Operation North, The Whys and Wherefores

What was Operation North and how did it differ from other Stalinist deportations?
It was the biggest deportation of a religious group in the history of the USSR. A total of 9,793 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including family members, had their homes confiscated and were deported to Siberia.

Operation North was the forced eviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Belorussian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldavian, Ukrainian, and Estonian Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). Over two days in April 1951, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ houses were confiscated and 9,793 people—men, women, elderly ones, and children—were deported under harsh and inhumane conditions to Siberia and scattered in special settlements in the Tomsk and Irkutsk Regions and Krasnoyarsk Territory. The decision to deport them was personally approved by Joseph Stalin.

Several waves of deportations took place in Stalin’s time. About 10 nationalities were subjected to total deportation, and other citizens were selectively deported on ethnic, social, political, and religious grounds. Operation North was unique in that it was the biggest total deportation of members of one religion, as the Soviet authorities tried to evict Jehovah’s Witnesses with their families from the areas in which they lived.

Repercussions of this operation are still felt 70 years later in the context of the mass criminal prosecution of members of this religion in modern Russia.

Why did the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR experience a steep rise just before Operation North?
As the territory of the USSR expanded during World War II, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic countries became citizens of the Soviet Union. In addition, hundreds of Soviet citizens sent to Nazi concentration camps during the war met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the camps and, impressed by their courageous stand and unshakeable faith, themselves became Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Before World War II, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR was small. In 1929, only about 100 families from different Soviet cities were in contact with their fellow worshippers overseas. However, in 1939 additional territories were annexed to the Belorussian and Ukrainian SSRs. Then in 1940, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were annexed as republics to the USSR, and in the same year the Moldavian SSR was formed from newly acquired territories. As a result, several thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with their children, became citizens of the USSR.

Soon afterwards, millions of Soviet citizens were taken to the territory of the Third Reich and there, in concentration camps, they had the opportunity to meet Jehovah’s Witnesses, thousands of which were being held as prisoners in the camps. Due to their refusal on religious grounds to serve in the Wehrmacht and even to make the Nazi salute, the Witnesses were subjected to mass repression. Jehovah’s Witnesses even had a special patch in the form of a purple triangle on their concentration camp uniform. In 1961, British specialist on Soviet affairs Walter Kolarz, in his book Religion in the Soviet Union, wrote: “The German concentration camps, unbelievable as it may sound, are one of the channels by which the message of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to Russia. It was brought there by Russian prisoners in Germany who had admired the courage and steadfastness of the ‘Witnesses’ and probably for that reason had found their theology attractive.” In Ravensbrück alone, around 300 women from the Soviet Union became Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What drew the attention of the Soviet leadership to Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Their uncompromising stand of neutrality, resulting in their refusal to participate in party political ceremonies and serve in the armed forces.

The political neutrality of Jehovah’s Witnesses drew the attention of the authorities. The Witnesses refused to join political party organizations, serve in the armed forces, or even purchase military bonds. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses respected state symbols and did not oppose the authorities or force others to do so, they refused to give the pioneer salute, swear the oath before the flag, or participate in other Soviet rituals, considering these actions to be a form of idolatry. The personal uncompromising position of Jehovah’s Witnesses contrasted sharply with the general mood of the war and post-war period and invoked the disapproval of the Soviet authorities.

Why did Jehovah’s Witnesses need to worship underground?
Having failed to stamp out religion in the USSR, the authorities permitted a measure of freedom to religions that supported communist ideologies. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not willing to abandon their neutral stand or adjust or renounce their beliefs to obtain official registration.

After decades of actively repressing religious belief, in the early 1940s the Soviet Union began to pursue a more flexible religious policy. Many religious communities were allowed to practice their faith on the condition that they supported communist ideology and military service. In 1949, Jehovah’s Witnesses petitioned the USSR’s Religious Cults Council to register their activities. The authorities offered them registration if they renounced some of their basic doctrines and openly glorified Stalin and Soviet policies. The Witnesses refused. As a result, the government branded their theology and religious practices “anti-Soviet activity,” and ruled not to grant them official registration.

What was in the report made to the Stalin? What grounds for deportation were presented to the Head of State for consideration?
The report contained many groundless defamatory rulings, references to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to participate in party activities and military service, and comments about their distribution of literature.

A report has been declassified that the head of the Ministry for State Security, Viktor Abakumov, delivered to Stalin on 30 May 1950. The report was titled “On the Necessity to Deport from the Western Regions [of the USSR] Participants of the Sect of the Jehovists and Members of their Families.” The report contains many inaccurate and adversarial expressions underscoring the position of the state, such as: “illegal sect,”“heads of the underground Jehovists,”“several anti-Soviet organizations have been discovered and liquidated,”“hostile activity,”“active hostile work,”“malicious anti-Soviet agitation,”and“provocative lies.” (Note: The term Jehovists used by the Ministry for State Security is not a term used or accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses).

On the matter of evidence of unlawful activity, the document only mentions the following: “They conduct propaganda of the establishment in the USSR of theocratic order under which authority should be held by the clergy. The Jehovists are opposed to party activities and the Soviet government, especially with regard to collective farm construction, and they encourage others to refuse to serve in the Soviet army and distribute anti-Soviet literature among the population.” To what extent did these assertions fit the facts?

Was the threat to the Soviet authorities from Jehovah’s Witnesses credible?
The Witnesses’ belief in a unified world under the rule of Christ does not encourage or necessitate human intervention. Nor can it be characterized as propaganda aimed at overthrowing the Soviet Union. The Witnesses did not take part in party political activities, but neither did they participate in resistance movements during the war. Rather than fomenting opposition, the literature they produced—consisting of Bibles and Bible Study aids—espoused nonviolent teachings and political neutrality.

What the report defined as “propaganda of the establishment in the USSR of a theocratic regime” involved the Witnesses’ declaration of good news of a better future under the heavenly rule of Christ. There were never any calls for the removal by force of the Soviet regime in the message of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the “anti-Soviet literature” Witnesses were accused of distributing consisted of Bibles and notebooks with handwritten excerpts from it as well as Bible study aids. (The Russian Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression declares that “regardless of the factual basis for the accusations,” anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda “are acknowledged as not being a danger to the public.”)

Jehovah’s Witnesses did not participate in any political collaboration. Because of their refusal to take up arms during the Second World War, they found themselves under a three-pronged attack by the Gestapo, the Bolsheviks, and partisan groups. The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses were peaceable was evident even during Operation North itself, as there were no documented conflicts or clashes between the Witnesses and the forces carrying out the operation, and no use of physical force or weapons by the soldiers was necessary.

While Jehovah’s Witnesses did not take part in party political activities, neither did they oppose the actions of the authorities or collective farm construction. They respected the right of others to religious and political self-determination and only sought the same respect for themselves.

The authorities called it a “veneer of non-partisanship and apoliticality” behind which their “bourgeois essence” was supposedly hidden.

Although the Witnesses were not accused of espionage in the report brought to Stalin, two weeks before Operation North, the Pravda (the most important Russian newspaper of the Soviet era) on 19 March 1951 published an article titled “American Spies Before the People’s Court” about the trial of a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Warsaw. It is not known whether it was published coincidentally or purposefully to lay the ideological groundwork for Operation North, although some Witnesses remember that a number of the escorts joked that “American spies” were in the convoy.

Meanwhile, in the 1940s Jehovah’s Witnesses also encountered a lack of understanding of their faith in the United States.

