preaching activity soon came under attack by Soviet authorities. In Estonia the attack began in August 1948 when the five individuals taking the lead in the work were arrested and put in prison. “Soon it was apparent that the KGB wanted to arrest everyone,” noted Estonian Witness Lembit Toom. This was true wherever Witnesses were found in the Soviet Union.
The Soviets depicted Witnesses as the worst of criminals and as a major threat to the atheistic Soviet State. So, everywhere, they were hunted down, arrested, and imprisoned. The Sword and the Shield observed: “The Jehovist obsession of senior KGB officers was, perhaps, the supreme example of their lack of any sense of proportion when dealing with even the most insignificant forms of dissent.”
This obsession was dramatically evidenced by the well planned attack carried out against the Witnesses in April 1951. Just two years ago, in 1999, Professor Sergei Ivanenko, a respected Russian scholar, observed in his book The People Who Are Never Without Their Bibles that in early April 1951, “more than 5,000 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Moldavian, and Baltic Soviet republics were sent to ‘a permanent settlement’ in Siberia, the Far East, and Kazakhstan.”
Worthy of Remembrance
Can you imagine the effort involved in that attack—in one day rounding up thousands of families of Witnesses throughout such a large area? Think of coordinating hundreds, if not thousands, of personnel—first of all to identify the Witnesses and then, under cover of darkness, to carry out simultaneous surprise raids on their homes. Following that, there was the work of loading the people into carts, wagons, and other vehicles; taking them to railroad stations; and transferring them to freight cars.
Think, too, of the suffering of the victims. Can you imagine what it was like to be forced to travel thousands of miles—for up to three weeks or more—in overcrowded, unsanitary freight cars that had only a bucket for toilet facilities? And try to imagine being dumped off in the Siberian wilderness, knowing that in order to survive, you would have to eke out an existence in that harsh environment.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the April 1951 exile of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To tell the story of their faithfulness despite decades of persecution, the experiences of survivors have been videotaped. These reveal that—even as was the case with first-century Christians—attempts to prevent people from worshiping God are ultimately doomed to failure.
What the Exile Accomplished
The Soviets soon learned that stopping the Witnesses from worshiping Jehovah would be much more difficult than they had imagined. Despite the protests of their captors, the Witnesses sang praises to Jehovah while being forced into exile and hung signs on their railway cars that said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses on Board.” One Witness explained: “At the railroad stations along the way, we met other trains carrying those being exiled, and we saw the signs that were hung on the railway cars.” What encouragement this provided!
So rather than being disheartened, those being exiled reflected the spirit of Jesus’ apostles. The Bible says that after these were flogged and ordered to stop preaching, “they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ.” (Acts 5:40-42) Indeed, as Kolarz said about the exile, “this was not the end of the ‘Witnesses’ in Russia, but only the beginning of a new chapter in their proselytising activities. They even tried to propagate their faith when they stopped at stations on their way into exile.”
When the Witnesses arrived at their various destinations and were dropped off, they gained a good reputation for being obedient hard workers. Yet, at the same time, in imitation of Christ’s apostles, they, in effect, told their oppressors: ‘We cannot stop speaking about our God.’ (Acts 4:20) Many listened to what the Witnesses taught and joined them in serving God.
The consequence was just as Kolarz explained: “In deporting them the Soviet Government could have done nothing better for the dissemination of their faith. Out of their village isolation [in the western Soviet republics] the ‘Witnesses’ were brought into a wider world, even if this was only the terrible world of the concentration and slave labour camps.”
Efforts to Cope With Growth
In time, the Soviets tried different methods to stop Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since vicious persecution had failed to produce the desired results, a well planned program of lying propaganda was initiated. Books, films, and radio programs—as well as the infiltration of congregations by trained KGB agents—were all tried.
The widespread misrepresentation caused many people mistakenly to view the Witnesses with fear and distrust, as evidenced by an article in the August 1982 Reader’s Digest, Canadian Edition. It was written by Vladimir Bukovsky, a Russian who was allowed to immigrate to England in 1976. He wrote: “One evening in London, I happened to notice a plaque on a building that read: JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES . . . I couldn’t read any further, I was stupefied, almost to the point of panic.”
Vladimir explained why he was needlessly fearful: “These are the cultists whom the authorities use as boogeymen in our country to scare children . . . In the U.S.S.R., you meet flesh-and-blood ‘Witnesses’ only in prisons and concentration camps. And here I was in front of a building, a plaque. Could anyone actually go in and have a cup of tea with them?” he asked. To emphasize his reason for alarm, Vladimir concluded: “The ‘Witnesses’ are pursued in our country with as much fury as the Mafia in theirs, and the mystery that surrounds them is the same.”
Yet, despite vicious persecution and lying propaganda, the Witnesses persevered and increased in numbers. Such Soviet books as The Truths About Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a printing in Russian in 1978 of 100,000 copies, suggested the need for stepped up anti-Witness propaganda. The author, V. V. Konik, who described how the Witnesses were carrying on their preaching in the face of severe restrictions, advised: “Soviet researchers on religion should learn more effective methods for overcoming the teachings of Jehovah’s witnesses.”
Why the Focus of Attack?
Simply put, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the chief focus of the Soviet attack because
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