On April 20 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled to close down and ban the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Centre and all of its 395 registered branches throughout the country. More than a year down the line, this has had inevitable consequences: congregations and ministries have undergone de facto criminalization, with actual arrests of members taking place.1In addition to Russia, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in China, some other Asian countries, and in Muslim countries in Asia and Africa.
There are approximately 150,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) in Russia whom the state now treats as criminals. By continuing to practice their faith, JWs are now punishable under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code for “organizing activities of an extremist organization” by six to ten years of prison, and by two to six years for participating in such activities.
Dennis Christensen, a Danish citizen married to a Russian woman and living in Russia, was the first Jehovah’s Witness to be arrested in May 2017 and has since been held in pre-trial custody in Oryol. The demonstrative arrest of “a foreign missionary” may have been intended to emphasize that this faith was “highly unconventional” and smuggled in by foreigners such as Christensen, perhaps with the purpose of subverting Russia’s “information security.”
Then, a long pause followed, and there were no further arrests until April 2018. Apparently, this was meant to send a signal to members that it was a good time to leave if they chose so and were able to afford it. However, most Jehovah’s Witnesses are middle-income people at best and many are retired and do not have the energy to relocate. According to the Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian NGO providing assistance to refugees and forced migrants, several JWs families from the North Caucasus left Russia after the Supreme Court Ruling made their already challenging situation unbearable. The founder of the Nol (Zero) punk rock group Fyodor Chistyakov announced (interview in Russian) his emigration from Russia, but there was no massive exodus otherwise.
Since April 2018, the situation has changed radically, as if on command. All across Russia, JWs have faced criminal charges, home searches, confiscations of literature and technology, detentions and arrests, from the White Sea to the Pacific Ocean, spanning Murmansk, Ivanovo, Orenburg, Belgorod, Birobidzhan, Kemerovo, Ufa, and Vladivostok.
According to a report from Snezhnogorsk, Murmansk Region, “the authorities, including armed OMON riot policemen who acted extremely rudely, searched several houses almost at the same time. On that evening, Roman Markin was at home with his 16-year-old daughter. At 19:40, riot police knocked out the door to their apartment. They forced both Markin and his daughter to the floor at gunpoint and searched them. They took Markin’s daughter away and interrogated her until 3 AM” (according to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses). Similar raids occurred in other cities.
There have been few actual arrests: Roman Markin and Victor Trofimov in the Far North, Alexander Solovyov in Perm, and Valentin Osadchuk in Vladivostok have been detained.
But the first step has been taken. The scope of the Law on Countering Extremist Activity (Russian) is immense and can easily be applied to any nongovernmental association, particularly those of a religious kind.
How does the anti-extremist law define extremism? As terrorism, above all—even though there is a special Law on Countering Terrorism and a set of anti-terrorist provisions in Russia’s criminal code. The only reason why terrorism is mentioned in the definition of extremism is to equate it to “instigating social, racial, national or religious hatred and strife; propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy.” But it does not follow from the constitutional prohibition of such offenses that they amount to terrorism. Moreover, no special “law on extremism” is needed to enforce these constitutional restrictions.
The purpose of placing extremism next to terrorism in the same legal text is to make sure that citizens are scared enough of extremism to realize that protecting extremists amounts to protecting terrorists. Hearing the term “extremist,” most people would think of a brutal and cynical Nazi training thugs to attack non-Russians. But it turns out that extremists also include Jehovah’s Witnesses—no wonder they knock at people’s doors.
Since dissemination of extremist materials falls under the definition of extremist activity, JWs do not even need to act as long as their magazines have been declared extremist. District courts do not have the power to close down a centralized religious organization; such organizations can only be dissolved by the Supreme Court. However, a local court can declare certain materials extremist if such materials are found at a location within this court’s jurisdiction. While theoretically, such materials can be found anywhere, they are rarely discovered in Moscow or St. Petersburg but very frequently—in small, provincial cities like Serov in Perm Region, Stary Oskol in Belgorod Region, Gorno-Altaisk, and others.
No one has ever notified JWs of such proceedings and their findings; the law does not require it. Very often, JWs have awoken to finding dozens of issues of their Awake! magazine among extremist materials listed on the Ministry of Justice website.
