Exiled in Siberia!
AS TOLD BY VASILY KALIN
If you saw a man calmly reading the Bible amid the din of artillery shells, wouldn’t you want to know how he could be so calm? My father observed just such a scene over 56 years ago.
IT WAS July 1942, when World War II was at its height. As the German front line passed through my father’s village of Vilshanitsa, in Ukraine, my father stopped at the home of some elderly folks. Artillery shells exploded all around, yet the man was sitting by the stove heating up some corn and reading the Bible.
I was born five years later, not far from the beautiful west Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivs’k, which was then part of the Soviet Union. My father later told me about his memorable meeting with that man, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and also about the horrors of the war years. The people were worn out and bewildered by it all, and many wondered, ‘Why is there so much injustice? Why are thousands of innocent people dying? Why does God permit it? Why? Why? Why?’
Father became involved in a long, frank discussion of such questions with the old man. Opening his Bible to one text after another, the man showed Father answers to questions that had long puzzled him. He explained that God purposed to bring an end to all wars in his appointed time and that the earth would become a lovely paradise.—Psalm 46:9; Isaiah 2:4; Revelation 21:3, 4.
Father rushed home and exclaimed: “Can you believe it? After one discussion with Jehovah’s Witnesses, my eyes have been opened! I’ve found the truth!” Father said that although he had attended the Catholic Church regularly, the priests had never been able to answer his questions. So Father began to study the Bible, and my mother joined him. They also began teaching their three children—my sister, who was only 2 years old, and my brothers, who were 7 and 11. Shortly afterward, their home was badly damaged by a bomb, leaving only one room for them to live in.
Mother came from a large family of six sisters and one brother. Her father was one of the wealthier people in the area, and he valued his authority and status. So, at first, relatives opposed my family’s newfound faith. However, in time many of these opposers put aside unscriptural religious practices, such as their use of icons, and joined my parents in true worship.
The priests openly incited people against the Witnesses. As a result, local residents would break their windows and threaten them. In spite of this, my parents continued to study the Bible. Thus, by the time I was born in 1947, our family was worshiping Jehovah in spirit and truth.—John 4:24.
Taken Into Exile
Memories of the early morning hours of April 8, 1951, are firmly embedded in my mind, even though I was only four at the time. Military men with dogs entered our home. They presented a deportation order and conducted a search. Soldiers with machine guns and dogs stood at our doorstep, and men in military uniforms sat at our table, waiting for us as we hurried to get ready to leave in the two hours that were allotted to us. I could not understand what was happening, and I cried.
My parents were ordered to sign a document stating that they were no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses and that they would have nothing further to do with them. If they signed, they would be left to live in their home and in their homeland. But Father firmly declared: “I am confident that no matter where you take us, our God, Jehovah, will be with us.”
“Think about your family, about your children,” the officer pleaded. “After all, you aren’t being taken to a resort. You’re being taken to the far north, where there are eternal snows and where polar bears walk the streets.”
At that time the word “Siberia” was something terrible and mysterious for everyone. Yet, faith and an intense love for Jehovah turned out to be stronger than fear of the unknown. Our possessions were loaded onto a wagon, and we were taken into the city and loaded into freight cars, along with 20 to 30 other families. And so we began our trip to the deep taiga, or wilderness, of Siberia.
At the railroad stations along the way, we met other trains carrying those being exiled, and we saw the signs that were hung on the railway cars: “Jehovah’s Witnesses on Board.” This was its own kind of witness, since in this way many came to know that thousands of Witnesses and their families were being sent to various areas of the north and the far east.
This roundup and exile of Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 1951 is well documented. Historian Walter Kolarz wrote about it in his book Religion in the Soviet Union: “This was not the end of the ‘Witnesses’ in Russia, 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.”
My family was fortunate, since we were allowed to take some food along—flour, corn, and beans. My grandfather was even allowed to slaughter a pig, and it provided food for us and other Witnesses. Along the way heartfelt songs could be heard coming from the railroad cars. Jehovah provided us with the strength to endure.—Proverbs 18:10.
We traveled across Russia for nearly three weeks and finally arrived in cold, lonely, far-off Siberia. We were brought to the Toreya station in the Chunsk region of the district of Irkutsk. From there, we were taken farther into the taiga to a small village, to what our documents described as our “eternal settlement.” The belongings of 15 families fit easily onto a sled, and a tractor pulled it through the spring mud. About 20 families were settled into barracks, which consisted of long corridors without partitions. The authorities warned the locals beforehand that Jehovah’s Witnesses were awful people. So in the beginning, people feared us and did not make any attempts to become better acquainted.
