This image was captured two years ago when I saw a reenactment of the April 1951 Soviet deportation of thousands to Siberia over the course of three nights, during the Stalin era.
As a photographer, I have tried to keep my business life somewhat separate from my personal views on politics and religion. My website blog, Facebook business page and Instagram page have generally been reserved for the posting of my travel and landscape photography and promoting that aspect of my life as an artist. However, like many photographers, I recognize the value of images and the role they can play in heightening an awareness of the world’s humanitarian, social and environmental issues. Hence, I have stepped out of my self-imposed boundaries to post a blog that is close to my heart. Many who read this may dismiss the situation being addressed as having little relevance since it pertains to a minority group that does not enjoy popularity in general. The news media and others seem to lack concern and give little attention to the situation. Nonetheless the consequences could have far reaching effects in the future, as I will cite a historical case in support of this argument.
Background: Over the course of three nights in April 1951, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Ukraine, Moldavia and the Baltic region were crammed into boxcars and sent to Siberia in exile. Men and women, young and old, businessmen and farmers, all were presented with a document to renounce their faith or be exiled. Their stories of courage, faith and survival are truly inspiring. However, in 1991 the religion was registered, granted legal recognition and enjoyed freedom of worship under the Russian Federation’s constitution. In recent years, various localities and lower courts have been building a bulwark of legal cases, through the misapplication of laws against extremist groups, in an attempt to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, around the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses are recognized as people who promote peace and love of neighbor. International tribunals and humans rights courts acknowledge this stand time and again.
On March 15, 2017 the Ministry of Justice in Russia filed a claim that will be heard in the Russian Supreme Court in early April. An adverse judgement would lead to the state’s seizing and liquidating all property held by the group, including their administrative center and places of worship. Furthermore, more than 170,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be prosecuted as criminals for meeting to worship, reading the Bible or talking to others about their faith. What will be their fate? What about any family or neighbors who show them support or do not support the government’s actions? The numbers could easily exceed a quarter of a million people affected.
Unfortunately, the media has shown little concern up to this point. Aside from posting the official announcements of the situation from the official websites of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Russian Ministry of Justice, the world’s news agencies have not followed up on the story. Beginning March 20, 2017, over eight million of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world were urged to write kind and respectful letters to the government officials in Moscow. By now, a week later, one can only imagine the impact millions of letters arriving in Moscow must be having on the postal system and administrative departments.
Why has the media remained silent? Certainly, by now, the repercussions of this campaign must be surfacing in Moscow. Is the apathy due to Jehovah’s Witnesses lack of popularity? Does the media function simply to report what will interest their reader base or do they bear responsibility to speak out for humanity, freedom and justice? These are indeed questions worth pondering. However, to think this has no relevance beyond a small minority is wrong.
Historical Parallel: When looking at history, people often wonder how movements such as Nazism were able to reach the pinnacles they did. What people fail to recognize is that smaller minorities are often a barometer that can indicate the climate to come. For example, five years before Kristallnacht, Jehovah’s Witnesses were being sent to the concentration camps and experienced torture, brutality and execution. They widely published what was being done and even published diagrams of the camp layouts. The world remained silent. The media did not consider it newsworthy and dismissed what was happening to this small and unpopular minority. However, in the shadows, the oppression continued to gain momentum until the hatred surfaced on a large scale with other groups. As the world looks back, they wonder how they could have allowed the holocaust to happen. Yet, again and again genocides rear their ugly head and human rights are trampled. Silence and indifference are at the root. It seems that the world only looks in retrospect and cannot see the long range effects of their apathy until it is too late.
What future events may come from this? It is hard to tell. Whatever you may personally think about Jehovah’s Witnesses; whether you approve of them, their doctrines or their activities – The events that are stirring are quite likely the rumblings of something bigger. They are certainly an affront to freedom and justice.
UPDATE APRIL 22, 2017: Although slow, the media has picked up on this. Much international attention has been drawn to what has been going on. On April 20, 2017 the Russian Supreme Court handed down a verdict banning the religion. Confiscation of property owned by the administrative center along with 395 other legal entities is imminent. The 6 day court hearing was a farce and the defense was not allowed to introduce any evidence to disprove charges. The court was attended by international human rights groups representatives as well as the ambassadors to Russia from some of the world's largest countries. The actions have been condemned by international organizations. It seems unlikely that any further appeals will not reverse this decision. It will be interesting to see how the effects of this event begin to ripple across the sea of humanity.