What measures were taken in the USSR against Jehovah’s Witnesses before Operation North?
In the years leading up to Operation North (1947–1950), at least 1,000 Witnesses were given long sentences in labor camps and hundreds were deported to beyond the Ural Mountains.

In yet another file submitted by the head of the Ministry for State Security on February 19, 1951, it was stated: “Top secret! To Comrade J.V. Stalin. The question of resettling Jehovists by the Ministry for State Security was presented to you in October 1950. You recommended carrying out the resettlement in March and April 1951. No ruling was handed down at the time by the Council of Ministers of the USSR. I hereby present you with a draft ruling of the Council of Ministers of the USSR on this question. I request a decision from you. Abakumov.” Along with this letter, the head of the Ministry for State Security filed a more detailed dossier in which a list of measures was contained that had been taken against Jehovah’s Witnesses from 1947 to 1950: “1,048 heads and activists of the sect have been arrested, 5 underground printing presses have been seized, and over 35,000 copies of . . . literature.”

The 1,048 Witnesses whose arrests were indicated in the report were mostly sentenced to long terms—some up to 25 years—in prison and labor camps. According to criminal case records, many of them were charged with raising funds for material assistance to families whose heads had been arrested for their faith.

However, the statistics of the Ministry for State Security cited above clearly do not include hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses who in July 1949 were exiled from the Moldavian SSR to Kazakhstan and neighboring regions, along with 40,000 other individuals considered by the state to be “suspect elements.”

The repressions of the 1940s did not bring the Soviet government the desired results. The dossier of the head of the Ministry for State Security revealed: “The sectarian-illegals that are still free continue to carry out active anti-Soviet work and are again taking steps to strengthen the sect. […] The organs of the Ministry for State Security of Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have identified over 300 persons from the Jehovist activists, including 13 leaders of district Jehovist organizations, 40 leaders of circuit organizations, and 250 leaders of sectarian cells and activists.”

What did Stalin and his government hope to accomplish by deporting Jehovah’s Witnesses? Did he achieve that goal?
Through deportation, the Soviet government was attempting to nullify the influence of Jehovah’s Witnesses with the hope of completely eliminating the faith. Not surprisingly, the Witnesses were among the last groups granted release from their place of special settlement in 1965. Yet rather than Jehovah’s Witnesses being eliminated, during that time their numbers steadily increased with the addition of new converts.

Precisely because its policy of intimidation did not work, the Ministry for State Security recommended the total deportation of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “In order to curb further anti-Soviet activities of the Jehovah’s Underground, the Ministry for State Security of the USSR considers it necessary, along with the arrest of the leaders of the Jehovah’s sect, to expel from the borders of Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia identified Jehovists and their families.” (See Operation North, What Was It Like?) The head of the Ministry for State Security said in his report that the expulsion of Jehovah’s Witnesses was coordinated with the republic secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, including then Moldavian head Leonid Brezhnev, and they also considered deportation to be a necessary measure.

Thus, the stated goal was to “stop further anti-Soviet activities.” Numerous other archive documents repeatedly declared the purpose of “crushing,” “stopping,” and “snuffing out” Jehovah’s Witnesses, with the ultimate goal of their “complete breakup and elimination.” A separate paragraph in the ruling ordered “deportation forever.”

Later in legislation on the rehabilitation of repressed groups similar actions by state organs were determined as genocide.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were not released even after Stalin’s death. Finally, in September 1965, by decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR, “restrictions relating to the special resettlement of members of the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . and members of their families” were removed. By that time, the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses had grown significantly, when other repressed “enemies of the people” in exile with the Witnesses, as well as Siberian residents, chose to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although in most cases the Witnesses could not return to their places of former residence, many moved to more favorable regions of the USSR. This indicated that the Ministry for State Security had miscalculated in believing that the ban and repression would eradicate the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. (See Operation North, Consequences and Conclusions.)

Viktor Abakumov was arrested on 12 July 1951, two months after Operation North. He was charged with treason, and in 1954 he was shot in the settlement of Levashovo (now St. Petersburg). He was never rehabilitated.


Operation North, What was it like?

How does a mass deportation that took place over half a century ago affect us today?
On learning about the events that took place over half a century ago, you will notice many parallels with our time which help us to understand more clearly the meaning of events happening now in Russia concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It was the largest deportation of members of a single religious group in the history of the USSR. A total of 9,793 Jehovah’s Witnesses and their families were exiled to Siberia. The decision was approved in person by Joseph Stalin. Echoes of the operation are felt even 70 years later, in the context of the modern criminal prosecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

What was written about Jehovah’s Witnesses in the reports placed on the table of the Head of State? Two declassified memos submitted to Stalin reveal the motives and reasoning of the Special Services. Additionally, the past 70 years have been sufficient to make clear whether the threat to state security allegedly posed by Jehovah’s Witnesses was real or imagined. It is also instructive to find out why the deportation did not achieve the aims of the authorities, which was to “crush” and “snuff out” Jehovah’s Witnesses. (See the article Operation North, The Whys and Wherefores).

Where did the name “Operation North” come from?
The name was conceived by the Ministry of State Security. In 1949, “Operation South” resulted in the exile of many to Kazakhstan. Then, in 1951, people were exiled to more northerly regions, thus giving rise to the “Operation North” codename.

The operational codename was thought of in the offices of the Ministry of State Security. It is found many times in official documents of the time. The name probably echoes an earlier operation codenamed “South,” during the course of which, on July 7, 1949, “suspect” citizens, including hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses, were expelled from the Moldavian SSR. Since the majority of the exiles were sent to Kazakhstan, the operation was given the name “South.” In 1951, Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to more northerly regions, thus giving rise to the name of the operation.

When did it actually take place? Various dates are indicated in the documents: March 31, April 1 and April 8, 1951.
In the Belorussian, Moldavian, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian SSRs the operation took place on April 1, 1951. In Ukraine it was moved to a week later and took place on April 8, 1951.

According to the approved plan, in all six republics of the USSR the eviction of religious believers was to take place on one day—Sunday, April 1, 1951. What really happened?

Long before dawn on April 1, 1951, armed groups with dogs entered settlements in Belorussia, Moldavia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but not Ukraine.

Villages in the Ukrainian SSR slept peacefully that night. For some unknown reason, Operation North in Ukraine was postponed for a week. On the night of the following Sunday, April 8, 1951, a similar operation took place in hundreds of Ukrainian villages and several cities. Documents have not yet been found in the archives explaining why the original plan was delayed in the Ukrainian SSR.

Some sources mentioned March 31st due to the fact that the task forces had been assembled in the evening of that date, but they only began to invade the houses of Jehovah’s Witnesses after midnight.

Who initiated Operation North?
The Ministry of State Security.

The first petition and draft ruling was filed to Stalin by Viktor Abakumov, the head of the Ministry of State Security in May 1950. Abakumov later referred to the support and approval of deportation by the republic secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, specifically mentioning Leonid Brezhnev.

Who made the final decision?
There is proof that Stalin made the decision in person.

The petition sent to Stalin ended with the words “I request a decision from you. Abakumov.” Less than a year later, in a new note, the head of the Ministry of State Security wrote to “Comrade Stalin”: “You recommended carrying out the resettlement in March and April 1951.” It follows from these documents that the Head of State was personally involved in the decision to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What official act regulated the deportation of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
A Resolution of the Soviet Council of Ministers, which was signed by the Chairman of the Council, Stalin and Director of Affairs, Pomaznev.

