Emily Baran hatched a hagiography when she wrote Dissent on the Margins, according to one reviewer. Perhaps I should not admit it, but I had to look up the word. Having done so, as with all new words, I afterwards spied it everywhere; it must have been there all along and I had till then relied upon context for sufficient definition. For less enlightened ones who are where I recently was, it essentially means these people are too good to be true, and therefore the critic does not believe that they are true. He even heightened the “hag” to “gag.” The word he actually used was “gagiography,” perhaps revealing a personal distaste for the subject. Or was it just a typo? One mustn’t give in to paranoia. Baran takes it as a typo1 but maybe only to control her rage. She disagrees with either term due to their implication that she is not objective, the worst of all possible sins for a historian. She is a historian of Witness persecution in Russia—the only one that I am aware of. She covers exclusively the Russian government’s campaign against the religion from Stalin times to her book’s 2014 date of publication.
In her forward, Baran thanks everyone under the sun who had helped her, as a writer should. Then she specifically thanks her university mentor for never asking: “Why Jehovah’s Witnesses?” If he didn’t do it, I won’t do it. We don’t have to know everything. She is probably glad she did choose the Witnesses, though, since the story for anyone else would be duller. All minority religion is bullied in Russia today, but only the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization has been formally branded extremist. I will draw upon her book heavily for background. This particular chapter could not be written without it, and other chapters are spared many obtuse statements because of it.
Perhaps the hagiography criticism stems from the palpable impression Baran conveys that Jehovah’s Witnesses walk the talk, and not just talk the talk, and the reviewer, having not seen it before, supposes it not possible. Baran mentions the Soviets’ dismay when there appeared no difference between a Witness’s private person and his or her public person.2 They had just assumed that the two would be different, as they always are, and that they could appeal to the private person in pursuit of their goal to undermine the faith. But with the Witnesses they discovered essentially no difference between public and private. The description of Ezekiel’s countrymen that so universally applies seemed not to apply to them: “For them you are only a singer of love songs, with a pleasant voice and a clever touch. They listen to your words, but they do not obey them.”3 Witnesses would agree with the words. They constitute a “love song” to many persons of religion. They are inspirational: the stuff of stirring song, moving poetry, rousing prose, but as to obeying them? No. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, to the best of their ability, obey them. Ham-fistedly they do it sometimes, for they are not diplomats, but they do strive to obey.
Dissent on the Margins is not a hagiography at all. This account one might label a hagiography, if one must, and I would dispute it only half-heartedly, but not hers. Would Baran’s unflattering critic also label the Book of Acts a hagiography? During trialsome decades of unrelenting Soviet opposition, Baran relates that many Witnesses stumbled, failed, or even betrayed their own—nothing hagiographic about that. She relates that the churn rate of Jehovah’s Witnesses was very high in Russia, higher than in the Western world, where it is also high.4 Witnesses there lived with the prospect that they might, at any time, be arrested, fired from employment, and even have their children taken from them, all threats that are being revisited today. Censure from their neighbors was likely, and censure from the press a near certainty. Many left, though they were replaced by new persons, and their departure is more than offset by the fact that enthusiasm and participation among Witnesses is high. After all, in many religions, persons may not formally leave, but how would you know if they did?
Perhaps the Witness history is called a hagiography because their core continued to grow overall despite concerted efforts to stamp it out, despite many who left—and that growth exploded after 1991. The Soviets had conveyed mixed messages through the years regarding Witnesses, never having figured out how to handle them. On the one hand, they were loyal Soviet citizens who had simply been misled by fanatics and needed patient rescue. On the other hand, with no clergy-laity division, it was difficult to know just who the fanatics were. Therefore, Soviet policy was that all should be considered potential fanatics until re-educated.5 The government maintained constant efforts to defame them, “uttering every kind of evil,” against them.6 Through it all, overall membership rose.
Failing to eliminate the faith outright, communist officials continually sought to divide it, planting their own agents as “false brothers,” a ploy that caused much damage.7 Nonetheless, at Witness headquarters, they considered that they had the playbook on how to deal with such methods. It is the Book of Acts, in fact, the entire New Testament, which details the spread of first-century Christianity despite continual, even violent, opposition. Under Joseph Stalin, there were mass deportations of Witnesses to Siberia. The Witnesses, however, readjusted, to regard these deportations as opportunities to continue proselytizing, just as is related in the eighth chapter of Acts.
