A Focus of the Soviet Attack
DESPITE concessions made to the Russian Orthodox Church in order to win World War II, the Soviet Union maintained a stranglehold on the church’s activities. Therefore, as The Sword and the Shield, a book written in 1999 about the history of the KGB (the Soviet State Security Committee), observed, “the KGB was far more concerned by the ‘subversive’ activities of those Christians over whom it had no direct control.” Which religious groups were these?
The largest was the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, which is now the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It had some 4,000,000 adherents. According to The Sword and the Shield, “all but two of its ten bishops, along with many thousands of priests and believers, died for their faith in the Siberian gulag [work camps].” Other targets of the KGB were the unregistered Protestant churches, which were also outside direct State control. In the late 1950’s, the KGB estimated that these Protestant groups had a combined total of some 100,000 members.
The KGB considered Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a Protestant group, whom they estimated in 1968 to number about 20,000 in the Soviet Union. Up until the beginning of World War II in 1939, the Witnesses had been small in number. Thus, little or no note had been taken of them. But the situation changed dramatically when thousands of Witnesses suddenly appeared in the Soviet Union. How did this occur?
Dramatic Increase Begins
In his book Religion in the Soviet Union, published in 1961, Walter Kolarz noted two factors responsible for this dramatic increase. One, he noted, was that “the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939-40”—Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldavia—had within them many “active groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In addition, parts of eastern Poland and Czechoslovakia, which included over a thousand Witnesses, were also annexed by the Soviet Union, becoming part of Ukraine. Thus, all these Witnesses were transplanted overnight, as it were, into the Soviet Union.
Further increase, “unbelievable as it may sound,” Kolarz wrote, came from “the German concentration camps.” The Nazis had imprisoned thousands of Witnesses for refusing to support Hitler and his war of aggression. Kolarz explained that Russian prisoners in these camps “had admired the courage and steadfastness of the ‘Witnesses’ and probably for that reason had found their theology attractive.” As a result, many young Russians from these camps returned to the Soviet Union with a newfound faith in Jehovah God and his wonderful purposes for the earth.—Psalm 37:29; Revelation 21:3, 4.
Because of such factors, there quickly came to be thousands of Witnesses in the Soviet Union. By early 1946, there were at least 1,600, and by the end of the decade, well over 8,000. This growth was observed with alarm by the KGB, which, as noted before, was especially concerned about the “activities of those Christians over whom it had no direct control.”
Attacks Are Initiated
Despite the relatively small number of Witnesses in the Soviet Union, their zealous preaching activity soon came under attack by Soviet authorities. In Estonia the attack began in August 1948 when the five individuals taking the lead in the work were arrested and put in prison. “Soon it was apparent that the KGB wanted to arrest everyone,” noted Estonian Witness Lembit Toom. This was true wherever Witnesses were found in the Soviet Union.
The Soviets depicted Witnesses as the worst of criminals and as a major threat to the atheistic Soviet State. So, everywhere, they were hunted down, arrested, and imprisoned. The Sword and the Shield observed: “The Jehovist obsession of senior KGB officers was, perhaps, the supreme example of their lack of any sense of proportion when dealing with even the most insignificant forms of dissent.”
This obsession was dramatically evidenced by the well planned attack carried out against the Witnesses in April 1951. Just two years ago, in 1999, Professor Sergei Ivanenko, a respected Russian scholar, observed in his book The People Who Are Never Without Their Bibles that in early April 1951, “more than 5,000 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Moldavian, and Baltic Soviet republics were sent to ‘a permanent settlement’ in Siberia, the Far East, and Kazakhstan.”
Worthy of Remembrance
Can you imagine the effort involved in that attack—in one day rounding up thousands of families of Witnesses throughout such a large area? Think of coordinating hundreds, if not thousands, of personnel—first of all to identify the Witnesses and then, under cover of darkness, to carry out simultaneous surprise raids on their homes. Following that, there was the work of loading the people into carts, wagons, and other vehicles; taking them to railroad stations; and transferring them to freight cars.
Think, too, of the suffering of the victims. Can you imagine what it was like to be forced to travel thousands of miles—for up to three weeks or more—in overcrowded, unsanitary freight cars that had only a bucket for toilet facilities? And try to imagine being dumped off in the Siberian wilderness, knowing that in order to survive, you would have to eke out an existence in that harsh environment.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the April 1951 exile of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To tell the story of their faithfulness despite decades of persecution, the experiences of survivors have been videotaped. These reveal that—even as was the case with first-century Christians—attempts to prevent people from worshiping God are ultimately doomed to failure.
What the Exile Accomplished
The Soviets soon learned that stopping the Witnesses from worshiping Jehovah would be much more difficult than they had imagined. Despite the protests of their captors, the Witnesses sang praises to Jehovah while being forced into exile and hung signs on their railway cars that said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses on Board.” One Witness explained: “At the railroad stations along the way, we met other trains carrying those being exiled, and we saw the signs that were hung on the railway cars.” What encouragement this provided!
So rather than being disheartened, those being exiled reflected the spirit of Jesus’ apostles. The Bible says that after these were flogged and ordered to stop preaching, “they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ.” (Acts 5:40-42) Indeed, as Kolarz said about the exile, “this was not the end of the ‘Witnesses’ in Russia, but only the beginning of a new chapter in their proselytising activities. They even tried to propagate their faith when they stopped at stations on their way into exile.”
When the Witnesses arrived at their various destinations and were dropped off, they gained a good reputation for being obedient hard workers. Yet, at the same time, in imitation of Christ’s apostles, they, in effect, told their oppressors: ‘We cannot stop speaking about our God.’ (Acts 4:20) Many listened to what the Witnesses taught and joined them in serving God.
