: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Yet, Communism itself soon became a form of religion, often called the Red Religion. But the Red Religion did not last. When the Soviet State collapsed in 1991, millions of people were confused and wondered where to turn. With the encouragement of Jehovah’s Witnesses, many thousands of Russians looked for answers in the Bible.
As a result of a fine educational system, Russians had come to be among the most literate people in the world. Thus, many Russians became not only Bible readers but also lovers of its teachings. At the same time, especially during the decade of the 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union migrated to other countries, such as Germany, Greece, and the United States. With what results?
Free to Worship in Germany
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Germans moved to Russia. The most famous was 15-year-old Sophie, who in 1762 succeeded her husband as ruler of Russia. During her long reign, Sophie, later known as Catherine the Great, invited German farmers to live in Russia. Then, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union during World War II, most of those of German descent were transported to Siberia and to such Soviet republics as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Recently many Russian-speaking Germans, as well as others from the former Soviet Union, moved to Germany to enjoy better economic conditions.
In December 1992 the first Russian-speaking congregation in Germany was formed in Berlin. By last year, 52 congregations and 43 smaller groups had been formed into three Russian-speaking circuits in Germany. There was a peak attendance of 4,920 at the Russian-language “God’s Prophetic Word” District Convention in Cologne, held from July 30 to August 1, where 164 were baptized to symbolize their dedication to Jehovah. Earlier, on April 1, in Germany’s Russian-language congregations, 6,175 were present for the celebration of the Memorial of Jesus’ death.
Russians in the United States
The United States too has experienced an influx of Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet Union. The New York Times reported: “Between 1991 and 1996, Russians were Brooklyn’s fastest-growing immigrant group. During the same period, the Immigration and Naturalization Service admitted more than 339,000 immigrants to the United States from the former Soviet Union.”
Later, the Times of January 1999 said that during the previous decade, some 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union had immigrated to New York City and the surrounding area. In addition, Russians by the thousands have settled in other parts of the United States in recent years. For example, northern California has had an influx of some 35,000 new Russian immigrants, making it the third-largest center of immigrants from the former Soviet Union after New York and Los Angeles. These Russian-speaking people have also responded to the opportunity to study the Bible, and hundreds of them have become worshipers of the true God, Jehovah.
On April 1, 1994, the first Russian-language congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in recent times in the United States was formed in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually, Russian congregations were started in Pennsylvania, California, and Washington. Study groups were begun in many other parts of the country.
A First in the United States
Last August 20 to 22, a peak attendance of 670 from throughout the United States and Canada were thrilled to attend the first Russian-language district convention held in New York City. All the talks were delivered in Russian, and a full-costume drama, featuring the Bible account of Jacob and Esau, was presented by members of the Russian Congregation of Los Angeles, California. It was truly a highlight of the convention.
Another convention highlight was the baptism of 14 persons, all of whom appear in the accompanying photograph. Several traveled some 2,500 miles [4,000 km] from Portland, Oregon, and from Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, to be baptized at the convention in New York City. Previously, these 14 had lived in the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. Their experiences reveal how much they treasure the knowledge of God and the freedom to worship him.
Svetlana (front row, third from the left) was raised in Moscow. At 17 she married a famous singer many years older than she, and in 1989 they came to the United States with their infant son. Her husband traveled extensively, and five years later they were divorced.
When Svetlana met a Witness coworker, her friends warned her about getting involved with what they told her was “a sect that would take control of [her] life and take all [her] money.” Yet, she wanted to learn what the Bible teaches. About being shown God’s name in the Bible, she says: “I was greatly impressed that the Witnesses were the only ones making it known.”
As a youth, Andrei (back row, third from the left) left his home in Siberia for advanced training as an athlete in what today is St. Petersburg. Soon afterward, the Soviet Union dissolved, and in 1993, Andrei, at age 22, immigrated to the United States. He explains: “I began to think about God and started going to the Russian Orthodox Church. Once, during the Russian Easter celebration, I stayed in church the entire night seeking to draw close to God.”
About this time Svetlana met Andrei, and she told him about what she was learning from her Bible study. He agreed to accompany her to a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and afterward he accepted a Bible study. In January 1999 they were married. After their baptism at the convention, they were radiant.
Pavel (back row, fourth from the left) was born near Qaraghandy, Kazakhstan, but later moved to Nal’chik, Russia. This large city is close to Chechnya and Dagestan, where so much fighting has occurred. Pavel first met Witnesses there in August 1996, but he migrated to San Francisco the following month. He was involved in drugs and had fathered a daughter, who was left in Russia with her mother.
Immediately after arriving in the United States, Pavel contacted Jehovah’s Witnesses and accepted a Bible study. He straightened out his life and wrote to the mother of his daughter about his newfound beliefs. She is now studying with the Witnesses, and there are plans for her to come to the United States so that she and Pavel can marry and serve Jehovah together in California with their daughter.
George (back row, second from the left) was born and raised in Moscow. He came to the United States in 1996, and the following year he married Flora, who was originally from Azerbaijan. George attended the Russian Orthodox Church, but after reading a copy of the Watchtower magazine, he had questions about the Trinity doctrine. In response to his letter to the Watch Tower Society, he received the brochure Should You Believe in the Trinity? In 1998 both he and Flora began to study the Bible. Now she also plans to be baptized.