Typically, Witnesses would meet secretly in private homes. They resisted the draft, withstood atheist schooling, and avoided participation in government-sponsored activities. They believed all governments were controlled by Satan: that of the U.S, that of the U.S.S.R, and all the remaining ones. They saw the Cold War as a manifestation of the clash between the king of the north and the king of the south described in the Book of Daniel, a conflict which was to lead to Armageddon. Soviet authorities seem never to have fully understood the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite their pacifism, they were accused of war-mongering due to their expectation of Armageddon. Despite their conflicts with the U.S. government, they were branded as agents of American imperialism. This author well remembers working in New York State with the tract Jehovah’s Witnesses – Christians or Communists, a tract designed to counter just the opposite impression among Americans.
The Witness organization didn’t help their own cause by designating Russia the “king of the north,” who “floods into many lands,” and puts trust in the “god of fortresses.”8 It is an interpretation of the eleventh chapter of Daniel that others have shared; Witnesses are hardly the only ones to put those verses under the magnifying glass. It does not necessarily sit well with persons not religious. Did Soviets export communism into other lands? The king of the south did no less with his brand of government. Even if the Soviets did parade around weapons in public, did not the southern king also project military might, these days in countries numerous than he? And what is to make of a religion that opines about the United Nations, as the Witnesses have? For Russia, the United Nations has traditionally been an arena in which to get beaten up: Western countries outnumber Eastern countries in the Security Council. Soviet officials perhaps checked in the Bible and didn’t see the term “United Nations.” What sort of a “religion” is this? the atheistic Soviet government said, which could hardly be expected to pick up on religious nuances.
With the fall of communism in 1991, Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the last faiths to be legally registered. After 26 years of legally operating, they are the first to again be banned. The move did not come overnight; it had been building. Most Russian Witnesses of Jehovah in Soviet times were shipped via boxcar to long Siberian exile in 1949, and more in 1951.9 The Soviet government never acknowledged those exiles.10 The media since 1991 has only rarely done so, opting instead to reinforce derogatory cult perceptions. No Witness member was caught flat-footed with the present ban and the Russian Witnesses always thought the efforts to belay it would come to naught—though one can always hope. Opposition to the Witnesses was not universal. Powerful factions worked against them, but there were also friendly factions to defend them, usually comprised of those who actually knew some, as happens everywhere.
Documents smuggled out of KGB archives were published in the 2000 book The Sword and the Shield. According to the FBI, they represented the “most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source.” A tiny section of them reveals Soviet obsession over the “Jehovists,” an obsession far out of proportion to their numbers. The documents reveal dismay that, once exiled, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not give up. They “did not reject their hostile beliefs and in camp conditions continued to carry out their Jehovist work.”11 Moreover, those not exiled persisted in aiding those that were, supplying them with money, food, and clothing. The KGB had thought it would be out of sight, out of mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses proved that with them, it would be otherwise.
One Witness of the time stated: “The more I suffered, the more I preached.”12 His course was not unique. Witnesses’ refusal to cease religious activity challenged labor camp order and undermined the purported goal of reforming criminals into honest Soviet citizens. When broken up, they preached to a new audience. When isolated, they formed a “theological seminary” and worked to spread their Bible literature. During Soviet times, the Watchtower organization, though based in the United States, made persistent efforts to instruct members that they had rights under Russian law.13 Those rights were invariably trampled. Nonetheless, they knew that they had them and that they were not criminals.
Relatively few outside, or even inside, Russia, know of the intense persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses during Soviet times, though they will be familiar with religious persecution in general. Baran offers some reasons for this. Since Witnesses put no trust in human governments, whenever outside governments spotlighted religious persecution in the Soviet Union, they generally took no notice of Witnesses. The same characteristics that kept them on the KGB’s watch list kept them off that of the outside media’s: that of being “no part of the world.” Excepting the Witnesses, most buy into the notion that God rules by working through the existing arrangement of nations. The Witnesses differing viewpoint is a circumstance too puzzling for media to deal with, and so they at times resort to the response mentioned by the apostle Peter, by turning hostile toward the unfamiliar.14 Jehovah’s Witnesses were simply too far out there. They were too far off the grid of contemporary thought. It didn’t help that they were often rural and uneducated persons, who never rank highly on the world’s watch list. They were self-isolated from ecumenical movements—so that when the outside world became aware of Christian persecution, it stayed unaware of that aimed at Jehovah’s Witnesses.15 The religion was as obscure as could be to outsiders. In many ways it is still, despite members continually knocking on people’s doors.
