“YOU are such a cruel father,” scolded the KGB officer. * “You’ve abandoned your pregnant wife and baby daughter. Who will feed them and care for them? Renounce your activities and go home!” I replied: “No, I didn’t abandon my family. You arrested me! And for what?” The officer retorted: “Any crime other than being a Witness is better.”
That exchange took place in 1959 in a prison in the city of Irkutsk in Russia. Allow me to relate why my wife, Maria, and I were prepared to “suffer for the sake of righteousness” and how we were blessed for remaining faithful.—1 Pet. 3:13, 14.
I was born in Ukraine in 1933 in the village of Zolotniki. In 1937 my aunt and her husband, who were Witnesses, visited us from France and left us the books Government and Deliverance, published by the Watch Tower Society. When my father read those books, his faith in God was awakened. Sadly, in 1939 he became very ill, but before he died he told my mother: “This is the truth. Teach it to the children.”
SIBERIA—A NEW FIELD FOR PREACHING
In April 1951, the authorities began sending Witnesses from the western USSR to Siberia into exile. Together with my mother and my younger brother, Grigory, I was banished from West Ukraine. After traveling over 3,700 miles (6,000 km) by train, we arrived in the city of Tulun in Siberia. Two weeks later my older brother, Bogdan, arrived in a camp in the nearby city of Angarsk. He had been sentenced to 25 years of hard labor.
My mother, Grigory, and I preached in the settlements around Tulun, but we had to be resourceful. For example, we would ask, “Is there anyone here who wants to sell a cow?” When we found someone with a cow to sell, we would mention to that person how amazingly designed cows are. Before long, we would be talking about the Creator. At that time, a newspaper wrote about the Witnesses that they ask about cows but they are looking for sheep! And we found sheeplike ones! It was a pleasure to study the Scriptures with the humble and hospitable people in that unassigned territory. Today, there is a congregation with over 100 publishers in Tulun.
HOW MARIA’S FAITH WAS TESTED
My wife, Maria, learned the truth in Ukraine in the middle of World War II. When she was 18 years old, a KGB officer began to harass her and tried to force her to commit immorality with him, but she firmly rejected his advances. One day, she returned home and found the man lying on her bed. Maria fled. Furious, the officer threatened to have her locked up for being a Witness, and indeed, in 1952, Maria was sentenced to ten years in prison. She felt like Joseph, who was imprisoned for keeping his integrity. (Gen. 39:12, 20) The driver who took Maria from the courtroom to the prison told her: “Don’t be afraid. Many people go to prison but return with their dignity intact.” Those words strengthened her.
From 1952 to 1956, Maria was put to work in a labor camp near the city of Gorkiy (now Nizhniy Novgorod) in Russia. She was ordered to uproot trees, even in freezing weather. Her health suffered, but in 1956 she was set free and headed for Tulun.
FAR AWAY FROM MY WIFE AND MY CHILDREN
When a brother in Tulun told me that a sister was coming, I went on my bicycle to the bus stop to meet the sister and to offer to help with her luggage. When I met Maria, I liked her right from the start. It took effort to win her heart—but I succeeded. We got married in 1957. A year later, our daughter Irina was born, but the joy of being with her was cut short. In 1959, I was arrested for printing Bible literature. I spent half a year in solitary confinement. To maintain peace of heart during that time, I constantly prayed, sang Kingdom songs, and imagined how I would preach if I were free again.
While in prison, during an interrogation the investigator yelled, “Soon we will stamp you people out like mice against the floor!” I replied, “Jesus said that the good news of the Kingdom WILL be preached in all the nations, and no one can stop it.” Then, the investigator switched tactics and tried to persuade me to renounce my faith, as I mentioned in the introduction. When neither threats nor enticements worked, I was sentenced to seven years of hard labor in a camp near the city of Saransk. On my way to the camp, I learned that our second daughter, Olga, had been born. Although my wife and daughters were far away, I drew comfort from knowing that Maria and I had remained loyal to Jehovah.
Once a year Maria traveled to Saransk to visit me, although the journey from Tulun and back took 12 days by train. Each year she would bring me a new pair of boots. Hidden in the heels of the boots were recent copies of The Watchtower. One year Maria’s visit was very special because she brought our two young daughters with her. Imagine how touched I was to see them and to be with them!
NEW LOCATIONS AND NEW CHALLENGES
In 1966, I was freed from the labor camp and the four of us moved to the city of Armavir, near the Black Sea. There, our sons Yaroslav and Pavel were born.
