The branding of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Samara as an extremist organisation in 2014 was preceded by several court cases, dating back five years.
In March 2009, the Samara regional prosecutor asked the regional court to close down the Jehovah's Witnesses organisations in the Volga cities of Samara and Togliatti. The court could find no evidence to suggest the Togliatti community had broken the law, and threw the case out. The Russian Supreme Court, however, upheld the request; and in June 2009 the regional court commissioned the Russian Federal Centre of Forensic Science, to conduct a linguistic, psychological and theological examination of a book published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mankind’s Search for God. In December of that year, the criminal investigation was stopped before the results of the examination had been received.
In January 2013, when the police searched the premises rented by the Jehovah's Witnesses for their services, they discovered religious publications found on the federal list of extremist material. This resulted in a warning from the Samara regional prosecutor regarding the Witnesses' work in Togliatti.
The Russian Federation’s law on Extremism stipulates that religious organisations can be closed down and their activities banned if they infringe this law 12 months after a warning has been issued. This is what happened with Jehovah's Witnesses in Samara.
In March 2014, a district court in Samara fined the leader of the local branch of Jehovah's Witnesses, Pavel Moskvin, 50,000 roubles (£600), for mass distribution of extremist literature on the list of banned publications.
According to the Samara interior ministry, the court case was started following an unplanned investigation carried out at the request of a local resident. The resident had complained that Jehovah's Witnesses were distributing banned religious literature along the Moscow Highway, where he lives.
While counter-extremism officers were carrying out the investigation, people were detained in two places in Samara (including the Moscow Highway) for handing out religious literature. The police confiscated 11 books, which, it turned out, are on the federal list of banned extremist literature.
The police confiscated 11 books, which are on the federal list of banned extremist literature.
What is extremist literature
The evidence collected during this investigation led to a charge of ‘mass distribution of extremist literature’ under the Code of Administrative Offences. In April 2014, the Samara regional prosecutor petitioned the regional court to close down the local Jehovah's Witnesses organisation. Before the case could be heard, however, the prosecutor suspended the work of the organisation, temporarily confiscated its property and placed it on the list of religious organisations banned for extremism.
The court decision contained no list of the books that had actually been found to be extremist. Given that Russian law states that titles of books on the list of extremist literature cannot be published, the court did not make the titles public to avoid giving them publicity. One of the Jehovah’s Witnesses did tell me that titles such as Draw Close to Jehovah, a brochure entitled The Government that will bring Paradise, and copies of the popular magazine The Watchtower were found among the confiscated books.
In its decision, the court drew on expert linguistic analysis of the Witnesses’ literature conducted by other courts in different regions and the legal advisory board of the Russian High Court, which had declared the literature ‘extremist.’
According to these analyses, the books depict unfavourably, religions whose teachings differ from those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. One example given by the court was a passage from The Watchtower: ‘although Josiah was only a child, he was old enough to know that he should make friends with people who serve Jehovah. May you do the same and choose to do what is right!’
In the court’s opinion, the phrase ‘make friends with people’ simultaneously implies ‘do not make friends with others’ and amounts to a hidden incitement to religious intolerance, promoting a negative attitude towards people who do not share their faith in Jehovah. In this way, The Watchtower was publishing extremist material. In other words, the exclusive attitude towards other world religions, which this literature advocates Jehovah's Witnesses to adopt is what makes it extremist.
In May 2014, a judge from the Samara regional court found in favour of the regional prosecutor to the effect that the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses in the region should be banned and their property confiscated. The Witnesses tried to appeal this decision, declaring that neither their teachings nor their work is extremist, and so the closing down of the organisation would be absurd. The organisation's legal advisers maintained that the police had planted extremist literature during the search of their rented premises. However, on 26 June, despite the appeals, the Samara court declared the organisation extremist and ordered that it should be closed down.
On 12 November, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld the decision of the Samara regional court. The organisation's property would now be considered state property.
Together with their legal counsel, the leaders of the Samara Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against these decisions and have already sent several appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). But representatives of the organisation believe that, even if the ECHR should find in their favour, it will be impossible to restart their work in the Samara region.
The Soviet past
New Christian sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses have long been regarded unfavourably in Russia. Andrei, 55, is a Samara resident and has been a Witness since the 1970s. Andrei joined with the help of a former classmate from a local educational institute. The two men were interested in world religions and got in touch with all the sects operating in the region before concluding that the Jehovah's Witnesses were what they were looking for.
