Operation North, Consequences and Conclusions
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.