Thursday, May 27, 2010

Soviet Union: A story of persistent religious persecution /
Σοβιετική Ένωση: Μια ιστορία επίμονου θρησκευτικού διωγμού

«The spread of modern cults in the Soviet Union is - in the same way as is the continued existence of the official churches - a convincing proof that the regime did not succeed in extinguishing Soviet people's faith in God. In the face of the extensive system of scientific-atheist propaganda which was systematically conducted in the Soviet Union on a far-reaching scale, the spreading of new religious teachings was a heavy blow to ideological education, since atheist propaganda was one of its most important components. This propaganda was supposed to influence Soviet people from kindergarten to the grave with the aim of freeing them from all 'religious remnants'. To reach this aim, mass persecution of all churches and believers was started immediately after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. The official churches -Christian as well as the non-Christian - were subject to heavy persecution, along with the numerous sects which had existed in Tsarist Russia (the Baptists, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Mennonites, the Dukhobors, the Molokans, and others). By the eve of the Second World War, practically all the religious organisations had been destroyed, and the church as an institution had been forced out of public life. Statistics of that time indicate that the Russian Orthodox Church had been reduced to a tiny proportion of its pre-revolutionary strength. The situation of the Russian Orthodox Church and other churches as well changed positively only after Josef Stalin received the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church in September 1943, at the height of combat action, and concluded a kind of concordat with them. About this time, the Jehovah's Witnesses, a US-based religious sect, first came to the Soviet Union. The first Jehovah's Witnesses came following the annexation of the western Ukraine, western parts of Belorussia, the Baltic states, and Moldavia in the 1940s. In spite of the radical persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, who were not only considered illegal, but also accused of serving the 'foreign enemy, US imperialists', this religious denomination succeeded in surviving and, according to official statistics, still has 378 communities. [...]

As already mentioned, the Jehovah's Witness movement, which originated in the United States in the late nineteenth century, took roots in the Soviet Union following the annexation of the western areas of the Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic states, and Moldavia in the 1940s. Since then, the movement has spread to many other parts of the USSR. According to reports of Jehovah's Witnesses' activities that appeared in the Soviet press, the main centres of the movement are in Belorussia, Moldavia, Zakarpatskaya Oblast, and the Ukraine, but in search of remote areas where they hoped they might face less persecution, groups of Jehovah's Witnesses have also settled in the Far East and in Kirghizia, and may also be found in Transcarpathia and Kazakhstan.

The Soviet press constantly accused Jehovah's Witnesses of subservience to orders and instructions emanating from the movement's headquarters in Brooklyn, which, it claimed, was engaging in a crusade against the socialist countries, trying to discredit Marxism-Leninism, and conducting active anti-communist propaganda. It was charged that the 'apoliticism' of the Jehovah's Witness publications, Watchtower and Awake! was in fact a specific political line serving the forces of reaction and harming the cause of peace and freedom of peoples. The main indictment was, however, that 'the authors of Jehovist tracts' incite Soviet citizens to disregard their civic obligations, in particular to refuse to serve in the ranks of the Soviet Army, and to commit other 'punishable offences'.

From time to time, republican newspapers published accounts of trials of Jehovah's Witnesses. One such report appeared in 1982 in Sovetskaya Kirgiziya. A truck driver, Vladimir Zhitnikov, had been stopped by the police for 'committing a serious traffic violation'. In the truck the police found several hundred copies of From the Lost to the Regained Paradise, a book printed in Brooklyn, and some zinc printing plates not on open sale in the USSR. The account stated that Zhitnikov was charged under Article 217 of the Kirghiz Criminal Code, which prescribed the penalties for 'acquisition or sale of property known to have been criminally obtained'. The sentence he received was not mentioned.

Jehovah's Witnesses in the Soviet Union refused to register with the authorities as a religious group and were subjected, as an illegal association, to especially severe persecution. It was claimed in the Soviet press that the Jehovah's Witnesses were free to register their association and 'satisfy their religious needs in complete accordance with Soviet law'. This was reiterated by a people's court in the town of Torez in Donetsk Oblast at the trial of five leaders of communities of Jehovah's Witnesses in January 1983, all of whom were sentenced to five years in confinement.21 But the Jehovah's Witnesses, like many other illegal religious communities in the Soviet Union, long considered that it would be a betrayal of their faith even to register legally with what remains an atheist state. The trial of the five Jehovah's Witnesses in Torez in 1983 was accompanied by a strident campaign in the press. A special correspondent of Pravda Ukrainy provided reports from the courtroom three days in a row, and the Argumenty i fakty bulletin of the 'Znanie' Society also published his article about the trial.

In early 1985, western news agencies reported that a group of eight Jehovah's Witnesses had been brought to trial in Khabarovsk and sentenced to terms of between four and five years in either ordinary or strict-regime camps. The court also ordered that the property of one of the defendants be confiscated. The eight had been arrested in late autumn 1984. It was also reported that seven other Jehovah's Witnesses had been arrested in Kuibyshev, Moscow, and Leningrad. At least seven Jehovah's Witnesses were sentenced in 1984. In 1985, the aggressive press campaign against the religious movement continued. One of such articles, entitled 'Retribution', and intended primarily, it must be assumed, for women readers, described how the four children of a woman who belonged to a community of Jehovah's Witnesses left her, one after the other, to go to their father. Another, entitled 'Self-Styled Prophets', contained the standard charges about the dependence of Jehovah's Witnesses on their American headquarters,
and the 'anti-state and anti-social attitudes of the extremist leaders of the sect', but also revealed some details of activities that are rarely publicised in the press. Among other things, it described a pamphlet entitled Tidings (Terrible and Joyful) to All Kingdoms, Peoples, and Tribes from the God of the Holy Prophets, made out of'pages from an ordinary notebook, carefully stitched with white thread'. In fact, this is a reproduction of a pamphlet originally published in 1890, and it would seem hard to believe it would contain anti-Soviet propaganda. N. Sidirov, the author of the article, describes how Jehovah's Witnesses drop copies of this hand-made pamphlet into mailboxes:
These underground agitators are forced to grope their way around other people's backyards in the dead of night, with dogs barking at them, always on the lookout, to drop their 'tidings' into other people's mailboxes.
But the campaign lost energy as the process of restructuring relations between state and church gathered speed. In October 1989, perestroika bore fruit on the official level: TASS reported that the leader of the European part of Brooklyn Centre, Willi Pohl, had arrived in the USSR on the invitation of the Council of Religious Affairs. He spent three days in Kazakhstan, investigating the life of the Jehovah's Witnesses there. In an interesting departure, Pohl said that the organisation now considered legal registration with the Soviet authorities to be necessary. After his meeting with representatives of the Council for Religious Affairs, Pohl said that the question of building prayer houses was now under discussion. The official visit of a highranking representative of the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Soviet Union must be considered to have been a sign that the Soviet authorities were ready to grant full legal rights to what had been one of the most suppressed and persecuted religious denominations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the Jehovah's Witnesses suddenly found themselves, like other citizens, in entirely new political circumstances.»

[«Η εξάπλωση  των σύγχρονων θρησκευμάτων στη Σοβιετική Ένωση είναι -κατά τον ίδιο τρόπο όπως η συνεχιζόμενη ύπαρξη των επίσημων εκκλησιών- μια πειστική απόδειξη ότι το καθεστώς δεν κατόρθωσε να εξαλείψει την πίστη του σοβιετικού λαού στο Θεό. Ενόψει ενός εκτενούς συστήματος επιστημονικής-αθεϊστικής προπαγάνδας που πραγματοποιούνταν συστηματικά στη Σοβιετική Ένωση σε εκτεταμένη κλίμακα, η εξάπλωση νέων θρησκευτικών διδασκαλιών αποτελούσε βαρύ πλήγμα για την ιδεολογική εκπαίδευση, καθώς η αθεϊστική προπαγάνδα ήταν ένα από τα πιο σημαντικά της συστατικά. Αυτή η προπαγάνδα αποσκοπούσε στο να επηρεάσει τον σοβιετικό λαό από το νηπιαγωγείο μέχρι τον τάφο, με στόχο την απελευθέρωσή του από όλα τα «θρησκευτικά κατάλοιπα». Προς επίτευξη αυτού του στόχου, οι μαζικοί διωγμοί όλων των εκκλησιών και των πιστών ξεκίνησαν αμέσως αφότου οι Μπολσεβίκοι ανήλθαν στην εξουσία στη Ρωσία.

* Sabrina Petra Ramet,
Religious policy in the Soviet Union
[Η θρησκευτική πολιτική στη Σοβιετική Ένωση],
Cambridge University Press, 1993,
pp./σσ. 252, 253, 257-259.

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