Forget about adversarial procedure or expert opinions. Most cases of finding materials extremist have been handled by district courts in uncontested proceedings. JWs’ The Watchtower magazine is on the extremist materials list alongside items such as the video clip “Granny cusses at Churka [a Russian racist slur]” or the audio file “Hey, sexy Korean lady, op-op-op-op” audio file.
Once more JWs’ materials in Russia were on rather than off the extremist list, the next step followed: the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a warning to the JWs Administrative Centre, urging them to “stop their extremist activity.” But Jehovah’s Witnesses were not able to stop it even if they wanted to, if only because the authorities, reportedly, planted bundles of pamphlets in their Kingdom Halls,2 Places of worship used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. then promptly conducted searches and predictably found the prohibited literature.
In considering the Ministry of Justice request to declare JWs an extremist organization, the Supreme Court was not obligated by law to examine their texts and practices or to seek an expert opinion. The Supreme Court was free to take such steps, however, should it have questions regarding the district courts’ findings. But Justice Ivanenko did not have any questions.
The Supreme Court only needed to establish whether dissemination of the literature found extremist had taken place, and the Court found that it had. The judge ignored the argument that the banned publications had been planted in JWs meeting rooms, because no proceedings had been held and no verdict adopted that would find falsification of evidence. The Investigative Committee had ignored footage from surveillance cameras provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing clearly, according to the JWs, how the bundles of literature had been planted.
There are two types of district court decisions on finding religious texts extremist. Some are passed in a non-transparent manner in the absence of interested parties or any audience in the courtroom and are not published on the court’s website. In fact, such rulings simply confirm decisions taken elsewhere. One example is the ruling of 27 November 2014 by the Stary Oskol City Court in Belgorod Region. It provides no reasoning whatsoever: other than procedural formalities, only one paragraph refers to the merits of the case, indicating the following grounds for declaring a particular book extremist: “According to the findings of experts… the printed material examined contains elements of mind control, both in regard of adherents studying this book and in regard of people whom the followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses will subsequently proselytize in accordance with the instructions in this book. The book contains explicit propaganda of extremist materials, which constitutes extremism.”
Some other rulings are more detailed and provide what appears to be an argument, but their reasoning does not hold up to criticism. Examples include the Uspensky District Court, Krasnodar Region, decision of 19 June 2013 on finding the book “Bearing Thorough Witness About God’s Kingdom” extremist.
The prosecutor found evidence of extremism in the book, namely information which is “capable of forming a negative view of the clergy of traditional Christian denominations and therefore incites religious strife and encroaches upon the rights, liberties and legitimate interests of citizens based on their religious affiliation.”
However, an all-star roster of various authors have written about “the church clergy” (in the court’s terminology) using far harsher language than Jehovah’s Witnesses. Should JWs bear all the blame? What about Christian religious writers described as “barking” at one another, to quote Archpriest Avvakum—who did not mince words either and called Patriarch Nikon “a whore-like liar” [blyadoslovyaschy] and his followers “dogs”3Avvakum Petrov (1620/21–1682) was a Russian protopope of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square who led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church. Avvakum was imprisoned for the last 14 years of his life and then burned at stake.; or Luther who wrote about the Pope and the Cardinals in much more forceful terms than JWs today: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”4Martin Luther. The Ninety-Five Theses. 1517. Thesis 27. And more: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.”5Ibid . Thesis 32.
According to the late professor Nikolai Gordienko, “There is nothing specific about the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses consider other religions false—this is what the followers of all faiths and denominations do, and putting all the blame on Jehovah’s Witnesses is wrong from both the religious and ethical perspectives.”6N.S. Gordienko. Rossiiskie Svideteli Iegovy: istoriya i sovremennost’ [Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Past and Present]. 2002
Further, the prosecutor found evidence of extremism in the information “which causes or can cause significant harm to the foundations of the constitutional system, because the text contains linguistic and psychological indications of indirectly encouraging non-compliance with citizens’ legal obligations in terms of refusing to abide by judicial decisions and administrative prohibitions contrary to the principles of Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine.”