'To be a Witness during the Soviet period was a real achievement. We had to hide our faith’
'To be a Witness during the Soviet period was a real achievement. We had to hide our faith even from our classmates. There were many KGB informers among the students and the lecturers. I can remember at the beginning of the 1970s a lecturer in the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union scared us by saying in one of his lectures that if he found out anyone was going to an Orthodox church, or supported the Catholics, Baptists or Jehovah's Witnesses, he would immediately report us to the KGB. Then, he said, we would be drafted as a matter of urgency into the army and sent to Afghanistan. If we let slip that we belonged to the Jehovah's Witnesses, we would have been kicked out of the institute, the Komsomol, and drafted into the army. At the time, there were no more than 100 Jehovah's Witnesses in the region. But our faith was stronger than our belief in Communism.
We were lucky that our wives shared our religious conviction. We only emerged from the underground at the beginning of perestroika. Before that our services were held at people’s apartments.'
Jehovah’s Witnesses today
The Samara Jehovah's Witnesses declared officially that they had 1,500 members in their organisation. In reality, the number is much higher — more like 7,000.
Services used to be held in several places. The Witnesses rented the assembly hall in a local workers' club ('Victory') and a cultural centre ('Samarets'), as well as a former cinema in the centre of town. Up to 1,000 people attended each service and, on several occasions, high-ranking local officials were to be seen among them. At the beginning of the 1990s, the (liberal) governor of Samara even met one of the leaders officially.
Sociologists have shown that the Jehovah's Witnesses had a positive impact on the microclimate of Samara’s Bezymyanka district, whose residents work in the defence industry, manufacturing rockets, aircraft and weapons. At the beginning of the 1990s, people were being laid off as factories closed. Unemployment and alcoholism rose accordingly in the district. When the Witnesses started working there, the number of alcoholics fell. As some of the Witnesses remarked: 'Many of the factory workers came to listen to the sermons to find rest and respite from their hard lives, the aggression and the malice. To find out how to love their fellow men, to think about their souls rather than worldly temptation. The sermons had a very beneficial effect on people who had lost all hope.'
Many of the factory workers came to find rest and respite from their hard lives, the aggression and the malice.
Sometimes parishioners took the church's demands literally, and this resulted in tragedy. The Witnesses do not endorse organ transplants or blood transfusions, and some of them refused transplant operations and died. At the beginning of 2014, seven-year-old Yaroslav Kvetkin was hospitalised after a car crash. Kvetkin required a blood transfusion, but his father, a Witness, refused to give permission to carry out the procedure. In the end, though the child lost a lot of blood, he survived. The parents told journalists that Yaroslav had survived only because they prayed for him. This story was widely reported in the Samara regional media. Local representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church tried to spin the story by describing it as 'yet another evil perpetrated by Jehovah's Witnesses, who are so alien to us Russians.'
Witnesses explain some of the very stringent rules within the organisation (such as restrictions on communication) by saying that discipline is of paramount importance, as is the importance of working together for a single faith. Many Jehovah's Witnesses say that relationships are much closer and more respectful within the organisation than, for instance, the Orthodox Church, where parishioners are less outgoing. Attracting the younger generation is not a problem, as children of members participate, as well as students who find out about the sect while studying abroad.
One Witness, 25-year-old Ruslan, told me he has to conceal his membership of the organisation from his parents. One half of Ruslan’s family is Tatar (Muslim), and the other half are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. 'Everyone has a very negative attitude to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Orthodox Church is particularly militant, so if people at home found out I was a Witness, they’d lock me up and forbid me to attend services. My family would curse me and force me to convert to Islam or Orthodoxy to avoid shaming the family. My wife is Orthodox and I'm afraid she would divorce me if she discovered that I was a Jehovah's Witness. Believing in secret is very difficult. Sometimes I get very depressed, especially now the Witnesses have been banned in the region, and there is a campaign to ban them throughout Russia. I think our president only accepts one religion, Orthodoxy, which has become the state religion. Jehovah's Witnesses have become religious dissidents. There is no question of religious democracy in our country,' says Ruslan.
Jehovah's Witnesses have become religious dissidents
If the legal appeal of the Jehovah's Witnesses to the ECHR is unsuccessful, then the believers will have to go underground. But as one member of the organisation told us, 'In effect that has already happened. Services are held in places which are carefully kept secret, otherwise the police or FSB might find out about them. It has become more difficult to become a Jehovah's Witness. In the future, several members of the organisation will have to vouch for someone wishing to join. If the authorities continue to persecute us, we shall have to become completely illegal, and our services will be held via the internet. The internet is not yet banned in Russia, so members can still visit international Jehovah's Witness sites.'
'In taking the decision to close down the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Samara region, the Supreme Court was looking to the future,’ said one of the Samara campaigners. ‘The court can see that there may soon be similar decisions relating to local religious organisations in other regions. It's a political trend intended to reduce the number of religions operating in Russia. Those that "don't fit" are placed outside the law and persecuted as extremist. Without a doubt, the Russian government will continue to suppress religious freedom in any way it can. The Witnesses are the victims here. Indeed, it will be sad if the ban leads people to return once more to the vices they abandoned when they joined the organisation.'