Faithful Under Trials—Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union (video clip)
On the first two weekends of April 1951, the Soviets carried out a well-planned program in which they rounded up over 7,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their families living in the western part of the Soviet Union and transported them by train thousands of miles east into exile in Siberia.
*footnote* The current country name, Moldova, will be used throughout this article instead of the former names Moldavia or the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
As told by Ivan Mikitkov...
I was born in 1928 in the village of Taul, Moldova. When I was a year old, my father, Alexander, visited Ias̩i, Romania, where he met Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. When he returned to Taul, he shared what he had learned from them with his family and neighbors. Soon a small group of Bible Students was formed in Taul.
As the youngest of four children—all boys—I was surrounded from infancy with spiritually minded people, who set a good example for me. Over time, it became evident to me that serving Jehovah would provoke opposition—and would be a challenge. I have vivid memories of the police repeatedly searching our house, trying to find our hidden Bible literature. These occasions did not frighten me. I learned from our study of the Bible that God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, as well as his disciples, had been persecuted. During our meetings we were often reminded that Jesus’ followers should expect persecution.—John 15:20.
Strengthened to Face Persecution
In 1934, when I was only six, a letter was read to our congregation in Taul telling us about the sufferings of our fellow Christians in Nazi Germany. We were encouraged to pray for them. Though I was still little, I never forgot that letter.
Four years later I faced my first personal test of integrity. During religious lessons at school, the Orthodox priest repeatedly ordered me to wear a cross around my neck. When I refused, he asked all the children in the class to display their crosses as a sign that they were good church members. Pointing to me, the priest then asked the class: “Do you want someone like him in your class? All who don’t, raise your hands.”
Since the students were afraid of the priest, they all raised their hands. “You see,” he said, turning to me, “nobody wants to have anything to do with you. Leave this building immediately.” A few days later, the director of the school visited my home. After talking to my parents, he asked if I wanted to continue going to school. I told him I did. “As long as I am director,” he replied, “you will go to school and the priest will not be able to stop you.” True to his word, as long as that man was director, the priest did not bother me.
In 1940 the area in which we were living, called Bessarabia, became part of the Soviet Union. On June 13 and 14, 1941, all those who were politically or socially prominent were deported to Siberia. Jehovah’s Witnesses were not affected by this deportation. From that time on, though, we conducted our meetings and did our preaching more discreetly.
In the latter part of June 1941, Nazi Germany mounted a full-scale sneak attack on the Soviet Union, which up till then had been its ally. Shortly, Romanian forces recaptured Bessarabia. This put us under Romanian rule once again.
In nearby villages the Witnesses who refused service in the Romanian military were arrested, and most were sentenced to 20 years of forced labor. Father was summoned to the police station and beaten brutally because he was a Witness. Also, I was forcibly taken from school to attend church services.
The tide of World War II then turned. In March 1944 the Soviets quickly took northern Bessarabia. By August they had taken the whole country. I was only in my mid-teens at the time. Soon, all physically fit men from our village were drafted into the Soviet army. But the Witnesses refused to compromise their neutrality. So they were sentenced to ten years’ incarceration. In May 1945, World War II in Europe ended with the German surrender. Nevertheless, many Witnesses in Moldova remained incarcerated until 1949.
After the war ended in 1945, Moldova suffered a terrible drought. Despite the drought, the Soviet government continued to demand from farmers a large portion of their produce as tax. This led to horrific famine. By 1947, I had seen many dead bodies on the streets of Taul. My brother Yefim died, and for weeks I was so weak from hunger that I could hardly move. But the famine passed, and we Witnesses who remained alive continued our public ministry. While I presented the message locally, my brother Vasile, who was seven years older than I, preached in nearby villages.
As the Witnesses became more active in the ministry, the authorities began observing us more closely. Our preaching, as well as our failure to share in politics or to do military service, prompted the Soviet government to start searching our homes for Bible literature and arresting us. In 1949 some Witnesses from nearby congregations were deported to Siberia. So once again those of us who remained began making efforts to be more discreet in carrying out our ministry.
In the meantime, I had developed a serious health problem that progressively worsened. Doctors eventually said that I had tuberculosis of the bones, and in 1950 my right leg was encased in a plaster cast.
(photos of Ivan's mother, father, brother Vasile, and his son while in exile at their home in Torba, Siberia, 1953)
Arrested and Imprisoned
In 1953 my plaster cast was removed. But, in the meantime, despite trying to be careful, my spiritual activity, including reproducing Bible literature, had come to the attention of the KGB. As a result, along with other Witnesses, I was eventually sentenced to 12 years in a prison camp. During the trial, however, we were all able to give a fine witness regarding our God, Jehovah, and his loving purposes for mankind.
We prisoners were eventually sent to various camps near Irkutsk, hundreds of miles farther east. These camps had been established as places of punishment for those who were deemed enemies of the Soviet State. From April 8, 1954, until early 1960, I served time in 12 of such labor camps. Afterward, I was moved more than 2,000 miles [3,000 km] west to the huge Mordovian complex of prison camps about 250 miles [400 km] southeast of Moscow. There I had the privilege of being in the company of faithful Witnesses from many parts of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets realized that when the Witnesses were allowed to mix freely with non-Witness prisoners, some of these also became Witnesses. So in the Mordovian prison complex, which was made up of many work camps that stretched for some 20 miles [30 km] or more, an attempt was made to isolate us from close association with other prisoners. Over 400 Witnesses were put together in our camp. A few miles away, a hundred or so Christian sisters were in another camp of the prison complex.
