‘When they persecute you in one city, flee to another’ Banned in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are seeking refuge in Belarus, where other problems await

Jehovah’s Witnesses awaiting baptism-by-pool at Traktor Stadium in Minsk, Belarus, July 25, 2015Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses have been fleeing to Belarus ever since Russia banned the religious group in 2017. Since then, Russia’s Attorney General has asked Belarus to extradite at least two Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses back to their home country. But in both cases, Belarus refused. The exact number of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve fled to Belarus is unknown. Meduza tells the stories of several Russian asylum seekers who fled their home country in order to continue practicing their faith.

Thirty-seven-year-old Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev left St. Petersburg for Minsk on February 21, 2020, to attend a Jehovah’s Witness regional congress — a biannual, one-day gathering where Jehovah’s Witnesses discuss and workshop how they are applying the principles of the Bible in their lives.

“My friends and I were travelling in two separate cars on our way to the congress. We’d planned to take a steam [at a banya],” Makhalichev recalled. “We were just going for the weekend — Saturday and Sunday — and then we planned to head back to St. Petersburg.”

After crossing the border and venturing 20 kilometers (less than 13 miles) into Belarus, a traffic officer stopped Makhalichev’s car at a checkpoint. The officer, Makhalichev said, was “very meticulous,” slowing down cars and lining them up single file. The officer checked Makhalichev’s driver’s license and asked for his passport. “He went back to his car. Within about five minutes he returned, asked for my car keys, and ordered me to get into his vehicle. It turns out I was on a wanted list,” Makhalichev said.

Makhalichev was taken to a temporary detention facility in Haradok, a town in the Vitebsk region of Belarus, about 20 minutes away from where he was arrested. An official at the facility informed Makhalichev that the Russian Attorney General’s Office had placed him on a wanted list and was demanding his extradition on suspicion of “financing and organizing the extremist activities” of a Jehovah’s Witnesses chapter in Russia. 

Makhalichev applied for asylum on the advice of a lawyer. He spent the following month and a half in a pre-trial detention facility while the Belarusian Attorney General’s Office decided whether or not to send him back to Russia.

‘Grandma was still afraid of repressions in the 1990s’

Makhalichev was born in Cherepovets to a pair of teachers — his Russian Orthodox mother Natalya and his atheist father Andrey. His parents’ profession and beliefs led him to “always question whether God existed. “My mom was religious and would answer yes, and my dad would say no,” Makhalichev remembered. “My grandma was still afraid of repressions in the 1990s, and when I would ask [about God], she would tell me that asking such questions was off-limits.” 

When Makhalichev was nine, the Bible “fell into [his] hands.” Just three verses in, he started asking questions that his mother Natalya couldn’t answer. She turned to their next-door neighbors, Jehovah’s Witnesses, with whom she’d discussed the Bible a few times before. “She became interested in her own right. She would talk with them, and that’s how I started studying the Bible. I was baptized at eleven,” he said.

After earning a law degree, Makhalichev began to study sign language in order to better communicate with three hearing-impaired women who attended the Cherepovets Jehovah’s Witness congregation. In 2007, he moved to Moscow, where he continued studying sign language and began attending a Jehovah’s Witness congregation for the hearing-impaired. He also met a deaf citizen of Tajikistan, with whom he began working as a bricklayer.

A year later, Makhalichev moved to St. Petersburg and worked construction part-time. He spent the bulk of his time volunteering at the Jehovah’s Witnesses Management Center, the religious group’s head office located on the site of an old soviet Young Pioneer camp in the village of Solnechnoye. He spent his time there cleaning, washing dishes, and unloading shipments of religious literature.

In 2016, Makhalichev moved to the western-Siberian town of Uray in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. “I learned of a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses there who needed help. I went to evangelize with them, go to their meetings, and lend them a hand,” he said.

In April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist organization.” Two months later, Makhalichev left Uray for Krasnoyarsk, and then headed back to St. Petersburg. A few months before his arrest, authorities searched his parents’ apartment in Cherepovets, for reasons unknown to him. According to Makhalichev, the security forces didn’t present a search warrant. They confiscated a laptop, flash drives, and childhood photos. His parents were not detained.

Makhalichev was transferred from the temporary detention facility in Haradok to a pre-trial detention center in Vitebsk. Three days into his detention, he learned that Russian authorities had begun investigating him and his friend, Jehovah’s Witness Andrey Sazonov, for “extremism” in late January 2019. According to Makhalichev, the case materials weren’t handed over to his Belarusian lawyer, but they were permitted to take notes at key moments during his arraignment hearing.

