Jesus spoke an illustration about seed planted in fine soil, describing those who develop deep appreciation for the Word of God. They “bear fruit with endurance” by faithfully continuing to proclaim God’s message despite hardship and suffering. (Luke 8:11, 13, 15) In few places on earth has this been more evident than in Ukraine, where despite more than 50 years of ban and harsh persecution, Jehovah’s Witnesses have survived and flourished.
During the 2001 service year, this land saw a peak of 120,028 publishers. More than 56,000 of these have learned Bible truth during the last five years. Over the past two years, the brothers have placed more than 50 million magazines, a number equal to the population of the country. Each month, on the average, the branch office receives a thousand letters from interested people asking for more information. All of this would have been inconceivable in the not too distant past. What a victory for pure worship!
Before we turn the pages of Ukraine’s history, let us consider the land itself. Apart from the figurative soil that Jesus referred to, Ukraine possesses excellent literal soil. Almost half the country is covered with rich, black, prairie soil, which Ukrainians call chornozem, meaning “black earth.” This soil, along with a moderate climate, has made Ukraine one of the world’s most productive farming regions, producing sugar beets, wheat, barley, corn, and other crops. From ancient times Ukraine has been known as the breadbasket of Europe.
Measuring about 800 miles [1,300 km] from east to west and 550 miles [900 km] from north to south, Ukraine is slightly larger than France. As you can see on the map on page 123, the country is located in Eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea. Northern Ukraine is adorned with forests. To the south lie rich, fertile plains, which give way to the beautiful Crimean Mountains. In the west, foothills lead to the steep Carpathian Mountains, home to lynx, bears, and bison.
About 50 million people live in Ukraine. They are humble, hospitable, and hardworking people. Many speak both Ukrainian and Russian. When invited into their homes, you will likely be served borscht (beet soup) and varenyky (boiled dumplings). After a pleasant meal, you may be entertained with folk songs, since many Ukrainians enjoy singing and playing musical instruments.
The people of Ukraine have been exposed to a variety of religious beliefs. In the tenth century, the Eastern Orthodox religion was introduced. Later the Ottoman Empire brought Islam to southern Ukraine. Also, Polish noblemen were spreading Catholicism during the Middle Ages. In the 20th century, many became atheists under the rule of Communism.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are found throughout the country. However, before World War II, the majority of them lived in western Ukraine, which was divided into four territories: Volyn’, Halychyna, Transcarpathia, and Bukovina.
Seeds of Truth Are Sown in Ukraine
The Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were formerly known, have been active in Ukraine for more than a century. During his first trip abroad, in 1891, C. T. Russell, a leading Bible Student, visited many countries in Europe and the Middle East. On his way to what was then Constantinople, Turkey, he visited Odessa in southern Ukraine. Later, in 1911, he gave a series of Bible lectures in major cities of Europe, including the city of Lvov in western Ukraine.
Traveling by train, Brother Russell arrived in Lvov, where a large hall known as the People’s House had been rented for his lecture scheduled for March 24. Nine advertisements in seven local newspapers as well as large posters invited all to hear the talk “Zionism in Prophecy” by the “famous and honorable speaker from New York”—Pastor Russell. It was planned that Brother Russell would give this talk twice that day. However, a Jewish rabbi from the United States who fiercely opposed Russell’s work cabled a message to his associates in Lvov, denouncing the Bible Students. This incited some to try and stop Russell from speaking.
Though the hall was packed with people both in the afternoon and in the evening, opposers were present. A local newspaper, the Wiek Nowy, reported: “When [Russell’s] interpreter uttered the first few words, the Zionists raised a clamor and did not permit the missionary to speak because of their screaming and whistling. Pastor Russell had to leave the stage. . . . The demonstration was even greater at the talk at eight o’clock that evening.”
However, many wanted to hear what Brother Russell had to say. They were interested in his message and requested Bible literature. Later, Brother Russell commented on his visit to Lvov. He said: “God alone knows what his providences may be in connection with these experiences. . . . [The Jews’] excitement on the subject may lead some to a deeper investigation than if they had heard us in a decent and orderly manner.” Though there was no immediate response to the message, seeds of truth had been sown, and many groups of Bible Students were formed later, not only in Lvov but also in other areas of Ukraine.
In 1912 the office of the Bible Students in Germany published a large advertisement in a calendar that was circulated in Ukraine. The advertisement encouraged the reading of the German volumes of Studies in the Scriptures. Consequently, the office in Germany received about 50 letters from people in Ukraine asking both for the Studies in the Scriptures and for subscriptions to The Watch Tower. The office kept in contact with these interested ones until war broke out in 1914.
Following World War I, Ukraine was divided among four neighboring countries. The territories of central and eastern Ukraine were seized by Communist Russia and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Western Ukraine was divided among three other countries. The areas of Halychyna and Volyn’ were annexed to Poland, Bukovina to Romania, and Transcarpathia to Czechoslovakia. These three countries provided a measure of religious freedom and permitted the Bible Students to carry on their preaching. Thus, many seeds of truth that were to bear fruit later were first sown in western Ukraine.
The First Sprouts
Early in the 20th century, many families from Ukraine went to the United States in search of a better life. Some read our Bible-based publications and sent them to their relatives in Ukraine. Other families became acquainted with the teachings of the Bible Students, returned home, and began to preach in their native villages. Several groups of Bible Students emerged and later grew into congregations. In the early 1920’s, seeds of truth were sown in Halychyna and Volyn’ by Bible Students from Poland. Meanwhile, brothers from Romania and Moldavia (now Moldova) brought the truth into the Bukovina region.
This laid a good foundation for further growth. The Watch Tower of December 15, 1921, reported: “Recently some of our brethren visited [Bukovina] . . . The result of their visit there for a few weeks is seven classes organized and now studying the volumes and ‘Tabernacle Shadows’. One of these classes has about 70 members.” In 1922 in the village of Kolinkivtsi, in Bukovina, Stepan Koltsa accepted the truth, was baptized, and began preaching. As far as we know, he was the first brother baptized in Ukraine. Later ten families joined him. Similar growth occurred in the Transcarpathian area. By 1925 there were approximately 100 Bible Students in the village of Velyki Luchky and neighboring villages. Following that, the first full-time servants began preaching in Transcarpathia, conducting meetings in the homes of the Bible Students. Many people were baptized.
Alexei Davidjuk, a longtime Witness, describes how people at that time got acquainted with the truth. He says: “In 1927 a villager took one of our publications to the village of Lankove, in the Volyn’ area. After reading it, several villagers became curious about the teachings of hellfire and the soul. Since the book contained the address of the office of the Bible Students in Lodz, Poland, the villagers wrote a letter requesting that someone visit their village. One month later a brother went and organized a Bible study group. Fifteen families joined this group.”
Such enthusiasm for the truth was common in those early years. Consider the words of appreciation expressed in a letter from the Halychyna area to the headquarters of the Bible Students in Brooklyn: “The books you publish heal a lot of the wounds of our people and lead them to the day’s light. But I beg you to send us more of these books.” Another interested person wrote: “I decided to ask you to send us literature because I cannot get it here. One man from our village received a few books from you, but the neighbors snatched them away from him. He was not even able to read them. Presently, he is visiting the villagers, endeavoring to recover his books.”
Such keen interest resulted in the establishing of an office of the Bible Students on Pekarska Street in Lvov. The office received many requests for literature from Halychyna and Volyn’ and regularly forwarded them to Brooklyn to be filled.
By the mid-1920’s, the seeds of truth had certainly sprouted in western Ukraine. Many groups of Bible Students were organized, and some of them later became congregations. Though very few records were kept of this early activity, available reports show that in 1922 there were 12 persons who celebrated the Memorial in Halychyna. In 1924, The Watch Tower reported 49 persons attending the Memorial in the town of Sarata in southern Ukraine. In 1927, more than 370 attended the Memorial in Transcarpathia.
Describing the work in various countries of the world, The Watch Tower of December 1, 1925, published the following: “A brother was sent from America this year to the Ukrainians in Europe; . . . much good work has been done amongst the Ukrainians in that part controlled by Poland. There has been a great and increasing demand for literature there.” Several months later the Golden Age (now Awake!) magazine reported: “In Galicia [Halychyna] alone there are twenty classes [congregations] . . . Some of them have . . . organized and hold mid-week meetings; some meet only on Sunday, and some are in the state of organizing. There is hope of building up more classes; only a leader to guide them is needed.” All of this indicated that in a spiritual sense, the Ukrainian soil was very fertile.
Early Field Ministry
Vojtech Chehy, from Transcarpathia, was baptized in 1923 and later entered the full-time preaching activity in the area of Berehove. He usually went in the ministry with one bag of literature in his hand, another fastened to his bicycle, and a rucksack full of literature on his back. He relates: “We were assigned a territory of 24 villages. We were 15 publishers, and we had to exert ourselves in order to work through these villages with literature twice a year. Every Sunday at four o’clock in the morning, we met together at one of the villages. From there we would walk or travel by bus ten or more miles [15 to 20 km] into the surrounding areas. We usually began our house-to-house ministry at 8:00 a.m. and worked until 2:00 p.m. Often we went home on foot, and at the evening meetings the same day, all joyfully related their experiences. We would take shortcuts through the woods and cross rivers in good and nasty weather, but none of us ever complained. We were happy to serve and glorify our Creator. People could see that the brothers were indeed living as true Christians, ready to walk even 20 miles [40 km] to attend the meetings or to preach.
“In our ministry we met various people. Once I offered the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World to a woman who said she would like to have it but had no money to contribute. I was hungry, so I said that she could exchange a cooked egg for the booklet. She got the booklet, and I ate an egg.”
At Christmastime, inhabitants of Transcarpathia went from house-to-house, singing about the birth of Jesus Christ. The brothers made good use of this custom. They would take literature in their bags and go to peoples’ homes to sing songs expressing their faith! Many enjoyed the melodies. Brothers were frequently invited into houses and asked to sing more songs. Sometimes they were given money for their singing, which they happily exchanged for Bible literature. Thus, during the Christmas season, the literature depot was often emptied. Such singing campaigns would last for two weeks, since Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics have their Christmas celebrations during different weeks. By the latter half of the 1920’s, however, as the pagan origins of Christmas became evident to the Bible Students, the singing campaigns were discontinued. The brothers experienced great joy in their intensive preaching activity, and new groups of publishers continued to spring up in Transcarpathia.
The First Conventions
In May 1926 the first convention of Bible Students in the Transcarpathian area was held in the village of Velyki Luchky. There were 150 in attendance, and 20 were baptized. The following year 200 persons attended a convention in the outdoor central park of Uzhgorod, a city in the same region. Soon other conventions were organized in various towns of Transcarpathia. In 1928, Lvov had its first convention. Later, other conventions took place in Halychyna and Volyn’.
Early in 1932, a convention was held in the village of Solotvyno, Transcarpathia, in the yard of a house where Bible Students had their regular meetings. Approximately 500 were in attendance, including some responsible brothers from Germany. Mykhailo Tilniak, an elder in the local congregation, relates: “We thoroughly enjoyed the well-prepared talks presented by the brothers who came to our convention from Germany and Hungary. With tears in their eyes, they encouraged us to remain faithful under the coming trials.” And severe trials did come as World War II began.
In 1937 an entire train was rented for delegates to travel to a large convention in Prague, Czechoslovakia. It departed from the village of Solotvyno and traveled throughout Transcarpathia, stopping at each train station to pick up delegates. On each car of the train, there was a sign reading “Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention—Prague.” It was an excellent witness for people in that area, and older ones remember that event to this day.
Constructing Places of Worship
As the early groups of Bible Students were formed, a need arose to build their own places of worship. The first meeting place was built in the village of Dibrova, Transcarpathia, in 1932. Later two other halls were built in the neighboring villages of Solotvyno and Bila Tserkva.
Despite the fact that some of these halls were destroyed during the war and some were confiscated, the brothers maintained the desire to have their own Kingdom Halls. Presently, there are 8 Kingdom Halls in the village of Dibrova and 18 Kingdom Halls in six neighboring villages.
Development of Translation
By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, many families emigrated from Ukraine to the United States and Canada. Some of them embraced the truth in their new countries, and numerous Ukrainian-speaking groups were formed. As early as 1918, The Divine Plan of the Ages was published in the Ukrainian language. Still, much more needed to be done to supply spiritual food to the Ukrainian-speaking population in Ukraine and abroad. By the early 1920’s, the need was evident for a qualified brother to translate Bible publications on a regular basis. In 1923, Emil Zarysky, who lived in Canada, accepted an invitation to take up full-time service. For him, this mainly involved translating Bible publications into Ukrainian. He also visited Ukrainian, Polish, and Slovakian groups in Canada and the United States.
Emil Zarysky was born near the town of Sokal in western Ukraine and later moved to Canada with his parents. There he married a girl from Ukraine named Mariya. Together they raised five children. Even with heavy family responsibilities, Emil and Mariya were able to carry out their theocratic assignments. In 1928 the Watch Tower Society bought a house in Winnipeg, Canada, that served as the headquarters for the Ukrainian translation work.
In those early days, the brothers used portable phonographs with records of Bible talks in their house-to-house ministry. Brother Zarysky was invited to Brooklyn to make Ukrainian recordings of such talks. In the 1930’s, several half-hour radio broadcasts in Ukrainian were prepared at the radio station in Winnipeg. In these radio broadcasts, Emil Zarysky and other experienced brothers presented meaningful public talks. These talks were accompanied by four-part choral singing from the songbook that had been published in 1928. Grateful listeners responded with hundreds of letters and telephone calls.
For 40 years Emil Zarysky along with his wife, Mariya, faithfully fulfilled their assignment as translators. During that time, each issue of The Watchtower was translated into Ukrainian. In 1964, Maurice Saranchuk, who with his wife, Anne, had been assisting Brother Zarysky for a number of years, was assigned to oversee the translation work.
Spiritual Help Arrives
Although some zealous publishers individually had sown and watered the seeds of truth throughout Ukraine, it was not until 1927 that organized preaching work began in Transcarpathia and later, in Halychyna. Prior to that a large number of books and booklets had been distributed in the Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian languages, though the preaching activity had not been reported. Isolated groups began to be organized into congregations, and publishers started to preach regularly from house to house. Much Bible literature was placed in those years. In 1927, Ukraine’s first literature depot was opened in the city of Uzhgorod, Transcarpathia. In 1928 the office in Magdeburg, Germany, was assigned to care for congregations and colporteurs in the territory of Transcarpathia, which at that time was part of Czechoslovakia.
In 1930 an office was established in the town of Berehove, near Uzhgorod, to supervise the work of Bible Students in Transcarpathia. Vojtech Chehy served as the overseer of that office. This new arrangement was very beneficial to the preaching work.
Several brothers from the offices in Prague and Magdeburg showed a self-sacrificing spirit, often traveling long distances into the Carpathian Mountains to take the good news of God’s Kingdom to the remotest parts of that beautiful region. One of these zealous brothers was Adolf Fitzke from the Magdeburg branch office. He was sent to preach in the area of Rakhiv in the Carpathian Mountains. Many local Witnesses to this day have fond memories of this faithful, modest, and undemanding brother. In 2001, there were four congregations in that area.
During the 1930’s, the “Photo-Drama of Creation” was shown in many towns and villages in Transcarpathia. The “Photo-Drama” was an eight-hour presentation of slides and motion pictures synchronized with a Bible-based commentary on phonograph records. Erich Frost from Germany was sent to assist local brothers with the “Photo-Drama.” Prior to the program, the brothers handed out leaflets and used posters to invite the public to the showing. Interest was great. In the town of Berehove, such a crowd assembled that over one thousand people had to wait on the street. When the police saw the large crowd, they feared that it would become disorderly and that they would not be able to control it. Consequently, they considered canceling the event, but they decided not to. After the showing, many addresses were handed in by people who wanted to see the “Photo-Drama” again. Such interest aroused local religious leaders to use every means possible to thwart the work of preaching the good news. Despite this, Jehovah God continued to bless the work with success.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the areas of Volyn’ and Halychyna were under the supervision of the Poland branch in Lodz. In 1932 the brothers from Poland focused their attention on those territories, making return visits on all Watchtower subscribers, whose addresses they received from Brooklyn.
Wilhelm Scheider, then overseer of the Poland office, recalled: “Ukrainians pursued the truth with great enthusiasm. Like mushrooms after the rain, groups of interested ones suddenly appeared in the cities and villages of Halychyna. Sometimes such groups grew so large that they embraced whole communities.”
Though the majority of the brothers were poor, they sacrificed much in order to obtain literature and phonograph records that would help them to preach and to grow spiritually. Mykola Volochii from Halychyna, who was baptized in 1936, sold one of his two horses to buy a phonograph. Imagine what it meant for a farmer to sell a horse! Although he had to provide for four children, he concluded that he could manage to do so with one horse. Many new ones came to know and serve Jehovah through the Bible talks and Kingdom songs in the Ukrainian language that were played on this phonograph.
Illustrating the large increase in publishers in Halychyna and Volyn’ in the 1930’s, Wilhelm Scheider said: “In 1928 we reached 300 publishers in Poland, but by 1939 we had more than 1,100, and half of them were Ukrainians, even though the work started in their area (Halychyna and Volyn’) much later.”
To care for such increases, Ludwik Kinicki was sent from the Poland branch to Halychyna and Volyn’ as a traveling overseer to assist with the preaching work. His family from Chortkiv, Halychyna, had immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, where Brother Kinicki learned the truth. Later he returned to his homeland to help sincere people there. Many brothers and sisters will never forget the spiritual help they received by means of this zealous minister. When in the autumn of 1936, a ban was imposed on the Polish edition of The Golden Age and its editor was sentenced to a year in prison, Brother Kinicki was appointed as an editor of the New Day magazine, which was published in place of the banned Golden Age. In 1944 he was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, where he died faithful to Jehovah.