The resolution of the Soviet Council of Ministers of March 3, 1951 included the following: “to accept the proposal of the Ministry of State Security of the USSR on resettlement,” “to resettle forever,” “to enforce with regard to the deportees the Decree on Criminal Responsibility for Attempts to Escape from Places of Mandatory and Permanent Resettlement,” “to provide escort and transportation,” “to allow the deportees to take… domestic items… to confiscate all other property.”

At what levels of authority was Operation North carried out?
The Ministry of State Security of the USSR was responsible for carrying out the operation. The lists of deportees were confirmed by the Special Assembly of the Ministry of State Security of the USSR.

At the national Soviet level, the resettlement operation was to be organized by the Ministry of State Security of the USSR, while at the level of the republics of the union it was organized by the Council of Ministers of each republic and the Ministry of State Security. The candidates for resettlement had to be approved by the so-called Special Assembly of the Ministry of State Security of the USSR, a body that had the right to order extrajudicial exile, imprisonment and even executions. However, the documents for Jehovah’s Witnesses were only prepared by the Special Assembly retrospectively in October 1951. The transportation in convoy and delivery of the deportees was entrusted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, and the Ministry of Rail Transport was to provide rail transport. The Irkutsk and Tomsk Regional Executive Committees were to provide transportation of the deportees from the railway stations to the resettlement sites, as well as to employ and provide them with housing. The Ministry of Finance was to allocate funds to support the additional special commandants’ offices who would ensure that the deportees did not leave the territory of resettlement.

Representatives of what forces participated in the roundups?
The Ministry of State Security, to which then the internal forces and the police were subordinate.

The expulsion of Jehovah’s Witnesses was organized in the manner of a military operation. A detailed plan was developed, the required personnel was calculated and assigned, operational teams were formed, secrecy measures were applied, roads were blocked, and even the security of the external borders of the USSR was strengthened.

The leaders of the task forces that carried out the raids were Ministry of State Security officers, either heads of police or Cheka security squads. They were supported by internal troops, who were also in subordination to the Ministry of State Security. Additionally, local police officers and civilian Soviet party activists were involved in the raids.

How many soldiers and officers took part in the roundups?
Over 10,000. An operational group consisting of four officers was assigned to each Witness family.

Although complete information does not exist on the number of personnel involved in Operation North, it is known that in the territory of the Ukrainian SSR, according to calculations, an average of four persons plus party activists was assigned to each family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

According to the archives, 177 state security officers from Moscow, Kaluga, Kostroma, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Kursk, Gorky, Voronezh, Krasnodar, Stavropol and the Ukrainian SSR were deployed for the operation in the Moldavian SSR. In total, 2,698 people took part in the operation, including 546 Ministry of State Security operatives, 1,127 Ministry of State Security soldiers, 275 police officers, and 750 party members. The day before the operation, at night, the troops were brought to pre-arranged places under various pretexts.

It was reported that there was a shortage of officers in some regions, in the Transcarpathian Region of the Ukrainian SSR for example. According to intelligence, there were 929 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses living there, but there were only 590 officers of the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of Internal Affairs who were able to lead the operations group. There was also a shortage of rank-and-file police officers, so it required moving an entire regiment numbering 1,858 to this location.

Neither in the archival records, nor in the memories of survivors is there any mention of resistance on the part of Jehovah’s Witnesses or the necessity to employ physical force or weapons against them.

How many towns and villages were affected by the special operation?
In the Ukrainian SSR – 370, in the Moldavian SSR – 92, in the Estonian SSR – 19, in the Latvian SSR – 7. There are no confirmed figures for the Lithuanian and Belorussian SSRs.

In the Ukrainian SSR, Operation North took place in 370 settlements. In 1949, the Minister of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR sent a report to Moscow on the number of identified Jehovah’s Witnesses: “As of October 28th of this year it has been established that there are 8,149 participants of the sectarian underground of the Jehovists” (the term used by the Ministry of State Security is not accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses). Further, information was given that makes it possible to judge the scope of the operation. Apparently, Jehovah’s Witnesses were living in 10 districts of Lviv Region, 24 districts of Stanislaviv Region, 19 districts of Ternopol Region, 17 districts of Drogobych Region, 6 districts of Volyn Region,8 districts of Rovno Region, 5 districts of Chernivtsi Region, and in 11 districts of Transcarpathian Region. It is known that the operation took place in regional centers, for example, 10 families were expelled from Ternopol, as well as families from Lviv and Stanislaviv (Ivano-Frankivsk) were expelled.

In the Moldavian SSR, the operation took place in 92 settlements.

In the Estonian SSR, 282 Jehovah’s Witnesses were awakened in 19 localities, including 21 from the city of Tallinn. In Latvia, Operation North covered 7 settlements, including Riga, from where 8 people were exiled. More than half of those exiled from Latvia, 26 people, lived in the city of Ventspils.

The number of settlements affected by the operation in the Lithuanian and Belorussian SSRs has not yet been established.

How did the operational groups know whom to gather up? Did they have lists?
Yes, the operation was conducted in accordance with pre-prepared lists and addresses. Party activists led the officers to the addresses.

These were families of Jehovah’s Witnesses, about whom the Ministry of State Security knew from the materials of purported criminal cases and intelligence work. In addition, lists of Witnesses were provided by the village councils at the request of state security agencies. Party activists assisted in order to ensure that the operational groups could find the homes of the Witnesses in the dark.

The Minister of State Security at the highest level reported that in the four previous years (1947-1950) “1,048 people of the sect’s leaders and activists were arrested,” which showed that the security services had the details of their families and contacts. In 1948, the Ministry of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR reported on the introduction of 102 informants into the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses in June alone.

For information on whether the lists of all those who were exiled have been recovered in our time, see the article Operation North. Consequences and Conclusions.

How did the night roundup take place? How long were the victims given to gather their possessions?
The roundup began at 2 a.m. They were allowed to take with them no more than [1,500 kg, (3,306 lbs)] per family. Families had two hours to gather their things.

The sound of hammering on the doors could be heard from 2 a.m. The head of the operational group read out the decision to evict them “forever to outer regions of the Soviet Union.” Families were informed that they could take personal belongings amounting to no more than 1,500 kilograms altogether—clothes, utensils, small trade and agricultural equipment, and food supplies. Only two hours was given to gather their things, as the deportees had to be taken to train stations and loaded onto the convoy trains, which took time because of bad roads.

Some Jehovah’s Witnesses recall that soldiers often showed human compassion. They actively helped to gather possessions and tie them in bundles. Some took the lead in catching chickens for food on the journey. Apparently, there were no attempts made by the soldiers to help themselves to valuables belonging to the victims, with rare exceptions. One of the Witnesses recalls that an officer almost forcibly poured into her folds of clothes photos, which she in her confusion intended to leave behind. In another case, a soldier removed a framed mirror from the wall and offered it to them. The owner, in tears, refused to take it, but the soldier forcibly put it in a bag and said, “Don’t cry, girls, there are people living there too!” The mirror has been preserved in the family as a historical artefact. According to archive documents it was even possible to find out the soldier’s name: Junior Sergeant Ulybyshev.

Some of the victims say that compassionate villagers tried to discreetly throw strings of dried bread rings into the carts on which they were being taken away.

What property was ordered to be confiscated and what were the authorities to do with it?
Houses, gardens, livestock, large items, grain and seeds were transferred to the ownership of collective farms.

