Over 40 Years Under Communist Ban
AS TOLD BY MIKHAIL VASILEVICH SAVITSKII
The Watchtower of April 1, 1956, reported that “a great purge” of Jehovah’s Witnesses was carried out on April 1, 7, and 8, 1951. “These are dates unforgettable by Jehovah’s witnesses in Russia,” The Watchtower explained. “On these three days all of Jehovah’s witnesses that could be found in Western Ukraine, White Russia [Belarus], Bessarabia, Moldavia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—more than seven thousand men and women . . . were loaded in carts, carried to railroad stations and there put in cattle cars and sent far away.”
ON April 8, 1951, my wife, my eight-month-old son, my parents, my younger brother, and many other Witnesses were taken from their homes in and around Ternopol’, Ukraine. After being loaded into cattle cars, they traveled for about two weeks. Finally, they were unloaded in the Siberian taiga (subarctic woodland) west of Lake Baikal.
Why was I not included in this purge? Before relating where I was at the time and what happened to all of us afterward, let me tell you how I came to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Bible Truth Reaches Us
In September 1947, when I was only 15, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses called at our home in the small village of Slaviatin, about 30 miles [50 km] from Ternopol’. As Mother and I sat listening to these young people—one of whom was named Maria—I knew this was not just another religion. They explained their faith and answered our Bible questions in a clear manner.
I believed that the Bible was God’s Word, but I was disappointed with the church. Grandfather used to say: “Priests frighten people with talk of torment in hellfire, but the priests don’t fear anything themselves. They just rob and deceive the poor.” I remember the acts of violence and arson against Polish residents of our village at the beginning of World War II. Shockingly, these attacks were organized by the Greek Catholic priest. Afterward I saw dozens of the slaughtered victims, and I was anxious to know the reasons for such cruelty.
As I studied the Bible with the Witnesses, I began to understand. I learned basic Bible truths, including the fact that there is no burning hell and that Satan the Devil uses false religion to promote war and bloodshed. Periodically, I would pause during my personal study and offer a heartfelt prayer of thanks to Jehovah for what I was learning. I began to share these Bible truths with my younger brother Stakh, and I was very happy when he accepted them.
Practicing What I Learned
I recognized the need for personal changes and immediately quit smoking. I also understood the need for meeting regularly with others for organized Bible study. To do this I hiked through the woods about six miles [10 km] to reach a secret place where meetings were held. At times only a few women could get to the meeting, and even though I was not yet baptized, I was asked to conduct it.
Possessing Bible literature was risky, and being caught with it could result in a prison sentence of up to 25 years. Still, I desired to have my own library. One of our neighbors had studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses, but because of fear, he quit and buried his literature in his garden. How I thanked Jehovah when the man dug up all his books and magazines and agreed to let me have them! I hid them in Father’s beehives, where others would not be inclined to search.
In July 1949, I dedicated my life to Jehovah and was baptized in symbol of my dedication. It was the happiest day of my life. The Witness who conducted the secret baptism emphasized that it is not easy to be a true Christian and that many trials lay ahead. Soon I learned how true his words were! Still, my life as a baptized Witness began joyfully. Two months after my baptism, I married Maria, one of the two who had introduced Mother and me to the truth.
My First Trial Came Suddenly
On April 16, 1950, I was returning home from the small town of Podgaitsi when soldiers suddenly confronted me and found some Bible literature that I was taking to our study group. I was arrested. During the first few days of custody, I was beaten with a rod, and I was not allowed to eat or sleep. I was also commanded to do a hundred deep knee bends with my hands over my head, which I was too exhausted to complete. After this I was thrown into a cold, damp basement for 24 hours.
The purpose of the mistreatment was to lower my resistance and to make it easier to get information from me. “Where did you get the literature, and who were you taking it to?” they demanded. I refused to reveal a thing. Then a portion of the law by which I would be tried was read to me. It said that spreading and keeping anti-Soviet literature was punishable by execution or 25 years’ imprisonment.
“Which punishment would you prefer?” they asked.
“Neither,” I replied, “but my trust is in Jehovah, and with his help I’ll accept anything that he allows.”
To my surprise, after seven days they let me go. That experience helped me appreciate the truthfulness of Jehovah’s promise: “I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.”—Hebrews 13:5.