It did not take long before KGB officers began to raid our home, looking for Bible literature. They searched everywhere, even in the cows’ feed. On one such occasion, the officers were perspiring from the heat, and their suits were covered in dust. Maria felt sorry for them, as they were only obeying orders. She poured them some juice and brought them a clothes brush, a bowl of water, and towels. Later, when the KGB chief arrived, the officers told him about the kind treatment they had received. When they left, the chief smiled and waved to us. We were happy to see the good that can result when we try to “keep conquering the evil with the good.”—Rom. 12:21.
Despite the raids, we continued to preach in Armavir. We also helped to strengthen a small group of publishers in the nearby town of Kurganinsk. It gives me much joy to know that today there are six congregations in Armavir and four in Kurganinsk.
Through the years, there were times when our spirituality weakened. But we are grateful to Jehovah that he used faithful brothers to correct us and to strengthen us spiritually. (Ps. 130:3) It was also a serious test for us to serve alongside KGB agents who infiltrated the congregations without our realizing it. They appeared to be zealous and were active in the ministry. Some even received positions of responsibility in the organization. In time, though, we found out who they really were.
In 1978, when Maria was 45, she again became pregnant. Because she suffered from a chronic heart condition, the doctors feared for her life and tried to convince her to have an abortion. Maria refused. In response, some doctors followed her everywhere in the hospital with a syringe, trying to inject her and induce a premature birth. To protect the unborn child, Maria ran away from the hospital.
The KGB ordered us to leave the city. We moved to a village near the city of Tallinn in Estonia, which was then part of the USSR. In Tallinn, contrary to the doctors’ prediction, Maria gave birth to a healthy son, Vitaly.
Later, we moved from Estonia to the settlement of Nezlobnaya in the south of Russia. We preached cautiously in the neighboring resort towns, which were visited by people from all over the country. They came there for health reasons, but some left with the hope of everlasting life!
RAISING OUR CHILDREN TO LOVE JEHOVAH
We tried to inculcate in our sons and daughters a love for Jehovah and a desire to serve him. We often invited to our home brothers who were a good influence on our children. One regular visitor was my brother Grigory, who served as a traveling overseer from 1970 to 1995. The whole family enjoyed his visits because he was joyful and had a good sense of humor. When we had guests, we often played Bible games, and our children grew to love the Bible’s historical accounts.
In 1987, our son Yaroslav moved to the city of Riga in Latvia, where he was able to preach more openly. But when he refused to perform military service, he was sentenced to one and a half years behind bars and was held in nine different prisons. What I had told him about my experiences in prison helped him to endure. Later, he began serving as a pioneer. In 1990, our son Pavel, then 19 years old, wanted to pioneer on Sakhalin, an island north of Japan. At first, we did not want him to go. There were only 20 publishers on the whole island, and we lived over 5,500 miles (9,000 km) away from the island. But eventually we agreed, and it was a good decision. The people there responded to the Kingdom message. Within a few years, there were eight congregations. Pavel served on Sakhalin until 1995. By then, only our youngest son, Vitaly, remained at home. From childhood, he loved reading the Bible. At age 14, he began pioneering, and I pioneered with him for two years. It was a wonderful time. When he was 19, Vitaly left to serve as a special pioneer.
Back in 1952, a KGB officer had told Maria: “Renounce your faith or face ten years of imprisonment. When you come out, you will be old and alone.” But things worked out very differently. We felt the love of our loyal God, Jehovah, of our children, and of the many whom we have been privileged to help find the truth. Maria and I had the joy of visiting the places where our children served. We saw the gratitude of those who had been helped by our children to learn about Jehovah.
GRATEFUL FOR JEHOVAH’S GOODNESS
In 1991, the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses was given legal recognition. That decision gave renewed vigor to the preaching work. Our congregation even bought a bus so that we could travel to neighboring towns and villages each weekend.
I am happy that Yaroslav and his wife, Alyona, and Pavel and his wife, Raya, serve at Bethel while Vitaly and his wife, Svetlana, serve in the circuit work. Our eldest daughter, Irina, and her family live in Germany. Her husband, Vladimir, and their three sons all serve as elders. Our daughter Olga lives in Estonia and regularly calls me. Sadly, my dear wife, Maria, died in 2014. I cannot wait to see her again in the resurrection! Now I live in the city of Belgorod, and the brothers here are a huge support to me.
My years of service to Jehovah have taught me that keeping integrity comes at a cost but the inner peace that Jehovah gives in return is a treasure of surpassing value. The blessings Maria and I received for remaining steadfast have been greater than I could ever have imagined. Before the fall of the USSR in 1991, there were just over 40,000 publishers. Today, there are over 400,000 publishers in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union! I am now 83 years old and continue to serve as an elder. Jehovah’s support has always given me the strength to endure. Yes, Jehovah has richly rewarded me.—Ps. 13:5, 6.
^ par. 4 KGB is the Russian abbreviation for Soviet State Security Committee.