Houses in which the victims had lived were repurposed as rural schools, kindergartens and reading rooms. Furniture, ancillary buildings, appliances, large instruments and forms of transport, gardens, vineyards, cattle, grain and technical cultivations, planting materials—all of this was subject to unconditional confiscation and handing over to collective farms. There was an order to strictly stop any looting. Bibles and other books found in the possession of the exiles were seized.

What if a family member was not at home on the night of the roundup?
If the location of the member of the family was known, he was searched for as a matter of urgency.

In the first wave on April 1st, if a family member was absent, the authorities acted decisively: they organized an urgent search, even in neighboring districts. Some families escaped expulsion because they had left the republic for business reasons and it was not possible to find them. It was recorded that at Dondyushan Station in the evening, after the deportees had been loaded onto the convoy trains, 45 more people were put on board, probably from among those who had to be searched for.

What if someone was extremely elderly or if there were other reasons for not enforcing the decision to deport?
Disability, advanced age, sickness or pregnancy did not exempt anyone from deportation, as a result of which at least two people died on the journey. In some cases, families were exempted from deportation on special merit or for other reasons.

Illness, even severe, was in most cases not a reason for a family to avoid being expelled. Sometimes elderly persons were loaded onto the convoy. Eduard Payu, 78-years-old, died on the train on April 9. His body, according to the convoy records, was removed from the train at Sverdlovsk, and his widow continued on her way into exile alone. 88-year-old Estonian Liiza Tomson was also able to climb into the wagon on her own, but she died a week after arriving at the resettlement site. 87-year-old Anna Yieras, who was disabled with an amputated leg, was evicted from Estonia. She died shortly after arriving in Siberia. In addition, a woman with a 9-month-old child who was sick with suspected meningitis was sent into exile from the Moldavian SSR. On the journey the baby girl died and the body was handed over to a nurse at Rtishchevo Station. In the archives there is a statement signed by Natalia Kurtish, who did not practice the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was not subject to expulsion. She asked that she too be deported for the sake of her sister, Olga Balan, who needed care due to illness.

Women were also mercilessly deported in late stages of pregnancy. It has been recorded that four children were born in wagons during the journey, and in one case, it seems, there were triplets.

In a number of cases, however, it was decided not to expel certain ones. For example, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was not exiled from the Moldavian SSR as one of her sons had died on the front and the other was serving in the army. For a similar reason, a family of seven was even sent back home from the train station. The decision was agreed with the Ministry of State Security.

A week later, on April 8th, when Operation North was taking place in the Ukrainian SSR, the authorities were much more lenient. According to the instructions for the heads of operational groups, if in a family there were no members capable of working or if there was someone who had been awarded special merits by the state, then the directions given to the head of the city district department of the Ministry of State Security were applicable. Some Witnesses were not sent to exile for health reasons or past merits and military awards. Some were not expelled because they were the only members of a large family who practiced the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition, the lists of identified Witnesses were incomplete. For whatever reason, after the expulsions from the Stanislaviv Region alone, the authorities later counted that about 450 Jehovah’s Witnesses remained there.

Was it possible for someone to renounce their faith and remain in their home territory?
It is not known whether being offered such a choice was officially authorized, but Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Ukrainian SSR recall being given that opportunity.

Archival documents have not yet revealed official instructions from the Ministry of State Security on how the leaders of the operational groups should have acted if a family denied practicing the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and claimed to be on the list by mistake.

It is known, however, that in the Lviv Region of Ukraine several families were not deported for this reason. Some recall that the heads of the operational group offered the families the opportunity to stay if they simply renounced being Jehovah’s Witnesses. This may have been the personal initiative of Ministry of State Security staff. A week earlier, when Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from the Moldavian SSR, Jehovah’s Witnesses were offered this opportunity in rare instances. No such cases were recorded in the Baltic republics.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses who were expelled were generally asked to sign questionnaires indicating their place of work, merit to the state, criminal records and the like. The questionnaires were in the Russian language. As they did not fully understand the contents of the document and did not trust the Chekists, they refused to sign the document.

How many Jehovah’s Witnesses were exiled, according to official sources?
By comparing sources it is possible to establish that 9,793 Jehovah’s Witnesses were exiled, including those who died on the journey.

In the archives, various acts of delivery and acceptance of prisoners, as well as various lists of names and explanatory notes have been found. Comparison of the data indicates that in fact more people were exiled than had been originally planned. From the Belorussian SSR 394 persons were intended for deportation, and around 394 were indeed deported. From the Latvian SSR, the plans were to deport 52 persons, but 53 were actually deported. From the Lithuanian SSR originally the plans were to expel 76 people, but actually 151 were deported. From the Moldavian SSR they planned to deport 1,675 persons, but actually deported 2,617. From the Ukrainian SSR the plans were to deport 6,140 persons, but 6,308 were deported. From the Estonian SSR the plans were to deport 250 persons, but in fact they deported 270. In total the plans were to deport 8,587 persons, but actually deported 9,793 Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of their families. (Note: At a certain point the Ministry of State Security made the decision to add another two categories of deportees to Jehovah’s Witnesses—peasants and former participants in the Anders Army and their families. In Ukraine there were 9,300 persons in these categories. The operation to exile these two categories along with Jehovah’s Witnesses in operative correspondence had the name “Troika”.)

Why were 1,200 more individuals exiled than was planned?
During the operation other families of Jehovah’s Witnesses were discovered. Additionally, some relatives not on the lists opted to be exiled along with their Jehovah’s Witness relatives.

According to minister Abakumov’s report, 8,576 Jehovah’s Witnesses were to be evicted, but in the event 9,793 persons were expelled. How did this happen?

The fact is that Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of their families were subject to expulsion. In some cases, the heads of operational groups had to make decisions on the spot and the actual number of expulsions differed from the planned number. They wanted to avoid the situation whereby the number of those exiled was fewer than in the lists, so sometimes along with Jehovah’s Witnesses relatives were exiled those who not only did not share their beliefs, but were, for example, ardent members of the Komsomol organization, as happened in the Baltic republics. It was reported that an additional 10 families were evicted from the Ukrainian SSR “as a result of newly identified members.”

In some instances, Jehovah’s Witnesses who were not on the eviction lists applied to be exiled along with their families. Among such documents a touching statement was found from a 19-year-old girl who only a month earlier had married and was probably as a result not on the list for eviction. The statement reads “To the Head of the Convoy. Application. I, Chislinskaya Klavdia Georgievna, born in 1932, married in February 1951 to Chislinskiy Yakov Kazimirovich, who is being evicted from the Moldavian SSR to outlying regions of the Soviet Union. Please do not refuse my request to be sent along with my husband Chislinskiy Ya.K. to the place of his resettlement. [Signature].”

How were the victims transported to the train station?
In trucks and horse-drawn carts.

Trucks and horse-drawn carts were used for this purpose. In the Moldavian SSR, for example, 415 vehicles were allocated for Operation North. For the sake of secrecy, the trucks were collected, supposedly, for agricultural work, and the transfer of detachments was explained as being for the construction of state lines of communication. In the Ukrainian SSR, 2,640 vehicles were allocated for the operation, which is significantly more than in the Moldavian SSR.

Horse-drawn transport, i.e. carts, was supposed to be used if the journey from the village to the station was no more than 15 kilometers, and in cases if due to the spring melt the roads were unsuitable for traffic. According to archive documents, one truck carrying the possessions of three families overturned when crossing a bridge. No one however was injured.

