DURING the last years of his life, my great-uncle Nikolai Dubovinsky compiled a record of his experiences—both joyful and anxious—in a life of dedicated service to Jehovah, much of it during the ban in the former Soviet Union. Despite challenges and difficulties, he always remained faithful and had an extraordinary zest for life. Uncle Nikolai often said that he wanted young people to hear his story, so I would like to share some highlights from it. He was born in 1926 to a peasant family in the village of Podvirivka, located in the Chernivtsi Oblast, Ukraine.
NIKOLAI TELLS HOW HE FOUND THE TRUTH
Uncle Nikolai begins: “One day in 1941, my older brother Ivan brought home the books The Harp of God and The Divine Plan of the Ages, some Watchtower magazines, and several booklets. I read them all. I was surprised to learn that the Devil, not God, is the source of all the trouble in the world. Along with the publications, I read the Gospels and realized that I had found the truth. I enthusiastically shared my Kingdom hope with others. As I studied these publications, I grew in understanding of the truth and developed a strong desire to become a servant of Jehovah.
“I understood that I would suffer because of my beliefs. It was wartime, and I was not about to kill anyone. To prepare myself for the tests ahead, I started to memorize such Bible verses as Matthew 10:28 and 26:52. I firmly resolved that I would always remain faithful to Jehovah, even if it meant my death!
“I turned 18 in 1944 and was called up for military service. This was the very first time I found myself among fellow believers, other young brothers of draft age who had also gathered at the conscription point. We resolutely told the authorities that we would not participate in the war. Enraged, the military personnel threatened to starve us, force us to dig trenches, or just shoot us. Fearlessly, we answered: ‘We are in your hands. But no matter what you do to us, we will not break God’s command, “You must not murder.”’—Ex. 20:13.
“As it turned out, two other brothers and I were sent to Belarus to work in the fields and repair damaged houses. I still remember seeing the gruesome effects of war on the outskirts of Minsk. Charred trees lined the road. Unburied corpses and the bloated bodies of dead horses lay in the ditches and forest. I saw abandoned wagons and artillery and even the wreckage of an airplane. Here in front of my eyes were the consequences of breaking God’s commands.
“The war ended in 1945, but we were still sentenced to ten years in prison for refusing to fight. For the first three years, we had no association or published spiritual food. We were able to contact some sisters by letter, but they too were arrested and sentenced to 25 years in a labor camp.
“Then we received an early release in 1950 and returned home. While I was in prison, my mother and younger sister Maria had become Jehovah’s Witnesses! My older brothers were not yet Witnesses, but they were studying the Bible. Because I was actively preaching, the Soviet security agency wanted to send me to prison again. Then the brothers in charge of the work asked me to assist in producing literature underground. I was 24 years old.”
“The Witnesses were fond of saying, ‘If the Kingdom work is banned above ground, it will continue underground.’ (Prov. 28:28) At this time, most of our printing was done in secret underground locations. My first ‘workroom’ was in a bunker on the property where my older brother Dmitry lived. Sometimes I did not leave the bunker for two weeks straight. If the kerosene lamp went out because of a lack of oxygen, I would lie down and wait until the room filled with fresh air.
“One day, a brother with whom I worked asked me, ‘Nikolai, have you been baptized?’ Although I had served Jehovah for 11 years, I had not been baptized. So he discussed the matter with me, and that night, at the age of 26, I got baptized in a lake. Three years later, I received additional responsibility, becoming a member of the Country Committee. At that time, brothers who were still free were appointed to replace those who had been arrested, and the Kingdom work continued.”
THE DIFFICULTIES OF WORKING UNDERGROUND
“The underground printing work was much more difficult than prison! For seven years, to avoid surveillance by the KGB, I was unable to attend congregation meetings and had to look after my own spirituality. I saw my family only when I went to visit them, which was seldom. Still, they understood my situation, and this encouraged me. The constant stress and need to be cautious sapped my strength. We had to be ready for anything. For example, one evening two police officers came to the house where I was staying. I jumped out of a window on the other side of the house and ran into the forest. Emerging into a field, I heard strange whistling sounds. When I heard gunshots, I realized that the whistling was from bullets! One of my pursuers jumped on a horse and kept shooting at me from horseback until he ran out of ammunition. One shot hit me in the arm. Finally, after a three-mile (5 km) chase, I escaped by hiding in the forest. Later at my trial, I was told that they had fired at me 32 times!
“Since I spent so much time underground, I was very pale. This immediately gave away what I was doing. So I spent as much time as I could in the sun. Life underground also affected my health. One time I could not even attend an important meeting with other brothers because I was bleeding from my nose and mouth.”
“On January 26, 1957, I was arrested. Six months later the Supreme Court of Ukraine announced the verdict. I was sentenced to death by firing squad, but because the death penalty had been abolished in the country, my sentence was commuted to 25 years in prison. Eight of us were sentenced to a total of 130 years in labor camps. We were sent to camps in Mordvinia, where there were about 500 Witnesses. We met secretly in small groups to study The Watchtower. After examining some of our confiscated magazines, one guard exclaimed: ‘If you continue to read them, you will be invincible!’ We always put in an honest day’s work and often did more than we were assigned to do. Still, the camp commander lamented: ‘The work you do here is not important to us. What we need is your loyalty and allegiance.’”
“We always put in an honest day’s work and often did more than we were assigned to do”
HIS INTEGRITY DID NOT FADE
After being released from the labor camp in 1967, Uncle Nikolai helped organize congregations in Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia. Early in 1991, the 1957 court verdict was overturned because of the lack of evidence that a crime had been committed. During that time, many Witnesses who had suffered under the harsh treatment of the authorities were exonerated. In 1996, Nikolai moved to the city of Velikiye Luki in Pskov Oblast, about 300 miles (500 km) from St. Petersburg. He bought a small house, and in 2003 a Kingdom Hall was constructed on his property. Today, two flourishing congregations meet there.
My husband and I serve at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. In March 2011, just a few months before his death, Uncle Nikolai visited us for the last time. His words deeply touched us as he told us with a sparkle in his eye: “From all appearances, I can see that in a manner of speaking, the seventh day of marching around Jericho has begun.” (Josh. 6:15) He was 85 years old. Although his life had not been easy, he described it in these words: “How happy I am that when I was young, I decided to serve Jehovah! I have never regretted it!”