In our camp I was very active in helping organize Christian meetings as well as copying Bible literature, which had been smuggled into the camp. This activity evidently came to the attention of camp officials. Shortly afterward, in August 1961, I was sentenced for one year to the infamous, czarist-era Vladimir Prison, about 120 miles [200 km] northeast of Moscow. The U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down on May 1, 1960, while flying a spy plane over Russia, was also a prisoner there until February 1962.
While I was in Vladimir Prison, I was provided with only enough food to keep me alive. I coped well with starvation, since I had experienced this in youth, but the extreme cold of the 1961/62 winter was hard for me to endure. The heating pipes broke, and the temperature in my cell fell well below freezing. A doctor saw my sorry state and arranged for my transfer to a less harsh prison cell for the worst weeks of that cold spell.
(Ivan Mikitkov in a prison camp, 1955)
Sustained to Meet the Challenge
Negative thoughts can discourage one after months of confinement, which is what prison authorities hope for. However, I prayed constantly and was strengthened by Jehovah’s spirit and by scriptures that I called to mind.
Especially while I was in Vladimir Prison did I identify with the apostle Paul’s words about being “pressed in every way, but not cramped beyond movement,” and “perplexed, but not absolutely with no way out.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) After one year, I was returned to the Mordovian camp complex. In these camps, I completed my 12-year sentence on April 8, 1966. Upon release, I was given the character description “impossible to reform.” To me, that was official proof that I had stayed faithful to Jehovah.
Often I have been asked how we received and then duplicated Bible literature while in Soviet camps and prisons despite efforts to prevent us from doing so. It is a secret few have ever learned, as noted by a Latvian political prisoner who spent four years in the women’s Potma camp. “Witnesses somehow kept getting literature in quantity,” she wrote after her release in 1966. “It was as if angels at night flew over and dropped it,” she concluded. Indeed, only with God’s help was our activity accomplished!
A Period of Relative Freedom
After my release, those taking the lead in the preaching work asked me to move to western Ukraine, near Moldova, to help our Moldovan brothers. However, as an ex-convict under scrutiny by the KGB, I was very limited in what I could do. After two years, under threat of reimprisonment, I moved to the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where authorities seldom checked papers. Then, in 1969, when my parents became very sick, I moved to Ukraine to care for them. There, in the town of Artyomosk, north of the large city of Donetsk, a KGB officer threatened to send me back to prison, as recounted at the outset of this article.
As it turned out, the officer was simply trying to intimidate me. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to take action. Since I was determined to carry on my Christian ministry and the KGB would be on my heels practically anywhere I went, I continued to care for my parents. Both Father and Mother died faithful to Jehovah. Father died in November 1969, but Mother lived on until February 1976.
When I moved back to Ukraine, I was 40 years old. While caring for my parents there, I was in a congregation with a young woman named Maria. She was only eight when, like my family, she and her parents had been exiled from Moldova to Siberia in early April 1951. Maria said she liked my singing. That was a start, and although both of us were busy in the ministry, we managed to make time to cultivate a friendship. By 1970, I had convinced her to marry me. Soon our daughter, Lidia, was born. Then, in 1983, when Lidia was ten, I was betrayed to the KGB by a former Witness. By then I had served nearly ten years as a traveling overseer throughout eastern Ukraine. Opposers to our Christian activity were able to get people to provide false testimony at the trial, and I was given a five-year sentence.
In prison I was kept isolated from other Witnesses. Despite years of such isolation, though, no human agency could block my access to Jehovah, and he always sustained me. In addition, I found opportunities to witness to other prisoners. Finally, after serving four years of my sentence, I was released and reunited with my wife and daughter, who had both remained faithful to Jehovah.
(Maria and Ivan on their wedding day)
Back to Moldova
We spent another year in Ukraine and then returned permanently to Moldova, where there was a need for mature, experienced help. By that time, the Soviet leadership allowed for more freedom of movement. We arrived in Bălţi in 1988, where Maria had lived before being exiled 37 years earlier. By 1988, there were about 375 Witnesses in this second-largest city of Moldova; now there are well over 1,500! Even though we lived in Moldova, I still served as a traveling overseer in Ukraine.
By the time our organization was legalized in the Soviet Union in March 1991, thousands of people had become disillusioned by the failure of Communism. Many were bewildered and lacked real hope for the future. So when Moldova became an independent sovereign republic, what a fertile territory our neighbors—and even some of our former persecutors—proved to be! After our exile in 1951, only a relatively few Witnesses were left in Moldova, but now there are well over 18,000 in this small country of about 4,200,000. Our sufferings of the past have indeed been blotted out by the wonderful experiences we have enjoyed!
(Ivan and Maria today)
In the mid-1990’s, poor health resulted in my having to discontinue serving as a traveling overseer. There are times when my condition discourages me. Yet, I have come to appreciate that Jehovah knows what we need to lift our spirits. He provides the encouragement we need at the right time. If I had the opportunity to live my life over, would I choose a different path? No. Rather, I wish that I might have been more courageous in my ministry and that I could have been more active and energetic.
I feel that Jehovah has blessed me and that all of his servants are a blessed people regardless of their circumstances. We have a vivid hope, a living faith, and the assurance that soon everyone will have perfect health in the new world of Jehovah’s making.