As soon as they arrived at the train stations, seeing the long lines of trucks and carts full of possessions, the Witnesses gathered there realized that a mass deportation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was underway. As the expulsion took place on a Sunday, many people came to the train station to show their support for them. When the wagon was full, there was a roll call and the doors were closed. Many remember hearing the sound of heartfelt singing from inside the wagons, and many of those who remained were moved to tears.

What type of wagons, or railway cars, were used to transport the deportees?
Heated “Stolypin”-type goods cars with an area of 182 sq. feet. The wagons were poorly equipped with a small supply of firewood and a wood burning stove. They had no toilets.

To transport the deportees by rail, heated goods wagons for transporting livestock were used. Inside they were 6.4 meters (20 feet, 11 inches) long and 2.7 meters (8 feet 10 inches wide), respectively, with an area of 17.5 square meters (182 square feet). Each wagon was to carry 40 people. Some were loaded with 25 to 50 people. The wagons were not insulated, so at night the victims often suffered from the cold.

In the wagons the authorities tried to organize shelves, but there were not enough for everyone, so some of the passengers had to sleep on the floor. Some remember that at the station they had to wait while the workers quickly make beds out of planks, and in some wagons because of the lack of time they just threw planks of wood inside.

One official from the Ministry of State Security fought resolutely for the installation of toilets in the carriages, believing that their absence would make the long journey unbearable for the exiles. His last name is still indicated in the records: Convoy Head, Captain Permyakov. His demands were considered at republic administration level, but finally it was decided to save money and not build toilets. The expectation was that the exiles themselves would set up a toilet in the corner of the wagon. In each wagon there was a wood burning stove and a small supply of firewood and coal on which the deportees cooked food from their supplies until they ran out.

Some Witnesses remember that when they were loaded into the wagons there was still fresh manure remaining from the recent transport of livestock. Because of the unpleasant smell, the convoy leaders refused to enter the wagons. The Witnesses cleaned up the mess with their bare hands. There was no water to wash the walls and floor.

How many wagons, or railway cars, and convoys were there?
There were 12 convoy trains, each with 50 railway cars. Some cars at the head and tail of the train were allocated for the convoy leaders and the goods.

According to the documents, 9 convoys of 50 cars each were formed to deport exiles from the Ukrainian SSR, and 2 convoys from the Moldavian SSR. For exiles from the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian SSRs, one convoy was formed that was not big enough and the wagons were overcrowded. In the official correspondence, the Ministry of Transport was held responsible for the shortage of wagons. Each convoy was accompanied by a convoy of 36 soldiers and officers.

At present there is no information on how the exile of 153 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Belorussian SSR was carried out.

The train carrying the Baltic convoy was put together in Pskov. They joined two wagons that had been put together separately from the towns of Valga and Võru and the wagons from Latvia and Lithuania.

Did the Ministry of State Security achieve its intended goal or were some Jehovah’s Witnesses able to escape exile?
For an unknown reason at the last minute the eviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Transcarpathian Region was canceled

It was planned to evict all known Jehovah’s Witnesses and families from six republics along with those who were interested in their faith in one day. But something went wrong in the Ukrainian SSR. Initially, it was decided to move the date of the operation from Sunday April 1st to Sunday April 8th. And then 254 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Transcarpathian Region suddenly found out that they were not going anywhere, despite the fact that the convoys were ready. In the report sent to Abakumov from the Minister of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR, this is explained as being “In connection with the decision not to make an eviction from the Transcarpathian Region.” The reason for the decision and who made it is still unknown. Subsequently, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Transcarpathian Region were closely monitored by the secret services and were criminally prosecuted for their faith.

Additionally, as reported above, some Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Ukrainian SSR were not deported because the security authorities did not know about them and they were not included in the lists.

The resettlement area is sometimes described as regions from Vorkuta to the Far East. Where were Jehovah’s Witnesses actually deported to?
To Tomsk Region, Irkutsk Region, and Krasnoyarsk Territory. Later some were transferred to special settlements in neighboring regions.

The exiles deported during Operation North were housed in Tomsk and Irkutsk regions and Krasnoyarsk Territory. The reason other regions, such as Chita Region and Vorkuta, are sometimes mentioned is in connection with other expulsions that took place in the 1940s, as well as the locations of labor camps to which Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced by courts. In addition, some exiles were later transferred to neighboring regions of Siberia.

How long did the train journey take? Why does the length of time differ according to various sources?
According to the official reports, the journey by train took between 12 and 18 days.

Wagons and convoys were unloaded at different points on the journey. However, after being unloaded from the train, some Jehovah’s Witnesses took another month or more to reach their destinations. For example, some had to wait for the river transport season to begin, as it was only possible to get to their places of settlement by river.According to the official reports, the journey by train took between 12 and 18 days.

Were the exiles given food and access to medical assistance on the journey?
Hot food was delivered to them once each day, though sometimes there were delays. According to the records, each convoy was accompanied by a doctor and two nurses.

Official documents say that funds were allocated for the food of the “special contingent” of deportees and that telegrams were sent to catering establishments along the route of the convoys containing orders to prepare hot food. Survivors of the deportation recall that warm food was provided in the form of porridge and macaroni soups. According to reports, the exiles received food irregularly due to delays in the journey, and were helped by the food they took with them. Some remember that people suffered from hunger in their wagons.

According to documents from the Moldavian SSR, each train had one doctor and two nurses, as well as a supply of medicines. It is not known whether this plan was implemented in all convoys. However, in the convoy from the Baltics, there were at least two medics who signed the death certificate of one of the exiles.

At least one convoy, the one from the Baltics, made a stop in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) for the exiles to visit the baths and a cell designed to remove parasites. The baths were located in the Sverdlovsk Transit Prison. The exiles were escorted to the prison, where they were subjected to a painful and humiliating disinfection procedure.

What was the general mood of the exiles?
Their determination, optimism and willingness to help one another was outstanding.

Judging from comments made by the convoy leaders, the mood of the Jehovah’s Witness exiles was markedly different from that of other categories of citizens who had been resettled earlier. The Jehovah’s Witnesses strengthened themselves by prayers and songs. There was no crying or wailing on their part. Nevertheless, the convoy leaders repeatedly tried to stop them singing. Often, if a song began in one wagon, the whole train joined in the singing. Convoy leaders swore, pounded their rifle butts into the sides of the wagons, but it was impossible to stop the singing.

Among the exiles there was a spirit of mutual support and help. In her memoirs, one woman said: “At one station we stopped next to a train from Moldavia. One man asked us through the wall of the car who we were and where we were being taken. We replied that we were Jehovah’s Witnesses from Estonia and that we did not know where we were going. This conversation was heard by Witnesses from Moldavia. They threw us a big flatbread through the window and some prunes. We realized that the rounding-up of the Witnesses was taking place throughout the Soviet Union.”

After a while, one of the deportees came up with the idea of hanging a sheet outside the wagons with the inscription: “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses from Volyn” or “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses from Lviv.” Since the trains sometimes passed each other, the exiles could see trains with similar inscriptions through gaps in the walls. Such “telegrams” helped them to understand the scale of the operation. All of this gave them the resilience to cope with the ordeal that they were faced with.

Upon arrival in Siberia, the heads of the convoys reported that there had been no attempts to escape.

The article Operation North. Consequences and Conclusions discusses what happened to the worshippers next.


Operation North, Consequences and Conclusions

What was Operation North?
The largest deportation of members of a single religious group in the history of the USSR. A total of 9,793 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their families were exiled to Siberia.