God Draws All Sorts of Men
At the beginning of the 1920’s, a Bible Student named Rola returned to his hometown of Zolotyi Potik, Halychyna. Using his Bible, Rola began to preach the good news. People called him crazy because he destroyed all his religious images. The local priest attempted to stop Rola from preaching. The priest visited a policeman and said: “If you do something so that Rola is not able to walk, then I will give you one liter of whiskey.” The policeman replied that it was not his job to beat people. Later, Rola began to receive parcels of literature from brothers in the United States. The priest again approached the policeman and told him that a parcel with Communist literature had arrived at the post office. The next day the policeman was waiting at the post office to see who would pick up the parcel. It was, of course, Rola. The policeman took Rola to the police station and summoned the priest as well. The priest shouted that the books were from the Devil. To determine whether the literature contained Communist teachings, the policeman sent some of it to the local court. The rest, he kept for himself. As he read the publications, he realized that they contained the truth. Soon he and his wife began to attend the meetings of the Bible Students. Later he was baptized and became a zealous publisher. Thus, while the priest was exerting himself to stop the disciple-making work, he unwittingly encouraged Ludwik Rodak to embrace the truth.
About this time, a Greek Catholic priest from Lvov moved to the United States together with his wife. Shortly thereafter, his wife died. Grieving, he decided to find out where the soul of his wife had gone. He obtained the address of some spiritists in New York. While looking for their place of meeting, he mistakenly went to another floor of the building and found himself at a meeting of the Bible Students. There he learned the truth about the condition of the dead. Later he was baptized and worked for a time in the printing factory at Brooklyn Bethel. After some time, he returned to Halychyna and zealously continued to preach the good news.
Beam of Light in Eastern Ukraine
As we have seen, much of the early preaching activity took place in western Ukraine. How did the truth reach the rest of the country? Would that spiritual soil produce as bountifully as it had in western Ukraine?
In the early 1900’s, Brother Trumpi, a Bible Student from Switzerland, came to work as an engineer in a coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine. He is known as the first Bible Student in that area. His preaching activity in the 1920’s resulted in the formation of a Bible study group in the village of Liubymivskyi Post, near the city of Kharkov.
In 1927 another brother from western Europe came to work as an engineer at a coal mine in the village of Kalynivka. He brought with him a suitcase full of Bible literature, which he used in preaching to a small group of Baptists who showed great interest in the Kingdom hope. After some time, this brother returned to his home country, leaving behind a small group who had become Bible Students. The Watch Tower of 1927 reported that 18 persons came together to Kalynivka to observe the Memorial. In the neighboring village of Yepifanivka, 11 attended. In addition, that year 30 observed the Memorial in Liubymivskyi Post.
Brothers from headquarters in Brooklyn paid constant attention to developments in the Soviet Union, trying to establish the Kingdom-preaching work legally. With that goal in mind, a Canadian brother, George Young, came to the U.S.S.R. in 1928. During his stay, he was able to visit the city of Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, where he organized a small three-day convention with the local group of Bible Students. Later, opposition from the authorities resulted in his having to leave the country. He noted that groups of Bible Students existed at that time also in both Kiev and Odessa.
Brother Young reported to Brooklyn on the situation in the Soviet Union. Following Brother Young’s recommendation, Danyil Starukhin of Ukraine was appointed to represent the Bible Students not only in Ukraine but also in the entire U.S.S.R. Several years before George Young’s visit, Brother Starukhin had been able to defend the Bible in a debate with Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Education at that time. In a letter to J. F. Rutherford, of Brooklyn headquarters, Brother Young wrote: “Danyil Starukhin is zealous and active. When a boy of 15, he had a discussion with a priest regarding the Bible. The priest got so vexed that he took his cross and hit the lad over the head, knocking him senseless to the floor; he still has the mark on his head. Danyil would have been hanged, but being underage, he was given only four months in jail.” Though Brother Starukhin tried to register the local congregation and to obtain official permission to print Bible literature in Ukraine, the Soviet authorities did not allow him to do so.
In the late 1920’s and the 1930’s, Soviet authorities zealously promoted atheism. Religion was ridiculed, and those who preached to others were considered “enemies of the motherland.” After a rich harvest in 1932, the Communists confiscated all foodstuffs from villagers in Ukraine. More than six million people died because of this artificially induced famine that followed.
Reports indicate that the small groups of Jehovah’s servants kept their integrity during these difficult times, even though they did not have any contact with brothers outside of the country. Some of them spent many years in prison because of their faith. The Trumpis, the Hausers, Danyil Starukhin, Andrii Savenko, and Sister Shapovalova are just a few of such integrity keepers. We are confident that Jehovah will not ‘forget their work and the love they showed for his name.’—Heb. 6:10.
Time of Severe Testing
The end of the 1930’s marked big changes for the borders of many countries in eastern Europe. Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. expanded their spheres of influence to engulf less powerful countries.
In March 1939, Hungary, with the support of Nazi Germany, occupied Transcarpathia. A ban was imposed on the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all Kingdom Halls were closed. The authorities brutally mistreated the brothers and sent many to prison. Most Witnesses from the Ukrainian villages of Velykyi Bychkiv and Kobyletska Poliana were imprisoned.
When the Soviets arrived in the territory of Halychyna and Volyn’ in 1939, Ukraine’s western borders were closed. Thus, contact with the Poland office was lost. After World War II started, the organization went underground. Brothers gathered together in small groups called circles and continued their ministry more cautiously.
Later, Nazi armies invaded Ukraine. During the German occupation, the clergy began to stir up the masses against Jehovah’s people. In Halychyna fierce persecution raged. Windows in the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses were smashed, and many brothers were severely beaten. In winter, some of the brothers were forced to stand in cold water for hours because they would not make the sign of the cross. Some sisters received 50 blows with a stick. A number of brothers lost their lives keeping their integrity. For example, the Gestapo executed Illia Hovuchak, a full-time minister from the Carpathian Mountains. A Catholic priest had handed him over to the Gestapo because Brother Hovuchak zealously preached about God’s Kingdom. It was a time of severe testing. Nevertheless, Jehovah’s servants continued to stand firm.
Jehovah’s Witnesses helped one another, even though doing so was often dangerous. In the city of Stanislav (now Ivano-Frankovsk), a woman of Jewish origin and her two daughters became Witnesses. They lived in a Jewish ghetto. The brothers learned that the Nazis planned to execute all Jews in the city, so they organized an escape for the three sisters. Risking their own lives, the Witnesses hid these Jewish sisters throughout the entire period of the war.
During World War II, brothers in western Ukraine temporarily lost contact with the organization and were not sure what direction to take. Some thought that the beginning of World War II meant the beginning of Armageddon. This teaching caused misunderstanding among the brothers for some time.
Seeds Sprout on the Battlefield
World War II brought grief and ruin to Ukraine. For three years the country was turned into a huge battlefield. As the front moved through Ukrainian territory, first to the east then back to the west, many towns and villages were completely destroyed. About ten million citizens of Ukraine were killed during those years, including five and a half million civilians. Amid the horrors of war, many became disillusioned with life and ignored moral principles. Nevertheless, even under such conditions, some learned the truth.
In the year 1942, Mykhailo Dan, a young lad from Transcarpathia who enjoyed listening to Jehovah’s Witnesses before World War II, was called for military service. During a military drill, a Catholic priest distributed among the soldiers a religious brochure containing the promise of life in heaven for anyone who killed at least one Communist. Such information puzzled the young soldier. During the war, he saw a clergyman killing people. This helped to convince him that Jehovah’s Witnesses had the truth. After the war, he returned home, found Jehovah’s Witnesses, and was baptized by the end of 1945.
Later Brother Dan endured the horrors of the Soviet prisons. Following his release, he was appointed as an elder and now serves as presiding overseer of one of the congregations in Transcarpathia. Recalling the brochure mentioned earlier, he says, with irony: “I did not kill a single Communist. Therefore, I don’t expect heavenly life, but I am looking forward to living forever in Paradise on earth.”
Fertile Soil Bears Fruit in Concentration Camps
As mentioned at the outset, rich soil has the potential for producing bumper crops. Hence, during the occupation by Nazi Germany, the fertile black earth was taken from Ukraine. Boxcar after boxcar was filled with fertile soil from central Ukraine and sent to Germany.
However, other boxcars contained what later also became fertile soil, so to speak. About two and a half million young men and women were taken from Ukraine for forced labor in Germany. A considerable number of them later ended up in concentration camps. There they became acquainted with German Witnesses, who were imprisoned for their Christian neutrality. Even in the concentration camps, the Witnesses did not stop sharing the good news with others, both by their speech and by their conduct. One prisoner recalls: “Witnesses differed from the rest in the concentration camp. They had a friendly, optimistic disposition. Their behavior showed that they had something very important to say to the other prisoners.” During those years, many people from Ukraine learned the truth from German Witnesses who were in the concentration camps with them.
Anastasiya Kazak became acquainted with the truth in the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany. By the end of the war, several hundred prisoners including Anastasiya and 14 Witnesses were transported by barge to Denmark, where Danish brothers sought them out and cared for their physical and spiritual needs. That same year Anastasiya was baptized at the age of 19 at the convention in Copenhagen and returned home to eastern Ukraine, where she zealously worked to sow seeds of truth. Later, because of her preaching activity, Sister Kazak was again imprisoned, for 11 years.
This is her advice to young people: “Whatever happens in your life—tribulation, opposition, or other troubles—never give up. Keep asking Jehovah for his help. As I learned, he never abandons those serving him.”—Ps. 94:14.
War is harsh and cruel, bringing hardship, suffering, and death to both soldier and civilian. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not spared the grim consequences of war. Still, although they are in the world, they are no part of it. (John 17:15, 16) In imitation of their Leader, Jesus Christ, they maintain strict political neutrality. For the Witnesses in Ukraine, as elsewhere, this stand has set them apart as genuine Christians. And while the world honors its war heroes, both living and dead, Jehovah honors those who bravely prove their loyalty to him.—1 Sam. 2:30.
By the end of 1944, Soviet troops retook western Ukraine and announced universal military conscription. At the same time, groups of Ukrainian partisans fought against both German and Soviet troops. Inhabitants of western Ukraine were pressured to join the ranks of the partisans. All of this presented new trials for Jehovah’s servants in maintaining their neutrality. Because of their refusal to fight, a number of brothers were executed.
Ivan Maksymiuk and his son Mykhailo learned the truth from Illia Hovuchak. During the war, they refused to take up arms, so they were detained by the partisans. Some time earlier, these partisans had also detained a Soviet soldier. The partisans commanded Ivan Maksymiuk to kill the captive soldier, saying that if he would do so, they would release him. When Brother Maksymiuk refused, they sadistically murdered him. His son Mykhailo was killed in the same manner, as were Yurii Freyuk and his 17-year-old son, Mykola.
Other brothers were executed because they refused to join the Soviet army. (Isa. 2:4) Still others were sentenced to prison for ten years. Imprisoned brothers had very slim chances of survival, for during the postwar period in Ukraine, even those who were free were starving. In 1944, Michael Dasevich was imprisoned because of his neutrality. Prior to his ten-year imprisonment, he was under investigation for six months, reducing him to a state of total exhaustion. The medical commission of the prison prescribed a “high-calorie diet” for him. So the prison kitchen staff started to add a teaspoon of oil to his portion of porridge—the only food he was allowed. Brother Dasevich survived to serve for 23 years on the U.S.S.R. country committee and later on the Ukraine country committee.
In 1944, seven brothers from one congregation in Bukovina refused to join the military and were sentenced to from three to four years’ imprisonment each. Four of them starved to death in prison. That same year five brothers from a nearby congregation were sentenced to ten years each in a Siberian prison camp. Only one of them returned home—the others died there.
The 1947 Yearbook commented on these events as follows: “When in 1944 the Nazi-monster was thrust westward, every leg . . . was mobilized in Western Ukraine to bring the war to a favorable conclusion for Russia. Again our brethren have maintained the inviolability of the everlasting covenant and their neutrality. A number forfeited their lives on account of their faithfulness to the Lord, and others—this time it was well over 1,000—were again carried eastward to the wide plains of this immense continent.”
Despite such a big resettlement, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to grow in number. In the year 1946, there were 5,218 persons, including four anointed ones, who attended the Memorial in western Ukraine.
After World War II ended, the brothers—who had endured all the hardships and had remained loyal to God—preached a vibrant message of hope and encouragement to those returning from the battlefield. Soldiers as well as prisoners of war returned home disillusioned but eager to find meaning in life. Consequently, many embraced Bible truth with joy. For example, late in 1945 in the village of Bila Tserkva, Transcarpathia, 51 persons were baptized in the Tisza River. By the end of the year, there were 150 publishers in that congregation.
At that time a mutual hatred had developed between Ukrainians and Poles in western Ukraine and in eastern Poland. A number of Ukrainian and Polish gangs formed. In some cases these gangs murdered the inhabitants of entire villages where representatives of the other nationality lived. Sadly, some of the brothers died in these massacres.
Later, by an agreement between the Soviet Union and Poland, approximately 800,000 Polish people from western Ukraine were resettled in Poland and about 500,000 Ukrainians from eastern Poland were moved to Ukraine. Among the migrants were many Witnesses. Whole congregations were resettled, and brothers received new theocratic assignments, viewing this repatriation as a possibility to preach in new territories. The 1947 Yearbook commented: “All this coming and going has contributed to the truth’s rapidly spreading into such areas where in normal times it would hardly have reached. And so even all these unhappy circumstances have played their part in the glorification of Jehovah’s name.”
When the western borders of Ukraine were closed, the brothers took steps to organize the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine and the rest of the U.S.S.R. Pavlo Ziatek had earlier been appointed to serve as country servant for Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union. Later, two other zealous brothers, Stanislav Burak and Petro Tokar, were assigned to help him. Living secretly in the house of a Christian sister in Lvov, they printed literature so that spiritual food could be supplied to the entire U.S.S.R. It was with great risk that literature was brought in from Poland for further translating and printing in Lvov. From time to time, a number of brothers and sisters managed to get permission to visit their relatives in Poland and on the way back would secretly bring in our literature. For a time, a train engineer transported literature in a metal box hidden inside a steam boiler!
By the end of 1945, Brother Ziatek was arrested and sentenced to prison for ten years. In his place, Brother Burak became the country servant.
In June 1947 while a brother was carrying printed literature to deliver to the brothers, he was stopped on the street in Lvov and arrested. The security services offered to register our organization legally if he would provide addresses of the Witnesses to whom he regularly delivered printed literature. The brother trustfully gave them the addresses of nearly 30 brothers, including Brother Burak, the country servant at that time. Later, all of them were arrested. This same brother sincerely repented and acknowledged that he had placed unwarranted trust in the security services.
The arrested brothers were taken to a prison in Kiev for further inquest and court hearings. Shortly afterward, Brother Burak died in prison. Before his arrest, Brother Burak managed to contact the district servant, Mykola Tsyba, from the Volyn’ area and pass on to him the oversight of the work in Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union.
It was the first time that in one sweep the Soviet security services arrested so many responsible brothers as well as workers in the underground printeries. Officials in the U.S.S.R. considered our literature to be anti-Soviet. Witnesses were falsely accused of activity that undermined the order of the country, and many were sentenced to death. However, the death sentences were commuted to 25 years in prison camps.
The brothers were sentenced to serve their terms in Siberia. When they asked a lawyer about the reason for their being sent so far away, he jokingly answered: “Probably, you have to preach about your God there.” How true those words later proved to be!
During the period from 1947 through 1951, many responsible brothers were arrested. Witnesses were detained not only because they printed literature but also because they did not join the military, vote in elections, or enroll their children in the Pioneer League or Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) organizations. Just being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was reason enough to be imprisoned. Often, false witnesses testified at court trials. As a rule, they were neighbors or colleagues who had been intimidated or bribed by the security services.
Sometimes the authorities were sympathetic, though not openly. Ivan Symchuk was arrested and confined to solitary confinement for six months. In solitary, there was total silence; he could not even hear street noise. After that, they tried him. However, the investigator helped by telling him how to answer: “Don’t say anything about where and from whom you got typewriters and literature! Don’t answer those questions!” And when they took him to be questioned, the investigator would say: “Ivan, don’t give up. Don’t give up, Ivan.”
In some villages Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to hang curtains on their windows. This was so that neighbors and policemen could easily see if the Witnesses were reading their literature or holding meetings. Nevertheless, the brothers found ways to be fed spiritually. At times, the “platform” for the Watchtower Study conductor was unique. While conducting and reading The Watchtower, a brother would sit under a table that was covered with a tablecloth reaching to the floor. The “audience” would sit around the table, listening attentively and giving their comments. No one would suspect that the people around the table were enjoying a religious meeting!
Witnessing in the Courts
Mykhailo Dan, mentioned earlier, was arrested at the end of 1948. At that time he was married and had a one-year-old son, and his wife was expecting another child. During the trial, the public prosecutor demanded a sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment. In his last statement addressed to the judges, Brother Dan used the words of Jeremiah 26:14, 15: “Here I am in your hand. Do to me according to what is good and according to what is right in your eyes. Only you should by all means know that, if you are putting me to death, it is innocent blood that you are putting upon yourselves and upon this city and upon her inhabitants, for in truth Jehovah did send me to you to speak in your ears all these words.” Such a warning had an effect on the judges. They took counsel and made their decision: ten years of imprisonment and five years of exile to remote territories of Russia.
Brother Dan was convicted as a betrayer of the motherland. When he learned this, he said to the judges: “I was born in Ukraine under the Czechoslovakian government and later lived under the rule of Hungary; now the Soviet Union has come into our territory, and I am Romanian by nationality. Which motherland did I betray?” Of course, this question was left unanswered. After the trial, Brother Dan received the happy news that he had a new baby daughter. This helped him to endure all the indignities of prisons and camps in eastern Russia. In the late 1940’s, many of the brothers from Ukraine, Moldavia, and Belarus starved to death in Soviet prisons. Brother Dan himself lost 50 pounds [25 kg].
Persecution of Sisters in Ukraine
Not only were brothers persecuted and sentenced to serve long terms by the Soviet regime; sisters were treated in the same brutal manner. For example, Mariya Tomilko learned the truth in the Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II. Later, she returned to Ukraine and preached in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. Because of her preaching activity, in 1948 she was sentenced to 25 years in a prison camp.
