Thursday, October 25, 2018

Repression in Putin's Russia Working Its Way in From the Periphery– the Case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Repression in Putin's Russia Working Its Way in From the Periphery– the Case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses
 Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 24 – More than most nations, Russians believe that for them, geography is destiny, that the enormous size of their country, its lack of natural borders, and its extension from the edge of Europe into Asia determines the course of their lives and the destiny of their country. 

            But there is another and even more disturbing example of the impact of geography on Russia. It has often been the case that more repressive and authoritarian ideas have found traction on the periphery and then worked their way into the center from which they are then imposed with new force on the periphery from which they sprung.

            Stalin, for example, never triumphed in a party organization in the capitals until long after he had taken control of party committees in places far from Moscow, an origin that is often forgotten given his hyper-centralized state and the way in which he subsequently imposed truly draconian control over the rest of the country from the capital.

            Now, once again, something similar is happening, at least in the case of Russian repression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Over the last 18 months since the Russian Supreme Court outlawed this denomination as extremist, the Russian authorities have struck at the group’s organizations throughout the country.

            But the geography of these repressions is extremely significant.  In a new article, investigative journalist Elizaveta Pestova provides a list drawn from Memorial Center reporting of where the authorities have acted. That list speaks volumes both by the places on it and by the places not on it (

                Persecutions have occurred in Kamchatka Kray, Magadan, Sakha, Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, Khabarovsk, Kemerovo Oblast, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Orenburg, Ufa, Perm, Kirov, Kostroma, Tatarstan, Saratov, Penza, Ivanovo Oblast, Kabardino-Balkaria, Smolensk Oblast, Oryol, Belgorod, Murmansk Oblast and Pskov.

            Notably missing on this list are Moscow and St. Petersburg.

            There are at least three reasons for this, all of which are important. First of all, groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have historically had more success in smaller cities and more remote locations than in metropolitan centers; and consequently, there are relatively more of them in many of these areas than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

            At the same time, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be more successful in these areas, they are also likely to have fewer people beyond their ranks who support their rights, given the difference in views of the population in many parts of the periphery of Russian than of those in the major cities.

            Second, the Putin regime, often but not always mindful of Western coverage of human rights abuses, finds it far easier to orchestrate such things far from the capital – and thus far from the prying eyes of Western journalists and diplomats almost all of whom live in Moscow and only rarely travel elsewhere.

            As a result, many of Moscow’s most repressive moves – in the periphery – remain under the radar of all but those who are most focused on human rights issues.

            And third, to the extent that the Stalin precedent holds, it is likely that the Kremlin views crackdowns against such groups in the periphery as a training ground for future repression in the center and then back to the periphery again.  That possibility is the most insidious and dangerous, and it is one the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggests must be taken especially seriously. 

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