Russian Federation Increases Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses

By Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.

The most serious threat to religious freedom in Russia today is the Russian Federation‘s escalating use of a 2002 law on extremism. While used to combat terrorism and radical political groups after 9/11, the law is frequently used to deal harshly with unpopular religious groups under the pretext of “religious extremism.”

According to Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, “The anti-extremist law in Russia is very problematic precisely because it is so broad and vague. . . . It is essentially designed for selective use and sometimes it is being arbitrarily used, including against religious minorities.” While many groups, including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Mormons, and the Church of Scientology suffer from strict applications of this law, especially through censorship of written materials, denials of registration, refusals to permit construction or grant permits to rent places of worship, perhaps the group that suffers the most abuse under this law is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses had roughly 40,000 members when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990; they now have approximately 165,000. Despite their rapid growth, these numbers hardly threaten the security of a nation of 140 million. Witness authorities say they’re being persecuted as “extremists,” when they seek only to peacefully live out their faith.

Recent Restrictions

Among numerous recent actions by the Russian Federation taken against Jehovah’s Witnesses are these:

  • In December 2009, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld a September 2009 ban on 34 items of Jehovah’s Witness literature as extremist.

  • A September 2009 court decision dissolved the local Jehovah’s Witness organization in Taganrog.

  • In July 2010, police and local officials disrupted a Jehovah's Witness meeting in southern Russia, using trucks, dustcarts and power cuts to prevent it from proceeding, before sealing off the building on alleged security grounds. Meetings elsewhere were also disrupted or blocked.

  • In August 2010, it was reported that for the first time, extremism-related criminal cases in central Russia were opened against three Jehovah's Witnesses.

  • Grigory Martynov, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said that homes of believers have been raided recently and there were acts of intimidation in Revyakino, a village in the Irkutsk region, after the local mayor twice burst into meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most recently, Martynov said, the mayor shot at the ceiling of the home of a Jehovah’s Witness and held a gun to the head of the man’s son.

  • Forum 18 News Service reports that at least four lawyers (from Canada and the USA) defending Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported from Russia in recent years. The deportation strategy hinders the Witnesses' attempts to defend themselves in court cases where Russian officials seek to ban their literature as “extremist.”

  • According to Forum 18 News Service, public prosecutors across Russia have conducted more than 700 check-ups on local Jehovah's Witness communities since early 2009. Witnesses believe prosecutors are conducting “fishing expeditions” that might enable them to shut down Witness headquarters in St. Petersburg and over 400 dependent organizations across Russia. The nationwide sweep seems to have been ordered by the General Prosecutor's Office in Moscow, which complained that the Jehovah's Witnesses' missionary activity and rejection of military service and blood transfusions "provoke a negative attitude towards its activity from the population and traditional Russian confessions." Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia generally believe that the General Prosecutor increasingly intends to use Russian laws on religious extremism to restrict or ban worship and distribution of their literature.

  • In St. Petersburg, state authorities have arrested or detained more than a thousand believers, searched 148 homes and buildings, and banned 68 publications. “There is no logic, there is not any sense when experts say that this is extremism and this is not,” says Yaroslav Sivulski, a member of the church’s presiding committee. “We are very active,” Sivulski says. “We are preaching, we approach people at home, we are preaching on the street, we are visible. Maybe it’s [that] our activities could be viewed like a threat to [the] Orthodox Church.”

  • Jehovah's Witness websites nationwide are now being blocked for carrying copies of their written works. Blocking of access in Russia to Jehovah's Witness websites began in July 2010, when internet service provider Technodesign in Komsomolsk-na-Amure blocked its customers' access to the official Jehovah's Witness international website, which contains information and publications in English, Russian, German and many other languages.