This means that according to the prosecutor and the court which ruled in his favor, judicial decisions and “administrative prohibitions” should have priority for a believer over the law of their faith, God’s law. Apparently, neither the prosecutor nor the judge have ever read the lives of the saints—those martyrs who refused to obey the laws of the Empire when it contradicted their Christian conscience. Nor have they heard about the venerable Theodosius Pechersky, an Orthodox Christian saint whose widowed mother—whom he had left to live a monastic life—spent her days outside the monastery walls crying for him to come out, but he never did.
The alleged problems with JWs’ texts were so far-fetched that the prosecutor had to come up with an unprecedented concoction of “linguistic and psychological indications of indirect encouragement.”
The Constitutional Court sided with the “Church clergy” (sic) and “Orthodox public.” At first glance, its ruling appears to be formulated in the spirit of the European Court of Human Rights: “Anti-extremist legal provisions restricting the freedom of conscience and religion, the freedom of expression and the right to disseminate information should not be applied to any activity or information on the sole ground that they do not fit with generally accepted concepts, are not consistent with established traditional views and opinions or come into conflict with moral and/or religious preferences.” However, these apparently correct and verbose general arguments cannot outweigh the potential harm from just one word used by the Court in the following definition. It turns out that “an essential characteristic of this kind of extremism (extremist materials) is an explicit or veiled contradiction between the actions (documents) in question and the constitutional prohibitions of inciting hatred, animosity and strife, and propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic superiority.”
While it may sound like a paradox, “veiled extremists” are much easier to seek out and find.
Interestingly, Russia’s ban on the JWs is not based on the preferred arguments of those who have for decades been trying to save society from “totalitarian” sects. The Supreme Court’s ruling does not mention “refusing blood transfusion” or “appropriation of followers’ property.” Instead, the Court vaguely refers to non-compliance with judicial decisions and administrative prohibitions as well as negative attitudes towards conventional clergy. Perhaps, the reason is that anti-sectarian smear campaigns no longer work, because people do not trust them—or do not trust them enough for a real impact.
Soviet propaganda used the following kind of language to crack down on the “fanatical sect”: “Former war criminals, Nazi collaborators and Gestapo informers have found refuge in the JWs’ underground” where they “zealously engage in spiritual corruption of the believers.” “The sect” was also accused of “rejecting everything that can strengthen the Soviet system. They refuse to vote or to sign the World Peace Council’s appeals to prohibit WMD, and they are hostile towards trade unions.”7Sputnik Ateista [An Atheist’s Companion], Moscow, 1959
Not limited to smear campaign rhetoric, repression followed. Soon after World War II, in 1947-1950, the Soviet Ministry of State Security arrested 1,048 “leaders and activists of the sect, seized 5 underground printing presses and more than 35,000 copies of leaflets, pamphlets, magazines and other JWs’ anti-Soviet literature,” according to Minister of State Security Viktor Abakumov’s report to Joseph Stalin. Based on a secret Council of Ministers decree of March 1951, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses families from Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics were exiled to Siberia and northern Kazakhstan, allowing “the relocated families to take their personal belongings and household items (clothes, tableware, small agricultural and handicraft tools) and a supply of food of up to 1,500 kilograms per family” and stipulating the confiscation of all other property. According to the decree, JWs were to be exiled indefinitely. But in 1965, a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR lifted the restrictions on settlement of JWs and other “anti-Soviet sect” members, although with reservations: returning to former homes required permission from local authorities and accepting that “the lifting of settlement restrictions does not entail return of any property confiscated during relocation.”
In 1991, Jehovah’s Witnesses were rehabilitated along with other victims of repression, and President Yeltsin’s decree of 14 March 1996 condemned “the long-standing terror unleashed by the Bolshevik party and the Soviet regime against priests and believers of all faiths.” The decree, “guided by a sense of repentance,” concerned all believers. Jehovah’s Witnesses who had survived through persecutions under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev were finally rehabilitated. Vasily Kalin, coordinator of Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Centre in Russia, carries a certificate confirming his status as a victim of illegal repression. Coming from a JWs family, he experienced many hardship in his youth whose return he now fears.
