Taught From Childhood to Love God
AS TOLD BY ANATOLY MELNIK
Many warmly call me Grandpa. The word tugs at my heartstrings because it reminds me of my own grandfather, whom I loved deeply and to whom I am so indebted. Let me tell you about him and how he and Grandma had a profound effect on the lives of the members of their family, as well as many others.
I WAS born in the village of Hlina, in the north of what is today known as Moldova.* In the 1920’s, traveling ministers known as pilgrims came from across the border in Romania to our beautiful hilly region. My mother’s parents responded immediately to the good news they heard preached from the Bible. In 1927 they became Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. By the time World War II started in 1939, there was already a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in our small village.
In 1936, the year I was born, all my relatives were Jehovah’s Witnesses except my father, who still attended the Orthodox Church. During the second world war, he began to reflect on the purpose of life and eventually dedicated himself to our Creator, Jehovah God, symbolizing this by water baptism. My grandfather contributed greatly to the spiritual growth of our family. He had a strong love for the Bible and knew hundreds of verses by heart. He could steer any conversation toward the Bible.
I would often sit on Grandpa’s lap and listen to him tell Bible stories. He instilled in me a love for God. I am so grateful to him for that! At the age of eight, I went out preaching for the first time with Grandfather. Using the Bible, we showed fellow villagers who Jehovah is and how to draw close to him.
Oppressed by the Communists
In 1947, under the influence of Communist policy and the Orthodox Church, the authorities began persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moldova. Agents of what was later called the KGB, as well as local police, would come to our home and ask us who were taking the lead in our preaching work, where the literature was coming from, and where we met for worship. They said they were going to stop the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, they claimed, “thwart the development of Communism in the country.”
By this time Father, a well-educated man, had also come to love Bible truth deeply. Both he and Grandfather knew how to answer interrogators so as not to betray our Christian brothers and sisters. They both were courageous and loving men who cared for the welfare of fellow believers. Like them, Mother always remained calm and composed.
In 1948, Father was arrested and taken away. We were never informed of the charges against him. He was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison and to an additional two years of exile. Eventually, he was sent to the Magadan region in the far northeast of Russia, well over 4,000 miles [7,000 km] from our home. We did not see each other for nine years. It was difficult to live without a father, but Grandpa was a real support for me.
Sent Into Exile
On the night of June 6, 1949, two soldiers and an officer invaded our home. They said that we had two hours to leave the house and get into their vehicle. No further explanation was given. They simply told us that we were being exiled and would never return. So, along with Mother, Grandpa, Grandma, and fellow believers, I was sent to Siberia. I was only 13. After a few weeks, we found ourselves in the marshlands of the taiga, amid impenetrable forests. How different this was from my native surroundings, which I loved so dearly! Sometimes we would cry. Yet, we were confident that Jehovah would never forsake us.
The small village that we were taken to consisted of ten log huts. Other Witnesses were exiled to different villages throughout the taiga. To frighten the local people, as well as prejudice them against us, the authorities said that the Witnesses were cannibals. Soon, however, the people realized that this was a lie and that there was no need to fear us.
For the first two months after our arrival, we were accommodated in an old hut. But we needed to build a more suitable dwelling before the arrival of harsh winter weather. Grandpa and Grandma helped Mother and me make a primitive shelter, half above ground and half below. We lived there for over three years. We were forbidden to leave the village without permission, and permission was never given.
In time, I was allowed to attend school. Since my religious views differed from those of the others there, teachers and fellow students often asked me questions. Grandfather’s eyes would shine when I came home and told him how I was able to explain our beliefs.
A Little More Freedom
After the death of the dictator Stalin in 1953, our life improved a bit. We were allowed to leave the village. This made it possible for us to associate with fellow believers and attend meetings in villages where other Witnesses had been exiled. To avoid attracting attention, we met in small groups. To get there, we walked up to 20 miles [30 km], at times in knee-deep snow and in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. The following day, we would make the long trek home. En route, we would eat a pickle and a few lumps of sugar. Yet, how happy we were, like David of old!—Psalm 122:1.
