A Promise I Am Determined to Keep
AS TOLD BY MARIAN TSIBOULSKI
IN February 1945, I was a 20-year-old soldier in the Soviet army, which had driven the Germans back hundreds of miles to their own country. Daily I had seen the horrors of war, with comrades dying all around me. We had reached the approaches to Breslau, Germany, now Wrocław, Poland. There one evening, tired of the slaughter and the suffering, I promised God that if he would let me return home safely, I would dedicate my life to doing his will.
Three months later, Germany was defeated. After being discharged from the army, in December 1945 I trudged into Rogizno, a village near Lvov (now Lviv), Ukraine, my father’s hometown. The next morning I met one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was given a thorough witness about God’s Kingdom. Although I already knew something about the Bible and had even read some Witness literature, my heart was now touched. I realized that this meeting had something to do with my promise.
Following Through on My Promise
Soon I got a job teaching at the elementary school. But less than two years later, when the head of the district education office ruled that children must be given an atheistic education, I was fired. About the same time, May 1947, I began to share in the public preaching work with Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witnesses encouraged me to move south to the town of Borislav, where I quickly found work as an electrician.
In Borislav, I met people who had become Witnesses in the 1930’s. They had many Bible publications, which I read extensively, including volumes of Studies in the Scriptures and most of the books written by Joseph F. Rutherford, a former president of the Watch Tower Society. I also read old copies of The Watchtower and The Golden Age (now Awake!), which some Witnesses had. But what impressed me the most was a collection of letters written by German Witnesses who had been sentenced to death under the Hitler regime. These letters had been translated into Polish, mimeographed, and then put into booklet form. Later, remembering the integrity of those German brothers, I found strength to endure trials.
Finally, in 1949, I was baptized in one of the lakes of Borislav, thereby formally carrying out the promise to serve God that I had made on the battlefront. But now it was a promise based on accurate knowledge.
My Trials Begin
Soon I was fired from my job. So in February 1950, I moved to the nearby city of Stry, where I again found work as an electrician. I was warmly received by my Christian brothers and was even invited to conduct the annual Memorial in commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ that was held a few weeks later.
At this time, provocation of the Witnesses and threats against them intensified. We were followed by members of the KGB, the State Security Committee. So we exercised caution as we prepared for possible arrest and interrogation. Singing Kingdom songs at meetings helped us stay strong spiritually.
On July 3, 1950, I was asked to sign the Stockholm Appeal, an appeal against nuclear armaments that was reportedly signed by over 273,000,000 people, mainly citizens of Communist countries. When I refused to do so, explaining that I was politically neutral, I was once again fired. Following this incident I was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment in a labor camp.
From Camp to Camp
In December 1950, many of us were loaded into a cattle car and sent about 2,000 miles [3,000 km] away to an area near the northern Ural Mountains, which partially divide Asian Russia from European Russia. There I was incarcerated in one camp after another. It was the same everywhere—hard work and scanty meals. Two or three months were enough to turn young and healthy men into living corpses. Many died. We didn’t dare dream of survival, especially those of us who had lengthy sentences.
The year that I had no Bible literature and no contact with other Witnesses was most trying for me. The isolation was sheer torment. But I was strengthened spiritually when some prisoners listened as I spoke with them about God’s Kingdom. Finally, my heartfelt prayer was answered, and I was transferred some 1,500 miles [2,000 km] southeast to a large complex of camps at the newly founded city of Angarsk, in eastern Siberia. There a large chemical plant was under construction, and most of the work was being done by prisoners.
I was assigned to Camp 13, near the construction site. There I immediately met other Witnesses, who handed me the latest copies of The Watchtower and the Informant, as Our Kingdom Ministry was then called. What a spiritual feast! But where did it all come from?
In April 1951, thousands of Witnesses in Ukraine had been exiled to Siberia, many of them to areas not far from Angarsk. These brothers obtained and secretly reproduced copies of The Watchtower and other publications, and then they smuggled them into the camps. We were able to obtain a Bible too. We divided it into sections, which we distributed among ourselves. Thus, in case of a search, only part of the Bible would be lost. We even conducted a Watchtower Study and a Theocratic Ministry School in the camps!
Late in 1952, I was transferred to Camp 8. The following March we celebrated the Memorial in a small room where prisoners kept their personal belongings. Only 12 were present—3 Witnesses and 9 interested persons. The authorities somehow found out about our meeting, and I was banished to penal Camp 12 for being what they termed “a malicious agitator.” Five other Witnesses, who were also being punished for their preaching, were already in this camp. While there, we were forced to dig a large foundation area with just picks and shovels.
Many prisoners in Camp 12 were the worst kinds of criminals. The officials obviously thought that putting us with them would crush us. But we talked about God’s Kingdom with them, and in the barracks we sang Kingdom songs. Once, after we had stopped singing, the ringleader in the camp was moved to approach a Witness and say: “Let anyone touch you, and I will knock his head off!” Even some of the criminals learned our Kingdom melodies and sang along!
In mid-1953, many Witnesses were transferred to Camp 1 from other camps. To begin with, we had 48 Witnesses in Camp 1, but in less than three years, our number had grown to 64. Yes, in that time 16 took their stand for Bible truth and were baptized! Although camp officials were always on the lookout for evidence of religious activity, we were able to hold our meetings and baptisms in the camp bathhouse because the one in charge of it was a Witness.