“They wrote a really exhaustive petition, [saying] ‘we will look after him,’ ‘we think about people,’ ‘everything has been provided for, he need not worry and you need not worry about him, we will provide him a defense lawyer,’ just hand him over,” Makhalichev said, remembering the extradition request from the Russian Attorney General’s Office.

Makhalichev’s lawyer learned from the case file that the Uray Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings had been attended by moles who “pretended to be interested” and took video recordings of the worshipers’ remarks (according to Makahlichev, these gatherings were attended by 30 to 40 people).

“[According to the moles], the male ringleaders of the organization continued to carry out its activities [even after it had been deemed ‘extremist’]. This is despite the fact that the organization was never a legal entity. And since one could easily count the men on one hand, they opened [a case] against me and my friend, too,” Makhalichev explained. 

The nature of charges in the case, as well Makhalichev’s status in it, remain unknown. In April 2020, the Investigative Committee for the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug claimed that in 2017, Makhalichev’s friend Andrey Sazono (first deputy general director of the utility company Urayteploenergia), “organized the activities of a religious group in Uray,” as part of the “Management Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.” The investigation claimed that members of this “extremist organization” had “conversations with citizens” aimed at recruiting new members, held “conspiratorial meetings” disguised as religious services, distributed banned literature to the public, and “amassed funds from parishioners under the guise of donations.”

The Investigative Committee wrote: “The accused [Andrey Sazonov] collected and spent more than 100,000 rubles [$1,375], in the form of donations, to support a prohibited organization. An investigation into two other members of the religious group is ongoing.” The trial of Sazonov is taking place behind closed doors.

Extradition denied

On April 7, 2020, after 46 days of detention, an employee at the pre-trial detention center came to Makhalichev’s cell and asked him to sign a financial statement regarding purchases he’d made at the jail’s commissary. The employee then asked him to verify his home address “for a discharge certificate.”

“I thought this was either a trap, or just that something bad was happening. I didn’t know what I should say, what not to say, who was interested, or why,” recalled Makhalichev. “The other guys [in detention] were saying ‘maybe they want to release you.’ I thought maybe I’d walk out and someone from a Russian law enforcement agency would be waiting at the exit. I had lots of different thoughts. At some point [staff from the detention center] came and said: that’s it, get your things, let’s go.”

Initially, neither Makhalichev’s lawyer nor his friends were aware of his release. The first time he saw the court order denying Russia’s extradition request was in the hallway of the detention facility, just before he exited the building. “I remember signing it against the wall right there, in this little hallway,” remembered Makhalichev. “Of course, I have a spiritual take on this. As a person of faith, I believe in miracles. So, of course I see the grace of my God in it all, whom I faithfully serve. Other explanations are a mystery to me.”

Makhalichev said that after he was released, “journalists and lawyers warned that [Russian security forces] might come and extract” him. But because of pandemic restrictions and border closures, Makhalichev stayed put in Belarus for several months. Months later, in August, the Belarusian migration service granted him asylum.

“They said it was for religious reasons,” he said. “The first thing I did was distance myself from the Russian border to protect myself. It took some time to get my paperwork in order — to get a residence permit and change my driver’s license. As for work… I have construction skills, specifically in finishing, and I found gigs from time to time. But the prices aren’t the same as in Russia, of course. There’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t pay well.”

An exodus of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Belarus

Pavel Yadlovsky has been the chairman of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Belarus for 24 years. According to Yadlovsky, Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses had been relocating to Belarus even before the organization’s “extremist” designation in 2017, but there has been “more movement” since then. 

“The flow is slightly bigger than it was in previous years, but I wouldn’t say it’s excessive,” said Yadlovsky. “[Given] the proximity to Russia, the slightly worse economic situation, and the concerns our Russian worshippers have about the political situation here, there is not and has not been a massive influx.”

Yadlovsky didn’t give a precise number of Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve moved to Belarus and said that the organization doesn’t maintain such statistics. But he noted that the official count of all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Belarus stated on the organization’s website — 6,238 — is correct and includes Russian emigres, among others. (According to the latest report available on the organization’s website, there were 171,828 Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Russia in 2016).

“As many as 10,000 people came to the Jehovah’s Witnesses congress in Minsk at Traktor Stadium, but the total number of Witnesses in Belarus is only 6,000,” said 26-year-old Daniil Alenius. “Of course, all Belarussian Jehovah’s Witnesses attended, but where did the extra 4,000 attendees come from?” 

