Seventy years ago, 9,793 believers were taken from their homes in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and sent to Siberia.
by Massimo Introvigne
It was an early Spring night, and all was quiet in 370 Ukrainian villages. All of a sudden, at 2 a.m., the silence of the night was broken by the barking of dogs, and by orders screamed by hundreds of armed police. It was Sunday, April 8, 1951. The Soviet police woke up all the families known to them as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and told them they had two hours to pack some belongings—but only up to a maximum weight of one and a half kilogram—and be taken away. All their other properties will be confiscated. And there was something they were strictly forbidden to pack—Bibles and other religious literature.
The Witnesses—men, women, some of them pregnant, children, and elderly persons in their eighties—were hastily put on trucks and horse-drawn carts. Some charitable neighbors, woken up by the commotion, gave them loaves of dry bread. Their next stop was a train station. There, they were put on train wagons and started a long journey, which will last from 12 to 18 days. Food was scarce, and there were no toilets. Toilet functions should be performed in the corner of each wagon. The concerns by one secret service officer, who suggested that toilets were needed, were quickly dismissed. Only one convoy stopped once, at Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), where the passengers were allowed to visit a toilet and were submitted to a humiliating public shower and disinfection.
Finally, they arrived in Siberia, in the Tomsk or Irkutsk regions and Krasnoyarsk territory. They found that in April snow and cold were still there, and were taken by sled to their destinations. There, they were told that all those at least 16-year-old will be taken to work in logging or brick factories (although sometimes children were requested to work, too). Soon, they were assaulted by swarms of midges, with no way to protect themselves. Some had died in the train wagons, and others died soon after their arrival in Siberia. Others survived, and only in 1965 they were allowed to move to other Soviet republics, although almost never to where they had formerly lived.
This was Stalin’s “Operation North,” and the name meant that there had been a previous “Operation South,” when hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Moldova, together with other real or imaginary opponents of the regime, had been deported to Kazakhstan.
In 1929, there were only some 100 families of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. However, after World War II, the Soviet Union grew to incorporate territories where there were Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the Baltic States. And Russian prisoners in Nazi camps met there the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only inmates who could have freely left just by renouncing their faith—but didn’t. Moved by their example, some converted. In the female camp of Ravensbrück, for example, 300 Russian women joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The result was that, after the war, Stalin had a “problem” with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, devotees of a religion that would not rebel against the Soviet state, but would not participate in its political activities either. Between 1947 and 1950, some 1,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and sentenced to terms in labor camps.
In 1950, however, Stalin asked for a final solution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses “problem.” This resulted, on February 19, 1951, in a secret report about the organization sent to Stalin, and a resolution of the Council of Ministers dated March 3, 1951, which ordered the deportation to Siberia “forever” of all Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the three Baltic Republics. To prepare the population, who knew the Jehovah’s Witnesses as pacific and law-abiding citizens, to the event, on March 19, 1951, the official daily Pravda published an article claiming that the Witnesses were spying for the United States.
The resolution was put in execution on April 1, 1951. Although discrepancies between documents exist, the approximate number of those deported was 2,617 in Moldova, 394 in Belarus, 270 in Estonia, 151 in Lithuania, and 53 in Latvia. For whatever reason, Operation North was carried out in Ukraine one week later, on April 8, with 6,308 deported. More than 10,000 police and other officers participated in the operation.
The Soviets had planned to deport 8,576 Witnesses but the final number was 9,793. The fact was, when raiding the villages, the police discovered more Witnesses. In one moving incident in Moldova, a 19-year-old girl called Klavdia Georgievna Chislinskaya, whose name was not in the list, asked to be deported together with the husband she had just married in February 1951.
On the other hand, for reasons not entirely clear, some Jehovah’s Witnesses escaped deportation, most of them in the Transcarpathian Region of southwestern Ukraine. This was a mixed blessing for them, as many were later arrested and sentenced to long terms in labor camps.
In the few published accounts of the deportation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we often read that they were taken to Vorkuta and to Chita, in Zabaykalsky Krai. They were not in 1951, when their destinations were in or around Tomsk, Irkutsk, and Krasnoyarsk, but some were moved to Vorkuta and Chita later, where they met Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been deported there prior to 1951.
The Soviets had scattered the Witnesses around different locations, hoping their faith would slowly die out. In fact, the contrary happened. Others who had been deported to Siberia for different reasons accepted their faith, as did a sizeable number of the so-called Krasnoyarsk Baptists, who were there from the early 20th century and had been left without pastors. The number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the region also grew because those who had been arrested before 1951, and had served their terms in jails or labor camps, were not allowed to return to their homes but were in turn sent to Siberia.
It is also inaccurate to report that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were allowed to return home after Stalin’s death in 1953. This was true for others who had been deported, not for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only in 1965 were they allowed to leave Siberia, but they could only return home with a special permission by the authorities of the republics where they had lived, which was almost never granted. So, they had to settle elsewhere.
Only with the fall of the Soviet Union, they were rehabilitated. But in Russia their joy was short-lived, as new campaigns against the Jehovah’s Witnesses started soon, and a chain of events was set in motion leading to the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017 and to massive waves of arrests.
On April 8, 2021, seventy years after Operation North started in Ukraine, an international conference on Operation North was held (via Web due to the COVID). The speeches are available online. I was among the speakers.
The video of the April 8, 2021 conference: https://youtu.be/JKaw11qz-C4
A Web site on Operation North, in various languages including English, was also launched. There is also a movie about Operation North accessible through the Web site, and an exhibition that can be visited virtually.
It is important for historians to collect documents about Operation North and interview the survivors before they all die. It is also important, as several speakers at the conference underlined, to understand that the same unfounded accusations against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, arbitrary arrests, and persecution continue in today’s Russia—and are exported to other countries as well. In Ukraine, there were hate crimes targeting Kingdom’s Halls of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and anti-cult campaigns inspired by the notorious Russian anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin and the European anti-cult federation FECRIS. Seventy years after Operation North, the trials and tribulations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the former Soviet Union have not come to an end.