“We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” – Matthew 11:17 (New International Version)
Among the archives of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is a picture of Jehovah’s Witness survivors after the Niederhagen bei Wewelsburg concentration camp in central Germany was liberated.
The Niederhagen concentration camp was originally a subcamp of Sachsenhausen and the first inmates there were from that camp. It was created for the purpose of renovating a nearby castle, originally built around 1600, to house an SS school, and originally staffed by criminals. When the criminals repeatedly attempted escape, many were sent to Buchenwald and replaced by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When the camps were later liberated, many prisoners removed the label that identified them in the camps, but Jehovah’s Witnesses continued wearing the purple triangles identifying them proudly.
Such facts about the religious group are both illuminating and confounding. Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to voluntarily renounce their faith and leave the camps. Presumably, they could have merely pretended to renounce their faith, leave the camps, and then go back to their business. But, they declined even this. They never attempted escapes and were proud of the experience afterward. Is the religion merely an exercise in masochism?
Christianity, in various forms, has always had a persecution complex that stems from Jesus’ words in The Gospel of John indicating that his followers would be hated and persecuted. But, something different exists among Jehovah’s Witnesses. They choose to be “unreasonable” more often than any other religious group and leave no room for compromise when governments request things of them that they have reserved for the religious sphere.
For the most part, Jehovah’s Witnesses are happy to be left alone by governments and go about their business. But their stances on political neutrality, refusal to serve in the armed forces, and aggressive denunciations of rival religious organizations have frequently placed them at odds with governments around the world. The example of the Nazi government is merely the most visible one.
When the Soviet Union incorporated numerous countries after defeating Germany, they also inherited a small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, primarily from Poland. Some who were liberated from concentration camps were then sent to gulags in Siberia.
A few years after the African country of Malawi gained independence in 1964, it became a one party state that required all citizens to be members of the ruling Malawi Congress Party, or MPC. When Jehovah’s Witnesses refused, they were beaten, ostracized, raped, imprisoned, and had their homes and crops destroyed.
About 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses died during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 for either refusing to participate or actively protecting other members of the religion who may or may not have fallen on the other side of the ethnic divide. The 400 who died represented about a quarter of the total number of members of the religion when the conflict began.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently incarcerated in the countries of Singapore, South Korea, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Eritrea for conscientiously objecting to warfare. There are currently about 600 men imprisoned in South Korea for not participating in the military and 80% of those are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They grow up knowing they will be imprisoned at age 18 and after their sentence live with the stigma of a felony conviction the remainder of their lives.
Although in most of Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia, the group can practice freely, that was not always the case. During the Second World War they were often victims of mob violence and had to go to the United States Supreme Court to gain the right to refuse to salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance. As the ACLU has pointed out in the past, many fundamental rights in the United States were won by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The combination of unorthodox viewpoints and an uncompromising attitude has meant that Jehovah’s Witnesses are often the first religious group marked for hostile treatments by authoritarian regimes and their treatment is a litmus test for religious freedom in many lands. It is natural that most people do not hold the beliefs that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold. Witness students in school seem strange to their classmates when they announce that they don’t celebrate their birthdays or Christmas. They are likely an annoyance to many when they come to your neighborhood and offer literature. They may be offensive to other Churches when they denounce their beliefs or promote teachings that are not found in more mainstream branches of Christianity. But, the important question to ask is not “Do I agree with their views?” It is, “Do they have the right to hold views I don’t agree with?” In essence, is it OK if someone is playing music and some people refuse to get up and dance?
Russia is forcing the world to once again ask this question of itself. On April 20, 2017 the Supreme Court of Russia made practicing as a Jehovah’s Witness illegal in the country and labeled the religion “extremist.” Had the ruling come down a few years ago, Jehovah’s Witnesses could have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which certainly would have reversed Russia’s decision. They still have that option, but a law passed in 2015 and signed by President Putin means that in any conflict between Russian law and that of the ECHR, Russian law would prevail, making any victory at the ECHR merely symbolic. The law was passed in Russia at the time primarily to avoid honoring a ruling requiring the Russian government to compensate former shareholders of the oil company Yukos that had had their property confiscated.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a small minority today in Russia, as they are in every country where they operate. About 1 in 850 Russians are Jehovah’s Witnesses, compared to 1 in 263 in the United States.