By the time I returned home, I was very sick, but Father took me to a doctor, and I soon recovered. Although Father did not share the religious convictions of the rest of the family, he supported us in our worship.
Imprisonment and Exile
Some months later I was drafted for service in the Soviet army. I explained my conscientious objection. (Isaiah 2:4) Nevertheless, in February 1951, I was given a four-year sentence and was sent to a prison in Ternopol’. Later I was transferred to one in L’viv, a larger city about 75 miles [120 km] away. While in prison there, I learned that many Witnesses had been deported to Siberia.
In the summer of 1951, a group of us were sent beyond Siberia, all the way to the Far East. We traveled for a month—some 7,000 miles [11,000 km]—crossing 11 time zones! Only once, after more than two weeks on the train, did we stop at a place where we were allowed to take a bath. That was at a large public bathhouse in Novosibirsk, Siberia.
There, in the midst of a great crowd of prisoners, I heard a man say in a loud voice: “Who here is of the family of Jonadab?” The term “Jonadab” was used at the time to identify those with the hope of eternal life on earth. (2 Kings 10:15-17; Psalm 37:11, 29) Several prisoners immediately identified themselves as Witnesses. With what joy we greeted one another!
Spiritual Activity in Prison
While in Novosibirsk we agreed upon a password by which we could identify one another when we reached our destination. We all ended up in the same prison camp on the Sea of Japan, not far from Vladivostok. There we organized regular meetings for Bible study. Being with these mature, older brothers who had been sentenced to long prison terms really strengthened me spiritually. They took turns conducting our meetings, using Bible texts and related points that they recalled from Watchtower magazines.
Questions were asked, and the brothers gave answers. Many of us cut pieces of paper from empty cement sacks and made notes of the comments on them. We saved the notes and bound them together to use as our personal reference library. After a couple of months, those with long sentences were sent to camps to the far north of Siberia. Three of us younger brothers were transferred to Nakhodka, a nearby city less than 400 miles [650 km] from Japan. I spent two years in prison there.
We sometimes obtained a copy of The Watchtower. For months it served as spiritual food for us. In time, we also received letters. The first one I received from my family (now in exile) brought tears to my eyes. It related that, as described in The Watchtower quoted in the introduction, Witness homes had been invaded and families had been given just two hours to leave.
With My Family Again
I was released in December 1952, after serving two years of my four-year sentence. I joined my family in the small village of Gadaley near Tulun, Siberia, where they had been deported to. Of course, it was wonderful to be with them again—my son Ivan was nearly three years old, and my daughter Anna was almost two. My freedom, however, was relative. My passport was confiscated by the local authorities, and I was placed under close observation. I could not travel more than two miles [3 km] from home. Later, I was allowed to ride on horseback to the market in Tulun. Exercising caution, I met with fellow Witnesses there.
By then, we had two girls, Anna and Nadia, and two boys, Ivan and Kolya. In 1958 we had another son, Volodya. And later, in 1961, we had another daughter, Galia.
The KGB (former state security agency) often detained and interrogated me. Their purpose was not only to get me to reveal information about the congregation but also to create the suspicion that I was cooperating with them. So they would take me to a fine restaurant and try to get pictures of me smiling and having a good time with them. But I discerned their motive, and with conscious effort I kept a constant frown on my face. Each time I was detained, I told the brothers exactly what had occurred. Thus, they never doubted my loyalty.
Contact With the Camps
Over the years, hundreds of Witnesses were put in prison camps. During this time, we kept regular contact with our incarcerated brothers, supplying literature to them. How was this done? When brothers or sisters were released from a camp, we learned from them ways in which literature might be brought in secretly despite the strict controls. For about ten years, we were able to supply our brothers in these camps with copies of magazines and books that we obtained through Poland and other countries.
Many of our Christian sisters spent long hours tediously copying literature in such tiny script that a whole magazine could be concealed in something as small as a matchbox! In 1991, when we were no longer under ban and were receiving beautiful four-color magazines, one of our sisters said: “Now we will be forgotten.” She was wrong. Even though humans may forget, the work of such loyal ones will never be forgotten by Jehovah!—Hebrews 6:10.
Relocation and Tragedies
Late in 1967 my brother’s house in Irkutsk was searched. Film and copies of Bible literature were found. He was convicted and given a three-year prison sentence. However, a search of our house turned up nothing. Still, authorities were convinced of our involvement, so my family had to leave the area. We moved about 3,000 miles [5,000 km] west to the city of Nevinnomyssk in the Caucasus. There we kept busy with informal witnessing.
