Awaiting a Kingdom That Is “No Part of This World”
As told by Nikolai Gutsulyak...
For 41 days and nights, I had been caught in the middle of a prison uprising. Suddenly, I was jolted from sleep by cannon fire. Tanks and soldiers burst into the prison camp, attacking the prisoners. My life hung in the balance.
How did I come to be in this situation? Let me explain. This event happened in 1954. At the time, I was 30 years old. Like many of Jehovah’s Witnesses living under the Soviet regime, I was incarcerated for remaining neutral in political issues and for telling others about the Kingdom of God. Our group of imprisoned Witnesses was made up of 46 men and 34 women. We were held in a labor camp near the village of Kengir in central Kazakhstan. There we lived in the midst of thousands of other prisoners.
Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, had died the preceding year. Many prisoners hoped that the new regime in Moscow might listen to their complaints about the harsh prison conditions. Prisoner discontent eventually boiled over into open prison rebellion. During the ensuing confrontation, we Witnesses had to make our position clear to the agitated rebels and also explain our stand to the military guards. For us to take that neutral position required faith in God.
(labor camp in Kazakhstan where Nikolai was imprisoned)
On May 16 the rebellion in the prison camp began. Two days later, more than 3,200 prisoners refused to go to work, demanding better camp conditions and concessions for political prisoners. Events unfolded quickly. First the rebels forced the guards out of the camp. Then they made openings in the surrounding fence. Next they broke down the walls separating the male and female wards, creating so-called family barracks. In the heady days that followed, some prisoners even married, with wedding services conducted by priests who were also imprisoned. In the three camp wards where the uprising occurred, most of the 14,000 prisoners participated in the rebellion.
The rebels organized a camp committee to negotiate with the military. Soon, however, arguments broke out among the committee members, and camp control ended up in the hands of the most extreme elements. The mood became ever more aggressive. The rebel leaders organized a security department, a military department, and a propaganda department to maintain “order.” The leaders used loudspeakers that were mounted on poles around the camp to broadcast fiery messages, keeping the spirit of rebellion at a fever pitch. The rebels prevented others from escaping, punished those who opposed them, and declared their readiness to kill anyone who did not meet with their approval. There were rumors that some prisoners had already been executed.
Since the rebels anticipated a military attack, they made careful preparations to defend themselves. To ensure that the greatest number of prisoners possible would be equipped to defend the camp, the leaders ordered all prisoners to arm themselves. To do so, prisoners stripped iron bars from windows and forged knives and other weapons from the metal. They even managed to get guns and explosives.
Pressured to Join
At that time, two rebels approached me. One held out a freshly sharpened knife. “Take this!” he ordered. “You’ll be needing it for protection.” Silently, I asked Jehovah to help me stay calm. I replied: “I am a Christian, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other Witnesses and I are serving time here because we fight, not against people, but against invisible spirit forces. Our weapons against them are our faith and our hope in God’s Kingdom.”—Ephesians 6:12.
To my surprise, the man nodded that he understood. However, the other man hit me hard. Then they left. The rebels went from barracks to barracks, attempting to force the Witnesses to join the uprising. But all of our Christian brothers and sisters refused.
The neutral position of Jehovah’s Witnesses was discussed at a meeting of the rebel committee. “Members of all faiths—Pentecostals, Adventists, Baptists, and everyone else—are joining the uprising. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused,” they noted. “What will we do with them?” Someone suggested throwing one Witness into the prison oven to put some fear into us. But a former military official, a prisoner respected by the others, stood up and said: “That is unwise. We should put them all in one barracks right on the edge of the camp, next to the gate. That way, if the army attacks us with tanks, the Witnesses will be the first ones to be run over. And we will not be the ones guilty of killing them.” The others accepted his suggestion.
(a drawing of the sisters in the Witnesses' barracks)
Put in Harm’s Way
Before long, prisoners walked around the camp shouting, “Jehovah’s Witnesses, get out!” Then they herded all 80 of us toward a barracks at the edge of the camp. They dragged the bunk beds out of the barracks to make more room inside and ordered us to enter. That barracks became our prison within the prison.
To provide some privacy, the Christian sisters in our group stitched sheets together, and we used them to divide the barracks into two sections—one for the men and the other for the women. (Later, a Witness in Russia made a drawing of this barracks, which is shown below.) While living in those cramped quarters, we often prayed together, fervently asking Jehovah to give us wisdom and “power beyond what is normal.”—2 Corinthians 4:7.
All that time, we were dangerously situated between the rebels and the Soviet army. None of us knew what either side might do next. “Don’t keep trying to guess,” urged an older, faithful Christian brother. “Jehovah will not abandon us.”