  • In June 2011, the Russian Supreme Court made clear that cases under "extremism"-related provisions of the law must be narrowly framed. However, the Russian federal government and various Russian states continue to use “extremism” as a hammer to suppress minority religious freedom, and in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, by expansively interpreting “extremism” to include religious literature that poses no threat to the nation or other religions. The international community should increase its pressure on Russia to alter course and begin to respect the religious rights of peaceful, established groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Russian Intolerance in Context

Since their formation in the late 19th century, Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered relentless persecution worldwide for their controversial religious beliefs. Today the Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distribution of literature (especially The Watchtower), their refusal of blood transfusions, and for not celebrating Christmas and various other religious holidays. Persecution against Witnesses was especially strong during WWII when their political neutrality, conscientious objection to war, and refusal to salute any nation’s flag made them the target of governments and citizen mob groups alike. Except for Jews, they were the most persecuted group in Nazi Germany; they were banned during the war in countries like Russia and Spain, and sometimes beaten and jailed in places like Britain, Canada, Cuba, and the United States. The ACLU reported that by 1940 in the United States alone, "more than 1,500 Witnesses . . . had been victimized in 335 separate attacks.” In the United States, however, legal challenges by Witnesses (twenty-three Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1946) have strengthened their civil liberties, especially religious freedom, and Witnesses claim generally to suffer less religious persecution today in the U.S. than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

Many inside Russia claim that the government is not serious about religious freedom but consistently works in tandem with the Russian Orthodox Church to pester, persecute and eliminate if possible other religions. By most estimates, more than 80 percent of Russians today identify themselves as Orthodox. There is a saying in Russia: “To be Russian is to be Orthodox.” Nevertheless, the restructuring of Russia that began in the late 1980’s was supposed to be about creating a democracy where freedom was ensured for all citizens, and all religions were to have equal standing before the law.

But the Russian Orthodox Church was always a vocal critic of this new policy of religious freedom, and prevailed upon the Duma to pass a highly restrictive new law in 1997 that slowed Russia’s experiment with unlimited religious freedom. This law, which comprehensively regulates church-state relations in Russia, specially acknowledges the unique contributions to Russia's culture and statehood of several of the nation's oldest religions – Russian Orthodoxy in particular – but it also discriminates against the Federation's less traditional religions by requiring special registration procedures and by limiting the scope of the activities in which they can lawfully engage.

Many religious organizations have already been liquidated under the 1997 law; frequently it has been used as a tool for officials throughout Russia to remove unwanted religious groups. In the spirit of this sanctioned discrimination, it remains difficult for many religious organizations to buy or even rent property to be used for worship purposes, meet for worship services, conduct schools, disseminate religious literature, or proselytize. “The Russian Orthodox Church is already halfway towards becoming a state church," the business daily Kommersant wrote recently. Another kind of disquiet was expressed by Anatoly Krasikov, an expert in socio-religious studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who warned, "if Orthodoxy becomes a new ideology, we'll be right back to a totalitarian state."

The 2002 law on extremism only enhances the ability of Russian authorities to restrict activities of minority religions. Russia must confront the task of how best to treat religion and religious institutions within an emerging democratic order. Given Russia’s history, the Russian Orthodox Church might expect to have a dominant cultural role long into the future, but it is the Russian people, in democratic course, who must ultimately deny the church a preferred legal position. Their decision is crucial to the advance, or decline, of freedom in the new Russia.


Jehovah’s Witnesses have demonstrated themselves for nearly a century and a half to be peaceful and law-abiding citizens in those areas of the world where they reside. With over 7 million Witnesses worldwide, they have a permanent place in the broad landscape of religions that exist worldwide. They deserve better treatment in Russia and elsewhere. Intolerance against any religious minority, especially when generated to protect the status of an entrenched, majority religion, is unacceptable in the 21st century. It matters not whether the intolerance is perpetrated by individual citizens or the government itself. In either case, greater tolerance is needed. Religious freedom can progress only when assaults against established, peaceful, honorable groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses cease. This is as true in Russia as anywhere else in today's world.