With only about 170,000 members, why has Russia devoted time and resources to making life difficult for the religious group? Simple answers are available, but to fully understand the position of Russia it is necessary to re-visit Putin’s rise and subsequent governing philosophy. It says a lot about how the current Russian government sees the world as well as why those with unpopular views are singled out.
A Painful Transition
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia went through a painful decade of transition and a search for identity. Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia, settled on a policy known as “shock therapy” – a quick transition to a capitalist economy rather than a slower and methodical one. Price controls were lifted and businesses were privatized. As privatization occurred, what was once the property of the government became concentrated in the hands of a small group of connected Russians known as the “oligarchs.” It was widely known that corruption was often the source of their wealth through the exploitation of voucher programs. Voucher programs were put in place to value government assets and sell them. The problem was that prices prevailing in the Soviet Union before its collapse – vastly out of line with world prices – were used to value the property. If you were connected, you received a great deal on the purchase of Russia.
Meanwhile, the typical Russian fell on hard times. High inflation, from the removal of price controls, meant that the savings of ordinary Russians were wiped out. At the same time, wages fell year after year. The typical Russian earned the equivalent of $10,000 per year at the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. By the middle-1990s the number had fallen below $8,000 per year.
Market reforms by themselves might have been successful had the whole of the country seen themselves in a shared experience of transition. Instead, it was felt that a foreign system was imposed upon them to their detriment and for the benefit of a small group of corrupt interests.
By 1997, Russia was already vulnerable. The economy was not strong and a war in Chechnya that cost more than $5 billion further strained public finances. Then the Asian Financial Crisis happened. A sudden loss of confidence in the currencies of several Southeast Asian nations caused their currencies to collapse and sent their economies reeling. The resulting international contagion caused the price of oil to fall all the way to $11 per barrel. With oil being the primary source of government revenues in Russia, the country defaulted on its debt in 1998, further undermining the ruble.
Just as circumstances were causing Yeltsin’s popularity to plummet, Yeltsin and his inner circle faced a crisis when they were investigated for corruption in 1999 by the Prosecutor General, Yury Skuratov. Enter Vladimir Putin.
A former KGB agent, Putin rose through the Russian system through patronage instead of elections. In other words, he took care of his bosses and they saw to it that he climbed the ladder. Putin’s first post-KGB job was as a mayoral advisor to Anatoly Subchak, mayor of St. Petersburg, where he developed relationships with Russian organized crime and began enriching himself through kickbacks.
When Skuratov investigated Yeltsin, Putin engineered the creation of a tape showing Skuratov with two prostitutes. It is debated whether or not the tape was authentic, but it led to Skuratov’s firing. Yevgeny Primakov was Russia’s Prime Minister at the time and the heir-apparent to Yeltsin. Yeltsin fired him after he refused to support squashing the investigation. His replacement as Prime Minister? Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned late in 1999 and was succeeded as President by Putin, who granted immunity to Yeltsin immediately after taking office. Putin was seen as indispensable by the Yelstin’s in no small part because of the assistance he played in helping Subchak escape the country when his corruption investigation began.
Yeltsin may have had the ability to hand the Presidency over to Putin to finish his term, but no one could guarantee what would happen in the next election. Before becoming Prime Minister, Putin headed the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB. He was not a natural politician and had not spent much of his career in the public eye. Worse, if he were linked to the extremely unpopular Yeltsin in the minds of Russians, his chances of winning would be lower still.
One month after Putin became Prime Minister, a wave of bombs destroyed four apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities, killing 293 people. The bombs went off at night when most residents were in bed sleeping. A fifth bomb, placed in Ryazan, was defused after residents of the building discovered it. Testing revealed the presence of a military explosive called RDX. In addition to this, an FSB agent’s phone call regarding the situation was intercepted – definitvely proving that the FSB coordinated the apartment bombings.
