Why Is Putin Afraid of Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Since they were labeled an extremist group in 2017, more than 400 have been charged or convicted.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Massachusetts
A group of Jehovah's Witnesses stand on a street corner in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Aug. 16, 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Wednesday, authorities in Russian-occupied Crimea announced that they had arrested a 30-year-old man suspected of promoting an organization that had been banned and deemed extremist in Russia. The day before that, prosecutors in the Russian city of Smolensk asked a court to sentence three adherents of the same group to up to nine years behind bars. On Monday, in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, prosecutors sought seven years for a man charged with “organizing the activities of an extremist group.”

So who are these scary extremists? Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination with an estimated 175,000 followers in Russia. In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the group an extremist organization, lumping its non-violent adherents into the same category as neo-Nazis and members of al Qaeda.

Since then, Russian law enforcement has raided the homes of more than 1,300 worshippers and over 400 have been either charged or convicted of extremism in a brutal crackdown which has swept up followers aged 19 to 90. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimates that between 5,000 to 10,000 of its members have fled Russia since the ban came into force. 

Why is this happening?

As is often the case with authoritarian states, it’s hard to tell exactly what has prompted the crackdown—and there’s likely more than one reason. Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves are bewildered. 

“If it wasn’t so serious, it would be a joke. It’s absurd. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been anything but extremist, and we’re certainly not dangerous or violent,” said Jarrod Lopes, a spokesperson for the group’s headquarters in the United States. Jehovah’s Witnesses remain politically neutral for religious reasons and do not vote, run for office, or protest. That might have spared them the arrests and harassment levied against protesters and opposition politicians in Russia, but their apolitical stance might have singled them out in other ways. “That looks very suspicious to our authorities,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which tracks discrimination and misuse of Russia’s extremism laws. 

After Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 amid mass street protests against allegedly rigged elections, the Kremlin made a conscious effort to foment nationalism—and support for Putin. This new wave of patriotism was built around support for the armed forces and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is closely interwoven with the Russian state. All of this made Jehovah’s Witnesses—who refuse military conscription based on their faith—all the more conspicuous. 

“I think it makes states that want a lot of control uncomfortable, because they can’t really control this community,” said Emily Baran, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

And then there’s the American element. Putin dialed up hostility to the West, and in particular the United States, which he accused of fomenting the protests against him. Civil society organizations and human rights groups which received foreign funding were subject to invasive and debilitating new rules under a law on foreign agents passed shortly after Putin returned to power in 2012. While religious groups were exempt from the law, Jehovah’s witnesses ties to the United States—where the group developed in the late 19th century and where its headquarters remain—likely drew further scrutiny from the Russian authorities. Still, Verkhovsky noted, Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing a much harsher crackdown than other U.S-tied religious groups, such as Seventh-Day Adventists and Pentacostals. 

Isn’t this just part of Russia’s broader crackdown? 

Yes and no. Russia has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and the country’s vague and expansive extremism laws are one of many tools that have been used to stifle dissenting voices. Journalists, activists, and social media users have been arrested and imprisoned for questioning the annexation of Crimea or Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Syria. “The Witnesses are just one piece of that larger picture in which Russia is not drawing a huge distinction between al Qaeda, a Jehovah’s Witness and a 20-something on the internet,” said Baran.

But what is distinct about the assault on the Jehovah’s Witnesses is its ferocity and persistence. The group’s Russian website is updated almost daily with news of new raids, arrests, and convictions. A remarkable amount of resources, including wiretapping and extensive surveillance, has been used in the hopes of catching someone in the act of discussing their faith or the Bible with another person, acts which are deemed extremist under the Russian law. “I think the state legitimately does see them as a threat,” said Baran. 

Suspicion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia dates back to the Soviet Union, when the group was outlawed and repeatedly maligned in the press, which portrayed them as fanatics and accused them of being criminals, con men, and Nazi collaborators. It created a stigma that was never undone. April 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses to Siberia during Stalin’s rule. 

“I think that some conspiracy theory appeared somewhere inside the governmental structures regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Verkhovsky said. “And we cannot even discuss it in public because these theories are not presented to the public.”

What’s the response?

Western governments and international institutions have condemned Russia’s crackdown. In February, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price described the two-year penal colony sentence for 69-year-old stroke victim Valentina Baranovskaya as “particularly cruel” and urged Russia to lift its ban on the religion. In July, EU member states and six other members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called on Russia to uphold its obligations to allow freedom of religion and expression, as guaranteed by the Russian constitution. 

But while governments and human rights groups have kept close tabs on the targeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it has not received the same degree of public attention either in Russia or abroad as other political repressions.

“Because they are a bit of a unique religion, they’re not a group that engages in a lot of interdenominational activities, they don’t have as many natural allies who can help kind of provide a larger platform than themselves,” said Baran, who noted that the community had faced descrimination in almost every country where they have a presence. 

“It’s easier to target them for a ban because you’re not going to get a lot of pushback about that, compared to other religious groups,” said Baran.

Correction, March 26, 2021: Jarrod Lopes is a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in the United States. A previous version of this article misstated Lopes’s first name.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack