The history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in modern-day Russia is an account of oppression and persecution. For much of the 20th century, Russian authorities abused and mistreated the Witnesses, although they were known to be peaceful, law-abiding citizens. The aim of the government of the Soviet Union was to coerce them into accepting Soviet ideology. They were forbidden to possess Bibles or religious literature. They were under constant surveillance and had to hold their religious meetings in secret. If discovered, they were subjected to beatings and long prison sentences. The government exiled thousands to Siberia.
That began to change in 1991 when the Russian government granted legal recognition to Jehovah’s Witnesses and allowed freedom of worship without interference from the authorities. However, that period of peace did not last long.
In 2009, opposition and restrictions began to escalate when the Russian Supreme Court upheld the decision of a lower court to label a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist.” After years of legal battles, in April 2017 the Russian Supreme Court ruled to liquidate the Witnesses’ legal entities for alleged extremist activity. Immediately the Russian authorities took steps to confiscate their property, close down their places of worship, and declare their religious literature to be “extremist material.”
Not stopping with their attack against the Witnesses’ legal entities, Russian authorities have chosen to target Jehovah’s Witnesses individually. Overreaching, they associate private worship of individual Witnesses with the banned organization. Police raids of the Witnesses’ homes bring abusive treatment and harsh interrogation. Both male and female Witnesses of all ages have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison or house arrest.
Since the April 2017 ban, hundreds of Witnesses have been sentenced to pretrial detention or imprisonment under the charge of extremism. As of November 17, 2023, a total of 116 Witnesses are imprisoned.
Outcries Against Russia’s Harsh Treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Russian authorities continue to convict Witnesses of extremist activity despite an international outcry for Russia to stop its relentless persecution. Informed observers and courts outside of Russia have censured the Russian government for its unyielding oppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Statement from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Permanent Council (March 12, 2020): “The European Union continues to be deeply concerned about the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia who continue to face systemic persecution, including home raids, arbitrary detentions, criminal investigations and sentences up to seven years of prison time. . . . We call upon the Russian Federation to live up to its international human rights commitments, to respect the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, religion or belief, as well as the rights of persons belonging to minorities and to guarantee a fair trial.”
European Court of Human Rights: On June 7, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights released a landmark judgment against Russia, condemning their persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Taganrog LRO and Others v. Russia, nos. 32401/10 and 19 others). The Court declared that it was unlawful for Russia to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017. Russia was ordered to “take all necessary measures to secure the discontinuation of all pending criminal proceedings against Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . and release . . . [imprisoned] Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Further, it was ordered to return all confiscated properties or pay over 60 million dollars in compensation and to pay the applicants over 3 million dollars in nonpecuniary damages.
Letter from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe: In a letter dated December 9, 2022, addressed to the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marija Pejčinović Burić stated: “In the cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others and Krupko and Others, concerning the dissolution of the applicant religious community entailing a ban on its activities, dispersal of a peaceful religious ceremony and the subsequent deprivation of liberty of some of its participants, the Committee strongly urged the authorities to reverse the ban imposed on the activities of all Jehovah’s Witnesses organisations and to discontinue all criminal proceedings against them.”
Outrageous and Harsh Judgments
Imprisonment of the Elderly. On September 13, 2023, the Belogorsk City Court of the Amur Region convicted Vladimir Balabkin, age 71, of extremist activity. He was given a sentence of four years in prison and was taken into custody from the courtroom. This ordeal began in March 2021, when law enforcement officers raided the home he shares with his wife, Tatiana, also a Witness. The prosecutor initiated a case against him, and his trial began two years later. The investigation, trial, and his imprisonment have been understandably stressful for Vladimir, who suffers from cancer.
Lengthy Prison Sentences. On December 9, 2020, law enforcement officers searched the homes of Vladimir Melnik, Vladimir Piskarev, and Artur Putintsev, Witness men living in Oryol. The men were charged with organizing the activities of an extremist organization and were sent to a temporary detention facility. Vladimir Piskarev, who is 67 years old, suffered a stroke while in pretrial detention. Despite his poor health and the fact that all three men were merely engaging in peaceful worship and Bible study, the Sovietskiy District Court of the City of Oryol convicted them on October 13, 2023. They were each sentenced to six years in prison and another year and a half of restricted freedom following their release.
On November 7, 2023, Yevgeniy Bushev, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Chelyabinsk, was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Kalininsky District Court. The case against Yevgeniy began in September 2022, when his home was searched by law enforcement officers. Suspected of engaging in extremist activity, he was placed under house arrest and his financial accounts were blocked. In his criminal trial, which began a year later, Yevgeniy was convicted of “extremist” activity for attending peaceful meetings for worship and speaking with people about the Bible. He is currently imprisoned in Detention Center No. 1 in Chelyabinsk.
Continued Efforts to End Unjust Imprisonments
Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are greatly distressed by Russia’s harsh treatment of their fellow believers. Millions of Witnesses all over the world have sent letters to Russian government officials, appealing to them in behalf of imprisoned Witnesses. Attorneys for imprisoned Witnesses have filed appeals at every level of Russian courts and scores of applications to the European Court of Human Rights. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also submitted complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and have provided reports to international organizations that monitor human rights abuses. Jehovah’s Witnesses will continue to pursue all avenues to raise awareness of the plight of their fellow believers in Russia in order to end this grave religious persecution.
November 17, 2023
Total of 116 Witnesses imprisoned.
June 7, 2022
ECHR releases landmark judgment condemning Russia for their mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
May 24, 2022
After spending over five years in prison, Dennis Christensen is released.
May 4, 2022
After spending over a year in prison, Valentina Baranovskaya is released.
January 12, 2022
The Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation adds the JW Library application to the Federal List of Extremist Materials. This is the first and only app to be banned in Russia as extremist.
October 25, 2021
Trusovskiy District Court of Astrakhan sentences Rustam Diarov, Yevgeniy Ivanov, and Sergey Klikunov to eight years in prison. Olga Ivanova is sentenced to three years and six months in prison.
September 27, 2021
Saint Petersburg City Court rejects the appeal against the decision of March 31, 2021, which declared the JW Library app extremist and banned its use throughout the Russian Federation and Crimea. The court’s original decision goes into effect immediately.
September 23, 2021
Volgograd Traktorozavodsky District Court sentences Sergey Melnik and Igor Yegozaryan to six years in prison and Valeriy Rogozin to six years and five months in prison.
August 11, 2021
After two days of court hearings, the Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Vasiliy Meleshko to three years in prison.
June 30, 2021
Blagoveshchensk City Court of the Amur Region sentences Aleksey Berchuk and Dmitriy Golik to eight years and seven years in prison respectively.
February 24, 2021
Abakan City Court of the Republic of Khakassia sentences Valentina Baranovskaya to two years in prison and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, to six years in prison.
February 10, 2021
Abinskiy District Court of the Krasnodar Territory sentences Aleksandr Ivshin to seven and a half years in prison.
September 2, 2020
Berezovsky City Court of the Kemerovo Region sentences Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years in prison.
August 3, 2020
Pskov Regional Court rules to release Gennady Shpakovskiy from prison. It upholds his conviction but changes his six-and-a-half-year prison sentence to probation for the same term.
July 13, 2020
Mass searches of at least 100 Witness homes in the Voronezh and Belgorod regions.
June 9, 2020
Pskov City Court convicts 61-year-old Gennady Shpakovskiy and sentences him to six and a half years in prison.
February 6, 2020
Five of the six Witnesses convicted on September 19, 2019, are transferred to Penal Colony No. 1 in Orenburg. When they arrive, prison guards beat them severely—kicking them repeatedly and hitting them with clubs. Mr. Makhammadiyev suffers a broken rib, a collapsed lung, and kidney damage.
September 19, 2019
Judge Dmitry Larin of the Leninskiy District Court of Saratov sentences six male Witnesses to prison—Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, Feliks Makhammadiyev, Roman Gridasov, Gennadiy German, and Aleksey Miretskiy—for allegedly ‘organizing extremist activity.’
May 23, 2019
Oryol Regional Court denies Dennis Christensen’s appeal and upholds the six-year prison sentence.
April 26, 2019
UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finds that the rights of Dimtriy Mikhailov have been violated and denounces Russia’s persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
February 6, 2019
The Zheleznodorozhniy District Court finds Dennis Christensen guilty and sentences him to six years of imprisonment.
October 9, 2018
Police and special forces raid homes in Kirov. Several male Witnesses, including Andrzej Oniszczuk, who is a Polish citizen, are arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
July 15, 2018
Police search the homes of several Witnesses in Penza. Vladimir Alushkin is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
July 4, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Omsk. Sergey and Anastasiya Polyakov are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Mrs. Polyakova is the first female Witness in the Russian Federation to be arrested and held in pretrial detention on charges of extremism.
June 12, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Saratov. Konstantin Bazhenov, Aleksey Budenchuk, and Feliks Makhammadiyev are arrested and placed in pretrial detention. Three other Witnesses, Gennadiy German, Roman Gridasov, and Aleksey Miretskiy are ordered to sign an agreement not to leave the city.
June 3, 2018
Police forces raid homes in Tomsk and Pskov. Sergey Klimov is arrested and placed in pretrial detention.
February 19, 2018
Criminal trial of Dennis Christensen begins in the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court, with Judge Aleksey Rudnev presiding.
July 20, 2017–November 2018
Dennis Christensen’s pretrial detention is extended several times, first by the Sovietskiy District Court and then by the Zheleznodorozhniy District Court.
May 26, 2017
Sovietskiy District Court of Oryol sentences Dennis Christensen to two months’ pretrial detention.
May 25, 2017
Police raid religious services in Oryol and arrest Dennis Christensen.
April 20, 2017
The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rules to liquidate the national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 395 Local Religious Organizations.