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.