Friday, May 9, 2014

Emily B. Baran's "Dissent on the Margins"

Emily B. Baran is Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. She specializes in the intersection of religion, modern state politics, and human rights in the postwar Soviet Union and its successor states.

Baran applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah's Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It, and reported the following:
American readers likely know Jehovah’s Witnesses solely for the Watchtower magazine presented by friendly, persistent strangers at their doorstep. Yet a long history of persecution and harassment worldwide has accompanied that knock at the door. Dissent on the Margins tells the story of how Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses survived decades of state persecution to emerge as one of the region’s fastest growing religions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today over a quarter million citizens of former Soviet states belong to this religion.

The history begins in World War II, when the Soviet Union annexed territories along its western borders containing small, but close-knit Witness communities. These Witnesses’ dogged refusal to modify their core beliefs and abandon the shared practice of their faith elicited harsh repression by Soviet authorities. In 1949 and 1951, the state rounded up thousands of Witnesses, including children and the elderly, put them on cattle cars, and sent them into forced exile in remote outposts in Siberia and the Far East. In 1965, the state removed the terms of exile, but continued to repress Witnesses, who suffered job discrimination, police harassment, revocation of custody rights, arrest, and the near universal scorn of their neighbors.

In this regard, page 99 offers a representative snapshot of state persecution under the comparatively lenient tenure of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev:
Witnesses no longer faced the same scale of trials and arrests that they had under the two previous Soviet leaders. Courts convicted as many as a few hundred Witnesses a year for evasion of military service, while trials for illegal religious activities and for proselytism numbered only a few dozen annually…. Still, criminal investigations and convictions remained a feature of Witness life.
The page goes on to cover the cursory nature of such investigations:
Courts frequently interpreted a religious organization’s lack of registration as sufficient evidence that it was banned in the USSR and that all activities by believers were therefore criminal actions.
It also notes the use of other punishments to deter religious practices:
In 1966, the Supreme Soviet called on local soviets to issue warnings and fines to individuals for offenses such as unauthorized religious gatherings and baptisms. Those found guilty received fifty-ruble fines, a considerable sum of money, especially considering that some members received several fines.
Yet while the page 99 test accurately reveals the Soviet state’s intervention in religious life, it fails to highlight how religious believers responded to such persecution. In fact, the Witnesses operated one of the most sophisticated underground networks in the Soviet Union. They gathered in secret several times a week to read literature they smuggled in from abroad and reprinted on hidden printing presses. They baptized new members in nighttime rituals held in local lakes and streams. They skirted military service, did not vote in elections, did not join the Communist Party, and kept their children out of Party youth organizations. And they continued to knock on doors, preaching their beliefs to strangers as they do in the United States.
Learn more about Dissent on the Margins at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue