JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES have never been a threat to the political authorities of the countries in which they live, and this is now recognized. When commenting about one of this summer’s conventions in the Soviet Union, the newspaper Krasnoyarskiy Komsomolets observed: “The ideologists of our country finally realized that Jehovah’s people in no way threaten public law and order.”
Similarly, the Soviet newspaper Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda reported: “Since the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is strictly religious, they do not share in political conflicts and do not encourage their members to support any political bloc, but they support the authority of the Bible and its Author, Jehovah God.”
Growth in Early Years
For many decades Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in Eastern Europe. Already by the late 1930’s, Romania had over two thousand of them, Poland a thousand, and Czechoslovakia and Hungary hundreds, and there were several dozen in Yugoslavia. Although the vast Soviet Union had only a small number, this changed overnight.
A specialist on Soviet affairs, Walter Kolarz, said in his book Religion in the Soviet Union that other Witnesses entered Russia “through the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939-40, where there were small but very active groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Thus, Witnesses living in eastern parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania suddenly found themselves transplanted, overnight as it were, into the Soviet Union!
Another remarkable way Jehovah’s Witnesses were introduced into the Soviet Union was by means of the German concentration camps. How so? Well, during World War II, Russian prisoners found themselves in these camps along with thousands of German Witnesses. These Germans had been thrown into the camps because they maintained a resolute stand of Christian neutrality. (John 17:16; 18:36) They preferred to suffer and die rather than break God’s laws by joining Hitler’s armies and thereby become guilty of killing fellow Christians in other countries or of killing anyone else for that matter.—1 John 3:10-12.
Thus, as Kolarz wrote, “the German concentration camps, unbelievable as it may sound, are one of the channels by which the message of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to Russia. It was brought there by Russian prisoners in Germany who had admired the courage and steadfastness of the ‘Witnesses’ and probably for that reason had found their theology attractive.” In the Ravensbrück women’s camp alone, scores of young Russians were reported to have accepted the Bible message proclaimed by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After the war, prisoners from Eastern European countries who had become Jehovah’s Witnesses returned to their homelands. There they zealously taught that rule by God’s Kingdom is the only hope for lasting peace. Thus, the number of Witnesses in Eastern Europe increased dramatically. By April 1946, there were over four thousand preaching in the Soviet Union, and this number quickly doubled. In September 1946, the Witnesses in Romania held a convention in Bucharest that was attended by about 15,000 persons.
Shortly thereafter, the Cold War began, and this shut down travel and communications between Eastern Europe and the West. Moreover, Eastern Europe’s new ruling powers began opposing Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sadly, they viewed the Witnesses as a threat, and many were imprisoned. Despite this, by 1951, Czechoslovakia had 3,705 active Witnesses; Hungary, 2,583; Yugoslavia, 617; and Poland over 15,000.
Opposed, yet Growth Continued
In 1967, Maurice Hindus wrote about Jehovah’s Witnesses in his book The Kremlin’s Human Dilemma. What he said applied to Witnesses in the Soviet Union as well as other parts of Eastern Europe. “Though they function underground, they are hunted out and given stiff jail sentences. But there is no stopping them. Suppressed in one place, they bob up in another . . . They appear as indestructible as the Soviet police.”
During the spring of 1951, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union received a severe blow. More than seven thousand of them in the Soviet European republics were arrested and carried off to prison camps in remote parts of the country, including Siberia and Vorkuta, in the far north. What was the result?
“This was not the end of the ‘Witnesses’ in Russia,” noted Kolarz, “but only the beginning of a new chapter in their proselytising activities. They even tried to propagate their faith when they stopped at stations on their way into exile. In deporting them the Soviet Government could have done nothing better for the dissemination of their faith. Out of their village isolation the ‘Witnesses’ were brought into a wider world, even if this was only the terrible world of the concentration and slave labour camps.”
Inside and Outside Prisons
Just as first-century Christians continued to preach without letup when persecuted, so Jehovah’s Witnesses did in the Soviet Union. (Acts 5:42) Helene Celmina, a Latvian imprisoned for alleged crimes, says that in the section of the Potma penal camp where she was held from 1962 to 1966, there were some 350 inmates. “About half of them,” she said, “were Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In her book Women in Soviet Prisons, Celmina wrote about what she saw in the camp:
“Literature from Brooklyn arrives regularly, in good shape and in large quantities through unofficial and well-organized channels . . . No one could understand how this land of barbed wire and limited human contact could be penetrated by forbidden literature—and from the United States at that! Many Jehovah’s Witnesses received ten years of hard labor merely for having a few issues of the magazine Watchtower in their apartments. Since people are arrested for possession of these writings, the anxiety and exasperation of the administration over the presence of this literature in camp is understandable.”
With Jehovah’s help, nothing could stop the distribution of this spiritual food! Celmina noted: “No one has discovered how [The Watchtower] gets into the camp. After all, following conviction, every prisoner is stripped of all clothing and completely searched. On arrival at the camp each prisoner is thoroughly searched again, down to the last seam. Suitcases are searched for double bottoms. No stranger is allowed into the camp without good cause. When inmates are let out of the camp zone for work in the fields, they are surrounded by armed guards and no one is permitted to approach them. A thorough search of each prisoner is made when they return to the camp in the evening. But despite this surveillance, the Brooklyn literature finds its readers.”
At the same time, stalwart Christians outside the Soviet prison camps pressed on in their public preaching and teaching activities. This was evidenced by publications and films that were produced in an effort to counteract their ministry. For example, in 1978 the book The Truths About Jehovah’s Witnesses was published, as was explained in its introduction, for the purpose of “carrying out atheistic education among the followers of this religious movement.”
The author, V. V. Konik, pointed out among other things that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold public talks most frequently at their funerals and weddings. “For instance,” he wrote, “in August 1973, in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, Krasnodarskiy region, there was a marriage of two members of the organization, attended by about 500 people. Six preachers gave talks to them, and their speeches were transmitted through two loudspeakers. Then a drama was put on to show how Jehovah’s Witnesses carry on conversations with people of other religions and with atheists.”
Yes, despite the ban on their work, Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Eastern Europe continued zealously preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom in obedience to Christ’s prophetic command. (Matthew 24:14) Finally, in May and June 1989, Jehovah’s Witnesses were legalized in Poland and Hungary, in April 1990 in Romania, in March 1991 in the Soviet Union, and in Bulgaria in July 1991. And their work is also carried on unhindered in Czechoslovakia.
Against this background, you can perhaps better understand why the tens of thousands of delegates to Eastern European conventions rejoiced—crying, hugging, clapping, and waving back and forth across the stadiums to one another.
Budapest, Prague, and Zagreb were designated as “international conventions,” and special arrangements were made to accommodate tens of thousands of delegates from other countries. In the Soviet Union, conventions were held in seven cities with 74,252 in attendance; Poland had 131,554 at their 12 conventions; and 34,808 attended the 8 conventions in Romania. Although the Witnesses were not able to hold a convention in Bulgaria, about three hundred from there crossed the border to Thessalonica, Greece, where they enjoyed the program in their own language.
For Eastern European Witnesses to prepare for and host many thousands of delegates was no easy matter. Think about it: In the Soviet Union, never before had such conventions been held! And entertaining tens of thousands of guests, as did the Witnesses in Budapest and Prague, was an unbelievably massive project. Further, imagine holding a convention in Zagreb when the threat of civil war loomed and explosions were heard in the distance!
Surely, you will thrill to read the following report about these conventions.
[Maps on page 7]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
THE THREE INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION SITES AND THE SEVEN CONVENTION LOCATIONS IN THE SOVIET UNION