No religious group in the Soviet Union was persecuted with more determination than Jehovah’s Witnesses. Baran relates an account from Soviet dissident writer Vladimir Bukovky, then in London. He relates how he chanced to come across a nondescript building with a simple sign out front that read “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The words inspired in him a sense of “shock” and “almost fright.” It was as though he had seen a sign: “Cosa Nostra Limited: Mafia Headquarters.” He thought, “So these are the same Jehovists, the same sectarian fanatics that the Soviet authorities used to scare children? This is that same underground, that most secret of all the ‘sects’ in the USSR?” The idea that this religion could operate in the open seemed almost inconceivable to him as a Soviet citizen. After all, he noted, “One only sees real live Jehovists in prisons and even there they are underground.” Soviet Witnesses were the stuff of “legends.” Folks used to say that even a Witness in a punishment cell in the strictest of camps could still manage to receive the latest Watchtower issues from Brooklyn. This sort of power inspired an “almost mystical horror” in the authorities, who hunted down every last Jehovist they could find and sentenced them to long terms in the camps.16
One Soviet official complained at his collective farm in 1957, “We have people belonging to the Jehovist sect. Those of you who do not know this sect, God help you never to know.”17 The sheer tenacity of Witnesses vaulted them head and shoulders above all other groups, though they numbered far fewer. A survey Baran cites of atheist literature directed toward religious sects between 1955 and 1966 revealed that 17 percent was dedicated to Witnesses, 12 percent to Baptists, 9 percent to Pentecostals, 7 percent to Seventh Day Adventists, and about 50 percent to “sectarianism” in general.18
The pattern has reestablished itself. No group in Russia today is persecuted more than Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is not that they take delight in leading a race to the bottom, but in a way, they do. They have inherited the mantle of the true followers of Christ, who can depend upon persecution. As the Bible states, “In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,”19 a recognition of Jesus own words that “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”20 Baran points out that the full expectation of persecution served to solidify Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia even as they suffered it.21
Therefore, (let us admit it) Witnesses are gratified to take bottom prize, which they regard as top prize. If the world hates them, they reason that they must be doing something right. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom awarded them just such a top prize among groups professing Christianity in its report on Russia in January of 2018. A chapter in the report is entitled “Muslims,” another “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and the remaining is “Others.” Protestants receive “honorable mention,” but they do not get top prize. “Christian Protestants, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists also regularly face harassment in the press and pressure from the Russian bureaucratic machine. They have difficulties in obtaining land plots for their liturgical buildings; they are visited with inspections, and so on. However, up to the present, besides the Witnesses, only Pentecostals have faced prosecution under anti-extremist legislation,” says the Commission.22 Of Scientologists, who do not profess Christianity, the report says: “Adherents of the Church of Scientology have been less affected by anti-extremist measures than Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the existence of their communities in Russia can hardly be called comfortable.”23 Mormons also experience much resistance, yet when they sought to build a church in 2018 Moscow, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, despite fierce local opposition—so fierce that local officials are prepared to defy the court. Possibly the Mormons’ quest is aided by the circumstance that the current U.S. ambassador to Russia is a Mormon, from which a TV special concludes “The round-up of our souls is continuing.”24 Nonetheless, they do get to build their church at a time when existing properties of Jehovah’s Witnesses are being confiscated.
Of course, there are always reasons for persecution, and they are seldom going to be: “We don’t like God around here.” It remains in the eye of the beholder whether, for any given group, it is an unjust reason or a it serves them right—they had it coming reason. If a group “meddles in politics” or even aligns itself with activists who would peer into the pants of officials to tell of their soiled underwear, Witnesses will say “It serves them right—what did they expect?” But they will maintain that their own reasons are part of the package of being Christian. This writer will maintain it, too, and will explore them more thoroughly in Part II. He strives to be fair, but he makes no claim to impartiality. He is an apologist for Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the early Christian sense. The other groups will have to speak for themselves.
So heavy was the cost one had to have been prepared to pay during Soviet years, it is little wonder Baran found that so many Witnesses left the faith, even as others joined. But the cost of being a Witness is significant everywhere, for theirs is a serious religion, one which does not suffer being kept “in its place.” Or rather, it does suffer it, but insists that place is first place, not last place. Those who choose to become Witnesses do so for exactly that reason. They are like the biblical merchant who finds the pearl of great price and promptly sells all that he has to obtain it. Witnesses find answers in Bible verse that they find nowhere else, answers to questions generally deemed unanswerable. They think it proper to keep interests related to those answers in first place.25
The pearl they find they regard as the true news, contrasting with what they find fake. Yes, of course! they say: The earth is to be our home, as it was originally intended to be. It is not merely a testing ground, to serve as a launching pad into heaven for us and a trap door into hell for those we don’t like. The sole sizable religion teaching this is surely not the one to eliminate. Baran relates that “one former gulag prisoner recalled how Witness prisoners offered one another spiritual encouragement. Noting with some admiration that Witnesses even sang in the camps, he commented ‘Truly only someone who has internal freedom can become a Jehovah’s Witness.’”26
Chapter two of the Book of Acts tells of a period with overtones more communist than democratic. The Catholic NABRE translators label the section: “Communal life.”27 Says the scriptural passage: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life…all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”28 It is not communism—it is but a temporary arrangement—but clearly it is not the “rugged individualism” of American thinking.