Tragedy struck on the first day of school vacation in June 1969. While trying to retrieve a ball near a high-voltage electric transformer, our 12-year-old son, Kolya, received a severe electric shock. Over 70 percent of his body was burned. In the hospital, he turned to me and asked: “Will we be able to go together again to the island?” (He was speaking of an island we used to enjoy visiting.) “Yes, Kolya,” I said, “we’ll go to that island again. When Jesus Christ raises you to life, we surely will go to that island.” Semiconscious, he kept singing one of his favorite Kingdom songs, one that he liked to play on his trumpet in the congregation orchestra. Three days later he died, confident in the hope of the resurrection.
The following year our 20-year-old son, Ivan, was drafted for military service. When he refused to serve, he was arrested and spent three years in prison. In 1971, I was drafted and was again threatened with imprisonment for not serving. My case dragged on for months. In the meantime my wife became ill with cancer and needed much attention. For this reason they dismissed my case. Maria died in 1972. She had been a faithful companion, loyal to Jehovah to her death.
Our Family Spread Abroad
In 1973, I married Nina. Her father had thrown her out of his home in 1960 because she had become a Witness. She was a zealous minister who had been among those sisters who had worked hard copying magazines for those in the camps. My children came to love her too.
The authorities became disturbed by our activity in Nevinnomyssk and pressured us to leave. So in 1975 my wife, my daughters, and I moved to the southern Caucasus region in Georgia. At the same time, my sons Ivan and Volodya moved to Dzhambul on the southern border of Kazakstan.
In Georgia the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses was just beginning. We witnessed informally in and around Gagra and Sukhumi on the Black Sea Coast, and after a year, ten new Witnesses were baptized in a mountain river. Soon, the authorities insisted that we leave the area, and we moved to eastern Georgia. There we intensified our efforts to find sheeplike people, and Jehovah blessed us.
We met together in small groups. Language was a problem, since we did not know Georgian and some Georgians did not speak Russian well. At first, we studied only with Russians. Soon, though, the preaching and teaching in the Georgian language progressed, and now there are thousands of Kingdom proclaimers in Georgia.
In 1979, under KGB pressure my employer said that I was no longer welcome in his country. It was then that my daughter Nadia was involved in a car accident in which both she and her young daughter were killed. My mother had died faithful to Jehovah in Nevinnomyssk the year before, leaving my father and my brother. So we decided to return there.
Blessings for Endurance
In Nevinnomyssk we continued to produce Bible literature underground. Once during the mid-1980’s when I was summoned by the authorities, I told them that I had dreamed I was hiding our magazines. They laughed. As I was leaving, one of them said: “May you have no more dreams about how you hide your literature.” He concluded: “Soon the literature will be displayed on your shelves, and you will be going to the meetings arm in arm with your wife and with your Bible in hand.”
In 1989 we were saddened when my daughter Anna died of an aneurysm in the brain. She was only 38. That same year, in August, the Witnesses in Nevinnomyssk rented a train and traveled to Warsaw, Poland, to attend an international convention. There were 60,366 present, including thousands from the Soviet Union. We really did think we were dreaming! Less than two years later, on March 27, 1991, I was privileged to be one of the five long-standing congregation elders in the Soviet Union to sign the historic document in Moscow that provided legal recognition for the religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
I am delighted that my surviving children are serving Jehovah faithfully. And I am looking forward to God’s new world when I can again see Anna, Nadia and her daughter, as well as Kolya. When he is resurrected, I will keep my promise to take him to that island that we enjoyed so much together many years ago.
In the meantime, what a joy it has been to see the rapid growth of Bible truth in this vast land! I am truly happy with my lot in life, and I thank Jehovah for letting me become one of his Witnesses. I am convinced of the truthfulness of Psalm 34:8: “Taste and see that Jehovah is good, O you people; happy is the able-bodied man that takes refuge in him.”
[Picture on page 25]
The year I joined my family in Tulun
[Pictures on page 26]
Above: My father and my children outside our house in Tulun, Siberia
Top right: My daughter Nadia and her daughter, who both died in an automobile accident
Right: A family portrait in 1968