The consequence was just as Kolarz explained: “In deporting them the Soviet Government could have done nothing better for the dissemination of their faith. Out of their village isolation [in the western Soviet republics] the ‘Witnesses’ were brought into a wider world, even if this was only the terrible world of the concentration and slave labour camps.”
Efforts to Cope With Growth
In time, the Soviets tried different methods to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since vicious persecution had failed to produce the desired results, a well planned program of lying propaganda was initiated. Books, films, and radio programs—as well as the infiltration of congregations by trained KGB agents—were all tried.
The widespread misrepresentation caused many people mistakenly to view the Witnesses with fear and distrust, as evidenced by an article in the August 1982 Reader’s Digest, Canadian Edition. It was written by Vladimir Bukovsky, a Russian who was allowed to immigrate to England in 1976. He wrote: “One evening in London, I happened to notice a plaque on a building that read: JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES . . . I couldn’t read any further, I was stupefied, almost to the point of panic.”
Vladimir explained why he was needlessly fearful: “These are the cultists whom the authorities use as boogeymen in our country to scare children . . . In the U.S.S.R., you meet flesh-and-blood ‘Witnesses’ only in prisons and concentration camps. And here I was in front of a building, a plaque. Could anyone actually go in and have a cup of tea with them?” he asked. To emphasize his reason for alarm, Vladimir concluded: “The ‘Witnesses’ are pursued in our country with as much fury as the Mafia in theirs, and the mystery that surrounds them is the same.”
Yet, despite vicious persecution and lying propaganda, the Witnesses persevered and increased in numbers. Such Soviet books as The Truths About Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a printing in Russian in 1978 of 100,000 copies, suggested the need for stepped up anti-Witness propaganda. The author, V. V. Konik, who described how the Witnesses were carrying on their preaching in the face of severe restrictions, advised: “Soviet researchers on religion should learn more effective methods for overcoming the teachings of Jehovah’s witnesses.”
Why the Focus of Attack?
Simply put, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the chief focus of the Soviet attack because they imitated Jesus’ early followers. In the first century, the apostles were ordered “not to keep teaching upon the basis of [Jesus’] name.” Yet, later their persecutors complained: “Look! you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” The apostles did not deny that they had been preaching despite orders not to, but instead they answered respectfully: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:27-29.
Jehovah’s Witnesses today also take seriously Jesus’ command to his followers “to preach to the people and to give a thorough witness.” (Acts 10:42) In his book The Kremlin’s Human Dilemma, Maurice Hindus explained that it was the Witnesses’ “irrepressible zeal for evangelizing” that made them “particularly onerous to Moscow and [brought] them into continual clash with the Soviet police.” He added: “There is no stopping them. Suppressed in one place, they bob up in another.”
“As far as I know,” wrote Russian historian Sergei Ivanenko, “the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was the only religious organization in the USSR that increased in numbers despite the ban and persecution.” Of course, other religions also continued to function, including the most prominent of all, the Russian Orthodox Church. You will find it interesting to learn how the church and the Witnesses were both able to survive the Soviet attack.
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“The Most Harshly Persecuted”
A Concise Encyclopaedia of Russia of 1964 stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses were “extremely active in proselytizing” and were “the most harshly persecuted religious community in the Soviet Union.”
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ONE OF THOUSANDS—Fyodor Kalin Describes His Family’s Exile
Our family lived in the village of Vilshanitsa, in western Ukraine. In the morning darkness of April 8, 1951, officers with dogs came, woke us up, and told us that by a decree from the government in Moscow, we were being sent to Siberia. But if we signed a document saying that we were no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses, we could stay. Our family of seven, including my parents and siblings, were determined to remain Witnesses. I was then 19 years old.
One officer said: “Take along beans, corn, flour, pickles, cabbage—otherwise how are you going to feed the children?” We were also allowed to butcher some chickens and a pig and to take the meat with us. Two horse-drawn carts were brought, and everything was loaded into them and taken to the town of Hriplin. There, about 40 or 50 of us were crammed into a freight car, and the door was shut.
The car had a few planks for us to sleep on—not enough for everyone—and a stove with some coal and wood. We cooked on the stove, using cookware we had brought. But there was no toilet—we simply used a bucket. Later, we made a round opening in the floor, fixed the bucket in it, and hung blankets around it for some privacy.
We lived cramped together in that freight car as we slowly made our way thousands of miles to an unknown destination. At first, we were somewhat downhearted. But as we sang Kingdom songs together—with such vigor that later we could hardly speak—we felt joyful. The commander would open the doors and tell us to stop, but we would not stop until we had finished. When we stopped at stations along the way, many learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses were being sent into exile. Finally, after 17 or 18 days in that freight car, we were dropped off in Siberia near Lake Baikal.
I am standing in the back row, right
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ARMAGEDDON—A Soviet Propaganda Film
The Soviets produced the film Armageddon in an effort to discredit Jehovah’s Witnesses. It featured the fictional story of a love affair between a boy in the Soviet army and a girl who was enticed to join the ranks of the Witnesses. At the film’s end, the little sister of the girl died in an accident caused by a Witness overseer, who was portrayed as a tool of the American espionage service.
Commenting on the film, which stirred the feelings of audiences, the Ukrainian newspaper The Red Flag of May 14, 1963, said: “In such a way atheistic propaganda is effective, convincing, and it can be used in other villages of the country where similar films are shown.”
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Thousands were transported to Siberia in freight cars