All clergy handling the Word of God mangle it to some extent, say Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the American clergy gives it an additional peculiar twist. The Bible does not celebrate fierce independence. More often it celebrates submitting to authority. The Bible does not celebrate free speech. Sometimes it celebrates shutting people up. The Bible does not celebrate standing for one’s rights. More often it celebrates yielding to the greater good. Jesus, the founder, the Christ, leads the way in yielding to the greater good. It wasn’t for insisting upon his rights that he was killed.
During the 1970s, when Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, a satellite country it was called in the West, I studied the Bible with an elderly Czech woman, a refugee who fled to the U.S. with her son. In hindsight, she seemed to have adopted me as though a grandson. I used as a study guide the book The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life in English, and she the same book in Czech. Several times she mentioned that Jehovah’s Witnesses in her country were the most crude and backward (she actually said “ignorant”) of people. Several times she mentioned that her book was a terrible translation. What is remarkable is that it was a translation at all. Witnesses at the time were denied education. The regime saw to it they were fired from their jobs. They subsisted because they had picked up shoe repair skills or some other work-a-day skill.29 Others found it too inconvenient to be prohibited from buying or selling without the mark of the beast. Jehovah’s Witnesses steadfastly refused the mark, but their refusal was not without cost.
Though they were persons uneducated, they encountered many intellectuals and educated people who had balked at the communist regime. These had been made outcasts, and as a result many embraced the Witness beliefs as they were searching for answers to the meaning of life. There are many stories of Witness members starting studies with such individuals in prison. Even former president and playwright Vaclav Havel, once imprisoned for dissident views, received a witness. He is known to have said something to the effect of “That all sounds very wonderful, but I don’t think I can wait. I want change now.” In later years, his library included several Witness publications.30
Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to register with the Soviet authorities on February 28, 1991. Without direction from Bethel headquarters in the U.S, it would not have happened. Few Russian Witnesses could imagine it. Not all were keen on it. They and the authorities had been at loggerheads forever. How could they possibly register and maybe cede control to the government? Few could know that government officials had been rethinking their policy regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses, a rethinking motivated in part by recognition that past policy had consumed massive reserves of energy to little avail.
A changing government began to think the time had come for Russia to join the world community in accommodation of the religion. It was during the time of glasnost (openness). Visiting the U.S. for other reasons, certain Soviet officials dropped in at Brooklyn Bethel for a chat to clarify points strange to them. It is much to their credit that they would do so. Many never step out from their comfort zones. As though they were Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves, they came calling unannounced, and those they wanted to speak with were “not at home.”31 Most likely it was during Regional Conventions time, when Governing Body members skirt around the globe to one stadium after another and their wives become “convention widows.” Nonetheless, those who did receive the visitors from Russia were gracious, showed them around, and arrangements were made for a subsequent meeting.
One can only admire the Soviet officials of that time, for the Governing Body didn’t give an inch, and all meaningful concessions were to be on the part of the officials. It is not that they would not give an inch; it is that they felt they could not, for obedience to their perceived will of God had from the start dictated the course they would take. Government officials were noble-minded enough to see that such a course constituted no threat to them. They struggled valiantly to grasp “some notions strange to our ears,” just as the Athenians did long ago with the apostle Paul.32 They struggled to get their heads around biblical notions that flew in the face of their atheistic training, notions that even the mainline churches found strange. It was enough to crack open the door to “church” Christianity, but this! One can only admire these ones. Their course evokes the sentiments of a noble Gandhi counseling Lord Kelvin that if nations would actually apply Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the world’s problems would soon dissipate—an oft-repeated grapevine quote that the Watchtower has recently rejected, even though they love it, since there is no proof that the two ever met.33
The authors of A Sword and A Shield note that “the Jehovist obsession of senior KGB officers was, perhaps, the supreme example of their lack of any sense of proportion when dealing with the most insignificant forms of dissent.” But Baran doesn’t buy the suggestion that all churches are the same and it is a matter of: why pick disproportionately on the most insignificant? She gets the difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the traditional churches. She gets the nuances. She avoids the red herrings. She knows what is significant and what is anomaly. Writing about Jehovah’s Witnesses, for one who is not one, is not easy. She does it with assurance.