Work in Exile
Jehovah’s Witnesses worked felling trees, and this under the most difficult of conditions. All work was done by hand—sawing the logs, chopping them, loading them onto horse-drawn wagons and, afterward, loading them into railroad cars. The situation was made worse by clouds of gnats from which it was impossible to hide. My father suffered terribly. His body was completely swollen, and he prayed intensely to Jehovah to help him to endure. But in spite of all the difficulties, the faith of the vast majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses remained unshakable.
Soon we were taken to the city of Irkutsk, where our family lived in a former prison camp and worked in a brick factory. Bricks were unloaded straight from large, hot ovens by hand, and work quotas were continually raised, so that even children had to help their parents to meet them. We were reminded of the slave labor of the Israelites in ancient Egypt.—Exodus 5:9-16.
It became clear that the Witnesses were hardworking and honest, not “enemies of the people,” as was claimed. It was observed that not one Witness insulted the authorities, nor did Witnesses fight against the decisions of those in power. Even their faith came to be to the liking of many.
Our Spiritual Life
Although the Witnesses were searched repeatedly—before they were sent into exile, while they were en route, and at their places of exile—many managed to hide Watchtower magazines and even Bibles. Later, these were reproduced by hand and by other means. Christian meetings were conducted regularly in the barracks. When the commandant of the barracks would come in and find a group of us singing a song, he would order us to stop. We would. But when he went to the next barrack, we would begin singing again. It was impossible to stop us.
Nor did our preaching work ever come to a halt. Witnesses would speak to everyone, everywhere. My older brothers and my parents often told me how they managed to share Bible truths with others. Thanks to this, Bible truth gradually began to win over the hearts of sincere people. Thus, in the early 1950’s, Jehovah’s Kingdom was made known in and around Irkutsk.
At first the Witnesses were considered political enemies, but later it was officially recognized that our organization is purely religious. Nevertheless, the authorities attempted to stop our activity. So we gathered for Bible study in small groups of two or three families in an attempt to avoid detection. A careful search was conducted early one February morning in 1952. Afterward, ten Witnesses were arrested, and the rest of us were taken to various places. Our family was transported to the village of Iskra, which had a population of about a hundred people and was located some 20 miles [30 km] from the city of Irkutsk.
Enduring as Situations Changed
The village administration met us with unexpected hospitality. The people were simple and friendly—several even came out of their homes to render assistance to us. Our family was the third one to be placed in the same small room of approximately 180 square feet [17 sq m]. Kerosene lamps were our only light source.
The next morning there was an election. My parents said that they had already voted for God’s Kingdom, which, of course, the people did not understand. So the adult members of my family spent the entire day under arrest. Afterward, several people asked about their beliefs, and this provided a fine opportunity for my family to speak about God’s Kingdom as the only hope for mankind.
During the four years that we lived in the village of Iskra, there were no other Witnesses nearby with whom we could associate. In order to leave the village, we had to have special permission from the commandant, and he rarely gave it, since the main reason for our deportation was to isolate us from other people. Yet, the Witnesses always tried to contact one another to share whatever fresh spiritual food they had obtained.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, all convicted Witnesses had their sentences reduced from 25 years to 10 years. No longer was a special document required for those in Siberia to move about. However, the authorities soon began to conduct searches and then make arrests of Witnesses if they found that they possessed Bibles or Bible literature. Special camps were created for the Witnesses, and some 400 brothers and 200 sisters were put into these in the area around Irkutsk.
News of our persecution in the Soviet Union reached Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world. Thus, between the middle of 1956 and February of 1957, a petition in our behalf was adopted at 199 district conventions held in all parts of the world. A total of 462,936 in attendance approved the petition addressed to the then Soviet premier Nikolay A. Bulganin. Among other things, the petition requested that we be freed and that we be “authorized to receive and publish the Watchtower magazine in Russian, Ukrainian and such other languages as may be found necessary, as well as other Bible publications that are used by Jehovah’s witnesses world-wide.”
In the meantime, our family had been sent to the remote village of Khudyakovo, about 15 miles [20 km] from Irkutsk. We lived there for seven years. In 1960 my brother Fyodor left for Irkutsk, and the following year my older brother got married and my sister moved away. Then, in 1962, Fyodor was arrested and imprisoned for his preaching.