Our dear Christian sisters—both young and old—showed exceptional endurance. One was about 80 years old and needed extra help. Others were sick and in need of medical attention. Throughout that time, the doors of the barracks had to remain open so that the rebels could monitor us constantly. At night, armed prisoners came into the barracks. Sometimes they were heard to say, “The Kingdom of God is asleep.” During the day, when they allowed us to go to the camp mess hall, we always stayed together and prayed that Jehovah would protect us from violent men.
In the barracks, we tried to support one another spiritually. For instance, often a brother related an account from the Bible, just loud enough for us to hear. Then he applied the account to our circumstances. One elderly brother especially liked to talk about Gideon’s army. “In Jehovah’s name, 300 men with musical instruments in their hands fought against 135,000 armed soldiers,” he reminded us. “All 300 returned unharmed.” (Judges 7:16, 22; 8:10) This and other Bible examples gave us spiritual strength. I had only recently become a Witness, but seeing the strong faith of more experienced brothers and sisters greatly encouraged me. I felt that Jehovah was truly with us.
(Nikolai -sitting on the bottom right, with other Christian brothers upon release)
The Battle Begins
Weeks went by, and tensions in the camp were building. Negotiations between the rebels and the authorities grew more intense. The rebel leaders insisted that the central government in Moscow send a representative to meet with them. The authorities demanded that the rebels surrender, give up their weapons, and return to work. Each side refused to compromise. By then, the camp was encircled by military forces ready to storm it at the first command. The rebels too were ready to fight, having raised barricades and stockpiled weapons. Everyone expected the final showdown between the army and the prisoners to come at any moment.
On June 26 we were awakened by a deafening volley of cannon fire. Tanks crushed the fence and burst into the camp. They were followed by waves of assault troops firing machine guns. Prisoners—men and women—rushed toward the oncoming tanks, yelling “Hurrah!” and hurling rocks, homemade bombs, and anything else they could get their hands on. A fierce battle ensued, and we Witnesses were caught right in the middle. How would Jehovah answer our prayers for help?
Suddenly, soldiers dashed into our barracks. “Come on out, you holy ones!” they shouted. “Quick, get yourselves outside the fence!” The officer in charge ordered the soldiers not to shoot us but to stay with us and protect us. While the battle raged, we sat on the grassy steppe beyond the perimeter of the camp. For four hours we listened to explosions, shots, screams, and moans coming from inside the camp. Then, all fell silent. Later, in the morning light, we saw soldiers carrying the dead out of the camp. We learned that hundreds had been wounded or had perished.Later that day, an officer whom I knew came up to us. “So, Nikolai,” he proudly asked, “who saved you? Did we or did Jehovah?” We sincerely thanked him for saving our lives, adding, “We believe that our almighty God, Jehovah, moved you to spare us, as he moved others to deliver his servants in Bible times.”—Ezra 1:1, 2.
The same officer also explained to us how the soldiers knew who we were and where we were located. He said that during one of the negotiation sessions between the military and the rebels, the military accused the rebels of killing prisoners who did not support them. In defense, the rebels replied that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not participate in the uprising but were not killed. Instead, as a punishment, all of the Witnesses were imprisoned in one barracks. The military officials took note of that statement.
We Stood Firm for the Kingdom
Well-known Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his book The Gulag Archipelago, mentions the prison rebellion that we experienced. Concerning that event, he writes that the rebellion started because, as he said, “we want freedom, of course, . . . but who can give it to us?” As Witnesses of Jehovah in the same prison camp, we too longed for freedom. However, not just freedom from prison but freedom that only God’s Kingdom can provide. While in prison, we knew that we needed strength from God to stand firm on the side of his Kingdom. And Jehovah provided us with everything we needed. He gave us victory without the use of knives or grenades.—2 Corinthians 10:3.
“My kingdom is no part of this world,” Jesus Christ told Pilate. “If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought.” (John 18:36) As Christ’s followers, therefore, we took no part in political struggles. We were happy that during and after the uprising, our loyalty to God’s Kingdom was evident to others. Of our conduct during that time, Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Jehovah’s Witnesses felt free to observe their rules strictly and refused to build fortifications or stand guard.”
More than 50 years have passed since those turbulent events. However, I often look back on those times with gratitude because I learned enduring lessons, such as to wait on Jehovah and to trust fully in his mighty arm. Yes, like so many other dear Witnesses in the former Soviet Union, I have experienced that Jehovah truly gives freedom, protection, and deliverance to those who await a Kingdom that is “no part of this world.”