It was not easy for Soviet officials in 1991, either. There were things to clear up. “Christians today can no more take sides in the cold war between the East and the West than Jesus and his disciples took sides in the political strife between the Romans and the Jews,” stated a 1961 Awake article. Does that not clearly denote neutrality? Nonetheless, Witness publications originating from Brooklyn had at times used such expressions as “totalitarian” and “iron curtain,” especially in the days of previous Watchtower Society presidents Rutherford and Knorr—expressions the Soviets would not have applied to themselves. Neutrality, too, is in the eye of the beholder.34
The Witnesses looked to God’s kingdom to bestow peace and plenty upon all. But that is what the Communist government of Russia had also promised. Did not persons embracing the kingdom hope imply that they were rejecting the secular version—the “official” one? It had been a major stumbling block for years. The Russian visitors worked at those strange notions—that the one-day destruction of earthly governments was based upon Bible prophesy, and was not an invitation to revolt, for example. In fact, it was just the opposite, for Jesus tells Peter to put down his weapon, since “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Witnesses announce the coming end of human rulership, still they have no role in bringing it about. That is to be God’s move. Moreover, their God doesn’t have a complaint with any present government in particular—it is human government itself that is the problem.35
If world media outlets ignored Jehovah’s Witnesses back then, they would find it harder to do today, even were that their intent. Today, the Witness organization has become more visible. God has “beautified” it, as believers would say, taking a phrase from Isaiah. Doings of the Watchtower organization today are too big to ignore. Yearly it arranges well over a thousand annual summer gatherings, filling stadiums and arenas, to serve its entire membership. At times, facilities, in ill-repair beforehand, are revitalized and left in spotless condition.
With any natural disaster, Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the first upon the scene. Theirs is an organized response unequalled, quickly restoring the homes of their own, with spillover efforts benefiting the general community as time and volunteer efforts hold out. The website JW.org employs every advance of digital technology and releases content thoroughly professional. An experience related in the Witnesses’ 2017 yearbook relates how an Italian information technology firm declared JW.org the best website in the world for general layout and recommended it as the premiere example for imitation.36 In these and other ways, the organizational visibility of Jehovah’s Witnesses is much improved from what it was a few decades ago. Mark Sanderson, of the Witness’s Governing Body, present during both the April 20th trial and its appeal, related how he was approached by diplomatic persons worldwide, all very aware of the true nature of the Witnesses’ work, extending offers of assistance within their capabilities. They would hardly have been so aware absent the website and increased visibly.
No nation has succeeded in ridding itself of Jehovah’s Witnesses once they appear, Baran observes in Dissent on the Margins. Soviets succeeded in removing Witness “fanatics” only to find that their non-fanatics rose to the occasion and became so themselves. Give them a good solid punch to the gut and they collapse like everyone else. But they regroup. They stumble seven times, as the Proverb says, but each time they get up. Some are like Peter, who caved under unexpected trial, and denied his Lord three times. Some of those are like Peter again, who beat himself up over it, and who, when extended the invitation to straighten up and fly right, did just that, in time serving more mightily than he had served while his Lord was walking about.
To be Russian Orthodox is part of what it means to be Russian. In a survey of the 1990s, 42 percent of self-identified atheists and 50 percent of self-identified nonbelievers identified themselves as Orthodox.37 It constitutes more than a religion. It is Russian culture and Russian national identity. Almost unanimously, Russians think it a positive institution. Even atheists do. A personal friend who travels to Serbia, where there is also a national Orthodox church, reports locals will say the most horrible things about clergy and proceedings38 – but that doesn’t mean you can do so. The Church preserved national unity through perilous times, and for that a multitude of sins are overlooked. It is likely the same in Russia. There are similar patterns that play out everywhere.
The Russian Church did not take well to the onslaught of competition from, not just the Witnesses, but many other groups unleashed in the aftermath of Soviet collapse. In time, Aleksandr Dvorkin, a one-time priest of the Church, coined the term “totalitarian sect” to designate any organization which “violates the rights of [its] members and inflicts harm on them through the use of certain methods known as ‘mind control.’”39 The definition of mind control is so loose that it is essentially triggered by persuading anyone that the Russian Church is not the only game in town. Many minority faiths are charged with this offense, not just Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The latest tightening of Russian anti-extremism law comes in the form of the two “Yarovaya laws” enacted in 2016, so named after their sponsor. The Russia Program Director of the Huffington Post, Tanya Lokshina, writes in that outlet that the laws were “rammed through” the State Duma legislature.40 She writes that because they were published in their revised form only on the day they were to be voted upon, which was the last day before summer recess, and thereby were “without any meaningful debate or scrutiny”—worrisome given the “draconian” limits they place upon free expression. It was her opinion that the most onerous provisions (stripping the most serious miscreants of citizenship), generating outcry and subsequently dropped at the last moment, served to distract from provisions only somewhat less onerous.
