Deported… "for their faith in God"
Most members of the community were evicted from Western Ukraine. On April 8, 1951, in one day, 6,271 men, women, and children were evicted from their homes and loaded into cattle wagons. Their houses and property were "confiscated". The crime was not disclosed, and it remains unknown to many former citizens of the now-defunct Soviet Country.
In Ukraine, this action was named in secret documents "Troika"; in general, in the Union it was named "North". Recently, after the declassification of archives in Ukraine, researchers have gained access to documents that reveal all new facets of the tragedy. At present, this MGB operation is considered to be the largest confessional deportation in the history of the USSR.
"We live in a time of commemoration - the preservation of the memory of significant events for the nation, not just for its individual communities. After all, we, as a nation, are the ones who remember all the components of our history,” Igor Kozlovskiy emphasizes. “Thus, the deportation of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1951 is part of our Ukrainian national memory. It reflects all the processes characteristic of the history of this territory. "
The Kremlin began considering the possibility of deporting Jehovah's Witnesses in May 1950. On February 19, 1951, the Minister of State Security of the USSR, Viktor Abakumov, wrote in a report to Stalin under the heading "top secret": "The State Security Committee of the USSR considers it necessary not only to arrest the leaders of the Jehovist sect, but also to evict from the territory of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia identified Jehovists with their families in Irkutsk and Tomsk regions. A total of 8,567 people (3,048 families) were subject to eviction, including 1,675 people from the Moldavian SSR, 6,140 people from the Ukrainian SSR, 394 people from the Byelorussian SSR, 76 people from the Lithuanian SSR, 52 people from the Latvian SSR, and 250 people from the Estonian SSR.” They planned to evict them forever. And during the implementation of the criminal plan, the number of evictees increased significantly. For example, 170 people were deported from Lithuania, not 52.
In Ukraine, the deportation of Jehovah's Witnesses was organized on April 8, coinciding with the eviction of the families of the "kulaks" and "andersians" - former soldiers of the army of Polish General Anders. A total of 8,984 people from Western Ukraine were deported to Siberia that day. Moreover, more than 10,000 enkavedists, overseers and the military and hundreds of units of military equipment were involved in the action.
Recently, the Archives of the Liberation Movement published documents about this criminal "special operation". And the Ukrainian Association of Religious Studies, together with the Center of Jehovah's Witnesses and the Center for the Study of New Religions (CESNUR), organized the International Academic Conference “70 years after operation ‘North’: important lessons of repression for faith”, which was online last week. Religious scholars and representatives of the Witness community presented the results to the public at an online press conference at Ukrinform.
The conference participants covered a wide range of issues, from the actual history of Operation North, the nature of totalitarianism and its crimes against the believers, to the current state of Jehovah's Witness communities in Ukraine and in other states, the features of policy in the field of freedom of conscience, new persecution in Russia and in the occupied territories of Ukraine. The conference was attended by 12 researchers from around the world: Ukraine, Poland, USA, Russia, Kazakhstan, Italy and Estonia. More than 6,000 people listened to the reports online at the same time.
The conference presented the site 1951deport.org - a platform for scientists, educators and anyone who wants to learn more about this crime. The site hosts a 3D tour of the virtual museum "Operation ‘North’: unlearned lessons of deportation." There are archival documents, life stories of deportees and a photo gallery, features of life in conditions of almost constant frosts.
Condition: to glorify Stalin
"The operation was organized at the military level; several ministries were involved," said Konstantin Berezhko, a candidate of historical sciences and a freelancer at the Department of Totalitarian Studies at Dresden Technical University. “A special map was developed, which indicated the number of echelons and wagons, as well as information about the people who were to be deported. Families were given only 2 hours to pack. The trip took about two or three weeks under inhumane conditions. After all, the wagons were not designed to transport people. "
The researcher explained how Jehovah's Witnesses annoyed the Soviet authorities. In Western Ukraine, there were active groups of these believers, the best organized of all the religious underground of that time. This was a challenge for the MGB. When a community of Jehovah's Witnesses wanted to register in 1949, they were told to publish religious literature in party printing houses and to glorify Stalin in their sermons. Of course, the believers did not agree.
Konstantin Berezhko notes that the operation was more brutal in Moldova and the Baltics than in Ukraine. Even bedridden patients were evicted there, and even a mother with a baby with meningitis was loaded. Children accounted for a third of those deported. Some were fed on the way, some were not.
In preparation for the international conference, the Jehovah's Witnesses Center in Ukraine conducted a large-scale survey and recorded the testimony of repressed people from various parts of Ukraine. This included about 130 believers. Fragments of video testimonies were presented at the conference.
“Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted before the deportation, especially during the election, because we did not go to vote," said Vasyl Kocherhan. “My father was asked to sign that he is renouncing his beliefs as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. My father said that he could not give up the God he believed in.”
“The police officer came and lined us up, first my mother then all the children. Then he put a gun to her neck and said that he would shoot every one of us,” - Oksana Stefanyshyn recalls. “And when we were riding on the train, we wrote on a piece of paper in pencil that Jehovah's Witnesses are riding here and attached it to the boxcar so that everyone could see.”
“Once, our train stopped, and we heard singing from another freight train nearby. It was our brothers and sisters who were taken from Moldova,” Anna Volosyanko shared.
At the place of arrival, some lived in barracks and some in dugouts. There were more than a hundred people in the barracks. They worked at logging. Children from the age of 12 were forced to work on an equal footing with adults.
It didn't happen as expected
By the way, witnesses were given the opportunity to renounce their faith and stay at home. If the family agreed, they were included in the category of those who converted to another religion. Thus, there were 5 families left in Drohobych region. Those who did not renounce their faith but were not deported for various reasons were closely monitored. Under Stalin, the penalty for the storage of religious literature in Ukraine was 25 years in prison. The penalty was later changed to 10 years. Among the books that were destroyed and considered anti-Soviet was the Bible. Believers were sometimes fined. On one of the receipts for the fine was written the reason for the fine of 50 rubles: "For faith in God."
