Operation North, What was it like?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.)
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].”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.