The impact of the terrorism on Russia has been compared to the impact 9/11 had in the United States. The bombings were blamed on Chechan separatists and gave Putin the chance to win the emotional backing of Russians as well as show himself to be a strong and steady leader – something Russians craved after the disorder of the 1990s. Shortly after the bombings, Russian troops entered Chechnya. Amnesty International claims that the Russian army indiscriminately killed civilians and routinely executed prisoners extra-judicially. While thousands of lives were ended or destroyed, Vladimir Putin had gained the confidence and respect of Russians.
Even though it is now well-established that the bombings were orchestrated by the FSB, who ordered the FSB to carry them out? Substantial evidence implicates the inner circle of Boris Yeltsin – including Putin. John Dunlop, a Stanford University Professor, makes the case in his book The Moscow Bombings that three individuals among those closest to Yeltsin were the ones who ordered it: Alexander Voloshin (the equivalent of the President’s Chief of Staff), Valentin Yumashev (a journalist and advisor to Yeltsin) and Tatyan Yeltsin (Yeltsin’s daughter). Yeltsin and his family gained much from the attack: a front page distraction to corruption allegations as well as a boost to Putin – the man who was needed to ensure the family would not face danger after Yeltsin was no longer President. If Putin had no hand in planning the attack, he at the very least, acquiesced to it since he was firmly in control of the FSB by this point.
Putin slowly centralized power in the Presidency after taking office. He routinely ordered the assassination of his enemies and greatly limited freedom of the press. Along the way, he also enriched himself at the expense of the country, with a net worth some have put at $40 billion. Corruption is an isolating endeavor and one that is bound to produce paranoia and further power accumulation over time. Just as Boris Yeltsin found it difficult to make his exit from Russian politics, it is almost impossible for Putin because after he leaves power he has to fear investigations, loss of wealth, and perhaps even prison. It may be that Putin’s only ultimate aims are the personal accumulation of power and the enrichment of himself and those close to him. Only Putin himself knows that. But, even if that is the case, it is hard to run a country on the basis of an ideology of corruption – a moral narrative has to be formed and this narrative has to be understood. Surely, the Jehovah’s Witnesses pose no threat to his power and have no desire to interfere in politics. So, why are they being targeted?
“The extreme development of liberty, inherent in democracy inevitably leads to the breakdown of the state organism. To counter this, it is necessary to have strong authority.” – Boris Chicherin
Pinning down Putin’s ideology is not easy. As a former spy, he often plays his cards close to the vest and frequently displays streaks of pragmatism. It is possible to say that Putin is not an ideologue in the same way senior members of the Communist Party were during the Soviet Union, nor is he sentimental about Marxism. When Putin spoke to the Duma in 2005 he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” The quote has been widely disseminated and is often interpreted as Putin’s support for the Soviet system. A reading of the speech, however, contradicts this and clarifies his statement to apply the word “tragedy” to the displacement of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics as well as the rise of the oligarchs and widespread poverty throughout the country. In other words, the disaster wasn’t the end of the Soviet Union, the disaster was the Yeltsin government that followed.
If Putin was to rule with an overarching mission, he could not look to the old Communist ideology, nor would he pivot further to a Western democracy after it was tarnished in the minds of Russian citizens. Surprisingly, the man who would do more to form the ideological core of Putin was someone that no one had heard of: Ivan Ilyin. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin ran so deep that he reinterred his body in Moscow from Switzerland and assigned his book Our Tasks to regional governors and other officials in the United Russia party. The book argues against universal values and encourages Russians to pursue a path independent of both Marxism and Western liberalism.