Another sister, who was sentenced to 20 years in a prison camp, recalls: “During the inquest, I was put in one cell with many criminals. Nevertheless, I was not afraid of them and preached to those women. To my surprise, they listened attentively to me. The cell was crowded with people. We all slept on the floor, as close as sardines in a can. During our sleep, the only way we could roll over was all together at the same time and on command.”
In 1949 a Baptist leader in the city of Zaporozh’ye provided local security services with information against five of our sisters, who were then arrested. They were accused of anti-Soviet agitation and were each sentenced to 25 years in prison camps. All their property was confiscated. For seven years until amnesty was granted, they served their terms deep in northern Russia. Lydia Kurdas, one of those sisters, recalls: “We were permitted to write home only two letters per year, and these letters were thoroughly censored. During all that time, we had no literature.” Yet, they remained faithful to Jehovah and continued to preach the Kingdom good news.
Help for the Brothers in Moldavia
Even in such hard times, Witnesses showed love for one another. In 1947 the neighboring country of Moldavia (now Moldova) experienced a severe famine. Despite their own poverty, brothers from Ukraine immediately responded to the need of their Moldavian fellow believers and sent them flour. Witnesses from western Ukraine invited a number of Witnesses from Moldavia to stay in their homes.
A brother who lived in Moldavia at that time recalls: “As an orphan I was supposed to receive from the government seven ounces [200 g] of bread each day. But because I didn’t belong to the Pioneer League, I didn’t receive it. We were very happy when the brothers from western Ukraine sent us flour, allowing each publisher to get nine pounds [4 kg].”
Attempting Legal Registration in the U.S.S.R.
In 1949, three elders from the Volyn’ area (Mykola Pyatokha, Ilya Babijchuk, and Mykhailo Chumak) applied for legal registration of our work. Soon thereafter, Brother Chumak was arrested. One of the two remaining brothers, Mykola Pyatokha, recalls that when the application was sent the first time, there was no answer. Therefore, a second application was submitted to Moscow. The documents were transferred to Kiev. Officials there granted the brothers an audience and told them that registration was possible only if Jehovah’s Witnesses would cooperate with them. The brothers, of course, did not agree to compromise their neutral position. Soon these two brothers also were arrested, and each was sentenced to 25 years in prison camps.
In a special memo sent from Moscow to the local authorities in Volyn’, it was stated that the religious “cult” of Jehovah’s Witnesses is “a pronounced anti-Soviet movement and is not subject to registration.” The chief of the local Religious Affairs Office was ordered to spy on Jehovah’s Witnesses and to report to the State security services.
Religious Leaders Cooperate With Authorities
In 1949 a Baptist leader in Transcarpathia appealed to the authorities, complaining that the Witnesses were converting his people. As a result, Mykhailo Tilniak, an elder in the local congregation, was arrested and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. His wife was left at home with two small children.
Such actions by religious leaders helped sincere people to understand and appreciate the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1950 a young Baptist girl, Vasylyna Biben from Transcarpathia, learned that the clergyman of her church had informed the authorities about the activity of two Witnesses in her community. The Witnesses were arrested and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. After their release, they returned home, yet showed no animosity toward the clergyman. Vasylyna understood that these Witnesses really did love their neighbors. Impressed, she studied the Bible with the Witnesses and was baptized. She says: “I am thankful to Jehovah that I found the way that leads to eternal life.”
Exile to Russia
The Bible truths proclaimed by Jehovah’s Witnesses were incompatible with the atheistic ideology of Communist rule. Being well organized, the Witnesses secretly printed and distributed literature that promoted God’s Kingdom. Additionally, they were spreading Bible teachings among neighbors and relatives. From 1947 to 1950, authorities arrested more than 1,000 Witnesses. Nevertheless, the brothers continued to increase in number. Therefore, in 1951 the authorities secretly prepared a plan that they thought would crush God’s people. They would exile the remaining Witnesses 3,000 miles [5,000 km] eastward, far into Russian Siberia.
On April 8, 1951, more than 6,100 Witnesses were exiled from western Ukraine to Siberia. Early in the morning, trucks with soldiers arrived at the home of each Witness, giving the family just two hours to pack their belongings for the journey. Only valuables and personal effects could be taken. Everyone found at home was exiled—men, women, and children. No one was exempted for being advanced in age or in poor physical condition. Swiftly, in a single day, they were herded into boxcars and sent on their way.
Those not at home at the time were left behind, and the authorities did not look for them. Some of them officially applied to the authorities to be united with their exiled families. The authorities did not reply to such inquiries, nor did they inform them where their relatives had been sent.
Apart from those in Ukraine, Witnesses were exiled from Moldavia, western Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Altogether about 9,500 Witnesses were exiled from these six republics. They were sent out under military escort in boxcars, which people called calf houses, since these boxcars were normally used only to transport cattle.
None of the Witnesses knew where they were being taken. During their long journey, they prayed, sang songs, and helped one another. Some hung cloths out of the boxcars, identifying themselves with the words: “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Volyn’ area” or “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Lvov area.” During stops at the train stations along the way, they could observe similar trains with comparable signs from other areas of western Ukraine. This helped the brothers understand that Witnesses from other areas were also being exiled. Such “telegrams” fortified the brothers during their two-to-three-week train ride to Siberia.
This move was considered to be a permanent exile. The plan was that Jehovah’s Witnesses would never be allowed to leave Siberia. They had to report regularly to local registration offices, though they were not in prison. If anyone did not do so, that person was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment.
Upon their arrival, some were simply unloaded in the forest and given axes to cut trees to provide their own accommodations and means of livelihood. In order to survive the first few winters, the Witnesses often had to dig in the ground to make primitive shelters that they roofed with sod.
Hryhorii Melnyk, now serving as an elder in Crimea, recalls: “After my sister’s arrest in 1947, I was often taken for questioning by authorities. They beat me with wooden sticks. Several times they made me stand next to a wall for 16 hours. All of this was done to force me to give false evidence against my older sister, who was a Witness. I was 16 years old. Because I refused to testify against her, local authorities didn’t like me and wanted to get rid of me.
“Therefore, when the year 1951 came, we were exiled to Siberia, though my two younger brothers, my younger sister, and I were orphans. Our parents had already died, and my older brother and sister were serving ten-year prison terms. At 20 years of age, I was shouldering the responsibility of caring for my two younger brothers and a sister.
“I often recall the first two years in Siberia, when we lived on potatoes and tea. We drank our tea from soup plates, since cups were a luxury at the time. But spiritually I felt very good. During the first days after our arrival, I started to conduct public meetings. Later, we also began the Theocratic Ministry School. It was not easy for me to fulfill such responsibilities because of the exhausting physical work necessary to care for my younger brothers and sister.” In spite of such hardships, the Melnyk family maintained faithfulness to Jehovah and his organization.
Wanting to prevent communication between the Witnesses, who were soon to arrive, and the local people, Siberian authorities spread a rumor that cannibals were coming to Siberia. After one group of Witnesses arrived, they had to wait for a few days for housing allocation in the local villages. Therefore, in the open air, they sat down by the riverbank of the frozen Chulym River. Though it was the middle of April, there was still a lot of snow on the ground. The brothers made a large fire, warmed themselves, sang songs, prayed, and related experiences from their travels. To their surprise, none of the local villagers approached them. Instead, the villagers closed all the doors and windows of their houses, not inviting the Witnesses in. On the third day, the bravest of the villagers, equipped with axes, approached the Witnesses and started conversations. Initially, they really thought that cannibals had arrived! But they soon learned that this was not true.
In 1951 the authorities also planned to exile Witnesses from Transcarpathia. They even brought in empty boxcars. However, the decision to exile the brothers was canceled for some unknown reason. Transcarpathia became one of the main territories where literature for the entire Soviet Union was produced during the ban.
Because the majority of the brothers were exiled to Siberia, many of those who were left behind lost touch with the organization. For example, Mariya Hrechyna from Chernovtsy lived more than six years without contact with the organization or fellow believers. Nevertheless, she continued to rely on Jehovah and remained faithful. From 1951 till the middle of the 1960’s, with the majority of the brothers imprisoned or exiled, it became necessary for sisters to take the lead in many congregations.
Michael Dasevich, an eyewitness of those events, recalls: “Exile to Siberia did not directly affect me because when the lists of those to be exiled were prepared, I was still in Russia, serving a prison term. Shortly after I returned to Ukraine, most Witnesses from my area were sent to Siberia. So I had to search for individual Witnesses who had lost contact with the organization and to organize them into book study groups and congregations. It meant that I began to fulfill the responsibilities of a circuit overseer, though there was nobody to assign me to do such work. Each month I would visit all the congregations, collect reports, and distribute from one congregation to another the literature that we still possessed. Often, our sisters carried out the work of congregation servants, and in some areas they fulfilled the responsibilities of circuit servants, since brothers were not available. For security reasons, we held all meetings of congregation servants for our circuit at cemeteries during the night. We knew that people in general had a fear of the dead, so we were sure that no one would come to disturb us. Usually, we conversed in a whisper at such gatherings. One time we whispered too loud, and two men who were passing by the cemetery ran away at top speed. They must have thought that the dead were speaking!”
Following the exile of 1951, Mykola Tsyba, the country servant at that time, continued to work secretly in a bunker, printing Bible literature. In 1952 the security services found out where he was and arrested him, and he spent many years in prison. Brother Tsyba remained faithful until his death in 1978. Besides Brother Tsyba, a number of other brothers who helped him were also arrested.
During that time, the brothers had no contact from abroad. As a result, they were not able to receive the current literature on time. Once, a few brothers were able to obtain a supply of Watchtower magazines in Romanian for the years 1945 to 1949. Local brothers translated them into Ukrainian and Russian.
The Witnesses in Ukraine who had not been exiled or imprisoned showed deep concern for their fellow believers. They made great efforts to compile a list of those who were imprisoned, in order to send them warm clothing, food, and literature. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Transcarpathia kept in touch with brothers in 54 prison camps throughout the entire Soviet Union. Many congregations made an additional contribution box that was designated “For Good Hopes.” The money collected in this box was used to provide for those who were in prison. When warm letters of appreciation along with field service reports were received from prisons and camps, it was a great encouragement to those faithful and self-sacrificing brothers who were at liberty.
After the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, the attitude toward the Witnesses improved. From 1953 amnesty was proclaimed in the U.S.S.R., resulting in the release of some brothers. Later, the State Commission was formed, which reviewed sentences that had been given. As a result, many brothers were released, while others had their prison terms reduced.
Over the next few years, most of the imprisoned Witnesses were released. But the amnesty did not apply to those who had been exiled in 1951. In some prisons and camps, the number of those who had become Jehovah’s Witnesses was larger than the number of Witnesses originally sent there. Such growth encouraged the brothers and convinced them that Jehovah had indeed blessed them for their firm stand during that period of time.
After being released, many brothers were able to return home. Great effort was made to find the Witnesses who had lost contact with the organization. Volodymyr Volobuyev, who lived in the Donetsk area, recalls: “Up until my next arrest in 1958, I was able to locate and help approximately 160 Witnesses who had been separated from the organization.”
The proclamation of amnesty did not mean that the brothers received more freedom to preach. Many brothers and sisters were freed but were soon sentenced again to long prison terms. For example, Mariya Tomilko from Dnepropetrovsk served only 8 years of her 25-year imprisonment because of the amnesty in March 1955. However, three years later she was sentenced again to ten years of imprisonment and five years of exile. Why? Her court sentence read: “She kept and read literature and handwritten manuscripts of Jehovistic matter” and “carried out an active work, spreading Jehovistic beliefs among her neighbors.” Seven years later she was released as a physically disabled person. Sister Tomilko endured all kinds of trials and has remained faithful to this day.
Love Never Fails
The authorities put forth special effort to separate families of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Often the security services endeavored to confront Witnesses with this choice: God or family. In most cases, however, Jehovah’s people proved their loyalty to Jehovah despite even the most severe trials.
Hanna Bokoch from Transcarpathia, whose husband, Nutsu, was arrested because of his zealous preaching, recalls: “During his stay in prison, my husband endured numerous malicious insults. He spent six months in solitary confinement, without any bed, having only one chair. He was brutally beaten and deprived of food. In a few months, he grew very thin and weighed only 80 pounds [36 kg], half of his normal weight.”
His faithful wife was left alone with their young daughter. The authorities pressured Brother Bokoch to compromise his faith and cooperate with them. He was asked to choose between his family and death. Brother Bokoch did not betray his beliefs and remained faithful to Jehovah and His organization. He spent 11 years in prisons, and after his release, he continued to carry out his Christian activity as an elder and later as a circuit overseer till his death in 1988. He often derived strength from the words of Psalm 91:2: “I will say to Jehovah: ‘You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God, in whom I will trust.’”
Consider another example of great endurance. Yurii Popsha was a traveling overseer in Transcarpathia. Ten days after his wedding, he was arrested. Instead of going on his honeymoon, he spent ten years in prison in Mordvinia, Russia. His faithful wife, Mariya, visited him 14 times, each time traveling approximately 900 miles [1,500 km] each way. Presently, Brother Popsha serves as an elder in one of the local congregations in Transcarpathia, and his beloved Mariya faithfully and lovingly supports him.
Yet another example of endurance under hardship is that of a married couple, Oleksii and Lydia Kurdas, who lived in the city of Zaporozh’ye. In March 1958 they were arrested, 17 days after the birth of their daughter, Halyna. Fourteen others were also arrested in the area. Brother Kurdas was sentenced to 25 years in prison camps, and his wife was sentenced to 10 years. They were separated—Oleksii was sent to camps in Mordvinia, and Lydia, with their little daughter, to Siberia.
Here is how Sister Kurdas describes the three-week journey from Ukraine to Siberia: “It was terrible. There were my daughter and me; Nadiya Vyshniak, with her baby who had been born just a few days before in prison during the inquest; and two other sisters. All six of us were put in a boxcar cell designed to transport only two prisoners. We laid our children in the bottom berth, and we sat crouched in the upper berth for the whole journey. We lived on bread, salted herring, and water. Food was provided only for four adult prisoners. We did not get any food for our children.
“When we arrived at our destination, I was placed in the prison hospital with my baby. I met several sisters there and told them that the investigator had threatened to take my daughter away and send her to an orphanage. Somehow, the sisters managed to inform the local brothers in Siberia about my plight. Later, Tamara Buriak (now Ravliuk), who was 18 years old, came to the camp hospital to take my daughter, Halyna. It was the first time that I saw Tamara. It was very painful to give away my beloved little girl to a person whom I had never met before, even though she was my spiritual sister. However, I was greatly comforted when sisters in the camp told me about the loyalty of the Buriak family. My baby daughter was five months and 18 days old when I gave her into Tamara’s care. It was not until seven years later that I was reunited with my daughter!
“In 1959 a new amnesty was proclaimed by the U.S.S.R. It applied to women who had children under seven years of age. But the prison authorities told me that I had to renounce my faith first. I did not agree to this and thus had to remain in the prison camp.”
Brother Kurdas was released in 1968, at 43 years of age. Altogether, he served 15 years in prison for the truth, including 8 years in a special closed prison. Finally, he returned to Ukraine, to his wife and daughter. Their family was reunited at last. Meeting her father, Halyna sat on his lap and said: “Daddy! I couldn’t sit on your lap for many years, so now I will make up for lost time.”
Afterward, the Kurdas family moved from one place to another, since the authorities kept expelling them from their place of dwelling. First they lived in eastern Ukraine, then in western Georgia, and in Ciscaucasia. Eventually, they moved to Kharkov, where they still happily live. Halyna is now married. All of them faithfully continue to serve their God, Jehovah.
A Lofty Example of Faith
At times, severe tests of faith continued for months, years, and even decades. Consider one example. Yurii Kopos was born and grew up not far from the beautiful Transcarpathian town of Khust. In 1938, at the age of 25, he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1940, during World War II, he was sentenced to eight months of imprisonment because of his refusal to join a Hungarian army that supported the Nazi regime. In Transcarpathia, the local laws of that time did not allow execution of prisoners of faith. The brothers, therefore, were sent to the front lines where Nazi law allowed such executions. In 1942, Brother Kopos was sent under military escort with other prisoners including 21 other Witnesses to the front lines near Stalingrad, Russia. They were sent there to be executed. Shortly after their arrival, however, the Soviet army began to attack, capturing the German military troops and also the brothers. The Witnesses were sent to a Soviet prison camp, where they remained until 1946 when they were released.
Brother Kopos returned home, taking an active part in the preaching work in his home territory. Because of this activity, in 1950 the Soviet authorities sentenced him to 25 years in a prison camp. Under an amnesty, however, he was released after six years.
Following his release, Brother Kopos, now 44 years old, planned to marry Hanna Shyshko. She too was a Witness and had been recently released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence. They submitted an application for the registration of their marriage. On the night before their wedding day, they were again arrested and sentenced to ten years of camp imprisonment. However, they survived all these hardships, and their love endured all things, including a ten-year delay in their marriage. (1 Cor. 13:7) Finally, after their release in 1967, they were married.
That is not the end of their story. In 1973, Brother Kopos, now 60 years of age, was arrested once again and sentenced to five years of camp imprisonment and five years of exile. He served his term of exile together with his wife, Hanna, in Siberia, 3,000 miles [5,000 km] from his hometown of Khust. There was no communication with that area by motor or railway, only by air. In 1983, Brother Kopos together with his wife returned home to Khust. Hanna died in 1989, and he faithfully continued to serve Jehovah till his death in 1997. Altogether, Brother Kopos served 27 years in various prisons and 5 years in exile—a total of 32 years.
This modest and meek man spent almost a third of the century in Soviet prisons and labor camps. Such an extraordinary example of faith clearly shows that enemies cannot destroy the integrity of God’s loyal servants.
Mankind’s enemy, Satan the Devil, uses many methods to fight against those who practice true worship. Besides bringing physical abuse, he tries to promote doubts and cause dissension among the brothers. This is especially evident in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine.
During the 1950’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses were harassed relentlessly. The authorities constantly searched to find locations where the literature was being printed. Responsible brothers were continually arrested. Because of this, the brothers who took the lead in overseeing the work were replaced time and again, even as often as every few months.