Freedom, and a Family
In 1956 most Witnesses in the camps were released, thus scattering messengers of the good news to all corners of the vast Soviet territory. My 25-year prison sentence had been reduced to 10 years and eventually to 6 years and 6 months. So in February 1957, I too was freed.
I first went to Biryusinsk, a town in Siberia, about 350 miles [600 km] to the northwest of Angarsk. Many Ukrainian Witnesses had been deported to that area, and I enjoyed sharing experiences with them and learning about fellow Witnesses whom we knew in common. From there I moved back to Borislav, in Ukraine, where a Ukrainian Witness named Eugenia Bachinskaja lived. She had been released from prison the year before I had.
Eugenia was a stalwart Witness who had been sentenced to death in 1950 for her preaching activity. However, after 18 days on death row, her sentence was reduced to 25 years in a special camp. Toward the end of 1957, when I returned to Ukraine, we were married. After our marriage, we intended to settle in Borislav, where I had been baptized nine years earlier. Instead, I was given 48 hours to leave Ukraine!
I moved to the Caucasus, in southern Russia, where Eugenia met me later. However, after living there in a small shed for about six months, we left for Biryusinsk to join our exiled Christian brothers and sisters. There were about 500 of them in Biryusinsk and five congregations, and I was appointed presiding overseer of one of the congregations. In 1959 our daughter Oksana was born, and Marianna followed in 1960. From infancy they were always at the meetings, and they grew up to the spiritual rhythm of congregation activity in Siberia.
The Siberian authorities were relatively tolerant of our congregation activities, at least in comparison with the severe restrictions placed on our work in Ukraine. Still, it was not easy for our whole congregation to meet together. Funerals provided us opportunities to get together in large numbers. On these occasions, several brothers would give instructive Bible talks. But when the authorities became aware of what was happening, they took action. For example, on one occasion, a funeral procession was stopped and the coffin was taken by force to the cemetery and buried.
Back to Ukraine
In 1965 we returned to Ukraine, settling in Kremenchug. This city, nearly 500 miles [800 km] east of Borislav, had only 12 Witnesses. We lived there for about five years; during most of that time, I served congregations as a traveling overseer. In 1969, when our girls were nine and ten years of age, we were asked to move south to help the brothers in the small town of Molochansk.
In Molochansk I was summoned by the KGB to a discussion that lasted several hours. In fact, I was summoned six times! During each discussion, I was promised a bright future if I would renounce my ties with the “Jehovists.” Finally, the patience of the KGB wore thin, and another Witness and I were sentenced to a year in prison.
After serving my sentence, in 1973 I moved with my family to a small village near Kremenchug. We secretly held Christian meetings in our home, including a celebration of the Memorial of Christ’s death, in 1974. The next morning our home was searched, and I was arrested.
A Trial, Labor Camp, and Exile
My trial was closed to the public, attendance being by invitation only. Those present were top officials and community leaders, the cream of society. I chose not to have a lawyer and was given 45 minutes to present my own defense. The day before the trial, Eugenia and our daughters knelt in prayer, asking, not that I be given a softer sentence or a pardon, but only that a good witness be given to the Kingdom and to Jehovah’s holy name.
The trial got under way with the judge reading several passages from Watchtower and Awake! magazines. The reaction of the audience was not what the judge expected. As the people heard that this wicked world would pass out of existence at Armageddon and that God’s Kingdom would rule the earth, they were confused—unsure of what to believe. The judge soon realized his mistake, and during my closing arguments, he tried to redeem himself by continually interrupting my presentation. Yet, by reading directly from our publications, the judge had helped to deliver a fine witness, and my heart swelled in gratitude. Nevertheless, I was sentenced to five years at hard labor, to be followed by five years in exile.
I spent the next five years among hardened criminals in the far north at the Yodva labor camp in the Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. During that time I had many opportunities to give a Kingdom witness to about 1,200 prisoners as well as to the camp administration. After my release in 1979, I was sent into exile in Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle. Soon after I found a job and a place to live in Vorkuta, my family joined me.
Vorkuta is known for having been built on the bones of its prisoners, including many Witnesses who were inmates of earlier decades. Today it is a normal city, and labor camps are nowhere to be seen. But in the permafrost in and around the city are the bodies of countless martyrs who gave their lives in praise of Jehovah.
The Joy of Religious Freedom
In 1989 we traveled from Vorkuta to Poland to attend two international conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were not ashamed of the tears of joy we shed as we watched tens of thousands of Christian brothers and sisters in Warsaw and Katowice enjoy happy fellowship without fear of arrest. A dream had come true. We returned to Vorkuta with renewed determination to serve Kingdom interests.
However, the climate above the Arctic Circle is severe, and Eugenia’s health had suffered. So later that year we moved back to Kremenchug, where we rejoice in our service to Jehovah with the greater freedom we now enjoy. Both our sons-in-law are elders in the congregation here in Ukraine. And our daughters, although raising four children, are pioneers, as full-time ministers are called.
From time to time, I still recall the battlefront of 1945 and the promise I made over half a century ago. So that I would be able to keep it, Jehovah provided me with accurate knowledge, the same knowledge that has enabled millions of others to make a similar promise—to serve Jehovah forever.
[Map/Picture on page 23]
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With our two daughters, their husbands, and their four children
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