In Putin’s Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are labeled “extremists” and accused of being American spies. Still, they keep their faith alive.
MOSCOW — “Stay in the car,” Yuri says. He looks out the window, up at the grey Soviet-era tower block we’re idling outside. An old woman is staring out the window. “She’s looking at us. She’s suspicious.”
Eugeny and his wife, Lyudmilla, have already gone inside. But Yuri (who, like everyone quoted in this article, has asked to be identified by first name only for security reasons) is worried that entering as a group will attract attention. Attention means somebody might call the police. And when you’re a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia — labeled by the government as a member of an “extremist” sect, the same designation they use for neo-Nazis and ISIS members — dealing with the police is the last thing you need.
Eight million Christians around the world self-identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their worship is characterized by frequent public proselytizing.
And, according to a new law signed this week by President Putin, they are unable to share their faith with one another in the street — or in private homes. The law, among the most sweeping in post-Soviet history, prevents any form of evangelism outside of state-approved buildings, including in private, in homes, and on the Internet. In practice, it affects members of non-Russian-Orthodox religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and Protestant Christians.
This is not the first legal strike against Russia’s religious minorities. In April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses, which represents the faith of an estimated 175,000 Russians, violates the country’s anti-extremist statutes. An appeal was refused in June 2017 continuing years of state-sponsored persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religious group.
Police frequently raid Jehovah’s Witness services — both in private homes and in Kingdom Halls — and, according to members, turn a blind eye to discriminatory civilian violence. Yuri recalls one instance where a “sister” — as Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to female members of their community — was beaten and threatened with a gun by another woman while out preaching, only for the police to dismiss her as a “cult member” and a thief when they finally arrived. But since the most recent Supreme Court ruling, Yuri says, things have gotten worse.
“We’re on their radar at all times,” says Yuri, an affable man in his 50s who apologizes, frequently, for his near-perfect English, which he taught himself through the internet. Their largest Kingdom Hall, located in a northern suburb of Moscow, lies empty, the entrance marked with caution tape, after the building’s owner deemed it too risky to let Jehovah’s Witnesses use. We are meeting in July of 2017, shortly after the refusal of the first ruling’s appeal.
Still, the community has developed a strategy to keep its faith and worship alive. They enter the building in twos and threes to avoid attracting attention. They mix up the homes they use, to keep it difficult for government forces or potential harassers to track. They set a table laden with food, which, during the Saturday worship session I attended in July, goes entirely untouched. It’s there so that if police arrive, they can claim that they’re simply gathering for a party. And, Yuri tells me, they always keep a few bottles of vodka on hand. If the police come, he says, they can down it quickly. The police will smell their breath, notice their inebriation, and believe that they’re been carousing, not worshipping.
Today, about 20 Witnesses gather in this Moscow suburb. They are roughly split evenly by gender, and a mix of ages. Nearly all follow the lesson on their tablets or phones, using specialized apps. (Importing physical copies of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible is also forbidden.)
Yuri’s wife, Alla, helpfully translates the verses from Russian to English for me on her phone. They pray for the wisdom of their rulers, reading verses from the Book of Daniel about faith in times of turmoil. They affirm Jehovah — their rendering of the term for the Judeo-Christian God — as lord of the universe. From time to time Yuri and his friend Eugeny, a wide-eyed bald man fond of speaking with his hands, ask questions of the flock, calling on members of the community to help interpret the Bible.
The worship service, which runs about 90 minutes, is a muted affair. After all, they can no longer sing during services in people’s homes, lest the sound attract the suspicion of neighbors.
But it is, Yuri says, the best they can do.
The plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses reflects the powerful alliance between nationalism and Russian Orthodoxy
To be a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, after all, is to fall afoul of the extremely complex interplay between nationality, faith, and nationalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which — as I have previously written — bolsters its authoritarian regime by appealing to the fundamental “Russianness” of the state Orthodox Church. For Putin and his supporters, Jehovah’s Witnesses seem like a dangerous foreign influence. Yuri jokes that other Russians think Jehovah’s Witnesses are foreign spies, or that their frequent doorstop evangelism is actually a ploy to gather data to send back to the CIA; after all, in Russia, their religious expression inherently codes them as dangerously “Western” and “other.”
The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and the former USSR more widely, has always been tied up with politics. They were the subject of suspicion under the hyper-secularist Soviet regime. Lyudmilla, Eugeny’s wife, tells me that both her grandfather and father were sent to Siberian gulags by Stalin for decades for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion spread during the chaotic 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when religion was finally no longer taboo, and people started asking questions about God.
“A lot of people started when the Soviet Union was destroyed, to say what is written in the Bible,” Alla recalls. “[Talking about religion] became open. After the Soviet Union fell, you could talk about God openly — no problem! That was very interesting [to me] — [I wondered] what was inside [the Bible]?”
For others, faith allowed them to find meaning in the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union. Eugeny proudly tells me his religion under the USSR was “communism!” He served in the army, all the way up until what he called “civil war — Russians firing on Russians” — marking the fall of the Soviet Union.