In 1955, I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah. Shortly before that, at a congregation meeting in a neighboring village, I had met Lidiya, a modest dark-haired girl. Like us, she and her family were Witnesses who had been exiled from Moldova. She had a beautiful singing voice and knew by heart almost all 337 songs in the songbook we used then. This impressed me because I also cherished our music and songs. In 1956, we decided to get married.
I wrote Father—we had learned that he had been exiled to Magadan—and we postponed getting married until we received his blessing. Soon afterward, Father was released and was able to join us where we were living in exile. He told us how, with God’s help, he and fellow Christians had survived the terrible conditions in the work camps. Such accounts strengthened our faith.
Shortly after Father returned, while Mother was preparing some oil we used in paints and varnishes, there was a terrible accident. The big pot of boiling oil somehow tipped over, and its contents spilled over her. She died in the hospital. We were overwhelmed with grief. Later, Father’s grief lessened, and in time he married Tatyana, a Witness from a neighboring village.
Expanding Our Ministry
In 1958, Lidiya and I moved from Kizak, the village where we were living, to the much larger village of Lebyaie, about 60 miles [100 km] away. We had read that Christians in other lands preached from house to house. So we tried to do this in our new location. Of course, The Watchtower and Awake! had been banned, but we received copies smuggled in from other places. Now we were notified that we would receive the magazines in Russian only. Up till then, we had also received copies in Moldavian. So we studied hard to learn Russian better. Even today I recall not only the titles of those articles but also some of the thoughts they contained.
To support ourselves, Lidiya worked at a grain elevator and I unloaded timber from wagons. The work was wearisome, and the wages were meager. Although the Witnesses were valued as conscientious workers, we didn’t receive benefits or premiums. Officials openly said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have no place in a Communist society.” Yet, we rejoiced that Jesus’ words about his followers were true in our case: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.”—John 17:16.
In 1959 our daughter Valentina was born. Shortly thereafter, a new wave of persecution began. The Encyclopædia Britannica notes: “A new antireligious move was initiated by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev in 1959-64.” Members of the State security told us that the goal of the Soviet government was to eliminate all religion, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Valentina was nearly a year old, I was called to the army. When I didn’t go, I was sentenced to five years in prison for remaining neutral. Once when Lidiya came to visit me, a KGB colonel told her: “We have received notification from the Kremlin that within two years not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses will be left in the Soviet Union.” Then he warned: “You must deny your faith, otherwise you will be put in prison.” The colonel thought such threats would silence the women, claiming: “They are a feeble bunch.”
Within a short time, most Witness men were in prisons and labor camps. Yet, courageous Christian women carried on the preaching work. And at great risk, they smuggled literature to those in prisons and work camps. Lidiya faced such tests and was also often subjected to unwanted advances from men who sought to take advantage of my absence. Further, she was told that I would never be released. But I was!
Release and a Move to Kazakhstan
My case was reopened in 1963, and I was later released—after three years in prison. But we were unable to get a residence permit anywhere, so I was unable to find work. A State law decreed: “No permanent residence, no work.” In fervent prayer we implored Jehovah for help. Then we decided to move to Petropavl in the north of Kazakhstan. The local authorities, however, had already received notice about us and refused to let us live or work there. About 50 Witnesses in this city suffered similar persecution.
With another Witness couple, we moved farther south to the small town of Shchuchinsk. No other Witnesses lived there, and the authorities knew nothing of our preaching work. For a week Ivan and I—the two husbands—looked for work while our wives stayed at the train station, where we slept at night. Finally we found work at the glass factory. We rented a small room for our families that had space for two beds and little else, yet we were content.