Alenius had been a Jehovah’s Witness for nearly his entire life, until he left the religion in 2020. According to Alenius, few visitors to the Minsk assemblies admit that they come from Russia. “They are told how, what, and with whom to speak. They have their own guidelines there, too. For example, some say they are from Russia, but they don’t wear name tags so no one can check,” he said.

A 45-year-old man named Igor (he requested his last name be withheld for safety reasons) is among the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have emigrated from Russia to Belarus. Igor, his wife, and their two sons — ages 3 and 11 — moved to Minsk from the Russian Far East in the summer of 2018.

Igor joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1995 at the age of 17. “I grew up in the chaos of the 1990s. My life was unstable, the conditions were rough,” he said. “One of my friends died in a motorcycle crash, another drowned, and another was stabbed. That friend lived in a really poor area. I always wondered if it even made sense to live the way we were living, and this troubled me throughout my childhood. But then the Bible wound up in my hands. At first, I only read up to God creating heaven and earth, and I didn’t understand any of it. But then I met a Jehovah’s Witness and became one myself. And I joined on my own terms. There was no pressure from them at all.”

Igor described how in 2016, before he fled Russia, plainclothes officials came to his registered address in the Far East. They were searching for him and told his neighbors it was because he had been in an accident and disappeared.

“Then there was a document — an inquiry from [the Russian Anti-Extremist Center (Center E)] that was sent to the transport company that shipped [Jehovah’s Witnesses] our literature. We use this company worldwide to ship the magazines Awake! and The Watchtower. [Center E] asked the transport company for a list of the shipments that I’d voluntarily received in my name,” Igor said. “Miraculously, а fellow worshipper worked at the transport company and showed me the document.”

After Russia designated Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group, Igor’s family “didn’t know what to expect.” They assumed that the authorities “could come at any time and take some kind of unlawful recourse.”

“It mainly impacted my wife. When someone is under constant stress, it affects their emotional state,” Igor reflected. “Then, the [authorities] actually came for my [Jehovah’s Witnesses] friends, and it was likely that they’d come for me. In the end, this state of apprehension spurred me to leave, even though we were a comfortable, settled family, used to living in one place.”

Igor’s family decided on Belarus because assimilation there would be “less complicated,” especially in terms of language and culture. “I have two children, and it would be difficult to educate them in other places, mainly due to the language barrier. We were well-traveled, we visited different countries, but we realized that language, the Russian language, really matters” he asserted. “We didn’t consider Ukraine. Maybe it’s our preconception, but I think the attitude toward Russians isn’t great there.”

Extradition request #2

According to Igor, during his three years living in Belarus, he met “perhaps dozens, but definitely not hundreds” of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia — including “a few” who fled criminal prosecution. 

One such Russian émigré was 44-year-old Oleg Lonshakov. He was detained in Brest on September 29, 2021, as a person-of-interest in a criminal case concerning the organization of an “extremist” group. Lonshakov came to Belarus from his native Nakhodka, a port city in Russia’s far-eastern Primorsky Krai, where he became a Jehovah’s Witness at age 23. He recalls that shortly before his exposure to the religious group, he and his father read the book Diagnostics of Karma by Sergey Lazarev, which included quotes from the Bible.

“It was the Bible quotes, rather than [Diagnostics of Karma] itself, that prompted us to think about God: whether he exists, how he treats his people, and what the meaning of life is,” Oleg said. “And somehow one day at work I turned to God — if he existed — to help me figure it all out. Literally two days later, my father happened upon Jehovah’s Witnesses in the street, who offered to discuss this topic. My dad agreed to chat with them and invited them to our house. I see God’s hand in this.”

Lonshakov was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness in Nakhodka, where he lived until 2013. He then moved to Tavrichanka, a town outside of Vladivostok. He began to preach in the local Jehovah’s Witness chapter there, which by his count consisted of about 40 people.

“The Bible tells us that God will bring order to the earth, that there will be favorable conditions. And he ordered that people spread this message everywhere, especially in places where people know little or haven’t heard anything about it at all,” Lonshakov told Meduza, explaining his move to Tavrichanka. 

Three years after Russia designated Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist organization, at 7:00 a.m. on July 2, 2020, the authorities raided Lonshakov and twelve other Jehovah’s Witnesses’ houses in Tavrichanka. The search warrant was issued on charges of organizing an “extremist group.” After the search, Lonshakov was taken to another village to be interrogated by the Investigative Committee. 

“I didn’t answer, I relied on Article 51,” Oleg said. “They realized that I wouldn’t talk, so they offered me a deal. They asked me to identify other Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying ‘tell us, and we won’t open a case’,” remembered Oleg.