To the extent the law involves religion (most of it does not), Lokshina says it bans proselytizing, preaching, praying, or disseminating religious materials outside of “specially designated places,” such as officially recognized religion institutions. In theory, if you discussed at home the sermon you just heard even at the Orthodox Church service, and it upset someone, that person might report you and you might find yourself in hot water. Let religion be dispensed only by the professionals, “mercenary ministers,” as Witness lawyer Victor Blackwell (whom we shall hear from later) called them decades ago. Discuss it, and even pray, outside of the designated places, and you are potentially in trouble, should someone complain. Moreover, they are obligated to complain, per another provision of the law, and “failure to report” anything deemed extremist makes them liable to a possible prison term. Even children as young as 14 are subject to arrest for this “crime.”
Share your religion without the “required paperwork?”41 No. “Virtually any religious practice, including rituals, sermons, reading of religious literature, and sharing religious views online” becomes the proper subject of police and public prosecutor investigation, as they are called upon to “clarify what is a worship service, a sermon, or a meeting of believers and what isn’t.”42
The terminology is new, but the pattern is old. Though there are new standards of regression, it has played out in most lands. The dominant church has a monopoly. Despite a captive audience, it has not seen fit to educate them with regard to the textbook most parishioners simply assume provides its underpinnings. Along comes Jehovah’s Witnesses to do what they have declined to do and they scream to high heaven. In her book, Baran states “In contrast, however, to many of the Western Christian organizations setting up shop in the region, the Russian Orthodox Church was not well prepared to handle competition.”43 Well, whose fault is that? Had they not neglected their main charge, they would have been prepared. Jehovah’s Witnesses do nothing more underhanded than to show up and point to what the Bible says. Church loyalists cry that a huckster can misrepresent scripture, but even that concern is remedied where persons have been taught to be fluent in the scriptures, so that they can spot the hucksters themselves.
It played out this way in the United States even before the modern manifestation of Jehovah’s Witnesses there. The dominant Catholic church kept people in the dark about the Bible—declaring it was for the priests to teach it and the priests declined to do so. Having a certain amount of Bible knowledge, which is superior to none, leaders of the strengthening Protestants, active in their communities, made Bible reading a part of public school curriculum, to the displeasure of many priests. The book: A Separate Identity tells of one such campaign in Pennsylvania during the mid-1800s: “The Pittsburgh Catholics protested, saying that Bible reading and teaching caused ‘irreverence.’ They believed Bible reading undermined church authority. For many Catholics, public school Bible reading was their first exposure to the book, and some asked questions the priests found uncomfortable.”44
The Protestant Reformation retained the main doctrines of the much-older Catholics. In this, the movement could be called more a rebellion than a reformation. What it did dispense with were certain clerical abuses plainly seen by merely reading the Bible. Verses so simple as “Call no one on earth your father”45 caused consternation for priests who insisted upon being called just that. Later, Catholics and Protestants alike closed ranks upon Jehovah’s Witnesses who demonstrated with ease from the Bible that even their agreed-upon common doctrines were unsupported in Scripture. Nikolai Gordienko, of the Herzen Russian State University in St. Petersburg, has stated “When the experts accuse Jehovah’s Witnesses for their teachings, they do not realize that they are actually making accusations against the Bible.”46
Most church teachings are not explicitly found in the Bible. It is the attempt to read them in that makes the book incomprehensible. One cannot assemble the puzzle with damaged pieces. Everyone knows the experience of giving up on a puzzle whose assembly has proven impossible, as it surely will if pieces are missing or damaged. Such frustration is where many atheists are born. It is where many agnostics are born. It is not solely where they are born, but they would birth in numbers far fewer if they understood that the Bible is logically coherent. One doesn’t have to believe it to take in knowledge of it but take in knowledge is what should be done. Only upon seeing that the book makes internal sense can one begin to assess whether it is to be believed or not.
The mainstay beliefs of immortality of the soul and the triune nature of God are part and parcel of church tradition, be it Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Jehovah’s Witnesses will tweak minor things right down to this day. It is “the light getting brighter,” they say. Yet their rejection of those major doctrines has been firmly in place for over a century. The triune doctrine, to them, makes god incomprehensible and thus, unknowable. The torment-in-hell doctrine makes him fearsome and cruel, someone whom you would not want to know. The doctrines Witnesses discarded 100 years ago were popular with various intellectuals and philosophers of Christ’s time. Later church leaders, wanting to curry favor with such ones, and possibly secure their conversion, incorporated their ideas, even if they made God unknowable. Some people like God unknowable. Some people even like him cruel, so long as he reserves his cruelty for their enemies, which they always manage to have him do.
