Staunton, April 1 – Seventy years ago today, Stalin deported 8576 Jehovah’s Witnesses from the western USSR to Tomsk and Irkutsk Oblasts. Just before that, he deported 4800 more of them from Moldova to Siberia. Their persecution continued in Soviet times, eased in the first two-post Soviet decades but now, as this anniversary approached, they face repression again.
The reason they were deported from these areas is because that is where the first Jehovah's Witnesses within the USSR lived. Their areas were absorbed into that country when Stalin annexed the Baltic states and Bessarabia and moved the borders of Belarus and Ukraine westward. Now there are Witnesses throughout the Russian Federation.
The Soviet government objected to the Witnesses because they refused to vote or serve in the military and because they had contacts with fellow believers beyond the borders of the USSR. The Putin regime has similar objections but also exploits the anger of some Russians at the Witnesses’ practice of going door to door to testify to their faith.
Despite the brutality of the deportation, an action supervised by some accounts by future CPSU leader Leonid Brezhnev (bessmertnybarak.ru/article/operatsiya_sever/) and the continuation of repression nearly to the end of the Soviet Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintained their faith and attracted new followers (vot-tak.tv/novosti/01-04-2021-svideteli/).
They made use of the new freedoms in the Russian Federation and by 2017 had more than 175,000 adherents. But that new prominence attracted the attention of the Putin regime, and on April 20, 2017, Putin’s Supreme Court declared they were an extremist organization and banned all of their groups, almost 400 in all.
The Putin regime has always insisted that it has banned the organization but not the faith, but in fact, it has persecuted the Jehovah’s Witnesses for precisely what they believe and for what their beliefs require of them. And while some observers hope things are easing because the number of trials has declined, others note that the prison sentences handed out are now longer.
At present, the Putin regime has brought charges against 448 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 50 of these are already behind bars. More are likely to go in the coming weeks and months, a threat in and of itself to the Witnesses and a danger to all because of the precedent their persecution sets for others.
But the Jehovah’s Witnesses in contrast to other oppressed groups have not become a catacomb church but continue to practice their faith, attracting the admiration of many but infuriating the powers that be who can’t understand why repression isn’t working against them (graniru.org/tags/jw/m.281425.html and kasparov.ru/material.php?id=6064567C1F7CF).
For background on the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia under Putin, see