April 20, 2022, marks a sad anniversary for all those who care about religious liberty. On April 20, 2017, the Russian Supreme Court “liquidated” all the legal entities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian Federation and Crimea, declaring them “extremist.” As we have explained in several Bitter Winter articles, “extremism” in Russia does not mean that a group is engaged in violent activities or promotes violence.
The main criteria for “religious extremism” is claiming that one’s religion is superior to other religions, meaning particularly to the faith of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is protected by Russian laws against proselytization. Obviously, all religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church, teach that they offer a path to salvation that other religions do not supply. Otherwise, why should anybody convert to them?
While it dissolved the legal entities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Supreme Court decision did not prohibit personal worship. This was a main argument by Russia to claim that the 2017 ruling did not violate freedom of religion or belief. The argument was ludicrous, as religious liberty should be granted to communities rather than to individuals only, but it was also factually false. Individual Jehovah’s Witnesses have been constantly harassed after the 2017 decision.
Over 1,722 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been raided, almost one per day. 287 criminal case have been filed against 613 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and Crimea. Over 320 have been detained, and 81 are currently in jail. Bitter Winter has also reported cases of torture. Russia has tried to spread anti-Jehovah’s-Witnesses propaganda internationally, and to export its model of anti-extremism legislation to former Soviet republics, including in Central Asia, and other countries.
While one of the most well-known features of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they stay away from politics and do not comment on political events, outside observers and scholars have often discussed what is happening to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia within the broader framework of a resurgent Russian ultra-nationalist ideology.
I believe that the invasion of Ukraine allows us to see the Russian Supreme Court’s “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017 in its true light, and to appreciate its historical significance. The “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a microcosm of sort of the 2022 attempted “liquidation” of Ukraine.
Scholars are noticing these days that both President Putin and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have quoted repeatedly Ivan Ilyn, a Russian émigré philosopher who died in 1954. While international comments have focused on the fact that Ilyn was a fascist and an admirer of Mussolini, I believe that what Putin and Kirill derive from Ilyn is the theory that the Russian soul and security are threatened by a Western conspiracy, which uses foreign ideas of democracy and foreign “cults” to infiltrate and destroy Russia.
The perverse logic at work in the liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the invasion of Ukraine is the same. Both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ukraine are perceived as tools of a Western conspiracy aimed at contaminating the Russian sphere with ideas and lifestyles that are different from those taught by a nationalist, authoritarian, and conservative interpretation of the Russian Orthodox identity. Both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and democratic and pro-Western Ukraine, according to this ideology, threaten Russia’s “spiritual security” and should be destroyed.
Of course, in both cases, the argument is false. Ukraine was not threatening Russia, and Ukrainians just wanted to live in peace. The Jehovah’s Witnesses represent one of the most peaceful religions in the world, are not involved in politics, and are not threatening Russia either. Both independent Ukraine and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are presented as a threat to Russia for the mere fact that they exist.
This is the reason why, as all the attention is focused on Ukraine, the international community should pay special attention to the fifth anniversary of the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What happened and continues to happen to the Jehovah’s Witnesses manifests the Russian ideology of “spiritual security” that is essential to understand Ukraine as well.
Spiritual security is not about religion only. It is an ideology based on the theory that there is a Western conspiracy against Russia and that to resist this conspiracy all those who may give a bad example to the Russians by living differently and not sharing the official nationalistic and militaristic ideology, should be eradicated and liquidated. If one believes in this paranoid ideology, the use of weapons such as the bombing of civilians (in Ukraine) and violence on women and elderly believers, and torture (in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), become somewhat justified.
As the Ukrainians are resisting, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are resisting as well. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union failed to eradicate the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Putin regime will fail too.
However, the free world cannot rely only on the heroism of the Ukrainians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They need our help, and Russia should be denounced and sanctioned in all international fora both for its unprovoked wars of aggression and its equally unprovoked persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.