In the Stalin era, there were several waves of deportations of entire national groups or individuals based on ethnic, social, political, and religious background. One of the last ones was Operation North. It was the largest deportation of members of one religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of their families. A total of 9,793 people lost their homes and were sent to Siberia. This happened over two days in April 1951. To learn about the motives of the authorities, please read the article “Operation North, The Whys and Wherefores.”

The expulsion of Jehovah’s Witnesses was organized at the level of a military operation. A detailed plan was developed, the required personnel was calculated and assigned, operational teams were formed, secrecy measures were applied, roads were blocked, and even the security of the external borders of the USSR was strengthened. The details can be found in the article “Operation North, What Was It Like?”

Where were the 12 trains that were filled with men, women, children, and elderly people going?

Is there a list of train stations at which the exiles were dropped off?
Convoys of religious worshippers were unloaded at Asino, Mezheninovka, 34th Razezd, Bogashevo, Tomsk and Tugan stations in Tomsk Region, at Achinsk, Reshoty and Abakan stations in Krasnoyarsk Territory, at Zima, Tulun, Zalari, Taishet, and other stations in Irkutsk Region.

According to archival documents, on April 13 and 14, 1951, exiles from the Moldavian SSR were dropped off in Tomsk Region at Bogashevo Station (193 people), Tugan Station (175), and Asino Station (2,251).

The Baltic convoy was unloaded in Tomsk Region: 270 persons from Estonia and 53 persons from Latvia were unloaded at 34th Razezd Station, while 151 persons from Lithuania were unloaded at Mezheninovka Station. No complaints from the special resettled contingent about the escorting crew or the convoy were registered. There were no escapees or attempts to escape along the route.

The plans were to unload the convoys from Ukraine at Abakan and Reshoty stations in Krasnoyarsk Territory, Tomsk and Asino in Tomsk Region, Zima, Tulun, Zalari, Angara, and Taishet for transfer to Bratsk Irkutsk Region.

How was it decided what work the exiles would perform and where?
The heads of collective farms, timber industry enterprises, and other firms selected deportees right at the stations, taking into account their physical capabilities and the nature of the work.

Exiles from some convoys had to live for several more days in an open field, awaiting distribution. For example, one group of Jehovah’s Witnesses had to set up a camp on the banks of the frozen Chulym River. They warmed themselves around a large fire, sang songs, and prayed.

Later, directors of collective farms and representatives of various enterprises came to the stations. They examined the exiles and selected those who were suitable for work, whether it was logging, collective farms, or construction of hydroelectric power plants. Testimony from Jehovah’s Witnesses who were exiled revealed they recall feeling as though they were at a slave market.

How were exiles transported from the railway stations to the settlements?
Their personal belongings were transported by sled in the spring mud. Some people had to wait for the start of the river-navigation season to reach their new homes.

The belongings of the exiles were put on a sled (there was still snow in the taiga) and taken to their places of work and residence. Some sleds were pulled by tractor, others by work horses or bulls.

Some families had to travel for several more weeks. For example, in the city of Asino, Tomsk Region, people had to wait until the navigation season began on the Chulym River in May. They were taken along the river to the taiga, where they were forced to work as lumberjacks.

In an attempt to disrupt the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the authorities tried to scatter believers as widely as possible, placing them in small groups so that they would not have the opportunity to keep in touch with one another. Special commandant’s offices were often organized, not in settlements, but in remote taiga locations not even shown on the map. However, in other areas Jehovah’s Witnesses were settled quite closely together.

What accommodations were provided for the exiles?
Barracks without partitions, abandoned huts, and former prison camps.

At first, many of the Jehovah’s Witness exiles had to live in tents and huts, exposing them to the cold. In some cases, old railway carriages were used for overnight stays. Some were placed in barracks—long corridors without partitions—or dilapidated abandoned huts. In Irkutsk, some Ukrainian families were housed in a former prison camp.

During the first summer, many settlers had to build themselves homes that would protect them from the winter cold. As a rule, these were sunken dwellings made of logs or poles covered with soil. As a result of the trauma that they had experienced— insufficient nutrition and cold in the first months— many elderly and weaker ones died, and the documents of the Special Council under the USSR Ministry of State Security on Expulsion by Name came after their deaths.

What work were the exiles assigned to perform? Was their labor voluntary or compulsory?
Everyone was required to work from the age of 16; at times, even younger children were forced to work.

Since the deportees were exiled to the taiga, they often worked in logging. Difficult and dangerous work was done by hand: sawing trees, chopping off branches, transporting logs on horses, loading them manually into wagons. Some of the exiles were sent to work at a brick factory. The bricks were manually unloaded from the ovens.

Exiles from the age of 16 were required to work. Output rates were high and steadily increasing, so even children over 12 years old were recruited to work. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses recalled the Bible story of how “the Egyptians forced the Israelites into harsh slavery. They made their life bitter with hard labor, as they worked with clay mortar and bricks and in every form of slavery in the field. Yes, they made them toil in harsh conditions in every form of slavery.” The Witnesses consoled themselves with the Bible’s hope of deliverance.

Did the exiles have the right to move about freely or to change their place of residence?
Unauthorized departure was punishable by 20 years of hard labor. Deportees were obligated to register with the special commandant’s offices. Permission was needed to visit a neighboring village or regional center.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in exile were subject to the Decree on Criminal Responsibility for Attempts to Escape from Places of Mandatory and Permanent Resettlement. It stated: “For unauthorized departure (escape) from the places of compulsory resettlement of expelled persons, the perpetrators are subject to criminal prosecution. The punishment for this crime is determined as 20 years of hard labor.” Aiding or providing a permit to return the deportees to their places of former residence was punishable by imprisonment for five years.

The government of the USSR created additional special commandant’s offices, which made sure that the exiles did not leave the territory of the settlements. According to the decree, the eviction was to be permanent, without the right to return to their former places of residence.

Some exiles remember that they could move freely within a radius of four kilometers. Trips to neighboring villages or regional centers required a good reason and permission from the special commandant’s office.

How did the local population treat the newcomers?
At first, the local population was wary of the new arrivals, however, this gave way to sympathy and lending assistance to the exiles.

According to the recollections of exiles, the locals avoided them at first. Later it became known that the authorities, probably fearing that the locals would adopt their faith, warned them against communicating with the newcomers, spreading false stories. Of course, those who had to communicate with them closely very soon realized that the propaganda bore no resemblance to reality. Many tried to help the exiles, for example, with seeds, so that the needy settlers could start up a small vegetable garden.

The striking contrast between expectation and reality prompted local residents to find out what the immigrants’ faith was and why it was dearer to them than freedom and life.

What additional hardships did those exiled to Siberia have to face?
Malnutrition, cold, illness, hazardous work, and swarms of midges.

Some local collective farms were very poor. The people who worked there did not have enough food even for themselves, let alone the exiled newcomers, who often resorted to eating pine bark, edible roots, and nettle soup. Many plants familiar to the exiles did not grow in the Siberian climate. It took years to adjust to the local way of life and find ways to provide themselves with food.

When summer came, the exiles faced a new challenge: clouds of blood-sucking forest insects impossible to hide from. Not knowing how to defend themselves from them, people suffered severely, their faces and bodies swelled, and they fervently prayed to God for help.

Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses were from areas with hot or mild climates, most of them did not have clothes and shoes suitable for the harsh and long winter. Some were left disabled by the extreme cold, illness, malnutrition, lack of proper medications, accidents, or exhausting work.