Ilyin was a White Russian, or someone who supported the Czar at the time of the Russian Revolution, and he fled first to Germany and then to Switzerland before dying in 1954. He was a nationalist and Slavophil, who routinely spoke favorably of fascism and, conveniently for Putin, advocated a third path for Russia besides Western style democracy and Soviet Communism. Some of Ilyin’s writing are actually eerily prophetic and were particularly relevant as Putin was taking control of the country. One such writing from 1950 was called “What Dismemberment of Russia Entails for the World.” It predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need for vigilance if Russia were to avoid being sucked into the Western world. Ilyin believed that a vast nation like Russia – stretching across two continents – could not be ruled by democracy, but only by a strong central leader who could unify the nation through the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church and patriotism. The policies that Putin adopted from Ilyin are referred to as “sovereign democracy” by Russians – a euphemism in which underneath the surface lay limited elections and restrictions on freedoms in the name of order and rule by a single political party – in this case Putin’s United Russia.
The word “fascist” is probably the most overused political pejorative in history and it has lost all of its meaning. So it is advantageous to avoid placing the label on Russia, but it is worth noting that much of Putin’s Orthodox nationalism is a cousin to Catholic Fascism from less than a century ago. The evidence for that is seen not only in the ideas espoused by Putin, but in his actions. Those actions have revealed policy choices that largely mirror past fascist systems – an emphasis on the military, an expansionist foreign policy, and using institutions such as business and Churches as tools of the State.
Putin has dramatically strengthened the Russian Armed Forces, raising military spending from an inflation-adjusted $30 billion in 1998 to $90 billion in 2012. The military Putin built was tested in 2008 when Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia. After five days of fighting, Russia essentially, but not legally, annexed significant territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With Russian excursions into the Ukraine and Syria, it seems as if Russian confidence in its military continues to grow and even though it might not be a direct challenge to the United States, there are few regional or European armed forces that would want to fight it directly.
Foreign policy has also been set with nationalism in mind – viewing with suspicion any Western incursions into what is considered to be Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia, with no ambiguity, feels buffer countries are needed between it and the West. This is why Georgia and Ukraine were subject to invasion and interference and Crimea was annexed. When the Soviet Union dissolved, millions of ethnic Russians were stranded in independent states no longer a part of the Soviet Union. Alleged mistreatment of these ethnic Russians is often used as a pretense to interfere in the affairs of other nations and stir up patriotism at home.
Putin kept vestiges of Russia’s flirtation with capitalism by maintaining an ostensibly independent business sector, however in keeping with his goal of economic nationalism, he ensured those companies were in the hands of loyalists and he merged many of them together to better compete globally. Today, the ten largest Russian corporations contribute a full one-third of its GDP compared to 11% in the United States.
The Russian government also owns stakes in most key businesses. Gazprom is 50% owned by the Russian government; Rosneft, 50%; Sberbank, 51%; Russian Railways, 100%; VTB Bank, 61%; Rostec, 100%; Transneft, 100%. The Russian state also owns a majority interest in the national airline, Aeroflot, in Russia Post, defense contractors United Shipbuilding and United Aircraft and 44% in diamond miner Alrosa.
The final piece to the puzzle is the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church was placed in an extraordinarily weak position after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Stalin revived the Church in WWII to promote patriotism in the wake of the German invasion. A strong plurality of Russians are Orthodox today, while much of the remainder of the population is non-religious.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been effectively used to promote unity among Russians as well as “conservative values” such as anti-homosexuality. The Church, firmly Russian, also blocks any “backdoor” Western values by religions originating in Western Europe or The United States. Jehovah’s Witnesses are among those groups. They have angered the Orthodox Church by challenging its authority and tested by Putin’s national unity by stoking fears in Russia that if Western religions grow in popularity, the task of unity will become more difficult.
During the period that the Russian Orthodox Church was vulnerable to the Soviet system, many Bishops became informants to the KGB as a means of self-preservation. It is unknown what relationship Patriarch Kirill, the current leader of the Church, had with the KGB, but it’s long been rumored to be a close one – which makes sense given that Putin must have authorized his takeover of the Church in 2009. Both Kirill and Putin are from St. Petersburg.