Having seen that Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be silenced by exile, imprisonment, physical violence, and torture, the security services employed new tactics. They attempted to split the organization from within by sowing seeds of distrust among the brothers.
During the mid-1950’s, the security services discontinued immediate arrests of all active and responsible brothers and began to spy on them. These brothers were regularly called to the offices of the security services. They were told that they would receive money and enjoy a good career if they cooperated. Refusal to cooperate would lead to imprisonment and humiliation. A few, lacking faith in God, compromised on account of fear or greed. They remained in the ranks of the organization, informing the security services about the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Also, they obediently carried out instructions from the authorities, causing innocent brothers to appear as traitors in the eyes of other faithful brothers. All of this promoted a spirit of distrust among many of the brothers.
Pavlo Ziatek suffered greatly because of such distrust and groundless suspicions. This humble and zealous brother spent many years in prison camps and devoted his entire life to Jehovah’s service.
During the mid-1940’s, Brother Ziatek served as country servant. Arrested, he spent ten years in a prison in western Ukraine. In 1956 he was released, and in 1957 he resumed his work as country servant. The country committee included eight brothers besides Brother Ziatek: four from Siberia and four from Ukraine. These brothers had oversight of the Kingdom-preaching work in the entire U.S.S.R.
Because of the vast distances involved and the constant persecution, these brothers could not maintain good communication or have regular meetings. In time, rumors and gossip spread about Brother Ziatek and the other committee members. It was said that Brother Ziatek was cooperating with the security services, that he had built a big house for himself using funds that should have been used to promote the witnessing work, and that he was seen in a military uniform. Such reports were collected into a scrapbook and sent to district and circuit overseers in Siberia. None of these accusations were true.
Finally, in March 1959 some circuit overseers from Siberia stopped sending their field service reports to the country committee. Those who separated themselves did so without consulting headquarters. Also, they did not follow the direction of local brothers appointed to give oversight. This caused a separation in the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S.S.R. for some years.
The separated brothers persuaded other circuit overseers to take a similar position. As a result, monthly field service reports of some circuits were sent to the brothers who had separated themselves rather than to the appointed country committee. Most of the brothers in the congregations did not know that their field service reports had not reached the country committee, so the activity of the congregations was not affected. Brother Ziatek made several trips to Siberia, after which several circuits resumed sending their field service reports to the country committee.
Return to Theocratic Organization
On January 1, 1961, while returning from a service trip to Siberia, Brother Ziatek was arrested on the train. He was again sentenced to a ten-year prison term, this time in a “special” prison camp in Mordvinia, Russia. Why was that camp so “special”?
Serving their terms of imprisonment in different prison camps provided the brothers an opportunity to preach to other prisoners, and many became Witnesses. This disturbed the authorities. Consequently, they decided to collect leading Witnesses into one camp so that they could not preach to others. Toward the end of the 1950’s, more than 400 brothers and about 100 sisters were gathered out of different prison camps in the U.S.S.R. and put into two prison camps in Mordvinia. Among the prisoners were brothers from the country committee along with circuit and district overseers who had separated themselves from Jehovah’s channel of communication. When those brothers saw that Brother Ziatek was also imprisoned, they realized that there was little basis to believe that he had been cooperating with the security services.
Meanwhile, in view of Brother Ziatek’s arrest, arrangements had already been made for Ivan Pashkovskyi to take over the work of country servant. In the middle of 1961, Brother Pashkovskyi met with responsible brothers from Poland and explained that there were divisions among the brothers in the U.S.S.R. He asked if Nathan H. Knorr from headquarters in Brooklyn would write a letter showing that there was support for Brother Ziatek. Later, in 1962, Brother Pashkovskyi received a copy of the letter to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S.S.R., dated May 18, 1962. It stated: “Communications reaching me from time to time have indicated that you brothers in the U.S.S.R. continue to maintain your strong desire to be faithful servants of Jehovah God. But some of you have had problems in trying to maintain unity with your brothers. I believe this is because of poor communication facilities and the deliberate circulation of false stories by some who are opposed to Jehovah God. Therefore I write to let you know that the Society recognizes Brother Pavlo Ziatek and the brothers working with him as the responsible Christian overseers in the U.S.S.R. Both compromises and extreme views should be rejected. We must be of a sound mind, reasonable, adaptable and also firm on God’s principles.”
That letter along with the fact that Brother Ziatek was sentenced to ten years in prison helped to unify Jehovah’s people in the U.S.S.R. Many separated brothers in prisons and prison camps began to reunite with the organization. They understood that Brother Ziatek had not betrayed the organization and that headquarters fully supported him. When writing to their families and friends, these imprisoned brothers encouraged the elders of their local congregations to contact the brothers who remained faithful and to start reporting their field service activity. Within the next decade, the majority of the separated brothers followed this advice, though as we will see, reaching the goal of unification remained a challenge.
Remaining Loyal in Prison Camps
Life in prison camps was hard. Yet, imprisoned Witnesses often fared better than other prisoners because of their spirituality. They had literature, and they communicated with mature fellow believers. All of this contributed to good spirits and spiritual growth. In one prison camp, the sisters buried some literature in the ground so skillfully that no one could find it. Once, an inspector said that in order to clear all “anti-Soviet literature” out of the territory, they would need to dig up the grounds around their prison two yards [2 m] deep and sift the soil! Imprisoned sisters studied the magazines so thoroughly that even now, 50 years later, some of them can still recite portions from those Watchtowers.
The brothers and sisters kept their loyalty to Jehovah and did not compromise Bible principles, despite difficult times. Mariya Hrechyna, who spent five years in prison camps because of her preaching activity, relates the following: “When we received The Watchtower with the article ‘Innocence by Respect for Sacredness of Blood,’ we decided not to have lunch in the dining room of the prison camp when meat was served. Often, meat used in those camps had not been properly bled. When the warden of our prison found out why the Witnesses did not eat certain lunches, he decided to force us to deviate from our principles. He commanded that meat be served each day for breakfast, lunch, and supper. For two weeks we did not eat anything except bread. We relied fully on Jehovah, knowing that he sees everything and knows how long we are able to endure. By the end of the second week of such ‘nutrition,’ the warden changed his mind and began to serve us vegetables, milk, and even some butter. We saw that Jehovah really cares for us.”
Help to Endure
Compared with other prisoners, the brothers maintained a very positive and confident outlook on life. This enabled them to endure the miseries of Soviet prisons.
Brother Oleksii Kurdas, who spent many years in prisons, relates: “What helped me endure was deep faith in Jehovah and his Kingdom, sharing in theocratic activity in prison, and regular prayer. Another thing that helped me was my conviction that I was acting in a way that pleased Jehovah. I also kept myself occupied. Boredom is a horror of all prisons. It can destroy your personality and cause mental illness. Therefore, I endeavored to keep myself busy with theocratic matters. Also, I ordered any available books about world history, geography, and biology from the prison library. I looked for portions that supported my views on life. In this way I could strengthen my faith.”
In 1962, Serhii Ravliuk spent three months in solitary confinement. He could not talk to anybody, not even to the prison guards. In order to keep his sanity, he began to recall all the scriptures he knew. He remembered more than a thousand Bible verses and wrote them down on pieces of paper with a pencil lead. He kept the pencil lead hidden in a groove in the floor. He also recalled more than 100 article titles from Watchtower magazines that he had previously studied. He made calculations of the Memorial dates for the next 20 years. All of this helped him to persevere not only mentally but also spiritually. It kept his faith in Jehovah alive and strong.
“Services” of Prison Guards
Despite opposition by the security services, our literature passed through all barriers, reaching even the brothers in prison. Prison guards realized this too and from time to time would conduct a thorough search of all cells, literally peering into every crack. Also, in an attempt to find literature, guards would regularly move prisoners from one cell to another. During such moves, prisoners were thoroughly searched, and if literature was found, it was confiscated. How were the brothers able to prevent the literature from being discovered?
Usually, the brothers hid the literature in pillows, mattresses, shoes, and under clothing. In some camps they copied the Watchtower magazines in minute handwriting. When prisoners were moved from one cell to another, the brothers sometimes covered a miniature magazine in plastic and hid it under their tongue. Thus they were able to preserve their scanty spiritual food and continued to be fed spiritually.
Vasyl Bunha spent many years in prisons for the sake of the truth. Together with his cell mate, Petro Tokar, he made a false bottom in a carpenter’s toolbox. In it, they hid original copies of some publications that were smuggled into prison. These brothers were prison carpenters, and the toolbox was given to them when they did carpentry work inside the prison. When they checked out the box, they would remove the original magazine for copying. After the day’s work, the magazine was put back in the toolbox. The prison warden kept the toolbox under three locks and behind two locked doors, since saws, chisels, and other carpenter’s tools could be used as weapons by prisoners. Consequently, during the searches for Bible literature, the guards did not think to check the locked toolbox, which was kept among the belongings of the prison warden.
Brother Bunha found another place to hide original copies of the literature. Because he had poor eyesight, he owned several pairs of eyeglasses. Each prisoner was allowed to have only one pair at a time. The other eyeglasses had to be stored in a special place, and prisoners could request them if necessary. Brother Bunha made special cases for his eyeglasses and put the original miniature copies of the publications in them. When brothers needed to duplicate the magazines, Brother Bunha just asked the prison guards to bring him another pair of his eyeglasses.
There were situations when it appeared that only the angels could protect the literature from the hands of the prison guards. Brother Bunha recalls a time when Cheslav Kazlauskas brought 20 bars of soap into the prison. Half of them were stuffed with our publications. Selectively piercing through ten of the bars of soap, the prison guard did not pierce any of the bars containing literature.
Persistent Work of Unification
From 1963, brothers from the country committee were able to send field service reports to Brooklyn regularly. It was also arranged that the brothers receive the publications on microfilm. At that time, there were 14 circuits in the entire U.S.S.R., and 4 of these were in Ukraine. As God’s people grew in number, seven districts were formed in Ukraine. For security reasons, each district was called by a woman’s name. The district in eastern Ukraine was called Alla; in Volyn’, Ustina; in Halychyna, Lyuba; and in Transcarpathia, there were districts called Katya, Kristina, and Masha.
Meanwhile, the KGB (State Security Committee) continued their attempts to break the unity of the Witnesses. A chief of one KGB office wrote to his superior: “With the aim to intensify the split in the sect, we are working to suppress the hostile activity of Jehovistic leaders, to discredit them in the eyes of their coreligionists, and to create amidst them an atmosphere of distrust. The KGB agencies made arrangements that helped to split this sect into two opposing groups. One group is made up of followers of Jehovistic leader Ziatek, who is presently serving a prison sentence, and the other group consists of adherents of the so-called opposition. These circumstances created favorable conditions and premises for ideological dissension among ordinary members and for further decomposition of organizational units.” The letter then admitted that KGB efforts were encountering difficulty. It continued: “The most reactionary of the Jehovistic leaders are taking steps to counteract our actions, trying in every way possible to consolidate organizational units.” Yes, the brothers continued to carry out the work of unification, and Jehovah blessed their efforts.
The KGB presented to the separated brothers a false letter, supposedly from Brother Knorr, that supported the idea to form a separate, independent organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Citing the instance of the split between Abraham and Lot as an example of permissible separation from the organization’s channel, that letter was distributed throughout the U.S.S.R.
Faithful brothers sent a copy of the letter to Brooklyn, and in 1971 they received an answer exposing the letter to be an outright forgery. In a letter addressed to the brothers who were still separated from the rest of God’s people, Brother Knorr stated the following: “The only line of communication used by the Society is the one through the appointed overseers in your country. No individuals in your country besides those appointed overseers are authorized to take any lead among you . . . Jehovah’s true servants are a united group. I therefore do hope and pray that all of you may return to the unity of the Christian congregation under the appointed overseers and that we may be able to have a united share in giving the witness.”
This letter did much to unify the brothers. Nevertheless, some were still trying to establish contact with headquarters independently, since they still did not trust the existing channel of communication. So these separated brothers decided to make a test. They sent a ten-ruble note to Brooklyn and asked the brothers to cut it in two and to send both parts back to Ukraine: one half of the note to the separated brothers by mail and the other half to the channel that was to be used by headquarters.
Accordingly, one half was sent by mail. The second half was taken by courier and given to the country committee members. They, in turn, gave it to the local responsible brothers in Transcarpathia who went to meet with the separated brothers. However, some of the separated brothers who really thought that the members of the country committee were in league with the security services remained distrustful.
Nevertheless, most of the separated brothers returned to the organization. The efforts of Satan and the KGB to annihilate the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S.S.R. by dissension were unsuccessful. Jehovah’s people grew in number and in strength, diligently carrying out the work of unification and of sowing seeds of truth in new territories.
Vasyl Kalin said: “They used many methods to try to suppress our desire to lead a Christian life. Yet, we continued to preach to fellow exiles who were unbelievers. They were exiled for various reasons and for various crimes. Many showed interest in our message. There were quite a few situations where these people eventually became Jehovah’s Witnesses. They did this despite their knowing the persecution that was being dealt out to us by both the State security and the local administration.”
Christian Life Under Ban
Let us now consider a brief overview of what Christian activity was like during the early decades of the ban. The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in all of Ukraine from 1939. Nevertheless, preaching and congregation activities moved forward, even though the brothers had to be very cautious in witnessing to others. Interested ones were never told at the outset that it was Jehovah’s Witnesses who were calling on them. Often home Bible studies were conducted using only the Bible. Many people learned the truth in this way.
Congregation meetings were held under similar circumstances. In many places, the brothers gathered several times a week in the late evening or well into the night. They curtained their windows with heavy cloth in order to avoid detection and studied by kerosene lamp. As a rule, each congregation received only one copy of The Watchtower, which was written out by hand. Later, brothers began to receive magazines printed on duplicating machines. Usually, brothers would gather twice a week in private apartments for the Watchtower Study. The KGB was unrelenting in their determination to locate meeting places of Jehovah’s Witnesses so that they could punish the responsible brothers.
The brothers also used weddings and funerals as opportunities to gather and to encourage one another with well-prepared Bible talks. At weddings, many young brothers and sisters would read poems on Bible subjects and perform full-costume Bible dramas. All of this gave a good witness to the many non-Witnesses who were in attendance.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many of the brothers were arrested and imprisoned just for being present at such meetings. However, in the 1960’s, the situation changed. When a meeting was discovered, the security services usually made a list of all present at the meeting, and the owner of the house was fined half a month’s wages. At times, this policy was carried out to the point of absurdity. Once, Mykola Kostiuk and his wife went to visit their son. Immediately, the police arrived and made a list of “all who were present.” Later, Brother Kostiuk’s son was called on to pay a fine because of an “illegal meeting of Jehovists.” The Kostiuk family lodged a complaint about this incident, since no meeting had been held. The authorities canceled the fine.
Coping with persistent difficulties was not easy. Nevertheless, the brothers were not discouraged and continued to meet regularly. Holding the Memorial was the most challenging. The KGB was especially watchful at Memorial time, since they always knew the approximate date of the celebration. They hoped that if they kept an eye on the Witnesses, they would discover the meeting places for the Memorial. Then the security services would be able to “get acquainted” with new Witnesses.
The brothers knew those tactics, so they were extremely cautious on the day of the Memorial. They held the observance in places difficult to find. Interested ones were not told in advance the date and place of the Memorial. Usually, Witnesses would go to the homes of interested ones on the day of the Memorial and take them straight to the meeting place.
Once, the brothers in Transcarpathia held the Memorial in the basement of a sister’s home. Since the basement was flooded, no one expected that people would gather there in the knee-deep water. The brothers built a platform raised above the water and made the basement presentable for the Memorial. Though they had to sit crouched on the platform under a low ceiling, nobody disturbed them as they joyfully observed the Memorial.
On another occasion, during the 1980’s, members of one Christian family left their home early in the morning to attend the Memorial. Toward evening they gathered in a forest with other brothers for the Memorial celebration. It was pouring rain, and all the brothers and sisters had to gather in a circle under umbrellas, holding candles for light. After a closing prayer, everybody departed. On arriving home, the family found the gates of their courtyard open. It was clear that the police or the security services had been looking for them. Though they were tired and wet, all in the family were happy that they had left their home in the morning and attended the Memorial, avoiding confrontation with the authorities.
In Kiev it was extremely difficult for the brothers to find a secure place for the Memorial. One year they decided to observe the Memorial on wheels. One brother worked as a bus driver for a transportation company, so the brothers rented a bus. The bus picked up only Jehovah’s Witnesses and then went outside the city to a forest glade. Inside the bus, the brothers and sisters set up a small table with the Memorial emblems. They had also brought along some food. Suddenly, the police appeared on the scene. However, they had no reason to disturb the brothers, since they just seemed to be having supper in the bus after a day of work.
In other areas of Ukraine, raids were made on brothers’ homes on the day of the Memorial. As soon as the sun set, cars with three or four policemen approached the homes where Witnesses lived. The police would check to see if the brothers were at home or were getting ready for a religious celebration. The Witnesses were always prepared for these raids. They would put on old work clothes over their dress clothes and occupy themselves with the usual home tasks. In this way they gave the impression that they were staying at home and not planning to go to any religious celebration. As soon as the raid was over, they took off the old clothes and were ready to go to the Memorial. The local authorities were satisfied that they had done their job, and the brothers were able to observe the Memorial in peace.
Recall that at the end of the 1940’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment just for having literature in their homes. After Stalin’s death in 1953, prison sentences for possessing literature were reduced to ten years. Later, possession of Witness literature was punished with fines, and the literature was confiscated and destroyed. So throughout the period of ban, the brothers carefully considered how to store literature safely.
Some kept literature in the homes of their non-Witness relatives or neighbors; others buried it in metal tanks and inside plastic bags in their gardens. Vasyl Guzo, an elder from Transcarpathia, recalls that in the 1960’s he used a forest in the Carpathian Mountains as a “theocratic library.” He put his literature into milk cans that he took into the forest and buried so that the lids were level with the ground.
A brother who spent 16 years in prisons for his Christian activity relates: “We hid literature wherever possible: in bunkers, in the ground, in the walls of buildings, in double-bottomed boxes, and in kennels that had double floors. We also hid literature in brooms and in hollow rolling pins (where we usually kept field service reports). There were other hiding places too—wells, toilets, doors, roofs, and piles of chopped firewood.”