Another convention highlight was receiving greetings from Moscow, where 15,108 had assembled for their convention during the same weekend. How thrilled delegates in New York City were to hear the announcement that 600 had been baptized there! That was particularly true in view of the ominous newspaper and television reports that had begun to appear in the United States and elsewhere in the week leading up to the convention date.
What Was Happening in Moscow
On July 21, 1999, the Witnesses signed a contract for the use of the Olympic Stadium located near the center of Moscow and right next to a large Russian Orthodox church. But a week before the convention was to begin, it was clear that there was going to be opposition. By Wednesday, August 18, permission to use the stadium had still not been granted, even though the rental fee had already been paid. It was emphasized to officials that, as the box on page 28 shows, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a legally recognized religious organization in Russia.
Because about 15,000 convention delegates were preparing to attend on Friday morning, Witness representatives were becoming anxious. Some delegates were traveling to Moscow from cities and towns many miles away. Finally, after some hours of discussion, about 8:00 p.m., on Thursday, August 19, the stadium management was delighted to inform Witness representatives that the convention could proceed. The city administration had advised that they had no objection to the convention.
The next morning thousands flooded into the stadium. Witness volunteers had worked all night to prepare for their arrival. Also present that first morning were members of the press, who had been notified earlier about the opposition to holding the convention. “Congratulations!” one of them exclaimed. “We’re glad to hear that your convention is going ahead.”
Example of Orderly Conduct
The stadium management felt that it would be prudent to take security measures. Thus, security people with metal detection equipment such as is used to screen passengers at airports were stationed at all entrances. Policemen were also stationed throughout the inside of the stadium. The convention proceeded in an orderly manner despite a serious threat.
On Saturday afternoon someone made a phone call indicating that a bomb had been planted in the stadium. The threat was received shortly before the end of the next-to-last talk of the day. So, at the request of the stadium management, a brief announcement was made to evacuate the stadium immediately. When everyone did so in an orderly fashion, stadium officials and the police were amazed. They had never seen anything like it! They asked whether it had been rehearsed.
No bomb was found, and the following day the program was extended to include what had not been presented on Saturday. The stadium management was pleased with the convention.
In Greece and Elsewhere
During the last weekend of August and the first one in September, Russian-language district conventions were also held in Greece—in Athens first and then in Thessalonica. A total of 746 attended, and 34 were baptized. There are 8 Russian-speaking congregations in Greece and 17 smaller groups made up of immigrants from former southern republics of the Soviet Union. These have their meetings in Russian and in other languages spoken by the immigrants.
One of those baptized in Athens was Victor. He had been an atheist, but in August 1998 he attended the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Athens, where his wife was baptized. He said that he was so impressed by the love manifested by the delegates that he was moved to study the Bible.
A man named Ighor received a copy of the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth and after reading it threw away his icons. He even began to introduce himself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After writing to the branch office in Athens and receiving a visit by the Witnesses in November 1998, he immediately attended his first congregation meeting and has not missed one since. Now, after his baptism, Ighor’s goal is to be a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Russian-speaking people have immigrated to a number of other countries in the world that we have not mentioned. Many of these people too rejoice in their freedom to study the Bible and to assemble openly to worship God. To them this privilege is a cherished delight!
^ par. 5 The following are the 15 republics, which are now independent countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
[Box on page 22]
Russians Who Love the Bible
Professor Sergei Ivanenko, a respected Russian religious scholar, described Jehovah’s Witnesses as people truly devoted to Bible study. In his recent book in Russian, O lyudyakh, nikogda nye rasstayushchikhsya s bibliey (The People Who Are Never Without Their Bibles), he wrote of their early history in the Soviet Union: “Even when they ended up in prison for their faithfulness to their beliefs, Jehovah’s Witnesses found ways to make use of the Bible.” To illustrate this, he related the following experience.
“It was forbidden for prisoners to have a Bible. Bibles were confiscated during searches. In one of the northern camps, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was an electrician and he kept Bible books in a transformer unit where there was very high voltage. Each part of the Bible was tied with a string to a particular wire, and only that man knew which string had to be pulled to pull it out—for example, the Gospel of Matthew—without getting a deadly shock. Of course no search, no matter how hard the guards looked, yielded results, and so this unique Bible was not discovered.”
[Box on page 28]
Jehovah’s Witnesses Reregistered in Russia
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been actively proclaiming God’s Kingdom in Russia for more than a century. Because of governmental restrictions, however, the Witnesses did not first receive legal recognition until March 27, 1991. At that time, they were registered under the name Administrative Center of the Religious Organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S.S.R.
On September 26, 1997, a law entitled “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association” was enacted. This new law received extensive press coverage worldwide. Why? Because many viewed the passage of this law as an attempt to restrict the religious activities of minority religions in Russia.
Thus, in spite of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ hard-won registration in 1991, Russia’s new Freedom of Conscience law required them, as well as all other religious organizations, to reregister. This raised a number of questions. Did this indicate that Russian authorities were returning to a policy of oppressing Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or would religious tolerance and freedom of worship that is guaranteed under the Constitution of the Russian Federation be upheld?
The answer eventually came. How happy the Witnesses were to receive legal recognition once again when Russia’s Ministry of Justice issued a certificate of registration for the “Administrative Center for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” on April 29, 1999!
[Picture on page 23]
The first Russian-language district convention in the United States
[Picture on page 24]
Bible drama presented in New York by the Russian Congregation of Los Angeles
[Picture on page 25]
These 14 baptized in New York are from six former republics of the Soviet Union
[Picture on page 26, 27]
Over 15,000 met in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium