Round table at International Memorial. Source: International Memorial

Statistics and Overview

What Was Said at the International Memorial Society Round Table on the 70th Anniversary of the Siberian Exile of Jehovah's Witnesses?


On April 6, 2021, the International Memorial gathered together a number of Russian scholars and human rights activists at a round table dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the exile of Jehovah's Witnesses to Siberia—the largest confessional deportation in the USSR. The video of the event can be viewed in its entirety online (in Russian).

The conference announcement notes: “At the beginning of April 1951, the USSR Ministry of State Security conducted another forced resettlement campaign: the families of Jehovah's Witnesses were subject to deportation ... The participants of the round table will talk about the operation itself and the long history of persecution for faith which, alas, has not stopped until now.”

The memorandum of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) addressed to Stalin in early April 1951 said: “In order to suppress further anti-Soviet actions of the Jehovist underground, the MGB of the USSR considers it necessary, along with the arrest of the leading members of the Jehovist sect, to evict the identified Jehovists from the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia with families to the Irkutsk and Tomsk regions. A total of 8576 people are subject to eviction (3048 families).”

“The persecution of this confessional group ... is still happening today, which makes today's examination of the history of Operation North especially relevant in our reality,” said Aleksandr Guryanov, the host of the conference, in his opening remarks.

Pavel Polyan, historian, geographer, specialist in the study of forced migrations in the USSR, spoke about the history of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Soviet Union and beyond. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jehovah's Witnesses "were most actively developed by the Ministry of State Security," the specialist noted. “They are excellent missionaries, which was not to the liking of the atheistic secular authorities,” he explained one of the reasons behind the persecution.

Aleksandr Daniel, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg Memorial Society, researcher of the history of dissent in the USSR, focused on the legal aspects of Stalin's persecution—articles of the criminal code and types of punishments. “Counterrevolutionary” and “anti-Soviet” propaganda, “harm to the health of citizens under the guise of inflicting religious rites”—these were the main articles under which Jehovah's Witnesses and members of other confessions were persecuted. Another problem was confusion in the names: “The camp clerks were quite illiterate people, and they constantly referred to Jehovah's Witnesses as Jehovists.”

Valeriy Borshchev, human rights activist, co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, member of the Christian Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Believers in the Soviet times, spoke about how the Soviet authorities tried to "reeducate" Jehovah's Witnesses using propaganda and other methods. For example, at factories, a Communist party or trade union activist was assigned to each believer to take “patronage” over them. But these attempts were unsuccessful. “The commissioners [for religious affairs] themselves understood that all this was useless and did not work.” Efforts were also made to alienate Soviet Witnesses from communion with their fellow believers in other countries. “Jehovah's Witnesses, we must give them credit, were firm and did not leave behind,” Borshchev emphasized.

Sergey Davidis, member of the Memorial Human Rights Center Council and head of the Support for Political Prisoners program, reviewed the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in contemporary Russia since 1998. He recalled that the only meaningful basis for the Supreme Court's decision of April 20, 2017 to liquidate the organizations of Jehovah's Witnesses was “a declaration of the religious superiority of Jehovah's Witnesses over other religious groups. It is quite obvious that this is an absurd accusation,—he stressed.—The conviction of the correctness of your religious doctrine in comparison with any other creed is natural for any religion.”

Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, spoke about the peculiarities of the life of believers in Siberian special settlements as told by his parents, who were among the repressed. People were forced to build dugouts with their own hands, and nettles and tree bark often served as food. Many died of hunger or disease. Speaking about the reasons for the Soviet and current persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, he stressed that their apoliticality is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as “non-recognition of state power”. In fact, the Witnesses are known for their respectful attitude to authority, law abidance, and hard work. Sivulskiy invited conference participants and all those interested in this topic to the new website, which contains a lot of historical and archival materials, photographs and videos about Operation North.

Those present were able to watch a documentary video “70 Years of Operation North” presented by the European Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. It is based on interviews with direct participants in the events, as well as historians.

In his concluding remarks, Aleksandr Guryanov again turned to the events of our day: "There is some particular bitterness on the part of the government towards this particular confession.” 70 years later, history repeats itself: law-abiding citizens of the country are again declared criminals only on the basis of their confessional affiliation.