Despite the watchful eye of both Communist spies and the authorities, spiritual food continued to be provided for those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Enemies of the truth were unsuccessful in keeping our literature out of the U.S.S.R. and had to admit it. At the end of 1959, the Soviet railway workers’ newspaper Gudok even claimed that Jehovah’s Witnesses were using balloons to get Bible literature into the Soviet Union!
Of course, our literature did not enter Ukraine by balloon. It was reproduced locally in private houses. In time, the brothers learned that the most practical and secure place for printing literature was a well-disguised bunker. They built these in basements and in the hills.
In the 1960’s, one such bunker was constructed in eastern Ukraine. It was equipped with ventilation and electricity. The entrance of the bunker was so well concealed that policemen once spent a whole day right on top of the bunker poking the ground with metal rods. They found nothing.
One time a secret printery was under strict surveillance by the security services. They suspected that literature was being printed in the house, and they wanted to catch those involved. This presented a problem for the brothers. How could they bring paper into the house, and how could they take literature out? Finally, they found a solution. A brother wrapped batches of paper in a baby blanket and carried it like a baby into the house. Once inside, he left the paper there, wrapped newly printed issues of our magazines in the blanket, and took this “baby” out of the house. The KGB workers observed the brother coming and going but did not suspect anything.
Brothers in the Donetsk area, Crimea, Moscow, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) received literature printed in this bunker. A few young brothers built a similar bunker in the town of Novovolynsk, in the Volyn’ region. These brothers were so determined to keep the location of this bunker secret that only after our work in Ukraine had been legalized for nine years did they allow other brothers to see it!
A similar printery also functioned deep in the Carpathian Mountains. The brothers piped water from a tiny brook into the bunker, and the water turned a small generator, which provided electricity for light, though the press was turned by hand. A great deal of literature was printed in this bunker. When the KGB noticed that more literature was appearing in the area, they searched for the printery. The police dug extensively to find the bunker. They even disguised themselves as geologists and wandered through the mountains.
When the brothers suspected that the authorities were close to locating the bunker, Ivan Dziabko volunteered to oversee the printery, since he was not married and if he was arrested, no children would be deprived of a father. At the end of the summer of 1963, the bunker was discovered and Brother Dziabko was immediately executed nearby. The local authorities were delighted and conducted free tours for adults and children in “the place where Jehovah’s Witnesses were communicating with America by radio transmitter.” Though that claim was a lie, this sad incident gave a witness to all the people in that area. Many began to take a greater interest in our message. Presently, there are more than 20 congregations in that part of the Carpathian Mountains.
The Value of Parental Training
In addition to the confiscation of literature, fines, imprisonment, torture, and execution, some Witnesses had the heartrending experience of having their children taken from them. Lydia Perepiolkina, who lived in eastern Ukraine, had four children. Her husband, an officer of the interior forces, filed for divorce in 1964 because Lydia was a Witness. The court decided to deprive Sister Perepiolkina of custody of her children. Her seven-year-old twins—a boy and a girl—were given to her husband, who moved with them 600 miles [1,000 km] away to western Ukraine. The court ruled that the other two children be sent to an orphanage. When Lydia was allowed to make a statement, she told the court: “I believe that Jehovah has the power to give my children back to me.”
After the trial Lydia discerned Jehovah’s guidance and care. For some unknown reason, the authorities did not send the remaining two children to the orphanage but allowed them to stay with her. For seven consecutive years during her vacation, Lydia traveled to visit her other two children, the twins. Though her former husband would not allow Lydia to see them, she did not give up. After arriving in the city where her children lived, she would spend the night at the train station and then meet her children on their way to school. She used these precious opportunities to tell them about Jehovah.
The years passed by, and Lydia loyally ‘sowed seed with tears’ in the hearts of her children. Later she was able to ‘reap with a joyful cry.’ (Ps. 126:5) When the twins were 14 years old, they chose to be with their mother. Lydia worked hard to teach her children the truth. While two of them have chosen a different course, Lydia and her twins are loyally serving Jehovah.
A Change for the Better
In June 1965 the Supreme Court of Ukraine ruled that the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses was of a religious nature and not anti-Soviet. While that decision applied to only one court case, it influenced future court decisions in all of Ukraine. The authorities stopped arresting people for reading Bible literature, though they continued to imprison Witnesses for their preaching activity.
Another significant change took place in the latter part of 1965. The government of the U.S.S.R. issued a decree releasing all Witnesses that had been exiled to Siberia in 1951. Now they were allowed to travel freely throughout the entire Soviet Union, though they could not demand the return of their confiscated houses, cattle, and other possessions. On account of complications regarding registration, only a few could return to their former places of residence.
Many brothers who had been sent to Siberia in 1951 began to settle in different parts of the U.S.S.R., such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Ciscaucasia. Others settled in eastern and southern Ukraine, bringing seeds of truth to these areas.
Steadfast Despite Pressure
While the above-mentioned changes were for the better, the KGB had not changed its attitude toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. The KGB employed a variety of techniques in an attempt to bully the Witnesses into renouncing their faith. For example, one practice was to take a brother from his place of work and detain him for a few days in a KGB office or a hotel. During the detention, a team of three or four KGB members would lecture, interrogate, cajole, and threaten the brother. They would do this in shifts so that the brother would be deprived of sleep. Afterward, the brother would be released, only to be detained again for the same treatment a day or two later. The KGB did this to sisters as well, though less frequently.
Brothers were repeatedly called into the KGB offices. Pressuring the brothers to give up their faith, the security services hoped to cultivate new collaborators inside the organization. In addition, they put moral and emotional pressure upon the brothers when they did not agree to compromise their faith. For example, Mykhailo Tilniak, who served for many years as a circuit overseer in Transcarpathia, recalls: “During one conversation, the security officers who were dressed in military uniforms were very benevolent and positive. They invited me to have a meal with them in a nearby restaurant. But I just smiled at them, put 50 rubles (approximately half a month’s wages) on the table, and said that they could go to eat without me.” Brother Tilniak was fully aware that they would surely take a picture of him while he was eating and drinking with people in military uniforms. Such pictures could later be used as “evidence” that he had compromised his faith. This would sow seeds of distrust among the brothers.
For many, there were decades of pressure to renounce their faith. Bela Meysar from Transcarpathia is an example. Arrested for the first time in 1956, this inexperienced young brother unwittingly signed certain statements concerning our work, which resulted in some brothers’ being called to the security services. Later, Brother Meysar understood his error and begged Jehovah that not one of those brothers be sentenced. It worked out that they were not arrested, though Brother Meysar himself was sentenced to eight years in prison.
After returning home he was denied the right to leave his village for two years. Each Monday he had to report to the police office for registration. Because he refused to go for military training in 1968, he was sentenced to one year in prison. Following his imprisonment, he returned home and continued serving Jehovah zealously. In 1975, at the age of 47, he was again sentenced.
When Brother Meysar finished serving a five-year term of imprisonment, he was sent to the Yakutsk area of Russia for five years of exile. He was transported there by airplane, since there were no roads to that region. During the flight, the young soldiers who were assigned to escort him asked: “Old man, why are you such a dangerous criminal?” In reply, Brother Meysar explained his way of life and gave them a good witness regarding God’s purpose for the earth.
Initially, after Brother Meysar’s arrival, the local authorities were afraid of this “especially dangerous criminal,” as he had been described in his documents. Later, because of Brother Meysar’s fine Christian conduct, the local authorities told the security officer: “If you have any more of such criminals, please send them to us.”
Brother Meysar returned home in 1985 at the age of 57. During his 21 years in prison, his faithful wife, Regina, lived at their home in Transcarpathia. Despite the long distance and the considerable expense involved, she often visited her husband in prison, traveling a total of more than 85,000 miles [140,000 km] to do so.
Even after his release, Brother Meysar had many visits by policemen and security officers at his home in the village of Rakoshyno. Those visits led to a humorous situation. In the early 1990’s, Theodore Jaracz of the Governing Body together with brothers from the country committee visited the Transcarpathian city of Uzhgorod. On the way back to Lvov, they decided to pay a short visit to Brother Meysar. A sister who lived nearby saw three cars drive up to Brother Meysar’s modest house and nine men get out. This frightened her so much that she ran to another brother and breathlessly reported that the KGB had come to arrest Brother Meysar again! How happy she was to learn that she was mistaken!
Organizational Improvements and Changes
In 1971, Michael Dasevich was appointed country servant. The country committee at that time included three brothers from western Ukraine, two from Russia, and one from Kazakhstan. Each of them also served as a traveling overseer. In addition, they each had a secular job in order to provide for their families. The territories under the supervision of the brothers from western Ukraine were quite far from their places of residence. Stepan Kozhemba traveled to Transcarpathia, and Alexei Davidjuk visited the remaining part of western Ukraine as well as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Brother Dasevich traveled to eastern Ukraine, west and central Russia, Ciscaucasia, and Moldavia. Brothers from the country committee regularly visited the above-mentioned territories, holding meetings with circuit and district overseers, encouraging local Witnesses, and collecting service reports.
These brothers also had connections with couriers who came from abroad as tourists, bringing literature and mail. From the late 1960’s until freedom of religion in 1991, our opposers were never able to prevent the exchange of mail.
In 1972 the Governing Body gave direction to make written recommendations in connection with appointing brothers as elders. Some brothers were hesitant to do so, fearing that these lists of recommendations might fall into the hands of the police. Prior to this time, no such list ever existed in any congregation. Often, brothers did not even know the family name of other brothers in their congregation. Initially, few were recommended to serve as elders because many did not want their names on any list. But after the arrangement was established with no negative consequences, others changed their minds, were recommended, and faithfully took on responsibility as elders in the congregations.
Jehovah’s Protection During Searches
One morning, policemen came to search the house of Vasyl and Nadiya Bunha. Sister Bunha was at home with their sleeping four-year-old son when suddenly there was a loud knock at the door. Recognizing that the police had come, Sister Bunha quickly threw into the stove field service reports and other papers related to the witnessing activity. She then opened the door for the police. The policemen rushed to the stove, carefully removed the burned reports, and spread them out on a newspaper on the table. The writing was still discernible on the burned paper. When their search of the house was finished, all the policemen together with Sister Bunha went to the barn to search there. In the meantime, the young son awakened, saw the charred papers on the table, and decided to tidy up. He took all the burned reports and threw them into the garbage can. Then he went back to his cot. When the policemen returned, they were shocked and dismayed to find that their fragile “material evidence” had been completely destroyed!
In 1969 the Bunha’s house was again searched. This time Brother Bunha was at home, and the police found the congregation field service report. However, they carelessly left it on the table, allowing Brother Bunha the opportunity to destroy it. Because he did this, he was sentenced to 15 days of imprisonment. Afterward, the security services forced Brother Bunha to move; thus for some time he lived and preached in Georgia and Dagestan. Later, he returned to Ukraine and remained faithful until his death in 1999.
“Missionary Trips” Organized by the Security Services
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many active brothers were forced by the security services to move from one place to another. Why did this happen? Local authorities did not want to send negative reports to Kiev regarding the results of the antireligious activity in their districts. From their monitoring, local authorities realized that the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses increased each year. In their reports to Kiev, however, they wanted to show that the Witnesses were not increasing. Consequently, the local authorities would force the brothers to leave their territory so that they could report that the Witnesses were not growing in number in their area.
This movement of Witnesses from one territory to another resulted in the spreading of seeds of truth. Usually, these were Witnesses who took the lead in the work. Actually, these zealous brothers and sisters were “encouraged” by the authorities to move where, as we say now, “the need was greater.” They served in these areas, and in time, new congregations were established.
For example, Ivan Malitskyi from the vicinity of Ternopol’ was ordered to leave his home. He moved to Crimea in southern Ukraine, where just a few brothers lived. In 1969 there was only one congregation in Crimea, but now there are more than 60! Ivan Malitskyi continues to serve as an elder in one of them.
Last Years of Ban
In 1982, after a change of political leadership in the U.S.S.R., another wave of persecution swept across Ukraine, lasting for two years. It appears that this persecution was not sanctioned by the leaders of the U.S.S.R. Rather, new Soviet leaders demanded changes and reforms in the republics. To show their zeal and eagerness to make such reforms, the local authorities in some parts of Ukraine imprisoned a few of the prominent Witnesses. Though this wave of persecution did not affect the majority of the brothers, some Witnesses did suffer emotional and physical harm.
In 1983, Ivan Migali from Transcarpathia was sentenced to four years in prison. The Soviet authorities confiscated all the belongings of this 58-year-old elder. During the search of Brother Migali’s house, the security services found 70 of our magazines. This humble and peaceable man was well-known in his community as a Bible preacher. These two facts—his possessing literature and his preaching—were used as grounds to arrest him.
A series of group trials took place in eastern Ukraine during 1983 and 1984. Many Witnesses were imprisoned from four to five years. Most brothers had to serve their terms, not in cold Siberia or Kazakhstan, but in Ukraine. Some were persecuted even in prison when trumped-up charges of violating prison rules were brought against them. The purpose was to find reasons to increase their prison terms.
A number of prison wardens also sent brothers to Soviet mental hospitals, hoping that the Witnesses would become mentally ill and cease worshiping God. But Jehovah’s spirit sustained the brothers, and they remained loyal to Jehovah and his organization.
Triumph of Theocracy
During the second half of the 1980’s, there was some easing of the opposition to pure worship. Local congregations saw increases in publishers, and more literature was available for the brothers. After visiting relatives abroad, some Witnesses brought back magazines and books. For the brothers, especially those who had been in Soviet prison camps, it was their first time to hold an original Bible publication in their hands. Yet, some could not believe that they would live to see the day when an original copy of The Watchtower would pass through the Iron Curtain.
After many years of contending with Jehovah’s Witnesses, the authorities finally began to soften. The brothers were now invited to meet with civil representatives of the local religious affairs offices. Some of these authorities were willing to meet with Jehovah’s Witnesses from world headquarters in Brooklyn. Understandably, at first the brothers suspected a trap. But times were certainly changing for Jehovah’s people. In 1987 the authorities began to release imprisoned Witnesses. Later, a number of the brothers tried to attend the 1988 district convention in neighboring Poland. According to their documents, they were visiting friends and relatives. To their great surprise, they were permitted by the authorities to travel abroad! The Polish brothers generously shared literature with the visitors from Ukraine. On the way home, the brothers from Ukraine were searched at the border, but for the most part, customs officers did not confiscate Bible literature. Thus, the brothers were able to bring Bibles and other publications into the country.
The hospitable Polish brothers invited many more from Ukraine to visit them the following year. So in 1989, thousands discreetly attended three international conventions in Poland and brought more literature back into Ukraine. That same year, according to an agreement with the Religious Affairs Office, Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to receive religious literature from abroad by mail, but only two copies of each publication in one mailing. Brothers from Germany started to send parcels of books and magazines regularly. Instead of making copies of magazines secretly in bunkers or late at night in the basement of their homes, brothers now received the publications officially through their local post offices. It was like a dream! The feelings of many old-timers were similar to those of the Jews after their return to Jerusalem from exile: “We became like those who were dreaming.” (Ps. 126:1) But it was only the beginning of the beautiful “dream.”
Convention in Warsaw
In 1989, brothers from Brooklyn recommended that the country committee start negotiations with authorities to register our public ministry. Moreover, Milton Henschel and Theodore Jaracz from Brooklyn Bethel visited the brothers in Ukraine. The next year, the authorities officially allowed thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses to attend the convention in Poland. When registering their documents for the trip, the brothers declared—proudly and with shining eyes—that they wanted to go to Poland, not to visit their friends and relatives, but to attend the convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
The convention in Warsaw was very special for the visitors from Ukraine. Tears of joy streamed down their cheeks: joy from meeting with fellow Christians, joy from receiving their own four-color copies of the publications in their mother tongue, and joy at having the freedom to meet together. The Polish brothers extended loving hospitality to them, providing them with all their needs.
Many former prisoners of like faith met together for the first time at this convention in Warsaw. More than a hundred from the “special” Mordvinian camp—where hundreds of Witnesses had been imprisoned—met one another there. Many of them just stood looking at one another and weeping for joy. One Witness from Moldavia who had spent five years in a prison cell with Bela Meysar didn’t recognize him. Why? “I remember you in striped clothing, and now you are in a suit and tie!” he exclaimed.
Religious Freedom at Last!
At the end of 1990, judicial institutions started to exonerate some of Jehovah’s Witnesses, restoring to them their rights and privileges. At the same time, the country committee formed a group that represented Jehovah’s Witnesses in their meetings with government authorities. Willi Pohl from the Germany branch had oversight of this group.
Prolonged meetings with State authorities in Moscow and Kiev brought the Witnesses their long-awaited freedom. The religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was officially registered in Ukraine on February 28, 1991, the first such registration in the territory of the U.S.S.R. One month later, on March 27, 1991, this organization was also registered in the Russian Federation. Thus, after more than 50 years of bans and persecution, Jehovah’s Witnesses finally gained religious freedom. Soon thereafter, in late 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Ukraine announced its independence.
Good Soil Produces Abundantly
In 1939 in what is now Ukraine, there were about 1,000 publishers of God’s Kingdom, who sowed seeds of truth in fertile soil—the hearts of people. During the 52 years of ban, the brothers experienced the horrors of World War II, Siberian exile, severe beatings, torture, and executions. Nevertheless, throughout that period “the fine soil” produced more than 25-fold. (Matt. 13:23) In 1991 there were 25,448 publishers in 258 congregations in Ukraine and approximately 20,000 publishers in the other republics of the former U.S.S.R. who, for the most part, had learned the truth from the Ukrainian brothers.
Such soil needed “fertilizing” in the form of Bible publications. Therefore, following the legal registration of our work, preparations were made for receiving literature shipments from Selters, Germany. The first shipment of literature arrived on April 17, 1991.
The brothers organized a small depot in Lvov from which they forwarded literature by truck, train, and even plane to congregations throughout Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries of the former Soviet Union. This stimulated further spiritual growth. In early 1991, Kharkov, a city of two million inhabitants, had but one congregation. By later that year, this one congregation of 670 publishers had become eight separate congregations. Presently, there are over 40 congregations in that city!
Though the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, the country committee cared for all 15 republics of the former Soviet Union until 1993. That year at a meeting with brothers of the Governing Body, a decision was reached to form two committees—one for Ukraine and one for Russia and the 13 other republics of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Michael Dasevich, Alexei Davidjuk, Stepan Kozhemba, and Ananii Hrohul, three more brothers were added to the country committee of Ukraine: Stepan Hlinskyi, Stepan Mykevych, and Roman Yurkevych.
It then became necessary to form a translation team to handle the increasing need for literature in the Ukrainian language. As we saw earlier, Canadian brothers Emil Zarysky and Maurice Saranchuk, along with their wives, shared in this work. This small team of devoted workers translated many publications. From the year 1991, however, an expanded Ukrainian translation team began to function in Germany. In 1998 they moved to Poland, where they continued their work prior to their final move to Ukraine.
Following a meeting with the local brothers in Lvov in 1990, Brother Jaracz examined the city stadium and said: “We may use this for the district convention next year.” The brothers smiled at him, wondering how this would be possible, since our organization had not yet been registered and the brothers had never organized a convention before. Nevertheless, the very next year, the organization was registered. In August 1991, some 17,531 were in attendance at the district convention in this particular stadium, and 1,316 brothers and sisters were baptized! Polish brothers had been invited to Ukraine to assist in organizing the convention.
That August another convention was planned for Odessa. But because of political unrest that occurred in Russia at the beginning of the convention week, local officials informed the brothers that they could not hold the convention in Odessa. The brothers continued to request permission from the city officials and went ahead with final preparations, relying fully on Jehovah. At last, the responsible brothers were told to report to the officials on Thursday for their final decision. On the afternoon of that day, the brothers received permission to go ahead with the convention.
How amazing and beautiful it was to see 12,115 Witnesses gathered and to have 1,943 baptized that weekend! Two days after the convention, the brothers visited the city officials again, thanking them for allowing us to have the convention. They gave the city chairman a copy of the book The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived. He said: “I was not at the convention, but I know everything that took place there. I have never seen anything better than this. I promise you that whenever you need permission to hold your meetings, I will always be willing to grant it.” Since then, the brothers regularly hold district conventions in the beautiful city of Odessa.
Outstanding International Convention
Another momentous event was the “Divine Teaching” International Convention held in Kiev in August 1993. The attendance of 64,714 was the largest for any convention ever held in Ukraine and included thousands of delegates from over 30 different countries. English presentations of the program were simultaneously translated into 16 languages.
How thrilling it was to witness brothers and sisters in five full sections of the stadium stand to answer yes to the two baptism questions! During the two and a half hours that followed, 7,402 persons were baptized in six baptismal pools, the largest number baptized at any one convention in the modern-day history of God’s people! This outstanding event will always be remembered and treasured by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
How was it possible to organize such a large convention with only 11 congregations in the city? As in previous years, the brothers from Poland came to help in the Rooming Department. Together with the local brothers, they made contracts with as many hotels and dormitories as possible, even renting some riverboats.
The most complicated task was to obtain permission to rent the stadium. In addition to sporting events, the stadium served as a big marketplace on the weekends, and no one had ever received permission to close the market. However, permission was granted.
Even the city authorities formed a special committee to help the brothers in their preparation work. This committee included chiefs of different city services, such as police, transportation, and tourism. A unique arrangement was made to transport the convention delegates within the city. The brothers paid in advance for public transportation so that those with convention badges would not have to pay when boarding but could do so at the convention. Thus, the brothers could quickly board the subways, trams, and city buses when traveling to and from the Republican (now Olympic) Stadium, one of the largest in Eastern Europe. For the convenience of convention delegates, additional bakeries were opened in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium so that the brothers could quickly obtain food for the next day.
The chief of police was so amazed at the orderliness of the convention that he remarked: “Everything you have done, along with your good behavior, has impressed me even more than your preaching. People may forget what they heard, but they will never forget what they saw.”
Several women working at a nearby subway station came to the convention administration office in order to thank the delegates for their good behavior. The women remarked: “We have worked here for many sporting and political events, but this was the first time we saw such polite and happy visitors that took an interest in us. They all greeted us. We are not accustomed to receiving greetings at other events.”
The congregations in Kiev were kept busy after the convention, since some 2,500 addresses were turned in by interested people who wanted to learn more. There are now more than 50 congregations of zealous Witnesses in Kiev!
One group of brothers traveling to the convention was robbed of all their possessions. Nevertheless, being determined to enrich themselves spiritually, they decided to continue their travel to Kiev, arriving at the convention with only the clothing they were wearing. However, a group of brothers from the former Czechoslovakia brought extra clothing for any who might be in need. When this was brought to the attention of the convention administration, the brothers who had been robbed were quickly supplied with all necessary clothing.
Help to Progress
Such examples of unselfish love were not isolated instances. In 1991 the Governing Body invited several branches in Western Europe to provide food and clothing for their brothers in Eastern Europe. The Witnesses appreciated this opportunity to assist, and their willingness to share surpassed all expectations. Many donated food and used clothing, while others bought new items. Branch offices in Western Europe collected cartons, suitcases, and bags of such goods. Tons of food and clothing were sent from Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland to Lvov by convoys of trucks. Often brothers even donated their trucks for use in the Kingdom work in Eastern Europe. The authorities at the borders were very helpful in issuing the necessary papers so that all deliveries could be made with little difficulty.
The brothers who delivered the goods were impressed by how they were received. A group who drove from the Netherlands to Lvov reported on their trip. They wrote: “A force of 140 brothers was on hand to unload the trucks. Before starting the work, these humble brothers showed their reliance on Jehovah, offering a united prayer. When the task was finished, they again assembled for a prayer of thanks to Jehovah. After enjoying the hospitality of the local brothers, who gave abundantly of the little they had, we were escorted to the main road, where they offered a prayer at the roadside before taking leave of us.
“During the long ride home, there was much to think back on—the hospitality of the brothers in Germany and Poland, and that of our brothers in Lvov; their strong faith and prayerful attitude; their hospitality in providing accommodations and food while being in needy circumstances themselves; their display of unity and closeness; and their gratitude. We also thought of our brothers and sisters back home, who had given so generously.”
A driver from Denmark said: “We discovered that we brought more back than we had taken. The love and the spirit of sacrifice shown by our Ukrainian brothers greatly strengthened our faith.”
Many of the donated items were forwarded to Moldavia, the Baltic countries, Kazakhstan, Russia, and other places where there was also a great need. Some shipments were sent by container to Siberia and Khabarovsk, more than 4,300 miles [7,000 km] eastward. Letters of warm appreciation from those who received assistance were touching, encouraging, and unifying. Thus, all involved experienced the truthfulness of Jesus’ words: “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35.
Late in 1998, a catastrophe occurred in Transcarpathia. According to official sources, 6,754 houses were flooded, and 895 homes were totally destroyed by mud slides. Among the houses destroyed were 37 that belonged to Witnesses. Immediately, the branch in Lvov sent a truck to the area with food, water, soap, beds, and blankets. Later, brothers from Canada and Germany sent clothing and household goods. Witnesses from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia provided food and also sent construction materials to replace the destroyed houses. Many local brothers helped in the restoration work as well. Witnesses provided food, clothing, and firewood, not only for fellow Witnesses but also for others. They cleaned yards and fields and helped repair the houses of non-Witnesses.
Giving Spiritual Aid
The material aid, however, was not the only help given. After more than 50 years under ban, the Ukrainian Witnesses were not familiar with organizing the work in an atmosphere of freedom. Therefore, in 1992, brothers were sent from the Germany branch to assist in organizing the work in Ukraine. This laid the basis for future Bethel work. Later Canada, Germany, and the United States sent other brothers to help in supervising the disciple-making activity.
There was also a great need for experienced brothers in the field. Initially, many Ministerial Training School graduates came from Poland to care for congregations and later for circuits and districts throughout the country. In addition, some couples came from Canada and the United States and presently serve in the circuit work. Also, some brothers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Slovakia work as circuit overseers. These arrangements have aided many local congregations in applying and adjusting to Scriptural standards in many aspects of the ministry.
Appreciation for Bible Literature
The second half of the 1990’s was highlighted by special literature campaigns. Following the distribution of Kingdom News No. 35 in 1997, close to 10,000 coupons were received from interested ones who either requested the brochure What Does God Require of Us? or asked that they be contacted personally.
There is widespread appreciation for our literature. When visiting one of the maternity hospitals, the brothers were asked to provide 12 copies of the book The Secret of Family Happiness for the hospital every week. Why? The personnel wanted to give a book together with the birth certificate to each couple that had a new baby!
During the last few years, many have become acquainted with our magazines and have come to appreciate them. For example, while preaching in a park, the Witnesses offered a copy of the Awake! magazine to a gentleman. The man thanked them and inquired: “How much does it cost?”
“Our work is supported by voluntary donations,” the brothers explained. The man contributed a bank note of one hryvnia—equivalent to 54 cents (U.S.) at that time—sat down on a park bench, and immediately began to read the magazine. In the meantime, the brothers witnessed to others in the park. Within 15 minutes, the man approached the brothers and donated another hryvnia for the magazine he had received. Then he went back to the bench and continued reading while the brothers continued preaching. After some time, the man approached the brothers again and gave them still another hryvnia. He told them that he found the magazine extremely interesting and wanted to read it on a regular basis.
Good Education Speeds Up Growth
After our work was legally recognized, forward movement accelerated. However, it was not without some challenges. Initially, some had difficulty adjusting to the house-to-house ministry because for more than half a century, all witnessing had been done informally. But with the help of Jehovah’s spirit, the brothers and sisters successfully adapted to what was to them a new way of witnessing.
It also became possible to organize all five weekly meetings in each congregation. This has played a vital role in uniting the publishers and in motivating them to prepare for greater activity. The brothers learned quickly and progressed in many aspects of their ministry. New schools provided the Witnesses in Ukraine with a good education. For example, in 1991 the Theocratic Ministry School was established in all congregations to train the Witnesses for the preaching work. From 1992 the Kingdom Ministry School, for elders and ministerial servants, has greatly aided the brothers in taking the lead in the field ministry, in congregational teaching, and in shepherding the flock.
In 1996 the Pioneer Service School was instituted in Ukraine. During the first five years, more than 7,400 regular pioneers attended this two-week course. How did it benefit them? One pioneer wrote: “I was happy to be the clay in Jehovah’s hands and to be molded by means of this school.” Another pioneer said: “After pioneer school, I began to ‘shine.’” One pioneer school class wrote: “This school proved to be a real blessing to all who attended it. It impelled us to develop keen interest in people.” The school has played an important role in contributing to 57 consecutive monthly peaks of regular pioneers.
Since the economic situation is difficult, many wonder how pioneers manage to provide for their needs. One pioneer who serves as a ministerial servant has three children to support. He says: “Together my wife and I thoroughly plan our needs, obtaining only the very essential items in our life. We live a modest life, relying on Jehovah. By having the right attitude, we ourselves are sometimes amazed at how little we need to make ends meet.”
The Ministerial Training School was introduced in 1999. Almost a hundred brothers attended during the first year. For many, it was a challenge to attend this two-month course amid prevailing economic hardships. It is evident, however, that Jehovah has provided the brothers with his support.
One brother who received an invitation to the Ministerial Training School served as a regular pioneer in a distant territory. He and his pioneer partner had saved enough money to buy food and coal for the coming winter. When he received an invitation to the school, they had to choose between buying coal or a train ticket for him to attend the school. They discussed the matter and decided that he should go to the school. Shortly after making that decision, the brother’s fleshly sister, who lives abroad, sent him some money as a gift. It was enough to travel to the school. At the conclusion of the school, this brother was assigned to serve as a special pioneer.
Such educational programs have equipped Jehovah’s people to participate more effectively in the field service and in congregation activity. Publishers learn how to preach more effectively; elders and ministerial servants have been taught how to be a source of greater encouragement in their congregations. As a result, ‘the congregations continue to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number.’—Acts 16:5.
Rapid Increase Brings Changes
During the years since the legal registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, their number has more than quadrupled. Extraordinary growth has been experienced in many areas of the country. There has also been a great need for qualified elders. Often congregations are divided as soon as a second elder becomes available. Some congregations have had up to 500 publishers. Such rapid growth has required changes in administration.
Up to the 1960’s, the Poland branch helped supervise the work in Ukraine, and following that, the Germany branch provided oversight and assistance. In September 1998, Ukraine became a branch under the supervision of world headquarters in Brooklyn. At that time a Branch Committee was formed for the administration of organizational matters.
Rapid growth also brought a need for expanded branch facilities. Beginning in 1991, Lvov was used as a literature distribution center for the 15 republics of the former U.S.S.R. The following year, two couples from the branch office in Germany arrived. Soon a small office was operating in Lvov. One year later, a house was purchased and occupied by full-time office workers. Early in 1995, the number of volunteers working in the Ukraine office increased rapidly, making it necessary to move again, this time to a complex of six Kingdom Halls shared by 17 congregations. During all this time, the brothers were wondering: “When and where will we build our own Bethel?”
Branch and Kingdom Hall Construction
As early as 1992, the brothers started to search for property to build branch facilities. Several years passed as locations that might be suitable were examined. The brothers kept this need before Jehovah in their prayers, confident that in due time a suitable location would be found.
Early in 1998 property was found in a picturesque pine forest, three miles [5 km] north of Lvov in the small town of Briukhovychi. It was near this location that two congregations had had their meetings in the forest during the ban. One brother remarked: “I never thought that ten years after our last meeting in the forest, I would again have the opportunity to meet in that same forest, but under totally different circumstances—on the property for our new branch!”
At the end of 1998, the first international servants arrived on the scene. Brothers from the Regional Engineering Office in Selters, Germany, began working feverishly to prepare the drawings. Early in January 1999, after governmental approval, work started on the construction site. More than 250 volunteers of 22 different nationalities worked on the site. Up to 250 local volunteers also worked on the project on the weekends.
Many greatly appreciated the privilege of working on the project. Entire congregations rented buses to come to Briukhovychi to volunteer on weekends. Often they traveled the whole night in order to be on the site in time to assist in the construction effort. After a day of hard work, they spent another night traveling home, tired but content and happy, wishing to come again. One group of 20 brothers traveled by train for 34 hours from the Luhans’k area of eastern Ukraine in order to work for eight hours on Bethel construction! For the sake of this eight hours of work, each brother took two days off from his secular job and spent more than half a month’s wages for the train tickets. Such a self-sacrificing spirit encouraged the entire Bethel construction crew and Bethel family. Construction proceeded rapidly, making it possible to dedicate the branch on May 19, 2001. Thirty-five countries were represented on that occasion. At special meetings the next day, Theodore Jaracz spoke to a crowd of 30,881 in Lvov, and Gerrit Lösch spoke to 41,142 in Kiev—a total of 72,023.
What about Kingdom Halls? From 1939, when several halls in Transcarpathia were destroyed, there were no official Kingdom Halls in Ukraine until 1993. In that year, a beautiful complex of four Kingdom Halls was built in just eight months in the Transcarpathian village of Dibrova. Soon thereafter, another six halls were completed in other areas of Ukraine.
Because of the large increase in publishers, there was a great need for Kingdom Halls. However, complicated legal procedures, inflation, and the rising cost of building materials meant that only 110 Kingdom Halls were built in the 1990’s. There remained a need for hundreds more! So in the year 2000, a new Kingdom Hall construction program was instituted, which is already helping to meet the needs.
On With the Harvest Work!
By September 2001, there were 120,028 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1,183 congregations, served by 39 circuit overseers in Ukraine! The seeds of truth sown over a long period of time have produced good and abundant fruit. In some families, there are five generations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This demonstrates that the “soil” is indeed fine. “After hearing the word with a fine and good heart,” many “retain it.” Over the years, brothers “planted” seeds, often with tears; others “watered” the fertile soil. Jehovah makes it grow, and his faithful Witnesses in Ukraine continue to “bear fruit with endurance.”—Luke 8:15; 1 Cor. 3:6.
In some territories the Witness-to-population ratio is outstanding. For instance, in eight Romanian-speaking villages in the Transcarpathian area, there are 59 congregations formed into three circuits.
Efforts by religious and secular opposers to uproot Jehovah’s Witnesses from Ukraine by means of exile and severe persecution were not successful. Hearts of people in this land proved to be fertile for seeds of Bible truth. Today Jehovah’s Witnesses are reaping a bountiful harvest.
The prophet Amos foretold a harvesttime when “the plowman will actually overtake the harvester.” (Amos 9:13) Jehovah’s blessing makes the soil so productive that the harvest is still going on when the time to plow for the next season comes. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine have experienced the truthfulness of this prophecy. Looking to the future, they are confident that with more than a quarter of a million attending the Memorial in 2001, the prospects for further growth are most encouraging.
Jehovah promises, as recorded at Amos 9:15: “I shall certainly plant them upon their ground, and they will no more be uprooted from their ground that I have given them.” Continuing to sow seeds of truth and harvest the abundant crops, God’s people look forward with keen interest to the time when Jehovah will completely fulfill this promise. In the meantime, we lift up our eyes and view the fields and see that they are indeed white for harvesting.—John 4:35.