Many struggled with the emotional and mental trauma caused by separation from their families. They did not receive any letters from their loved ones for many years.

How did Stalin’s death in March 1953 affect the plight of the repressed?
While many who were in labor camps were released, it did not affect those who had been sent to Siberia.

Many people believe Stalin’s death brought liberation to all the victims of political repression. However, his death did not provide relief to Jehovah’s Witnesses who were exiled to special settlements during Operation North.

What happened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were in the camps? As described in the article “Operation North, The Whys and Wherefores”, when the necessity of deportation at the very highest levels was decided on, the authorities took into account that it was only from 1947 to1950 that more than a thousand of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been sent to labor camps. A number of them were sentenced to 25 years in prison. After Stalin’s death, a special commission began to review these sentences and shorten the terms. From 1955 to1957, people began to leave the camps. Many were sent directly into exile to join their relatives. Some returned to their native villages but did not find their families, since they had been expelled. Most of them went to their families in Siberia, and some, especially in the Baltic states, on the contrary, managed to secure the return of their families from exile. One way or another, during these years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the European part of the USSR and in Siberia made efforts to restore contact with those who were lost because of mass deportation.

What happened to the exiles in the special settlements? Nothing. For another 12 years, those “deported forever” did not have the right to leave their special settlements. In the USSR, Stalin’s personality cult was criticized, deported people began to return from exile, and the Khrushchev thaw began and ended. But Jehovah’s Witnesses exiled during Operation North continued to remain in special settlements in Siberia.

What did the newly formed KGB do about Jehovah’s Witnesses after their deportation?
It formulated charges that entailed harsh sentences. Having tried the policy of dispersed resettlement of the exiles, the authorities began to experiment with placement in concentrated labor camps in Mordovia.

Very soon, it became clear to the intelligence officers that Operation North had not accomplished the intended goals. Although the Ministry of State Security ceased to exist after Stalin’s death, a year later the KGB was created, and it picked up the fight against this denomination.

The KGB’s attention was drawn to Jehovah’s Witnesses who had not been exiled and those who had returned from the camps. Police officers who raided their homes found newly printed religious literature, which was distributed throughout the USSR and even appeared in Siberian settlements and various labor camps. New harsh sentences were passed on believers documented by the KGB as “malicious”. For example, Nikolai Dubovinsky, who had already served six years for refusing to take up arms, was arrested again in 1957. The Supreme Court of the Ukrainian SSR sentenced him to death, but the sentence was changed to 25 years of imprisonment, of which he actually served 10. Quite a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, men and women, spent a total of more than 20 years in various prisons and camps for their faith.

Convinced of the futility of the dispersed resettlement program of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the KGB changed tactics. They were placed in concentrated labor camps. For example, from 1959 to 1966, more than 450 out of 600 prisoners of Labor Camp No. 1 in Mordovia were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Camp No. 10 in the village of Udarny (now PKU IK-10 of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia in the Republic of Mordovia) had more stringent conditions, and it housed at least 100 of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Writer Maurice Hindus referred to the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR in 1967: “Though they function underground, they are hunted out and given stiff jail sentences. But there is no stopping them. Suppressed in one place, they bob up in another… They appear as indestructible as the Soviet police.” (Hindus M.G. The Kremlin’s Human Dilemma. 1967).

The KGB was constantly working to introduce informants into the communities. At least one of the informants, Nikolai Bychkov, after becoming better acquainted with Jehovah’s Witnesses and their doctrines, adopted their views himself. Later, in the Khabarovsk Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, a staged trial was held for him and other Jehovah’s Witnesses and broadcast on television. Bychkov was convicted for his faith. (It is noteworthy that from 2018 to2020 in Khabarovsk, five criminal cases were initiated against ten of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their faith. The same Zheleznodorozhniy District Court passed convictions against four of them: Evgeny Aksyonov, Stanislav Kim, Valery Moskalenko and Nikolai Polevodov. These sentences have already entered into force.)

Why was the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia steadily increasing?
By the decree of 1952, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served their sentences were sent not to their homeland, but straight to Siberia, where they continued their practice of preaching. Many prisoners and exiles responded to the preaching and converted.

According to the summary report of the head of the “P” (special settlements) of the Ministry for Internal Affairs of the USSR, as of July 1, 1953, there were already 10,387 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in exile in special settlements in 1951.

The first factor in the increase of their number was likely the decree of the Presidium of the USSR Armed Forces issued in March 1952 stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses “who had served their sentences for various crimes in forced labor camps, colonies and prisons of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs” were to be sent not to their homeland but immediately to Siberia.

The second factor was that unjustly accused “enemies of the people” in Siberia who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses were in dire need of comfort and hope. The strong faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their mutual support, compassion, and other Christian qualities motivated prisoners and exiles to listen to their message. Historian Aleksey Gorbatov, referring to Soviet historiography, also drew attention to the fact that among the new converts of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Krasnoyarsk Territory were many people from Baptist families who had settled along the Trans-Siberian [railway] since the Stolypin reforms and who had become organizationally “amorphous” in 40 years. The preaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses had fallen on fertile soil.

What did Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Transcarpathian Region who escaped deportation do?
They made lists of those who were imprisoned or in exile to send them warm clothes, food, and Bible aids. Transcarpathia became the starting point for a system of underground printing houses.

As stated in the article “Operation North. What Was It Like?” The Ministry of State Security decided at the last moment not to deport 254 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Transcarpathian Region of the Ukrainian SSR. As a result, Ukraine logically became a key center of support for Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country.

By 1952, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had escaped exile or prison tried to compile lists of those who were in prison or in exile. The archives of one criminal case contain a handwritten list of 2,503 names of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were repressed from 1940 to 1950. Their fellow believers sent warm clothes, food, and literature hidden in parcels to 54 camps throughout the USSR. In return, they received letters of gratitude, which supported them as well.

Transcarpathia became the starting point for the creation of a country-wide system of underground bunkers where Bible aids for Jehovah’s Witnesses were printed. Printing devices were primitive, but the Witnesses constantly improved them. A gifted mechanic by the name of Levko Batikh built an offset printing press with his own hands.

One of the underground printing presses operated in the Carpathian Mountains. It even had an electric generator powered by a forest stream. KGB officers discovered it in the summer of 1963. Ivan Dzyabko, who was in a bunker at the time, was shot right there in the forest. The case files say “when trying to escape.” Later, local authorities even organized tours to this bunker for adults and children.

What reaction did the exile invoke among fellow believers abroad?
From 1956 to 1957, petitions were sent to the Council of Ministers of the USSR from all over the world in connection with Operation North and other repressions. They asked for a state investigation to convince the authorities of the harmlessness of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Information about the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeped through the Iron Curtain very slowly. From1956 to1957, large meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in many countries of the world, at which they adopted a joint petition to the Soviet leadership asking to stop the persecution of the Witnesses.

The Archives of the Council of Ministers of the USSR preserved the texts of these appeals translated into Russian. They were addressed to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, Nikolai Bulganin. Among other things, the appeals referred to Operation North: “Since April 1951, 7,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the territory from the Baltic states to Bessarabia have been arrested and sent in freight wagons to remote regions of the country located between Tomsk and Irkutsk, as well as near Lake Baikal, in Siberia . . . A large number of those arrested, especially of the 7,000 above-mentioned persons, died in the first two years of their imprisonment in Siberia due to malnutrition.” (As translated by the USSR Council of Ministers Chancellery; the indicated number of exiles is incomplete.)