Ivan and I devoted ourselves to our work, and our employers were very pleased. By the time I was called up for military service again, the factory manager had learned that my Bible-trained conscience would not allow me to engage in military training. Surprisingly, he contacted the military chief and told him that Ivan and I were skilled workers and that the factory could not keep running without us. So we were permitted to stay.
Rearing Children and Serving Others
Our second daughter, Lilya, was born in 1966. A year later we moved to Belyye Vody, in the south of Kazakhstan near the Uzbekistan border, where there was a small group of Witnesses. Soon a congregation was formed, and I was appointed presiding overseer. In 1969 we had a son, Oleg, and two years later Natasha, our youngest, was born. Lidiya and I never forgot that children are an inheritance from Jehovah. (Psalm 127:3) We discussed together what we needed to do to raise them to love Jehovah.
Even into the 1970’s, most male Witnesses were still in work camps. Many congregations needed mature oversight and guidance. So while Lidiya assumed a greater role in rearing the children, filling in at times as both mother and father, I served as a traveling overseer. I visited congregations in Kazakhstan, as well as the neighboring Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. At the same time, I also worked to help support the family, and Lidiya and the children willingly cooperated.
Even though I was sometimes away for weeks at a time, I tried to show the children fatherly love and help with their spiritual development. Lidiya and I fervently prayed together that Jehovah would help our children, and we discussed with them how to overcome fear of man and develop a close relationship with God. Without the unselfish support of my dear wife, I couldn’t have carried out my duties as a traveling overseer. Lidiya and our other sisters were not at all the “feeble bunch” that the army officer had claimed they were. They were strong—truly spiritual giants!—Philippians 4:13.
In 1988, when all the children were grown, I was appointed as a regular traveling overseer. My circuit included most of the countries of Central Asia. After the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was legally registered in the former Soviet Union in 1991, other capable, spiritually mature men began serving the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Today there are 14 traveling overseers who serve these countries, where last year more than 50,000 people attended the Memorial of Christ’s death!
An Unexpected Invitation
Early in 1998, I received an unexpected phone call from the Russia branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Anatoly, have you and Lidiya considered full-time service?” I was asked. Of course, we had thought about such a privilege for our children. In fact, our son, Oleg, had been serving at the Russia branch office for about five years.
When I told Lidiya about the invitation extended to us, she asked: “But what about our home, our garden, and our belongings?” After prayer and discussion, we decided to make ourselves available. Eventually we were invited to serve at the religious center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Issyk, Kazakhstan, near the large city of Alma-Ata. Here work is done to translate our Bible literature into the local languages that are spoken throughout the area.
Our Family Today
How grateful we are to God for his help in teaching our children Bible truth! Our eldest daughter, Valentina, married and moved with her husband to Ingelheim, Germany, in 1993. They have three children, who are all baptized Witnesses of Jehovah.
Lilya, our second daughter, has a family too. She and her husband, an elder in the congregation of Belyye Vody, are raising their two children to love God. Oleg married Natasha, a Christian sister from Moscow, and they serve together at the Russia branch office near St. Petersburg. In 1995 our youngest daughter, Natasha, married, and she is serving with her husband in a Russian congregation in Germany.
Now and then we gather for a big family reunion. Our children relate to their own children how “Mama” and “Papa” listened to Jehovah and raised their children to love and serve the true God, Jehovah. I can see that these discussions help our grandchildren to grow spiritually. Our youngest grandson resembles me when I was his age. Sometimes he gets up on my lap and asks me to tell him a Bible story. Tears well up in my eyes when I fondly recall how I often sat on Grandpa’s lap and how he helped me come to love and serve our Grand Creator.
The current country name, Moldova, will be used throughout this article instead of the former names Moldavia or the Soviet Republic of Moldavia.
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With my parents outside our home in Moldova shortly before Father’s imprisonment
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With Lidiya in 1959, still in exile
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Lidiya with our daughter Valentina while I was in prison
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With Lidiya today
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With our children and grandchildren, all serving Jehovah!