[Blurb on page 140]
“Danyil would have been hanged, but being underage, he was given only four months in jail”
[Blurb on page 145]
“Witnesses differed from the rest in the concentration camp. Their behavior showed that they had something very important to say to the other prisoners”
[Blurb on page 166]
On April 8, 1951, more than 6,100 Witnesses were exiled from western Ukraine to Siberia
[Blurb on page 174]
“Often, our sisters carried out the work of congregation servants, and in some areas they fulfilled the responsibilities of circuit servants”
[Blurb on page 183]
Instead of going on his honeymoon, he spent ten years in prison
[Blurb on page 184]
“It was very painful to give away my beloved little girl to a person whom I had never met”
[Blurb on page 193]
Having seen that Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be silenced by exile, imprisonment, physical violence, and torture, the security services employed new tactics
[Blurb on page 207]
The KGB presented to the separated brothers a false letter, supposedly from Brother Knorr
[Blurb on page 212]
The KGB was especially watchful at Memorial time, since they always knew the approximate date of the celebration
[Blurb on page 231]
It was their first time to hold an original Bible publication in their hands
[Blurb on page 238]
“Everything you have done, along with your good behavior, has impressed me even more than your preaching. People . . . will never forget what they saw”
[Blurb on page 241]
“The love and the spirit of sacrifice shown by our Ukrainian brothers greatly strengthened our faith”
[Blurb on page 249]
For the sake of this eight hours of work, each brother took two days off from his secular job and spent more than half a month’s wages for the train tickets
[Box/Pictures on page 124]
Bible Translations Over the Centuries
For some time, the people of Ukraine used the Old Church Slavonic version of the Bible that had been translated in the ninth century. At different times as the language changed, this version was revised. By the end of the 15th century, Archbishop Gennadius supervised a complete revision of the Slavonic Bible. This edition led to another revision that resulted in the first printed Slavonic Bible. This translation is known as the Ostrog Bible and was printed in Ukraine in 1581. Even today, authorities view it as an excellent example of the art of printing. It served as a basis for later translations of the Bible into Ukrainian and Russian.
Ivan Fedorov printed the Ostrog Bible in Ukraine in 1581
[Box/Picture on page 141]
An Interview With Vasyl Kalin
Profile: Exiled 1951-65. Printed literature with photo method from 1974 to 1991. Since 1993 has served at Russia branch office.
My father had to live under many different forms of government and different governmental authorities. For example, when western Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, they beat my father because they thought that he was a Communist. Why? The priest told the German officers that Jehovah’s Witnesses were Communists because they didn’t go to church. Then Soviet rule came. Once again, my father, along with many others, was subjected to oppression. He was called an American spy. Why? Because the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses were different from the beliefs of the religion that prevailed at the time. That is why my father and his family were exiled to Siberia, where he lived until his death.
[Box/Picture on page 147-151]
An Interview With Ivan Lytvak
Profile: Imprisoned 1944-6. Served in labor camps from 1947 to 1953 in the far north of Russia.
In 1947, I was arrested because I would not get involved in politics. They took me to a maximum security prison in Luts’k, Ukraine, where I had to sit straight with my hands in my lap—I couldn’t extend my legs. I sat like that for three months. A man in a black coat interrogated me. He wanted me to tell him about the brothers taking the lead in the work. He knew that I knew, but I refused to tell him.
On May 5, 1947, the military tribunal sentenced me to ten years of confinement in remote maximum-security camps. Well, since I was young at that time, I was assigned to what they called the first category. All those in the first category were young lads—both Witnesses and non-Witnesses. They shipped us in cattle wagons to Vorkuta, which is in the remote north of Russia. From there they loaded us into a steamship, and we sailed for four days right up to the Kara Strait.
There was little life there, only tundra and dwarf Arctic birch. From there we were forced to walk for four days and nights. Well, we were young. They gave us dried crusts and smoked reindeer meat. They issued us these rations along with bowls and warm cloth blankets. It rained heavily. The blankets we were carrying became so soaked with water that they were impossible to carry. Two of us would take one and wring it out, and it would become light again.
Finally, we arrived at our destination. I had been thinking: ‘Just a little longer and there will be a roof, a roof over my head!’ But we came to an open area of deep moss. The guards said: “Get yourselves settled. This is your place.”
Some prisoners cried; others cursed the government. Never did I curse anyone there. I prayed silently: “Jehovah, my God, you are my refuge and my bastion. Be my refuge here as well.”
They set up a rope around the compound, since there was no wire. Sentries were posted. As usual, the sentries would always be reading, and they said that if you were to approach within two yards, they would shoot. We spent the night on the moss. The rain was pouring on us. I woke up in the night and looked at the 1,500 people, and I saw steam rising off all of them. I woke up in the morning, and my whole side was in water. This was moss, but there was water too. There was nothing to eat. We were told that we had to make an airfield so that an airplane could land and bring us food. Our guards had a special tractor with huge tires so that it wouldn’t get stuck. It carried supplies for them, but we received nothing.
We worked at making that airfield for three days and nights. We had to remove the moss so that the plane could land. A light plane brought flour. They mixed the flour with boiled water, and that’s what we ate.
The work was backbreaking. We worked to build a road and laid railroad track. We were like a human conveyer belt, carrying heavy stones. During the winter, it was dark all the time and very cold.
We had to sleep under the sky, under the naked sky. And the rain poured on us, and we were wet, hungry, and cold; but we were young, so we had some energy. The guards said not to worry, we would soon have a roof. Eventually, a military tractor brought enough canvas to cover 400 people. We stretched out the canvas and put it up, but there was still nowhere to sleep except on the moss. All of us gathered grass and brought it into the makeshift tents where we were living, and it rotted, making compost. We slept in this compost.
After this came lice. The lice virtually bit us to death. They weren’t just on the body, but all over our clothing—big ones and little ones. It was terrible. You’d come back from work and lie down, they would gnaw at you, and you would scratch and scratch. You’d sleep, and they’d eat you up. We told our foreman: “The lice are eating us alive.” He said: “Soon we’ll roast those lice of yours.”
The prison authorities had to wait for warmer weather because the temperature was regularly minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit [-30°C]. Well, the cold weather eased somewhat, and they brought a portable disinfection station. But it was 5 degrees below zero [-20°C], and the tent was all torn. “Undress,” we were told, “you’re going to wash. Undress. We’re going to disinfect your clothes.”
So there we were in 5-degree-below [-20°C] weather undressing until we were naked in a tent that was all torn. They brought us boards, and we used them for a floor. As I was sitting on those boards, I looked at my body. What a horrible sight! And I looked at the man beside me. The same. No muscle whatsoever. Everything had withered. We were nothing but skin and bones. I couldn’t even climb into a freight car. I was exhausted. Nevertheless, I was classed in the first category—a healthy, young worker.
I thought that soon I would die. Many died—young men. Now I was really praying to Jehovah that he would help me because there seemed to be no way out. Some who were not Witnesses would deliberately let a hand or a leg freeze and then chop it off to get out of doing this work. It was dreadful, horrible.
One day I was standing near one of the sentry posts, and I saw a doctor standing there. I had traveled with him after my arrest and had witnessed to him about God’s Kingdom. He was a prisoner, but he had been given an amnesty. I approached him and looked, and sure enough, it was as if he were free. I called his name; I think it was Sasha. He looked at me and said: “Ivan, is that you?” As he said that to me, I cried like a little boy. “Go to the medical unit right away,” he said.
I went to the medical unit, and I was removed from the first category of workers. But I was still in the camp. Since I was now in the third category, I was sent to the area for those needing rest. The commandant said: “I didn’t invite you here. You came here. Be good, and do your work.” So little by little, I started to make a life for myself in that place. There wasn’t any more of that backbreaking labor for me.
I was released on August 16, 1953. They said: “You’re free to go.” They said I could go anywhere I wanted. I went first to the forest to thank Jehovah that he had preserved me. I went into that little forest, got down on my knees, and thanked Jehovah that he had preserved me alive for the future and for the future work of glorifying his holy name.
‘Just a little longer and there will be a roof, a roof over my head!’
I went into that little forest, got down on my knees, and thanked Jehovah that he had preserved me alive
[Box/Picture on page 155, 156]
An Interview With Volodymyr Levchuk
Profile: Imprisoned for political activity 1946-54. Met Jehovah’s Witnesses in one of the labor camps in Mordvinia.
I was a Ukrainian nationalist. Because of that, in 1946 the Communists sentenced me to 15 years in a prison camp. Jehovah’s Witnesses were there. They preached to me, and I immediately recognized the truth. We didn’t have a Bible because we were in a maximum security camp. So I would look for little pieces of paper and save them. After I had collected a few, I made a small writing book. I asked the brothers to tell me any scriptures they remembered and where the verses came from in the Bible. Then I wrote them in my book. I also questioned those who came later. If anyone roughly knew a Bible prophecy, I’d write that down too. I collected a number of Bible texts and started to use them in my preaching activity.
When I began preaching, there were quite a few like myself, young lads. I was the youngest—only 16 years old. I spoke with these lads and said: “We have suffered for nothing. We along with other people have put our lives on the line for nothing. No political ideologies will lead us to anything good. You have to take the side of the Kingdom of God.” I quoted the verses that I had memorized from my book. I had a very good memory. I convinced my peers quickly, and they began coming to us, to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They became brothers.
[Box/Picture on page 157]
Punishments Meted Out to Jehovah’s Witnesses
Internal Exile: Exiled ones were sent to a remote area, usually in Siberia, where they had to work and reside. They could not leave their new living area. Once a week or once a month, they were required to register with the local police.
Indoor Prisons: Three to ten prisoners were confined in a locked cell. They received food two or three times a day. Once a day or once a week, they were allowed to walk in the prison yard. They did no work.
Prison Camps: Most of these were located in Siberia. Hundreds of prisoners lived together in barracks (one building usually housed 20-100 inmates). They worked at least eight hours per day on the camp grounds or at some other location. Work was hard and involved building factories, laying railway lines, or cutting down trees. Inmates were escorted to and from work by prison guards. Within the camp, prisoners could move about freely after working hours.
Siberia, Russia: Children of exiled Ukrainian Witnesses chop wood into small pieces for fuel, 1953
[Box/Picture on page 161, 162]
An Interview With Fyodor Kalin
Profile: Exiled 1951-65. Imprisoned 1962-5.
When I was in jail under investigation, Jehovah once performed what seemed like a miracle for me. The director of the KGB (State Security Committee) came with a paper. The investigator was seated, and the prosecutor sat next to him. The KGB director said to the investigator: “Give this to him! Let him read that his brothers in America are up to no good!”
They gave me the paper. It was a convention resolution. I read it once; then I carefully read it a second time. The prosecutor was becoming impatient. He said: “Mr. Kalin! Are you learning it by heart?”
I said: “Well, the first time I just quickly ran through it. I want to get the sense of this.” Inside, I was weeping with joy. When I finished reading the resolution, I handed it back and said: “I am really thankful to you, but I thank Jehovah God that he moved you to do this. Today my faith has become so much stronger by my reading this resolution! I join these Witnesses, and I will praise God’s name without restraint. I will talk about him to people at the camp and in jail and everywhere that I am. This is my mission!
“No matter how much you torture me, you won’t shut my mouth. In this resolution, the Witnesses didn’t say that they are ready to bring about some sort of revolt, but they resolved that no matter what happens to them, even the hardest persecution, they will serve Jehovah, knowing that he will help them to remain faithful! I pray to Jehovah God that he will strengthen me in this difficult time to stand firm in the faith.
“But I won’t be shaken! This resolution strengthened me so much. If you put me against the wall to shoot me now, I will not falter. Jehovah saves even through the resurrection!”
I could see that the investigators were disappointed. They knew that they had made a big mistake. The resolution was supposed to weaken my faith, but it strengthened me.
[Box/Picture on page 167-169]
An Interview With Mariya Popovych
Profile: In prisons and labor camps for six years. Has helped more than ten people learn the truth.
When I was arrested on April 27, 1950, I was five months pregnant. On July 18, they sentenced me to ten years. I was sentenced for preaching, for telling people the truth. They sentenced seven of us, four brothers and three sisters. They gave each of us ten years. My little son was born on August 13.
Well, when I was in prison, I didn’t get discouraged. I had learned from God’s Word, the Bible, that you will be happy if you suffer for being a Christian, not a murderer or a thief. And I was happy. I had joy in my heart. They put me in solitary confinement, and I walked back and forth in the cell and sang.
A soldier opened the little window and said: “You’re in this situation, and you’re singing?”
I said: “I am happy because I haven’t done anything wrong to anyone.” He just closed the window. They didn’t beat me.
They said: “Renounce your faith. Look at the situation you’re in.” They meant that I had to give birth to my baby in prison. But I was happy because they had sentenced me for having faith in God’s Word. It made me feel good. I knew I was no criminal. I knew I was enduring because of my faith in Jehovah. That kept me happy all the time. That’s how it was.
Later, while I was working in the camp, my hands got frostbitten. I was sent to the hospital. The doctor there came to like me. She said: “Your health isn’t good. Why don’t you come to work for me?”
Of course, the camp director didn’t like that idea. He said: “Why do you want this woman to work for you? Choose someone from another group.”
She said: “I don’t need someone else—I need good, honest people in my hospital. And she is going to work in this hospital. I know that she won’t steal anything and that she won’t start using drugs.”
They trusted us. They had special regard for people with faith. They saw what kind of people we were. That was good for us.
Eventually, the doctor persuaded the director. He wanted to keep me because I was good at cutting timber. Wherever Jehovah’s people worked, we were always honest, conscientious workers.
Note: Mariya’s son was born in prison in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. During the next two years, he was kept in the prison orphanage. After that, relatives sent the baby to his father, who had already been exiled to Siberia. When Sister Popovych was released from prison, her son was six years old.
“I am happy because I haven’t done anything wrong to anyone”
[Box/Picture on page 175]
An Interview With Mariya Fedun
Profile: Exiled 1951-65.
Once we were settled on the train, once we all calmed down and started on our way, what else was there to do? We knew songs, and we began to sing. We sang all the songs that we knew, the songs from the songbook.
At first we heard singing in our boxcar only, but later when our train would stop to give right-of-way to other trains, we realized that there were other trains with our brothers. The singing from these other trains would reach us. There were those from Moldavia; then the Romanians from Bukovina passed by. There were many trains. These trains would overtake one another at various points. We realized that these were all our brothers.
There were many songs that we remembered. Many songs were written in those train cars. They gave us encouragement and put us in the proper frame of mind. Such songs really directed our attention to Jehovah.
[Box/Picture on page 177]
An Interview With Lydia Stashchyshyn
Profile: She is a daughter of Mariya Pylypiv, whose interview appears on pages 208-9.
When I was a child, Grandpa was an elder; he directed the congregation. I remember his routine: He got up in the morning, washed, and then prayed. Then he opened the Bible, and we all sat together to read the daily text and the whole chapter. Grandpa regularly asked me to take important documents—wrapped or in a bag—to another elder, who lived at the edge of the city. To reach his home, I had to climb a hill. I didn’t like that hill. It was steep, and climbing it was a struggle. I would say: “Grandpa, I’m not going! May I please not go?”
Grandpa would reply: “No, you must go. You take the documents.”
I would say to myself, ‘I won’t go! I won’t go!’ Then I would say, ‘No, I must go because maybe something important depends on it.’ I always had that in my thoughts. I really didn’t want to go, but still I would. I knew that there was no one else to do it. It was very often. It was my work, my responsibility.
[Box/Picture on page 178, 179]
An Interview With Pavlo Rurak
Profile: Spent 15 years in prisons and prison camps. Presently serves as a presiding overseer in Artemovsk, in eastern Ukraine.
In 1952, I was in a strictly regimented camp in Karaganda, U.S.S.R. There were ten of us in that camp. The time passed so slowly that it was hard for us. Though we had joy and hope, we had no spiritual food. We met after work and talked with one another, recalling all that we had learned earlier through “the faithful and discreet slave.”—Matt. 24:45-47.
I decided to write to my sister to describe our situation in the camp and to explain that we were without spiritual food. Since prisoners were not allowed to send such letters, it was difficult to mail. Eventually, though, my sister received the letter. She prepared a parcel, put some crisp bread inside it along with a New Testament, and posted it to me.
The routine was very strict. The authorities did not always hand parcels over to prisoners. Often, they broke the contents. Everything was carefully examined. For example, they checked cans to see if anything might be hidden in a false bottom or in the sides. They even examined dried buns.
The day came when I saw that my name was on the list of those due to receive parcels. I was extremely glad, though I didn’t dream that my sister had sent a New Testament in the parcel. The strictest inspector was on duty; prisoners called him Hothead. When I came to get my parcel, he asked me: “From where do you await a parcel?” I told him the address of my sister. He took a short crowbar and opened the box.
When he removed the cover, I saw the New Testament between the side of the box and the food! I had time just to say silently: “Jehovah, give it to me.”
To my amazement, the inspector said: “Quickly, take this box away!” In disbelief at what had happened, I covered the box and carried it into the barracks. I took the New Testament out and put it into my mattress.
When I told the brothers that I had received a New Testament, no one believed me. It was a miracle from Jehovah! He was supporting us spiritually because in our situation it was impossible to get anything. We thanked our heavenly Father, Jehovah, for his mercy and care. We began reading and strengthening ourselves spiritually. How thankful we were to Jehovah for this!
[Box/Picture on page 180, 181]
An Interview With Lydia Bzovi
Profile: Exiled 1949-65.
As a teenager, I found it very painful not to have Father with us. We loved our father, as most children do. I did not get to say good-bye to him. Ivan and I did not see him go. We were in the field harvesting millet.
When we came in from the field, Mother said that Father had been arrested. I felt a sense of emptiness, a sense of hurt. But there was no panic, no hatred. This was something that was to be expected. We were constantly reminded of Jesus’ words: “If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) We learned this verse quite early in life. We knew it as well as we did the model prayer. We also knew that since we were no part of this world, the world would have no love for us. What the authorities were doing, they were doing because of their ignorance.
While under Romanian authority in Moldavia, Father knew that his case could be defended in court. We were allowed to come to court. This was a very happy day for us.
Father gave a wonderful witness. No one was interested in listening to the prosecutor’s charges, but with mouth agape everyone listened to Father’s testimony. He spoke for an hour and 40 minutes in vindication of the truth. He gave a very clear and understandable witness. Court workers had tears in their eyes.
We were proud that Father was able to testify in court, to defend the truth publicly. We did not feel any despair.
Note: In 1943, German authorities arrested Sister Bzovi’s parents and sentenced them to 25 years in prison for allegedly cooperating with the Soviets. Within a year, Soviet troops arrived and released them. Following that, Soviet authorities themselves arrested her father. Altogether he spent 20 years in prisons.
We loved our father, as most children do. I did not get to say good-bye to him
[Box/Pictures on page 186-189]
An Interview With Tamara Ravliuk
Profile: Exiled 1951. Helped about 100 people to learn the truth.
