APRIL 5, 2021
On April 1, 2021, a press conference was held in Moscow regarding the 70th anniversary of Operation North—the 1951 deportation of nearly 10,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses by train from six former Soviet republics to Siberia. A panel of six speakers, including scholars and human rights specialists, spoke and were available to take questions from the media. The panel not only chronicled Operation North but also made a connection to the current persecution in Russia. The entire conference was broadcast live on the Internet.
Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses and whose family was directly impacted by Operation North, spoke at length about the inhumane deportation process. “By checking archival sources, we were able to confirm that a total of 9,793 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their family members were deported,” Sivulsky said. “This figure includes those who died and those who were born on the road.”
Russian religious scholar Sergey Ivanenko spoke about the role Soviet propaganda against Jehovah’s Witnesses played in Operation North, as well as its role in the current persecution in modern Russia. Making a thorough review, Ivanenko also emphasized the Witnesses’ resilience: “The policy of forceful suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has been carried out in the Russian Federation since 2017, is futile. The lessons of Operation North and the analysis of the current situation, including the steadfastness of Jehovah’s Witnesses in defending their beliefs, bear witness to this. It seems advisable, from the point of view of Russia’s national interests, to implement a set of measures to return Jehovah’s Witnesses to the legal field.”
Kazakh religious scholar Artur Artemyev, author of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan: A Social-Historical and Religious Analysis (revised in 2020), noted that even the harshest of Soviet tactics did not eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses or even dampen their zeal. Instead, in his country during Soviet rule, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses increased. Likewise, human rights specialist Valery Borschev of the Moscow Helsinki Group asserted: “Persecution only strengthens Jehovah’s Witnesses. The authorities must understand that.”
Valentin Gefter, a member of the Expert Council under the Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, addressed the subject “How Prisoners of Conscience Emerge in Modern Russia.” The Witnesses imprisoned in Russia are more accurately prisoners of conscience, not political prisoners. He emphasized: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not against the State.” He went on to explain that the Witnesses’ religious beliefs simply motivate them to take a politically neutral position. For this, the authorities are needlessly and unjustly imprisoning Witnesses.
The final speaker was Aleksandr Verkhovsky. He is a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. The SOVA Center closely monitors and records all cases of improper application of the extremism law, including those involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. He provided an analysis on the current persecution in Russia. “Will this campaign against the Witnesses be reduced? This is a very important question, and we do not know the answer.” Verkhovsky is convinced that sooner or later Russian authorities must stop persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses. He offered several options for lawmakers on how they can adjust the anti-extremism legislation to better ensure that it protects the State from actual extremist activity while not imposing on the rights of peaceful believers, such as the Witnesses.
Journalists were allowed to ask the panel questions about what was said.
On the same day, an academic conference was held in the city of Chisinau, Moldova, under the auspices of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, the Alecu Russo State University of Balti, and the Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu State University of Cahul. Another conference is scheduled in Ukraine on April 9.