Liberty ended for Jehovah’s Witnesses earlier than for others. A new era of repression started on 13 April 1998, when the prosecutor’s office of the Northern Administrative District of Moscow requested the Golovinsky District Court to dissolve the Moscow branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their dissolution had been sought for several years by a Committee to Save Youth from Pseudo-religions and Totalitarian Sects, but prior to that date, the prosecutor’s office had found no reasons to initiate proceedings.
Following a lengthy deliberation, the Golovinsky District Court denied the anti-cult committee’s request, but this decision was quashed on appeal by the Moscow City Court. The case was sent back to the same Golovinsky Court for retrial, and on 26 March 2004, the court dissolved the Moscow branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since then the situation has consistently worsened despite occasional court victories and periods of relative calm. This trend has broadly affected religious minorities, and is not limited to JWs.
As an odd side effect of the dissolution of JWs for extremism, a few conscientious objectors were denied their applications for alternative civilian service. The young men argued that being Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were pacifists, but their request for alternative service was rejected “in connection with the Supreme Court’s decision … concerning liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization, declaring it extremist and prohibiting its activities in the Russian Federation” (Jehovah’s Witnesses object to military service, and for this reason some of them were executed in Nazi Germany and incarcerated there and in some other countries). However, there is nothing in the Russian Law on Alternative Civilian Service to suggest that alternative service may be granted or denied based on membership in an organization; instead, a man can opt for alternative service in lieu of conscription if “military service is contrary to his convictions or religious belief.” This practice once again confirms that Russia has prohibited the entire faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses and not just their organizations and communities. Ironically, by denying JWs the right to alternative service, the state effectively sends these men declared “extremists” to serve in its army.
Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly cannot be considered a “new religious movement.” Under the name of Bible Student Society, its followers first appeared in Russia as far back as 1891. Little is known about that period, but on the wave of the Soviet authorities’ short-term support of religious sectarianism in the 1920s, Bible Students’ communities and groups existed in Russia (to be renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931). Jehovah’s Witnesses who complained to the European Court of Human Rights against the decision to liquidate their community in Moscow include believers who have served long prison terms for their faith. One of them, Stepan Levitsky, born in 1925, faced trial twice for disseminating “anti-Soviet sectarian literature” and was sentenced to ten years in the second trial. Another applicant is Oleg Marchenko, a third-generation JW, whose grandfather and grandmother were exiled to Siberia in 1951.
It appears as though one of the reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses have been targeted for demonstrative punishment is their incredible obedience to the law. When their magazines, one by one, were listed as extremist materials, JWs complied by removing them from circulation. But it did not help. Recently, JWs have been reporting new arrests of their members as “the law enforcement authorities mistake collective worship for membership in an extremist organization.”
But JWs’ obedience and flexibility stops when it comes to their unyielding principles. In Hitler’s concentration camps, they were the best workers but refused to sign a document indicating renouncement of their faith,8Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in Germany in 1933; before 1945, thousands of German and foreign JWs were held in concentration camps and about several hundred were executed. even though putting one’s signature under the statement, “I withdraw from this organization and completely free my mind from the teachings of this sect” was the only condition for release.9Bernhard Rammerstorfer. Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man. Grammaton Press, 2004 [in Russian: М, 2011].
Om May 7, the European Court of Human Rights communicated to the Russian Government the application filed on behalf of all 395 Russian JW organizations.
|↑1||In addition to Russia, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in China, some other Asian countries, and in Muslim countries in Asia and Africa.|
|↑2||Places of worship used by Jehovah’s Witnesses.|
|↑3||Avvakum Petrov (1620/21–1682) was a Russian protopope of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square who led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church. Avvakum was imprisoned for the last 14 years of his life and then burned at stake.|
|↑4||Martin Luther. The Ninety-Five Theses. 1517. Thesis 27.|
|↑5||Ibid . Thesis 32.|
|↑6||N.S. Gordienko. Rossiiskie Svideteli Iegovy: istoriya i sovremennost’ [Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Past and Present]. 2002|
|↑7||Sputnik Ateista [An Atheist’s Companion], Moscow, 1959|
|↑8||Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in Germany in 1933; before 1945, thousands of German and foreign JWs were held in concentration camps and about several hundred were executed.|
|↑9||Bernhard Rammerstorfer. Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man. Grammaton Press, 2004 [in Russian: М, 2011].|