This is the story of Halyna. In 1958, when she was only 17 days old, her parents were arrested. She and her mother were sent to a prison camp in Siberia. As long as her mother produced milk, which was until the fifth month, Halyna was allowed to stay with her. After that, the mother had to go to work, and the baby was taken to an infant-care home. Our family lived in the nearby province of Tomsk. The brothers wrote a letter to our congregation asking if anyone would be able to take the little girl from the nursery to raise until her parents were released. Of course, when the letter was read, everybody sighed. It was sad and tragic that an infant was in such a situation.
They gave us some time to think about it. One week passed. No one offered to take her. Conditions were hard for all of us. The second week, my older brother said to Mama: “Let us take this little girl.”
Mama said: “What do you mean, Vasia? I’m already old and sick. You know, it is a big responsibility to take someone else’s baby. It is not an animal. It is not a cow, not a heifer. It’s a baby. And someone else’s baby at that.”
He said: “That’s why we should take it, Mama. It is not an animal. Just imagine a baby in such conditions, in camp conditions! It is still so small, so helpless.” Then he said: “Should we not think that there might come a time when it will be said to us: ‘I was sick, I was in prison, I was hungry, but you did not help me’?”
Mama said: “Yes, that might happen, but it is a big responsibility to take someone else’s baby. What if something happens to her when she is with us?”
My brother said: “And what if something happens to her there?” He then pointed to me and said: “We have Tamara. She can travel freely and bring the child. We will all work to provide for this child.”
Well, we thought, and we talked, and finally we decided that I should go. So I went to the Mariinski camps. I went for this little girl. The brothers gave me literature to take there. They also gave me a camera to take a picture of the mother, to get acquainted because we did not know her. I wasn’t allowed to take the camera into the camp, but I took the literature. I bought a pot, put the literature in the pot, and put oil on top. When I walked through the entranceway, the guard did not check to see if there was anything under the oil. So I got the literature into the camp.
I was able to get acquainted with the mother, Lydia Kurdas. And I even spent the night in the camp because the documents had to be prepared to release the child. And so I took Halyna home with me. And when we arrived there, she was five months and some days old. We all took good care of her, but she got very sick. The doctors would come, but they couldn’t find anything wrong.
The doctors thought that she was my baby, and they put pressure on me: “What kind of mother are you?” they said. “Why don’t you feed her?” We were afraid to say that this was a baby from prison, and we didn’t know how we should act. I just cried and didn’t say anything. The doctors scolded me; they yelled at Mama, saying that I was too young to have been given in marriage, that I myself needed milk. I was 18 years old.
Halyna was so sick, and she had difficulty breathing. I went underneath the stairs and prayed: “God Jehovah, God Jehovah, if this little child has to die, take my life instead of hers!”
The child began to gasp, right in front of the doctors. They said: “It’s hopeless—she won’t survive, she won’t survive.” They said this in front of me—in front of my mother, they were saying this. Mama was crying. I was praying. But the child survived. She stayed with us until the release of her mother. Seven years she was with us, and she didn’t get sick again, not once.
Halyna is now living in Kharkov, Ukraine. She is our sister, a regular pioneer.
“God Jehovah, God Jehovah, if this little child has to die, take my life instead of hers!”
Left to right: Tamara Ravliuk (formerly Buriak), Serhii Ravliuk, Halyna Kurdas, Mykhailo Buriak, and Mariya Buriak
Left to right: Serhii and Tamara Ravliuk, Mykola and Halyna Kuibida (formerly Kurdas), Oleksii and Lydia Kurdas
[Box on page 192]
A Report From a Circuit Overseer, 1958
“How hard it is for the brothers can be grasped to some extent by learning that about ten members of a Communist youth organization spy on practically every brother. Add to that traitorous neighbors; false brothers; an abundance of policemen; court sentences of up to 25 years in camps or prisons; exile to Siberia; lifelong forced labor; and detention, sometimes long-term detention in dark prison cells—all of this can happen to a person who utters a few words about the Kingdom of God.
“Yet, the publishers are fearless. Their love for Jehovah God is boundless, their attitude is similar to that of the angels, and they do not think of abandoning the fight. They know that the work is Jehovah’s and that it must go on till the victorious end. The brothers know for whom they maintain their integrity. To suffer for Jehovah is a joy for them.”
[Box/Picture on page 199-201]
An Interview With Serhii Ravliuk
Profile: Spent 16 years in prisons and prison camps. Forced to move his home seven times. Assisted some 150 people to learn the truth. His wife, Tamara, is interviewed on pages 186-9. Serhii now serves as an elder in the Rohan Congregation, near the city of Kharkov.
I lived for seven years in Mordvinia. Though this was a maximum security camp, many publications were distributed during the time I was there. Some guards took literature home, read it themselves, and then gave it to their families and relatives.
Sometimes a guard would come to me during the second work shift. He would say: “Do you have anything, Serhii?”
“What do you want?” I would reply.
“Just something to read.”
“Will there be a search tomorrow?”
“Yes. There will be one tomorrow in the fifth unit.”
“OK, on a certain bunk under a towel, there will be a Watchtower. You can take it.”
The search was conducted, and he took that Watchtower. But the guards would not find any other literature because we knew in advance about the search. In that way, some guards helped us. They were attracted to the truth, but they were afraid that they would be left without a job. During the many years that the brothers were there, the guards saw how we lived. Thinking people could see that we were not guilty of any crime. It was just that they couldn’t say anything about it, otherwise they would be considered supporters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they would lose their jobs. So they supported our work to some degree. They took literature and read it. That helped to cool the fire of persecution.
By 1966 there were about 300 of us in Mordvinia. The administrators knew on which date the Memorial was to be held. And they decided to hinder us that year. They said: “You already study your Watchtower, but we will put an end to this Memorial. You will not be able to do anything.”
The members of the various guard units were to remain in their offices until the all-clear signal. All of them were in their places: the surveillance personnel, the administrative staff, the camp commander.
So we all went out to the road, to the assembly field where we had our roll call every day, in the morning and in the evening. Then, gathered according to congregations or groups, we strolled around the field. In each group, a brother gave the talk while walking along; the others listened.
We did not have any emblems, so there was just the talk. At that time, there were none of the anointed in the camp. By 9:30 p.m., everything was over, all groups had concluded the observance while walking along the road.
We wanted to sing the song together—all of us brothers. So we gathered next to the bathhouse, which was at the most distant corner from the entrance checkpoint. Imagine 300 men, of which some 80 to 100 are singing at nighttime in the taiga! Just imagine the echo of that song! I remember that we sang song number 25, entitled “I Died for You,” from the old songbook. Everybody knew that song. Sometimes even the soldiers on the towers would shout to us: “Please sing Song 25!”
When we started singing that night, all personnel came running from their offices to the bathhouse in order to stop us. But when they arrived, they could not break up the singing because all of the brothers who were not singing had gathered in a firm ring around those who were singing. So the guards just ran around frantically until we finished singing. When the song was over, all dispersed. The guards didn’t know who sang and who didn’t. They could not put everyone into solitary confinement.
[Box/Picture on page 203, 204]
An Interview With Victor Popovych
Profile: Born in prison, son of Mariya Popovych, interviewed on pages 167-9. Arrested in 1970, spent four years in prison because of preaching activity. During three days of court hearings, 35 persons testified that Brother Popovych had preached to them.
The situation in which Jehovah’s Witnesses found themselves should not be evaluated merely in the context of human relations. The persecution of God’s people cannot wholly be explained by blaming the government. Most of the officials were merely doing their job. When the government changed, the officials changed loyalties, but we remained the same. We realized that the real source of our troubles had been revealed in the Bible.
We did not view ourselves simply as the innocent victims of oppressive men. What helped us to endure was a clear understanding of the issue raised in the garden of Eden—the issue of God’s right to rule. It was an issue that had not been settled. We knew that we had an opportunity to take a stand for Jehovah’s rulership. We took a stand for an issue linked not only to the personal interests of humans but also to the interests of the Sovereign of the universe. We had a much loftier understanding of the real issues involved. This made us strong and enabled us to keep our integrity even under the most extreme circumstances. We looked beyond mere human relationships.
The persecution of God’s people cannot wholly be explained by blaming the government
[Box/Picture on page 208, 209]
An Interview With Mariya Pylypiv
Profile: Went to Siberia in 1951 to visit her sister who had been deported there. Mariya learned the truth in Siberia and later married an exiled brother.
When Father died, the police came to our house. Many police came. They came from both the Village Council and the District Council. They warned us that they wanted no songs and no prayers. We replied that there was no law against prayer. They asked when the funeral would be held. We told them, and they left.
The brothers came early. It was prohibited to meet together, but people could come to a funeral. We started early because we knew the police would come. Just as one of the brothers started the prayer, a truck full of police arrived. The brother finished the prayer, and then we went to the cemetery.
They followed us and allowed us to enter the cemetery. When the brother said another prayer, the police tried to arrest him. But we sisters had decided that we weren’t going to let them have him. There were many policemen, so we formed a ring around the brother. In the chaos that followed, one of the sisters led the brother from the cemetery, between the houses, and into the village. Suddenly, an acquaintance drove up in a private vehicle, so the brother got in the car and left. The police looked everywhere but could not find him. Then they left.
Sisters often protected the brothers. Usually it is the other way around, but that is the way it had to be at the time. The sisters had to protect the brothers. There were many situations of that kind.
That is the way it had to be at the time. The sisters had to protect the brothers
[Box/Picture on page 220, 221]
An Interview With Petro Vlasiuk
Profile: Exiled 1951-65. Shortly after Brother Vlasiuk was exiled, his son became ill and died. The following year, after giving birth to another son, his wife developed complications and gradually died. Brother Vlasiuk was left with a small baby. In 1953 he remarried, and his new wife helped care for the child.
I was among those who were exiled from Ukraine to Siberia in 1951. You know, there was no fear. Jehovah instilled such a spirit into the brothers that they had faith, faith that was evident in the way they spoke. No one would ever have chosen to travel to this preaching assignment. Jehovah God evidently allowed the government to transport us there. Later the authorities said: “We have made a big mistake.”
The brothers said: “In what way?”
“In that we brought you here, and now you are converting people here as well!”
The brothers said: “You will make yet another mistake.”
Their second big mistake was that after they released us, after granting us an amnesty, they wouldn’t let us return home. “Go anywhere but home,” they said. Afterward, they came to their senses and realized that this had been a bad move. Because of that policy, the good news spread throughout all of Russia.
[Box/Picture on page 227]
An Interview With Anna Vovchuk
Profile: Exiled 1951-65. Ten years old when sent to Siberia. From 1957 to 1980, worked underground, printing Bible literature.
The KGB would often try to make us identify the brothers. They showed us pictures. I would say: “For you, I don’t know anything. I don’t know anybody for you.” That is how we always answered them. Later, shortly after I was married, I was walking to the city and met the local head of the KGB in Angarsk. He had often summoned me for questioning and knew me well.
He said to me: “As regards Stepan Vovchuk, you told me that you didn’t know this man. And now how is it that you are married to him?”
I answered: “Was it not you who introduced him to me with your pictures?”
He clapped his hands together: “Look! Again we are the guilty ones!”
And we laughed together. That was a happy, joyous moment in my life.
[Box/Picture on page 229, 230]
An Interview With Sofiya Vovchuk
Profile: Exiled 1951-65. Seven years old when sent with her mother, sister, and brother to Siberia.
When they took us to Siberia, they told us that we would be there forever. We never imagined that there would be freedom. When we read in The Watchtower about the conventions taking place in other countries, we prayed to Jehovah that just once in our lives, we might have the opportunity to attend a convention such as they have in other countries. Sure enough, Jehovah blessed us. In 1989 we were able to attend the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland. It is impossible to describe the utter delight, the joy, of being there.
The brothers in Poland welcomed us wholeheartedly. We were there four days. We attended a convention! It was sheer delight to learn more about Jehovah and to receive instruction from God’s Word. We were so happy. We shared our experiences with everyone. Even though there were so many nationalities, they were our brothers! As we walked around the stadium, there was a beautiful feeling of peace. After everything—having been under ban for so long—it seemed to us that we were already in the new world. We didn’t hear any cursing, and everything was clean and beautiful. We spent time together after the program. We did not leave right away; we associated with the brothers, talking together. There were also interpreters if we did not understand the language. Even when we didn’t understand, we kissed one another. We were happy.
[Box/Picture on page 243, 244]
An Interview With Roman Yurkevych
Profile: Spent six years in prison camps because of neutrality. Has served on the Ukraine Branch Committee since 1993.
The truth motivates a person to help and to support others. We especially felt this in 1998 when there was a huge flood in Transcarpathia, and hundreds, yes, hundreds of people lost their homes and all their belongings in one night.
Within two days, a group of brothers arrived on the scene and formed relief committees. These determined what relief would be given to each family, to each village. Two villages were especially hard hit, Vary and Vyshkove. Within only two or three days, plans were made as to which family would receive what help and who would help. Then our brothers arrived in trucks and began shoveling away the sea of mud.
They brought dry wood, which astounded everyone in this area. Non-Witnesses were amazed. One sister from Vyshkove was in the area where a team of brothers were shoveling away mud. A news correspondent approached her and asked: “Do you know who these people are?”
“I don’t know them well,” she answered, “because we speak different languages—Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Russian. But I know one thing: These are my brothers and sisters, and they’re helping me.”
Within two or three days, the brothers had sent help and taken care of these families, who were relocated to other areas. However, after half a year, practically all the houses of the Witnesses had been rebuilt, and the Witnesses were the first ones from that area to return to live in their new homes.
[Chart on page 254]
Regular Pioneers in Ukraine (1990-2001)
1990 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2001
[Chart on page 254]
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukrainea (1939-2001)
1939 1946 1974 1986 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998 2001
a Years 1939-90 contain approximate numbers
[Maps on page 123]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Full-page picture on page 118]
[Picture on page 127]
[Picture on page 129]
The first convention in the town of Borislav, Halychyna, August 1932
[Picture on page 130]
Convention in Solotvyno, Transcarpathia, 1932
[Picture on page 132]
For 40 years Mariya and Emil Zarysky faithfully fulfilled their assignment as translators
[Picture on page 133]
Ukraine’s first literature depot was located in this house in Uzhgorod from 1927-31
[Picture on page 134]
Group ready to go in the ministry by bus to the area of Rakhiv in the Carpathian Mountains, 1935: (1) Vojtech Chehy
[Picture on page 135]
Early phonograph record, “Religion and Christianity,” in Ukrainian
[Picture on page 136]
The Kosmach Congregation in 1938: (1) Mykola Volochii sold one of his two horses to buy a phonograph
[Picture on page 137]
Ludwik Kinicki, fondly remembered by many as a zealous minister, died faithful to Jehovah in a Nazi concentration camp
[Pictures on page 142]
Illia Hovuchak (above left), shown here traveling with Onufrii Rylchuk to preach in the mountains and (right) with his wife, Paraska, was executed by the Gestapo after being handed over by a Catholic priest
[Picture on page 146]
Anastasiya Kazak (1) with other Witnesses from Stutthof concentration camp
[Pictures on page 153]
Ivan Maksymiuk (above with his wife, Yevdokiya) and his son Mykhailo (right) refused to compromise their integrity
[Picture on page 158]
Early Bible publications in Ukrainian
[Picture on page 170]
At 20 years of age, Hryhorii Melnyk was shouldering the responsibility of caring for his two younger brothers and a sister
[Picture on page 176]
Mariya Tomilko endured 15 years of imprisonment but has remained faithful
[Picture on page 182]
Nutsu Bokoch during a short meeting in prison with his daughter, 1960
[Pictures on page 185]
Lydia and Oleksii Kurdas (above), arrested and imprisoned in separate camps when their daughter, Halyna, was 17 days old; Halyna Kurdas, age three (right): This photograph was taken in 1961 while her parents were still in prison
[Picture on page 191]
On the night before their wedding day, Hanna Shyshko and Yurii Kopos were arrested and sentenced to ten years of camp imprisonment. They were married ten years later
[Picture on page 191]
Yurii Kopos spent almost a third of a century in Soviet prisons and labor camps
[Picture on page 194]
Pavlo Ziatek devoted his entire life to Jehovah’s service
[Picture on page 196]
Letter dated May 18, 1962, from Nathan H. Knorr to the brothers in the U.S.S.R.
[Picture on page 214]
Literature for Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union was printed in bunkers like this one in eastern Ukraine
[Picture on page 216]
Top: The forested hill deep in the Carpathian Mountains where Ivan Dziabko operated a secret bunker
[Picture on page 216]
Above: Mykhailo Dioloh sits next to what used to be the entrance to the bunker where he supplied Ivan Dziabko with paper
[Picture on page 216]
Right: Ivan Dziabko
[Picture on page 223]
Bela Meysar spent 21 years in prison, during which his faithful wife, Regina, traveled a total of over 85,000 miles [140,000 km] to visit him often
[Picture on page 224]
Michael Dasevich was appointed country servant in 1971
[Picture on page 233]
The registration of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, on February 28, 1991, was the first such registration in the territory of the U.S.S.R.
[Pictures on page 237]
At the 1993 international convention in Kiev, 7,402 were baptized, the largest number immersed at any one convention in the modern-day history of God’s people
[Picture on page 246]
Graduation of the first Ministerial Training School class in Lvov, early 1999
[Picture on page 251]
Top: The Kingdom Hall complex where the Bethel family served from 1995 to 2001
[Picture on page 251]
Middle: The house used by the Bethel family during 1994-5
[Picture on page 251]
Bottom: The Kingdom Hall in the town of Nadvirna—the first to be built under the new Kingdom Hall construction program in Ukraine
[Pictures on page 252, 253]
(1-3) The newly dedicated branch in Ukraine
[Picture on page 252]
(4) Branch Committee, from left to right: (seated) Stepan Hlinskyi, Stepan Mykevych; (standing) Andrii Semkovych, Roman Yurkevych, John Didur, and Jürgen Keck
[Picture on page 253]
(5) Theodore Jaracz speaking at the Ukraine branch dedication, May 19, 2001