In Siberia, Witnesses continued to be monitored and reported to the MGB leadership. Here is what the commissioner in the Irkutsk region, Zhytov, wrote: "Jehovah's Witnesses are the largest group in number, the most evil and fierce, and obsessed with brutal hatred of the Soviet Union." The deportees were told they would be sent farther north if they continued to preach.
According to Konstantin Berezhko, there are currently no lists of names of all deported witnesses from Ukraine; but there is a list compiled a long time ago by the deportees themselves. It should be checked and made public.
"The struggle against religion in the USSR since 1929 was equated with the class-political struggle," recalls a senior researcher at the Department of Religious Studies of the G.S. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, President of the Center for Religious Studies and International Spiritual Relations Ihor Kozlovsky. “All religious communities were considered class enemies. The state's policy was aimed at destroying everything that could somehow undermine the foundations of the totalitarian regime." But did this operation and, in general, the anti-religious policy of the Soviet Union succeed in reality? Researchers and experts in the field of national memory are convinced that it did not. After all, the authorities aimed to stop the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses. However, it turned out the other way around; there were even more believers of this denomination. But the initiator and leader of Operation “North”, Minister of State Security Viktor Abakumov, was arrested three months after the operation and shot dead in 1954.
Faith versus power
According to Viktor Yelensky, a doctor of historical sciences at the Kuras Institute for Political and Ethno-National Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, all pro-communist regimes began their policies with terror against the Church, confiscation of church property, and imprisonment of priests. But then the situation changed, depending on the degree of opposition of the Churches to the authorities. After all, the Churches had varying degrees of support in society. In the USSR, the authorities acknowledged that they were unable to pursue the same religious policies in different regions. Thus, during Khrushchev's anti-religious campaign, when the leadership of the Ukrainian SSR was tasked with closing half of the churches, they did so only in Eastern Ukraine. In the West, this policy was met with fierce resistance. It was similar with Jehovah's Witnesses, who were active and confident.
"In the midst of the perestroika, I recorded many interviews with Protestant churches and Jehovah's Witnesses," Mr. Victor recalled. “In Uglegorsk, Donetsk region, lived a large group of Jehovah's Witnesses, natives of Western Ukraine, who returned from Siberia. They were not allowed to settle in their native places. One of the interlocutors said that nothing strengthens faith like the Siberian cold. And that they will not be able to get along with the communist government, because "it claims what we cannot give away."
According to Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, Vice-President of the Ukrainian Association of Religious Studies Lyudmila Fylypovych, the international conference “70 years after operation ‘North’: important lessons of repression for faith”, confirmed the Nuremberg verdict on totalitarian regimes that resort to terror by killing thousands and millions of people for phantom ideas. And it does not matter in what forms such states exist. Whether communist or Nazi, they try to regulate and control all spheres of people's lives. It actually makes a person a slave. “We understand that unpunished crimes can once again lead to the return of terrible totalitarian living conditions for the people. This is especially important to understand today, because we are facing attempts to rehabilitate the Soviet Union,” says Lyudmila Filipovich. “Jehovah's Witnesses actually became witnesses to the heartlessness of that regime. They, like other active religious communities, created an alternative reality to Soviet rule. The brutality of the persecution did not destroy Jehovah's Witnesses. They, to the contrary, adapt to any conditions and can use it to spread the values they preach.”
To be continued?
The conference participants noted that the attitude towards the religious community of Jehovah's Witnesses is a kind of litmus test for both tolerance and the degree of totalitarianism in society. Oleksiy Lukyanov, a representative of the Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Ukraine, spoke about acts of vandalism and other hate crimes against Jehovah's Witnesses in eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk. For example, in Yenakiieve and Debaltseve in 2013, the prayer houses of Jehovah’s Witnesses were destroyed. The police paid attention to this only when everything was destroyed. It turned out that the attacks were carried out by members of a neo-Nazi organization who went to Russia for special training. Weapons were found in their homes. But none of them were punished. The members of this group soon became the leaders of the armed groups during the events of 2014. Two of them headed intelligence units. Both were killed.
“Unfortunately, the policy that led to the deportation of Jehovah's Witnesses to Siberia continues in the occupied territories of Ukraine," says Ihor Kozlovsky, a religious scholar who spent several years in captivity by militants in eastern Ukraine because he has a different opinion than those who captured the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “Russia is a state that does not abandon its imperial ideology. And any empire is built on the unification of worldview.”
Oleksiy Lukyanov emphasizes that the language of hostility towards Jehovah's Witnesses, according to research, has an external origin. However, trainings for Ukrainian police are already underway. And four rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on Jehovah's Witnesses will improve the system of qualification and punishment, and form a state policy to combat hate crimes and hate speech.
The head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, Anton Drobovych, notes that thanks to people who have actively defended their values, norms appear in Ukrainian legislation that take into account the specifics of different communities. For example, a provision according to which persons who cannot serve in the military due to their religious beliefs may undergo an alternative. Anton Drobovych called on the community of Jehovah's Witnesses to create information materials, brochures, exhibitions, videos and assured them of the UINM support in such promotional work.
Religious scholar Lyudmyla Fylypovych also spoke about the need for a broad information campaign in the media, schools and universities to make this topic known. "At one time we knew almost nothing about the Holodomor and the deportation of Crimean Tatars, and now these pages of our history are well known," emphasizes Ms. Lyudmila. "We need to show solidarity with Jehovah's Witnesses from Russia and our occupied territories, and various religious organizations should join this."