APRIL 12, 2021
Just days after a press conference in Moscow on April 1, 2021, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the exile of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Siberia, the International Memorial Society invited a number of Russian scholars and human rights activists to an academic conference that was held on April 6. The speakers not only discussed the 1951 deportation—referred to by the Soviets as Operation North—but also chronicled the long history of persecution that Jehovah’s Witnesses have endured in Russia.
Operation North was initiated by the Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB). In early 1951, the MGB addressed a memorandum to Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, that said in part: “In order to further suppress anti-Soviet actions of the underground Jehovah’s, the MGB of the USSR considers it necessary, along with the arrest of the leading members of the Jehovist sect, to evict the identified Jehovists from the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—along with their families—to the Irkutsk and Tomsk regions.” A total of nearly 10,000 people, over 3,000 families, were subject to eviction. It was the largest religious deportation in the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Aleksandr Guryanov, the conference host, said in his opening remarks: “The persecution of this confessional group . . . is still happening today, which makes today’s examination of the history of Operation North especially relevant.”
Pavel Polyan, historian, geographer, and specialist in the study of forced migrations in the USSR, spoke about the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union and explained one of the reasons behind the deportation. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the MGB began to notice that Jehovah’s Witnesses were highly organized. Additionally, Mr. Polyan noted: “[Jehovah’s Witnesses] are excellent missionaries, which was not to the liking of the atheistic secular authorities.”
Valeriy Borshchev, human rights activist and co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, spoke about how Soviet authorities tried to “reeducate” Jehovah’s Witnesses using propaganda and other specious methods. In time, “the commissioners [for religious affairs] realized that all this was useless and did not work,” said Mr. Borshchev. “We must give Jehovah’s Witnesses credit. They were firm in their resolve.”
Sergey Davidis, member of the Memorial Human Rights Center Council and head of its Support for Political Prisoners program, reviewed the escalating persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia since 1998. He related that the Supreme Court’s April 2017 decision to liquidate the legal entities used by Jehovah’s Witnesses was largely based on the charge that Jehovah’s Witnesses claim religious superiority over other religious groups. “It is quite obvious that this is an absurd accusation,” stressed Mr. Davidis. “The conviction of the correctness of their religious doctrine in comparison with any other creed is natural for any religion.”
Brother Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke about the challenges Witnesses faced living in Siberian settlements as related to him by his parents. Some families were left in the harsh Siberian forest to survive without any place to live. The brothers dug out cave-like shelters in the ground. Their families had to live in them for months, until something more permanent was built. While living in the forest, the Witnesses often had to eat nettles and tree bark. Many died of hunger or disease.
Brother Sivulskiy noted that the reason for the 1951 deportation is the same reason that Russia persecutes Witnesses today. The authorities mistakenly interpret the Witnesses’ politically neutral stand as not recognizing State authority. The authorities fail to take into consideration that the Witnesses are known for their respectful attitude toward authority and for being law-abiding and hardworking.
The conference host, Aleksandr Guryanov, offered a few closing remarks about the current situation in Russia. He stated: “There is some particular bitterness on the part of the government towards this particular confession.” All present were reminded that 70 years after the deportation, history is repeating itself. Law-abiding citizens of the country are again being declared criminals only on the basis of their constitutionally protected religious affiliation.
A video of the event is available online in Russian only.