The appeals contained a request for an objective government investigation, which would show that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not pose a threat to the Soviet system and also a request to grant them the right to freely practice their religion.

When were Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the Soviet Union given the right to leave Siberia?
Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the last to leave exile in 1965. Their confiscated property was not returned.

Between 1954 and 1960, the USSR was actively curtailing the special settlement system. It was believed that those exiled had been successfully “re-educated,” and imposing further restrictions on them was no longer necessary. The exiled peoples, former peasants, Basmatchi, White Guardsmen, and many others returned to normal life.

However, according to historians, Jehovah’s Witnesses turned out to be the most problematic group to release. According to the reports of the authorized bodies, in the places of their settlement they were characterized very negatively: they did not take part in elections, allegedly “sabotaged the party’s activities”, “strictly observed religious rites”, and those most active even walked around the settlements “spreading anti-Soviet rumors.”

Finally, on September 30, 1965, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR signed the Decree on Lifting Restrictions on Special Settlement of Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Sect, True Orthodox Christians,” Innokentyevists, Adventist Reformists and their Family Members.” (According to the above-mentioned certificate of the department “P” of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR, in 1953 there were 996 true Orthodox Christians exiled in 1944. Innokentyevists and Adventist Reformists were not mentioned in the certificate.)

Jehovah’s Witnesses were freed from administrative supervision, but the decree emphasized that “the lifting of restrictions on special settlement for these persons does not permit the return of property confiscated during the eviction.”

The decree was signed by Anastas Mikoyan and Mikhail Georgadze, highlighting that the policy of repression against Jehovah’s Witnesses ultimately proved to be ineffective.

Why could Jehovah’s Witnesses not return to their native villages and cities?
There was a clause in the decree on the lifting of restrictions that made it almost impossible to return to their native places.

The decree specifically stipulated: “The return to the former places of residence of the persons released from the special settlement on the basis of Article 1 of this Decree may be allowed only with the permission of the executive committees of the regional (territorial) Councils of Workers’ Deputies or the Councils of Ministers of the republics (without regional division), in the territory in which they previously lived.”

It is likely the de facto ban on returning to the former place of residence was primarily related to the decision not to return the confiscated property and the desire to avoid conflicts.

As a result, after 1965, Jehovah’s Witnesses began to leave Siberia en-masse, not to their homelands, but to the Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories, the Republics of Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. Some Siberians who became Jehovah’s Witnesses followed their example. At the same time, many Jehovah’s Witnesses, having settled down in Siberia, chose to stay there. (As of 2021, as part of a new wave of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2 persons from Tomsk Region, 12 from Krasnoyarsk Territory and 7 from Khakassia were accused or convicted, and 4 of them, including a 70-year-old woman, were in custody. One accused woman from Khakassia died in the summer of 2020 prior to her trial.)

How did Operation North ultimately affect the establishment of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USSR?
The views of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia spread among a wide variety of citizens disillusioned with Soviet ideology.

As early as 1961, British specialist in Soviet affairs Walter Kolarz wrote about Operation North: “This was not the end of the ‘Witnesses’ in Russia, but only the beginning of a new chapter in their proselytizing activities. They even tried to propagate their faith when they stopped at stations on their way into exile… In deporting them the Soviet Government could have done nothing better for the dissemination of their faith. Out of their village isolation [in the western Soviet republics] the ‘Witnesses’ were brought into a wider world, even if this was only the terrible world of the concentration and slave labour camps.” (Kolarz W. J. Religion in the Soviet Union. 1961).

Siberia turned out to be a cauldron full of representatives of various categories of citizens who somehow did not agree with Soviet ideology. First of all, they had the opportunity to get acquainted with the positive Bible message presented by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The believers themselves, although they suffered hardships, considered the opportunity that had opened up to them to preach the gospel as God’s providence.

Shared tragedies can pull people together. In spite of the significant challenges and trauma experienced, Jehovah’s Witnesses grew stronger and were ready for even greater feats of faith, seeing how their comrades sacrificed freedom and even life for the sake of their religious convictions.

What has become clear about the nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses religion in the decades since Operation North?
The charges against them have been pronounced unfounded, and it has been established that they are not a threat to government or society. There is no evidence supporting violent opposition to the state on the part of Jehovah’s Witnesses or unlawful acts as a result of the influence of their literature. Even in times of civil war and genocide in various countries, Jehovah’s Witnesses have distanced themselves from crimes against humanity.

The Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression acknowledges that “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” of which Jehovah’s Witnesses were accused, “is not a danger to the public.”

Not in the course of Operation North nor in the many home raids and roundups of Jehovah’s Witnesses were any acts of violent resistance to the Soviet authorities recorded. This is especially visible in the reports of the heads of the operational groups.

World history in the 20th century has shown that even in times of national conflicts such as civil wars and genocides, Jehovah’s Witnesses have rejected violence and criminal activity. They have not tarnished their reputation by participating in such affairs, even at risk of becoming victims themselves, as was the case in Malawi and other countries. During the genocide in Rwanda, about 400 of Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their lives, including Hutus, because they not only refused to participate in the carnage but also risked their own lives to protect their Tutsi fellow worshippers.

Although since 2009 Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced charges of extremism, in the Supreme Court of Russia, which banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, the plaintiff could not cite a single fact of violation of public order motivated by the literature or teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Often the basis for accusations of extremism being leveled against Jehovah’s Witnesses are a result of their belief that they practice the one true religion. Russian and overseas organizations such as the UN, OSCE, PACE, US State Department, USCIRF and some heads of state are united in their condemnation of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even the President of the Russian Federation spoke publicly of his confusion with regard to their criminal prosecution. However, the wave of criminal cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses that began in 2017 has not stopped, despite the fact that the numbers accused have exceeded 400, and the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are behind bars in pre-trial detention or prison colonies has exceeded 50.

Does the Russian legislation on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses who were exiled?
The exiles and the children born to them while they were in exile have official documents identifying them as victims of political repression. Each month they receive a small amount of material compensation.

April 26, 2021 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples, which was introduced when the USSR still existed. In this law it was stated that the unlawful state policy “insulted the dignity not only of those who were repressed, but of all other peoples of the land.”

Later, the Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression was adopted in the Russian Federation. In the preamble it was stated that: “In the years of Soviet authority millions of people became victims of the arbitrary rule of the totalitarian state, were subjected to repression for political or religious convictions, or on the basis of social, national and other characteristics. In condemnation of the long-term terror and mass persecutions of its own people as incompatible with the notions of rights and justice, the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation expresses deep sympathy for the victims of unfounded repression and their relatives and friends, and declares its unwavering striving to achieve real guarantees of the securing of rule of law and human rights.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses who were exiled to Siberia along with the children born to them in exile have been pronounced victims of political repression. In order to receive identification documents and a small amount of material compensation, the victims had to file an application with the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation. They filed and were duly granted these documents. In 2010, drawing attention to the irony of the situation, 48 prominent Russian human rights activists and representatives of civil society organizations signed a joint declaration: “Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: The Rehabilitated Are Repressed Again.”

Have the lists of all those exiled been recovered in our time?
Some have been recovered. More data will be published as soon as it becomes available.

The list of those exiled from the Estonian, Latvian, and Moldavian Soviet Republics has been almost completely recovered. The lists of those exiled from the Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Byelorussian Soviet Republics have been partially recovered. More data will be published as it becomes available.