At a December 11. 2018 meeting with the Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, one council member, Ekaterina Shulman, addressed President Putin: “There is a list of organizations, for which there is information that they are involved in terrorism and extremism. There are 489 of them, and 404 of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Pressing her luck, she continued: “Here I will take a sinister pause. There could be an abundance of claims against Jehovah’s Witnesses—they don’t allow blood transfusion, don’t send children to hospitals, [ed: not a charge that I have heard before] but they definitely are not calling for violence or committing it.”
Putin’s response was: “We should treat the representatives of all religions in the same way – this is true, but still, it is also necessary to take into account the country and the society in which we live. True, this does not mean at all that we should include representatives of religious communities in some destructive, or even in terrorist organizations. Of course, this is complete nonsense, you need to carefully deal with it. Here I agree with you.”
Later in the meeting, Putin returned to the topic and added: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too. I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.” The Washington Post and Time picked up on the story the next day, the Post saying that he “has pledged to look into the reported persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Now, what to make of this?
Yaroslav Sivulski, the press secretary for JWs in Russia, stated: “We have noted the president’s reaction with surprise. If he knows about the whole situation, then probably his reaction could change something. We hope that he will give instructions to have the matter examined and something may happen. Though, knowing the realities of our country, there is not much optimism.” Okay, so they’re not breaking out the champagne just yet.
The online community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was a cynical bunch, by and large, with many thinking Putin was just being slippery. In fact, since translating from Russian to English poses challenges, one Witness understood him to say: “Jehovah's Witnesses are also Christians, for which I do not really understand how to persecute them,” as though he was searching for more effective ways to do it. Hmm. Did he say "I really do not understand how to persecute them" or "I really do not understand how they are persecuted"? It is the six-million-dollar question. It is a little like the Twilight Zone episode in which the earthlings were relieved to find the alien's handbook "To Serve Man." ‘Ahh, it means their intentions are good,’ and they breathed easily, but at the show’s end they discovered to their discomforture that it was a cookbook.
I tend to take President Putin’s remarks at face value. There is no reason that he has to say what he does, even expanding it to ‘Jehovah’s Witness are also Christians,’ contradicting prominent religious people who say they are not. When his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who was also among the officials that Witnesses contacted via a letter campaign launched in hopes of averting the 2017 ban, was asked a similar question last year, he could not have answered more harshly than he did. I think Putin is being genuine, at last waking up to something that he has barely paid attention to. Maybe it is like the hinge squeaking in the background somewhere that he has barely noticed but now it is driving him nuts. Perhaps he will even pick up his WD-40, go lubricate it himself, and subsequently vent his wrath upon whoever allowed such idiocy to take center stage in the first place, painting his country before all the world as a nation of goons--in the spirit of Ahasuerus avenging Haman.
A president is a busy man. It is popularly believed that anything that goes down in a country will have his fingerprints all over it, but this is seldom so for matters of ‘low priority.’ Of course, this is not low priority for Witnesses, but it can hardly be otherwise for him. At a subsequent news conference, he spoke to the danger of nuclear war, which he hopes the West does not get too cavalier about: “The danger of the situation escalating is being downplayed,” he said, adding that the lowering of thresholds for nuclear capability “could really lead us to catastrophe.” If he loses sleep at night, it is not over the travails of a small religion. It is over the thought of the world going up in flames.
Western media excoriates him, but it cannot be wise to let the propaganda of one king mold our view of the other. I was very careful, in writing the book, Dear Mr. Putin – Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia, not to do that. In the event it was ever read by anyone that mattered, I did not want to sabotage it by being disrespectful or accusing.
It wasn’t that hard to do—for example, by spotlighting the two, likely three, times that Russia, not the United States, saved the world from certain nuclear war. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov spotted an incoming missile from the U.S. on his screen, correctly judged it a malfunction, and against orders, did not relay the report to the excitable Kremlin. Second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov refused to sign-off with his two fellow officers to launch a nuclear attack during the Cuban missile crisis—the decision had to be unanimous. Nikita Khrushchev arguably brought that crisis to a close with his last-minute telegram to President Kennedy.
However, in refraining from criticizing Putin personally, I was not just being expedient. I honestly came to feel it not likely that he was one of the instigators. I admit that feeling wavered in view of the abuses of the last few months, with Witnesses physically accosted by police, but now it intensifies. Promisingly, he is not cut from the same cloth as many in high government. He was not born to privilege in the ruling class. He started from the ground up, as a regular office worker, and lived with his parents during the early days of his working life. He thus probably retains a feel for the interests of the ‘common man’ that his co-rulers do not. In the end, it hardly matters, because ‘the heart of a king is as streams of water’ in Jehovah’s hands. But it helps if it is neither ice cubes nor steam to begin with.
He didn’t have to say it, is the point. He could have issued some boiler-plate beatitude of how ‘the situation is serious and we continue to monitor it closely.’ He certainly didn’t have to say that Witnesses are Christian too, thus showing that he will not be shoved around by ones who insist they are not. His statement makes it much harder for Russia to thumb its nose at any upcoming ECHR verdict, indicating that he has no intention of doing that. How can his words not ease the pressure on Jehovah’s Witnesses in that country? After all, if you were a Russian cop, would YOU violently accost one after what he just said?
Still, he is conscious of the majority. How much freedom of worship will be restored remains to be seen, since he observes that with 90% of the country being of a certain religious orientation, one cannot throw everything overboard so as to please the "sects." It is enough not to persecute them, which he seems inclined not to do. Maybe the brothers will have to tip-toe around for a while, and it will not necessarily be a bad thing for our people to focus on being discreet. That has long been the direction of theocratic training, anyhow. If Putin truly had evil intent, however, he would not have returned to the topic to say that he doesn’t really understand why Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted. Now let’s see how well he holds up as the more devious ones labor to remind him. We will see whose resolve prevails. Probably, JW representative Sivulsky has it just right: he is surprised and cautiously optimistic.
In some respects, it may prove a replay, with hopefully different outcome, of the situation with Pilate judging Jesus. Pilate knew that he was being set up. He knew Jesus was innocent. He worked rather hard to free him—that much is clear by reading any one of the gospel accounts, and the conclusion is inescapable upon reviewing all of them. But the scoundrels were so insistent, even hinting that to release Jesus would be treasonous, that he eventually caved. After all, it wasn’t his prime concern. He had a province to run. He tried to do the right thing. That’s how it is with many today. They try to do the right thing, but they only try so hard. When the going gets rough, they opt for expediency.
The Russian Orthodox Church has insisted that it did not instigate the ban and I am inclined to believe them. That is not to say that prominent ones did not squeal with delight, like kids on Christmas morning, or that some instigators did not have Church connections. But the villainy stems from an anti-cult movement, with French connections, that is active in many lands. Conditions in Russia were ripe, that’s all, just like they were ripe for Communism 100 years ago, which was also imported from abroad.
Writing ‘Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia’ took the better part of a year. There were few publicly available online sources that I did not read during this time, save only for those that were repetitive. The most telling report was one by Joshua Gill, a religion writer, revealing from where most of the trouble came.
“The Russian Supreme Court’s July 17 ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses was the result of a decades long conspiracy funded by the French government, blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, and sanctioned by the Putin administration…The latest phase of that plan first garnered international attention with Russian authorities’ arrest of a Danish citizen.” That would be Dennis Christensen, arrested May 25, 2017 for conducting a congregation meeting after the ban had gone into effect, and still in prison at this time of writing, (December 2018) his case only recently coming to trial.
Gill spotlights the role of Alexander Dvorkin, the Russian Ministry’s Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies. That Council exists so as “to investigate religions that deviate from Russian Orthodox teaching and to recommend actions against those religions to the state.” They have recommended taking strong action on non-majority faiths. Mr. Dvorkin is also vice president of the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS), a French NGO dedicated to identifying as a “sect/cult or a guru the organization or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioral techniques for his own benefit.” It is an organization fully funded by the French government, and it may be remembered that that government tried to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses by imposing a 60% tax on their activities in 1998. The tax was steadfastly appealed by Jehovah’s Witnesses until it was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights fourteen years later.
The Daily Caller article reveals the depth of Dvokin’s misinformation and dislike of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Their adepts recruit failed university enrollees, and people on vacation as well; they have a wide range of psychological influence, especially on the unstable minds of adolescents and youths,” he says of them and the Hare Krishnas. He has encouraged the public to “take part in the fight against sects, file complaints and collect raw data so that the local authorities can react quickly.” In a 2009 documentary called ‘Emergency Investigation: Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ he compared Witnesses to drug dealers. The Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews attributes instances of public violence against Russian Witness members to that documentary, just as the violence visiting Kingdom Halls in Washington State is similarly stoked by the inflammatory use of the C-word. Is the FECRIS mission of identifying as a “sect/cult or a guru the organization or the individual which misuses beliefs and behavioral techniques for his own benefit” not exactly the battle cry of the anti-cultists worldwide?”
Mine was the minority view among the Witnesses I spoke with. “You are a better Christian than I am,” one said. “You always expect the best from people. I don't believe a word a politician says.” Note that his distrust is of “a politician,” not of Putin specifically, though he hardly sings his praises. One could even say that it is a sign of being “insular”—they are all the same to him. Having said that, they are all the same to many—it is hardly just him. Why, long ago Mark Twain even said that politicians must be changed as frequently as a diaper—and for the same reason.
It is true that I try to think the best of people. Am I a “better Christian” in this instance? Or just a dumber one? Time will tell.