Feb 14, 2021

Russian crackdown on 'extremist' Jehovah's Witnesses snares 90-year-old former teacher

Marc Bennetts, Moscow
The Sunday Times
February 14 2021

It was still two hours before dawn when Russian state security officers smashed their way into Yury and Ekaterina Chernyshev’s apartment in Moscow. The intruders, wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons, knocked Yury, 57, to the ground, and slammed his wife up against a wall as their teenage daughter looked on in horror.

The Chernyshevs are not terrorists, drug dealers or crime gang bosses. They were targeted because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christian group best known for its door-to-door proselytising. In 2017 the Russian Supreme Court outlawed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists”, a ruling that placed the apolitical and pacifist Christian organisation on a par with Isis and neo-Nazi movements.

The ruling came after the justice ministry stated that Russia’s 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were a threat to “public order and public security” and government officials accused them of preaching the “exclusivity and supremacy” of their beliefs.

As the Kremlin cracks down on the opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his allies it is also waging a brutal campaign against those who fail to follow the official line on religion, which favours the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Since the ruling 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been given prison terms. The latest verdict came on Wednesday when a court in the southern Krasnodar region jailed a 63-year-old man for 7½ years. His crime? He had taken part in online Bible study discussions with fellow believers.

Another 35 Jehovah’s Witnesses are being held in pre-trial detention facilities, while 26 more, including Yury Chernyshev, are under house arrest. Many have alleged that they were tortured in police custody. Artem Kim, a Jehovah’s Witness in Surgut, Siberia, said investigators taped a plastic bag over his head, soaked him in water and gave him electric shocks with a stun gun. “They began to apply the electroshocker to my crotch area, saying they would make me impotent,” he said.

In Russia’s far east, police who raided the homes of believers dubbed their operation “judgment day”. There have been more than 1,200 raids since 2017, including throughout the pandemic.

The oldest person to be charged is Rimma Vashchenko, a 90-year-old former teacher. Although she has not been taken into custody, she has been placed on Russia’s official list of extremists and terrorists, a move that restricts her to withdrawing no more than 10,000 roubles (£99) from her bank account every month. “I don’t really understand what’s going on,” she said.

She is not alone. In Moscow, investigators who interrogated Jehovah’s Witnesses in November posed questions — “Do you believe in the Holy Trinity?” and “What was Christ crucified on?” – that were more in keeping with the medieval Inquisition than the police force of a secular state. (Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity and believe that Jesus died on an upright stake, rather than a cross.)

The Russian state has also confiscated a swathe of property from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the group’s former administrative centre in St Petersburg, which was worth an estimated five billion roubles.

Human Rights Watch has slammed the campaign of terror as “pointless, cruel, and abusive”, while Amnesty International has urged the Kremlin to cease its “intimidation and persecution” of believers.

Although Russia insists that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not stop individual Jehovah’s Witnesses from practising their faith and merely prohibits the group as a legal entity, state security officers have raided dozens of Bible study groups held at private apartments.

Before the pandemic I attended a clandestine prayer meeting in Moscow and watched as friendly grannies and fidgety teens studied Bible texts, sang hymns and listened to lectures on the virtues of forgiveness. It was about as extremist as Sunday School.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses I spoke to for this article wanted to be identified only by their first names and would speak only via secure messaging apps. “They could come for us any morning,” said Stanislav. “It’s an unpleasant feeling. I am being forced to act like a criminal.” He said he and his wife had discussed fleeing Russia to join the thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have sought refuge in the West. “This is a big step, though. Moscow is our home, our children study here, our whole lives are here. We have been forced into a corner,” he said.

The clampdown has rekindled dark memories of the Soviet Union’s brutal anti-religion campaign that resulted in the executions or imprisonment of millions of Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. More than 9,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were deported to Siberia in just two days in 1951. Older believers say they always knew the Kremlin would one day come for them again.

In Russia, as elsewhere, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have sparked controversy over allegations that they divide families, as well as their faith-based opposition to blood transfusions. The Russian Orthodox Church supports the Kremlin’s crackdown and an aide to Patriarch Kirill has called the Jehovah’s Witnesses a sect that “destroys minds and families”.

Putin’s public comments have been far less harsh. In 2018, when Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and at the time a member of the presidential human rights council, questioned the decision to designate the Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, Putin said it was “nonsense” to persecute them because “they are also Christians”. He ordered officials to “look into” the situation. The crackdown duly intensified.

“It seems that Putin did look into this and as a result matters got worse,” said Schulmann. She suggested that the Russian authorities suspect the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose headquarters are in New York state, of being part of a western “web” of foreign agents whose ultimate aim is to weaken the country’s morale by undermining “Russian traditional values”.

Similar accusations were levelled against the Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Soviet era: state media called them American spies and a 1962 propaganda poster dubbed them “traitors to the motherland”. It is also possible that the Russian Orthodox Church has encouraged the crackdown to eliminate what it sees as its “competitors for the souls of the people”, Schulmann said.

Despite the wave of repression, Yevgeny, a Jehovah’s Witness in Moscow, said he did not consider the Kremlin to be his enemy. “The Bible tells us we should pray for the authorities,” he said. “I understand that the authorities are violating the law and that they will answer for this. But I am not the one they will have to answer to.”



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