Patriarch Kirill, in an interview with Russian media outlet RT, spoke of multiculturalism in what one must at least admit appears to be honest:
“Multiculturalism has no future, because it implies different cultures mixing, different cultures and religions poured together and shaken vigorously to create a kind of cocktail. That would be impossible because of deep-rooted traditions. If multiculturalism implies weakening people’s connection to their religion and traditions, it automatically makes them victims of discrimination and forces them to be defensive; so this very approach contains a dangerous source of division, and I mean the fundamental division of the brother-against- brother kind.
There are other ways. Russia is a multiethnic country, but the idea of multiculturalism has never been promoted, not even back in the USSR. It was declared that we would have a new national identity as Soviet people, but everyone knew that Turkmens would stay Turkmens, Tajiks would stay Tajiks, Uzbeks would stay Uzbeks, Russians would stay Russians, and Jews would stay Jews.”
Like Putin, pluralism is not a value of Kirill’s.
Among the most disturbing aspects of the government’s crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses is that it appears to, at least in part, be motivated by the religion’s freeness in criticizing the Orthodox Church. In 2009, the Russian government declared certain texts of the Witnesses as extremist – these included titles such as What Does the Bible Really Teach? and My Book of Bible Stories. The specific lines of text criticized were “true Christians do not celebrate Christmas or other religious festivals based upon false religious ideas” (declared to be inciting hatred against other religions; as well as texts directing followers to avoid blood transfusions and patriotic acts. The largest problem that Russian law has with the Witnesses appears to be the Witnesses’ claim to be the only true religion, which conflicts with extremism laws that forbid promoting the exclusivity of one religion over another. An article from 2000 entitled “Tolstoy, an opponent of Orthodoxy” being a particularly big problem for Russian authorities.
It would not matter if the Witnesses chose to comply with the ruling on its literature by not using those specific publications in worship, because when raided by Russian police they were simply planted when not found.
Why It Matters
“Putin’s style of politics displays deep personal resentment. Putin has many times publicly demonstrated that he fundamentally does not understand the purpose of a debate, especially a political debate. According to Putin, a discussion between a superior and his subordinates should not be possible.” – Anna Politkovskaya
It would be a mistake to believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the only group targeted by the Russian government and Orthodox Church. Famously in 2011 the group Pussy Riot staged a concert inside a Church, a crime for which the members of the group received two year prison sentences. Last year, an atheist was prosecuted for saying “there is no God” in an internet exchange. A law against homosexuality was passed in 2013, ostensibly to protect children, but in practice forbid LGBT protests or advocacy.
Many outside of Russia may have a hard time sympathizing with Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their controversial viewpoints and unpopularity. Others become nervous in criticizing other countries, lest they be considered hypocritical.
But, are the beliefs themselves at issue? Why should they not be allowed to adhere to certain beliefs simply because they fall outside of the mainstream? As they found themselves in the forefront of establishing rights in the United States, the resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses occurs on the front line of authoritarianism in Russia. Once Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned, many other religious and secular groups may be tieing the noose around their own necks by staying silent.
President Trump recently told Bill O’Reilly, “You think our country is so innocent?” when O’Reilly referred to Putin as a “killer.” What the President implied is true in a literal sense of the phrase. The United States has abused its power in the past and committed some truly heinous crimes. But, criticizing a foreign country is not incompatible with also criticizing aspects of your own. It is also not necessary to argue that Russia need follow a Western model to be successful. It is true that different cultures demand different governmental systems. The real question, though, is whether or not human rights actually exist, or if the morality of a government is entirely relative.
In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, in 1855, Abraham Lincoln made a statement that has taken on a degree of irony over time. He said:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
The statement was in regards to the rise of the Know-Nothing party, a political party that opposed immigrants and Catholics. It may be that a lack of hypocrisy in relation to freedom was the best that could be said of Czarist Russia, but now even the lack of a pretense has become absent from Russia. Anyone ignoring the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia may find themselves as next in line.
It is understandable that people view Jehovah’s Witnesses as eccentrics and disagree with their views. You have that right, just as they have right to maintain their beliefs. For human dignity to become a reality across the World, we all need to be comfortable with people dancing to the music they play inside their own minds.