My Spiritual Growth
From our village of Khudyakovo, it was about a 15-mile [20 km] trip by foot or bicycle to meet with others for Bible study. So we attempted to move to Irkutsk to be in closer contact with other Witnesses. However, the head of the area where we lived was against our move, and he did everything he could to prevent it. After some time, though, this man began to be more favorable to us, and we were able to move to the village of Pivovarikha, about six miles [10 km] from Irkutsk. A congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was located there, and a new life began for me. In Pivovarikha there were organized Congregation Book Study groups and brothers who had oversight of spiritual activities. How happy I was!
By this time I had come to love Bible truth very much, and I wanted to be baptized. In August 1965 my wish was realized when I was baptized in the small Olkhe River, where many new Witnesses were baptized during that period. To the casual observer, it appeared as though we were enjoying a picnic and a swim in the river. Soon afterward I received my first assignment as Theocratic Ministry School overseer. Then, in November 1965, we received further cause for joy when Fyodor returned from prison.
How the Work Prospered
In 1965 all exiles were assembled, and it was announced that we had the right to move wherever we wanted, thus ending our “eternal settlement.” Can you imagine the joy that came over us? While many among us then left for other parts of the country, others decided to remain where Jehovah had blessed and supported us in our spiritual growth and activity. Many of these have reared their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren in Siberia, which, in time, proved to be not so fearsome after all.
In 1967, I met Maria, a girl whose family had also been exiled to Siberia from Ukraine. When we were young, we had both lived in the Ukrainian village of Vilshanitsa. We were married in 1968, and eventually, we were blessed with a son, Yaroslav, and later with a daughter, Oksana.
We continued to use funerals and weddings to meet in large numbers for spiritual association. We would also use these occasions to explain Bible truths to non-Witness relatives and friends who came. Often security officers attended these functions, where we openly preached from the Bible about the resurrection hope or regarding Jehovah’s provision of marriage and the future blessings in his new world.
Once, when I was finishing a talk at a funeral, a car pulled up, the doors flew open, and one of the men inside got out and ordered me to get into the car. I was not afraid. After all, we were not criminals, just believers in God. However, in my pocket I had reports of the ministry of those in our congregation. For this I could have been arrested. So I asked if I could give money to my wife before I went with them. With that, right in front of them, I calmly handed my wallet as well as the congregation reports to her.
Beginning in 1974, Maria and I began preparing Bible literature in the secrecy of our home. Since we had a small son, we did this late at night so that he would not know about it. However, being curious, he pretended to be asleep and peeked to see what we were doing. Later he said: “I know who makes the magazines about God.” We were a little frightened, but we always asked Jehovah to protect our family in this important work.
Eventually, the authorities became more favorably disposed toward Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so we made plans to hold a large gathering in the Mir arts and leisure center in the city of Usol’ye-Sibirskoye. We assured the city officials that our meetings are held solely for Bible study and Christian association. Over 700 gathered in January 1990, packing out the hall and attracting a lot of public attention.
After the meeting a reporter asked, “When did you manage to train your young ones?” He, as well as other visitors, was amazed that they sat attentively for the four hours of this first public meeting. Soon a fine article about Jehovah’s Witnesses appeared in the local newspaper. It stated: “One can truly learn something from [Jehovah’s Witnesses].”
Rejoicing in Grand Expansion
In 1991 we had seven conventions in the Soviet Union, attended by 74,252. Later, after former republics of the Soviet Union became independent, I received an assignment from the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to go to Moscow. There I was asked if I was in a position to expand my share in the Kingdom work. By then Yaroslav was married and had a child of his own and Oksana was a teenager. So in 1993, Maria and I began our full-time ministry in Moscow. That same year, I was appointed coordinator of the Administrative Center of the Regional Religious Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
Now Maria and I live and work at our new branch facilities located outside St. Petersburg. I consider it an honor to be able to share with other faithful brothers in caring for the rapidly growing numbers of Kingdom proclaimers in Russia. Today there are well over 260,000 Witnesses in the former republics of the Soviet Union, more than 100,000 in Russia alone!
Often Maria and I think about our dear relatives and friends who continue faithful in their Kingdom service in Siberia, the place that had become our beloved home. Today large conventions are regularly held there, and some 2,000 Witnesses are active in and around Irkutsk. Indeed, the prophecy at Isaiah 60:22 is also being fulfilled in that part of the world: “The little one himself will become a thousand, and the small one a mighty nation.”
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With my father, our family, and other exiles at Irkutsk in 1959
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Children in exile at Iskra
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The year we were married
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With Maria today