According to Lonshakov, no one told him his status in the case, nor was he made to sign a non-disclosure agreement or an undertaking not to leave. “I knew by the manner in which the investigators, the FSB, behaved, and by their words, that they would open a case against me. It was clear they’d open a case and that there would be further actions,” he said. Lonshakov left Tavrichanka a month and a half later.

“My friend showed me a Bible verse where Jesus Christ said, ‘when they persecute you in one city, flee to another.’ I realized that this is acceptable — both in relation to God and to the [Jehovah’s Witnesses] — so I decided to leave [Tavrichanka] immediately,” said Lonshakov.

In August 2020, Lonshakov left for Belarus. At first, he lived for five days in a village near Minsk (he can’t remember its name). Then he moved to Brest, where he joined a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. About half of its members are Russians, according to Lonshakov — there’s “about 40” people, including some who fled “because they were being persecuted.”

“You could say [Belarus] is a second Russia. It’s the same. The people are the same. They’re as close as possible in mentality. And at least [they speak] the Russian language here,” Lonshakov said, explaining his decision to move to Belarus. “I understood that it had been safe here so far, though not one hundred percent safe. [People] who have cases brought against them [in Russia] can be extradited [from Belarus]. I didn’t know before that they do extraditions in this way.”

Life in Brest was quiet for nearly a year. But on July 2, 2021, Lonshakov was summoned to Brest’s Leninsky Department of Internal Affairs, where he learned that he’d been put on an intergovernmental wanted list. The police asked Lonshakov for an explanation and then released him. “I said I was being persecuted for reading the Bible,” he said.

In early August, a police investigator phoned Lonshakov and informed him that the Russian Federation had “questions” for him. “You just need to give answers to these questions,” the investigator explained. 

“I asked him what kind of questions, to which he said, ‘some nonsense,’ dumb questions, incomprehensible ones. Of course, I realized that something wasn’t right. So I immediately went to the immigration office and applied for asylum,” the Russian national said.

After that, his meeting with investigators was postponed several times — either the investigators were on the job in another city, or Lonshakov himself couldn’t make it. At seven in the morning on September 29, investigators came to his apartment and detained him. First, they took him to the precinct, and, later that day, to a temporary detention facility. Five days later, authorities transferred him to a pre-trial detention center in Brest, where he would be held until the Belarusian Attorney General’s Office reached a decision on his extradition to Russia.

Two and a half weeks later, on October 17, Lonshakov was released from custody. The Attorney General’s Office had refused to extradite him.

“From a spiritual perspective, many people spoke with God on my behalf, turning to him in prayer, both in Russia and in Belarus…I think my liberation was the answer to their prayers. From a political perspective, I was surprised of course, as I’d been mentally preparing to go back to Russia,” Lonshakov said.

‘Grandma still doesn’t know about any of my adventures’

Pavel Yadlovsky, the chairman of the Belarusian Jehovah’s Witness organization, attributes the extradition refusals to the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses operate lawfully in Belarus. They are registered as a self-governing, national organization with 27 community-level groups in various cities.

“It’s hard to say [why the extradition requests were denied]. Maybe there are differences in the wordings of the extremism articles in Russian and Belarusian legislation that allowed for the prosecutor’s office to make such a decision,” Yadlovsky suggests. “Maybe there are other reasons, but I don’t know what they are.”

Igor, the Russian who moved to Belarus from the Far East, was “a bit anxious” after Lonshakov and Makhalichev were detained. When they were released, he felt a sense of relief. “I’m happy that their right to freedom was recognized,” Igor said.

Igor’s family plans to stay in Belarus. They are preparing to apply for a residence permit. Unlike his wife, Igor doesn’t want to go back: “Belarus is a good country, it’s quite calm and peaceful. We like it. Our assimilation, so to speak, has been a success. We also like the mindset of people — they’re remarkably similar [to Russians].”

Makhalichev was interviewed by phone, and for security reasons, he requested that this article not name the country where he’s living.

“My mom is still very worried. She doesn’t sleep at night, she hasn’t gotten over it,” said Makhalichev. “She visited me at the pre-trial detention center for two hours and then for a few days after I was released. But it’s been a year and a half since then. [Relatives] are afraid to visit, lest they be followed, and the authorities find out where I am. My grandma still doesn’t know about any of my adventures. She doesn’t understand why I don’t visit her anymore.”

Story by Alexey Shuntov

Translation by Rob Viano

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