Baran’s book cites occasions of the Russian Church warning when Jehovah’s Witnesses were active in an area.47 You cannot read them without being reminded of warnings from the first-century Jewish leaders, alarmed over rapidly-spreading Christianity back in those times. In L’viv [Moldavia] flyers proclaimed: “Warning!!!The totalitarian sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very active in your district!!” From the Book of Acts: “These people who have been creating a disturbance all over the world have now come here.” From a Russian priest: “Caution: Life Threatening Sect!” From Acts: “Fellow Israelites, help us. This is the man [Paul] who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law.”48 The same warnings have been raised in many countries.
In 2000, with just nine years of free operation under their belts, and with opposition already moving in for the repeat kill, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia distributed twelve million tracts entitled Could it Happen Again? recalling the exiles of 1949 and 1951, defending against certain charges, and pointing out that the Russian Constitution guarantees religious freedom. It also pointed out that 40 human rights experts in Russia and Eastern Europe had appealed for an end to the harassment and repression that Witnesses were increasingly being subjected to. A Witness from the Russian branch said: “Sixty years ago in the Soviet Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced an unprecedented wave of persecution and repression. Lately, a new wave, a systematic campaign of harassment is being carried out against Jehovah’s Witnesses; this time, some want to classify our literature and activity as extremist. Our meetings for worship are raided; worshippers are illegally detained, questioned, and searched. Their personal possessions are confiscated. In view of the seriousness of this situation, we, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, consider it necessary to provide our fellow citizens, not excluding government officials, with accurate information about ourselves, as well as about cases of the religious intolerance that we have encountered.”
Similar campaigns to expose persecution (perpetrators usually wish to avoid public scrutiny) have proven effective elsewhere. But Baran opines that the campaign fell flat in Russia, both for reasons unique to the country and for reasons not.49 Jehovah’s Witnesses there triggered little public sympathy, she observes, but that is true almost anywhere; the crux of the matter lies elsewhere. Outrage over the prospect of religious repression didn’t occur in Russia on any significant scale, as they were used to little else. Moreover, the sudden wave of religious openness in the 90s was associated with other Western ideas, such as sudden democracy, which has not worked well in the eyes of many. It has opened the country up to charlatans and manipulators. Notions of freedom that the West think as natural as breathing air, Russians view with less enthusiasm.50 Like the Israelites of old, they like the idea of a strong king, and most think restraining him is not a fine idea.51 Perceiving that the West woefully mishandles freedom, perceiving it has proven only a mixed bag at best for them, few cared when Western ideals of religious freedom were cast aside. Overall, they like the Orthodox Church, if not for religious doctrine, then for culture and national identity.
Even the recent Witness innovation of “cart witnessing,” portable displays of literature free for the asking, was looked at askance prior to 2017, and is vanquished now. Many people have welcomed the appearance of such carts, if only because they think it lessens the chance of a sudden awkward appearance of an uninvited Witness at their door. Nobody is thrilled to see an unexpected visitor of any sort; I run for cover whenever I spot one. Literature carts are therefore welcomed in most places, and a website is less intrusive still. But if the literature offered is extremist, and Russians are told that it is, how can even that be seen as a good thing?
Russia is repentant of past Stalinist repressions, but not necessarily those against Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Putin says nothing can justify political persecution as Russia commemorates Stalin victims,” ran an RT.com headline on October 30, 2017.52 The accompanying photo was that of Putin, Patriarch Kirill, and a human rights spokesman standing before the newly unveiled Wall of Grief in Moscow. The wall includes stone fragments collected throughout Russia, from sites where prison camps of the infamous GULAG system once operated. It was co-funded by the government and the general public.
During Stalin’s reign, Putin remarked, “any person could face made-up and absolutely absurd charges…Millions of people [an estimated 39 million] were branded as enemies of the people, were executed or crippled, underwent torture in prisons and forced deportations,” he said. “This terrible past cannot be erased from the national memory [nor] justified by whatever imaginary greater good of the people.” Some episodes of Russia’s past were debatable but not this one, the president said. “The persecution campaign was a tragedy for our people, our society, a ruthless blow to our culture, roots and identity. We can feel the consequences now and our duty is not to allow it to be forgotten.”
Stalin’s persecution of general transgressors continued throughout his rule, peaking in the so-called Great Purge of 1936-1938. His exiling of Russian Witnesses came toward the end of his tenure, and constitutes but a tiny part of the whole, just as Witness persecution in Nazi Germany constitute but a tiny part of the whole Holocaust. Putin says that those days are over. However, for those bound by conscience toward God, those days are manifestly less “over” than he indicates.
From Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah's Witnesses Write Russia
- This was her expressed opinion, per personal email.
- Emily P. Baran, Dissent on the Margins - How Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) 7
- Ezekiel 33:32
- Baran, Dissent on, 131
- Ibid., 170
- Matthew 5:11
- Ibid., 91
- Ibid., 137
- Ibid., 60
- Ibid., 149
- Christopher M. Andrew, Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive & the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 1999) as quoted in: Elizabeth A. Clark, “Will Trump Confront Religious Repression in Russia?” Nationalreview.com, May 5, 2017
- Baran, Dissent on, 87
- Ibid., 90
- 1 Peter 4:4
- Baran, Dissent on, 67
- Ibid., 244
- Ibid., 151
- Ibid., 145
- 2 Timothy 3:16
- John 19:20
- Baron, Dissent on, 246
- “Inventing Extremists: The Impact of Russian Anti-Extremism Policies on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” United States Commission of International Religious Freedom, January 2018, 22
- Ibid., 19
- The film “Espionage Under the Guise of Religion” is included in the program “Conspiracy Theory,” Television and Radio Broadcasting Company of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation “ZVEZDA” TV channel Star, October 17, 2017. See also “TV Channel Zvezda Exposed Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses,” SOVA Center, October 23, 2017, accessed March 3, 2018 http://www.sova-center.ru/religion/news/harassment/theoretical-struggle/2017/10/d38118/ For English translation, see also, both accessed March 6, 2018, http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/171023b.html and https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/180202a.html
- Matthew 13:45
- Baran, Dissent on, 88
- See YouVersion, bible.com, NABRE Commentary at Acts 2:42, accessed March 6, 2018, https://www.bible.com/bible/463/ACT.2.nabre
- Acts 2:42-48
- Baran, Dissent on, 131,172. Baran’s examples are Russian, not Czech, but denial of education is a staple of totalitarian regimes. I am reminded of the film ‘The Lives of Others,’ incorporating in plotline the same threat of denial from the Stassi.
- Per conversation with Veronica Coelston, an American Witness who was born in Prague, emigrated from Czechoslovakia with her parents in 1968, and subsequently would return for summer vacations. She confirms the story through personal conversation with the one-time Coordinator of the Czech Bethel branch, who indicated it was a Br. Jiricka who witnessed to Havel.
- Baran, Dissent on, 190
- Acts 17:20
- Baran, Dissent on, 50, 140
- Matthew 26:52
- Baran, Dissent on, 209
- For a Russian Orthodox example, Katerina Chernova writes in Suchan of those who “murmur” of “priests in gold and jeeps, but candles in churches are only for contributions.” Katerina Chernova, “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Are They Banned or Not?” Suchan, April 2017, as accessed March 26, 2018 at https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/170426a.html
- Baran, Dissent on, 210
- Tanya Lokshina, “Draconian Law Rammed Through Russian Parliament,” Huffington Post, June 23, 2016, Accessed March 8, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/06/23/draconian-law-rammed-through-russian-parliament
- Evgeny Berg, “Russia’s Controversial ‘Yarovaya Package’ Targets Missionaries, Threatens Privacy,” Legal Dialogue - Topics from Civil Society, November 2016. Accessed March 8, 2018, http://legal-dialogue.org/russias-controversial-yarovaya-package-targets-missionaries-threatens-privacy
- Roman Lunkin, “Sacred Extremism. In the Theological Dispute About the Bible, the Court Supported Unscrupulous Experts,” Slavic Center for Law and Justice, December 2017. Accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.sclj.ru/news/detail.php?SECTION_ID=487&ELEMENT_ID=7732 For English translation: https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/171221c.html
- Baran, Dissent on, 209
- B. W. Shultz, Rachael de Vienne, A Separate Identity: Organizational Identity Among Readers of Zion’s Watch Tower: 1870-1887 (Self-published, available widely: 2014) 19
45: Matthew 23:9
- Baran, Dissent on, 237-239
- Acts 17:6, Acts 21:28
- Baran, Dissent on, 240
- Baran, Dissent on, 222 Baran cites several surveys revealing mindsets far from Western minds: “A 2003 survey of Russians found that 78 percent considered democracy “a façade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques. Fifty-three percent stated that they disliked the idea of democracy.” She cites another study of the same time period that found “only 11 percent of respondents would not trade their basic freedoms for stability; 29 percent would forfeit these freedoms even without a promise of order.”
- 1 Samuel chapter 8
- “Putin says nothing can justify political persecution as Russia commemorates Stalin victims,” RT.com, October 30, 2017, Accessed 26, 2018, https://www.rt.com/news/408266-putin-stalin-persecution-memorial/