When communism started to fall, Eugeny felt himself at sea. “I was communist, but at the same time, geopolitics was interesting for me,” he says. “And in the army I realized that the most great geopolitician was Jehovah. But I didn’t know him [yet]” — he had felt the stirrings of religious longing but had not yet become a true believer.
Only when his now-wife Lyudmilla started to preach did the world start to make sense to him. “[I realized that I] have to serve God. I realized that God is Almighty and I wanted to serve him,” he said. Geopolitics at last makes sense, he says. Now, he says, he sees the world as a chess board, God as the ultimate player.
For all four of the Jehovah’s Witnesses I interviewed, religion in the Soviet years had been primarily a function of national and ethnic identity, not faith. Yuri, who was raised in Uzbekistan, considered himself Muslim because of his ethnicity, nothing more. “I was born in a Muslim family?” He shrugs to demonstrate emphasis. “Okay, I’m Muslim.”
He remembers being shocked the first time he saw an Uzbek Witness try to convert him. “I said, what? Look at you? Look in the mirror, you are Muslim. And you became … Christian? Why?”
His wife, Alla, was a “Christian” in the same way Yuri was raised as a “Muslim.” She grew up in Siberia before moving to the warmer climate of Uzbekistan for her health. That’s where she met Yuri.
At first, Alla was more receptive than her husband to the Jehovah’s Witness evangelists who knocked on their door. But Yuri was worried at first about the mysterious strangers who studied the Bible with his wife — and their foreign ways.
“I was worried, a little bit, that it wasn’t the traditional way … I worried that it was a cult,” he said. But he started to warm to the idea of a faith that was led by discussion and asking questions — not tradition. And the idea of being religious in name only did not appeal to him. “[Russian] Orthodox people, they drink a lot. They can lie, they can steal, they can do many things. But at the same time, they wear the cross. I said, ‘Hey, you are not afraid of God. If you are Christian, your behavior should be according to the Bible.’ But I didn’t find [that] with Orthodox people.” Jehovah’s Witnesses were different, Yuri says. He stopped drinking, smoking, hanging out with a “bad crowd.” His family was shocked — and suspicious. What he was doing wasn’t “traditional” after all. But they couldn’t deny the change in his behavior.
For as long as Yuri can remember, Jehovah’s Witnesses in his native Uzbekistan dealt with similar harassment under the recently deceased nationalist dictator Islam Karimov as they face now in Russia, where he moved for work some decades ago. They’d have to pay the odd bribe or fine at a police station, or they’d get into trouble with local toughs. But the situation in Russia under Putin, all agree, has gotten worse, reminding them of the worst days of Stalinism, except with a different ethos. In the old days, Jehovah’s Witnesses were a threat to the secularist state. Today, they are a threat to the Russian Orthodox establishment. But the methods remain the same.
“My father, my grandfather, were prisoners for reading the Bible,” sighs Lyudmilla, “Then they were rehabilitated [after the fall of the USSR and considered] the victims of political repression. The government said sorry to that generation. But now they’ve started to put us under stress again.”
Persecution has only strengthened the community’s resolve
They all agree, however, that this does not let them stop practicing their faith — or even proselytizing. Although they do not stand on street corners any longer, they go a few times a week to knock on doors and try to preach what they believe is God’s word, even if they’re more likely than not to be shouted at or attacked as suspected foreign spies or agents of treason. “The [state-run] TV and newspapers, they demonize Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Yuri says. “But we aren’t stopping preaching — and we won’t stop preaching.”
Yuri makes sure to say that he is not political. Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to be neutral bystanders in political affairs (worldwide, for example, they request exemptions from mandatory military service, something that they are denied in Russia). “It doesn’t matter who is the president. Just don’t touch us. We don’t want to change the president. We have to pray for the [leaders] — that they can manage the country with wisdom.”
Still, he is more than a little caustic when reminding me of the story of the biblical prophet Daniel, once the prisoner of a disbelieving king.
“Daniel, he had good days, he had bad days,” Yuri says. “But he held to his faith. Every day, he served God.” He points out that the biblical word he uses in Russian, spastayanstvom, has the connotation of a donkey: day by day, turning in circles to mill the grain. In other words: Daniel was stubborn.
“Now we have bad day in Russia,” he says. “But we will continue to worship God as Daniel did. Thanks to God, Daniel was saved. And he will save us. But who has to worry? The people who put Daniel in the lion’s den. They had to worry. Because when Daniel was released from the lion’s place, the bad people were killed by the king — you see what I mean?”
Yuri winks at me. “So, the people who do the same things in Russia have to worry. Not us. Jehovah’s Witnesses survived in Hitler’s time. In Stalin’s time. We survived gulags. Siberia. We have a God. The people who persecute us — they’re the ones who have to worry.”
Update: this story, originally reported in July 2017, has been updated to reflect Russia’s latest legal developments