DO NOT FORSAKE THE WITNESSES
The Investigations Management Center uncovered what Russia will obtain from the forbidden religious organization
by Alesia Marokhovskaia, Irina Dolina, Georgy Aleksandrov
If on 17 July, the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” is unable to appeal its liquidation, then the decision of the Supreme Court will take effect, finding the organization extremist and its property subject to confiscation. Approximately 175 thousand investors, who invested in the earthly “kingdom,” will be left with nothing. The Investigations Management Center [Tsentr Upravleniia Rassledovaniiami—TsUR]* has estimated the scope of the largest postsoviet nationalization: the Jehovists have at least 211 items of immovable property in 57 regions, with an assessed value of 1.9 billion rubles. The state will get the richest portion, but in order to get everything it will be necessary to exert great effort.
On 20 April, the Supreme Court found the activity of the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” to be extremist and liquidated the religious organization, along with 395 regional divisions that are members of its structure. Their activity was stopped by the court immediately, and after the decision takes effect, the property of the liquidated organizations will be confiscated in the state’s favor.
From 1993 to 2017, the religious organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses have amassed 438 registration addresses in Russia. We confirmed all owners of these items of immoveable property and 211 of the addresses turned out to be connected with Jehovists. Among the ownership arrangements there were two basic forms: by the religious organizations directly and by affiliated individuals.
Of the property we found, according to information of the Uniform State Register of Immovable Property, Russian and foreign associations of “Witnesses” own 118 buildings and another 93 are owned by leaders and founders of local divisions and their relatives. The assessed value of this real estate, located in 57 regions of the country, amounts to 1.9 billion rubles.
The greatest liquid assets of Jehovah’s Witnesses are located in St. Petersburg—11.4 hectares of land with several buildings with a total space of 9,625 square meters. Thus, in the village of Solnechnoe, on the shore of the Finnish Gulf, there are located 10 hectares of now-vacant land of the headquarters of the Jehovists with residential and technologistic structures. It was there that the “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia”—the parent organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses–was located. According to information of Fontanka, about 300 employees of the Administrative Center lived and worked there, along with their families, but immediately after the court’s decision they began exiting the village.
Another commercially attractive plot of land the size of a hectare is at Kolomyazhsk Prospect 21. There the Jehovists built a Hall of Congresses for 2,000 persons, which was used for major holidays and lectures. The assessed value of all buildings of the religious organization in St. Petersburg is 780 million rubles, but the market value may turn out to be twice that.
The richest congregation—the St. Petersburg religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses—also had the most prominent founders. Among them were businessmen, lawyers, and top managers: Sergei Malyshev, the former general director of the Tyumen Aviation Company “Sibirinteravia;” Sergei Vasilev, the head of administration of security for Novgorod province, “Sviaz—Bezopasnost;” and Dmitry Poliakov, the co-owner of the college of advocates of Volgograd province and former member of the council of directors of the Butyrsk market of Moscow.
The Moscow division of Jehovists has behaved more modestly; in the capital only one building belongs to the Witnesses. Although it is located on the territory of the Mikhalkovo estate of the Panins at Golovin ponds; its area is 3,194.7 square meters and its assessed value is 297 million rubles. In 2010 the prefecture of the Northern district declared that the building had been privatized illegally by the Moscow Fine Wool Factory of Peter Alekseev and donated to the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. However it was impossible to take the property away from the Jehovists and today the building is owned by the Austrian society of the organization.
We discovered the greatest amount of immovable property in the south of the country in Stavropol and Krasnodar territories—31 buildings with an assessed value of 202 million rubles. Stavropol devotees of the Witnesses were some of the first to be subjected to severe pressure on the part of personnel of law enforcement agencies. In March 2016 during searches among Jehovists in the house of worship they found literature that was included in the Federal List of Extremist Materials. Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain that the literature was planted on them. In their account on Youtube they published a video from a surveillance camera where it is seen that people in masks took some papers out of their pockets and put them on a table. At the same time, searches were conducted in the Karachay-Cherkessk republic in a building of the local division of Jehovists, where extremist materials also were discovered. A year later the Karachay-Cherkessk organization was liquidated by a court for distributing forbidden literature and its property was transferred to the state. According to the Uniform State Register of Immoveable Property, bailiffs have imposed a ban on alienation of the building (298.5 square meters) and land (857 square meters) belonging to it.
Now all the property of the banned organization is supposed to go to the state. However, within six months the assets of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and its subdivisions have been substantially reduced. As soon as the threat of liquidation became acute, Russian religious organizations began giving or donating their property to foreign representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses. From January to the end of April 2017, they managed to give 74 items of real estate with an assessed value of 402 million rubles to foreigners. The chief beneficiaries were societies of Jehovists in Switzerland, Austria, Spain and also the “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania,” to which the headquarters of Jehovists in St. Petersburg has belonged since 2010 (with reservation of the right of use to the Administrative Center).
That local organizations had been instructed to transfer immovable property to the ownership of foreign legal entities was reported by Delovoi Peterburg [St. Petersburg Business], citing a letter of the Administrative Center that they had in their possession. The letter said that after foreign divisions of Witnesses became owners of lands and buildings, the congregations should select one of the local believers and transfer all of it to him on the basis of a contract for its free use. The potential new proprietor was supposed to be older than 25 years and “possess the necessary spiritual qualities.” Thus, according to the information of DP, the congregation planned to continue to use the immovable property while formally having nothing to do with it. But problems could arise with the search for an appropriate believer. In Tyva, for example, the former leader of the local organization in Kyzyl Saryg, Omak Maa-Khooevich, renounced the teaching of the Jehovists and became the proprietor of several Buddhist religious organizations and the regional division of the Russian National Front.
The state has already begun to cut off attempts to transfer real estate. In Stavropol territory, a local organization of Jehovists tried to donate land (2,851 sq. m.) and Kingdom Hall (1,161.6 sq. m.) in the village of Nezlobnaya to Witnesses from Denmark. The regional department of Rosreestr refused to register the transaction. In early June a Danish congregation tried to challenge the refusal in the Arbitration Court of Stavropol territory, but the court did not accept the petition, considering the dispute outside its competence. Back in March 2017, deals with foreign organizations of Witnesses were registered and local congregations managed to donate three items of real estate to Jehovists from Austria.
The press secretary of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, Ivan Belenko, during a conversation with TsUR, was not able to specify the value of real estate which could be diverted to the state. He said that the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is not legally linked in any way to regional organizations and it does not affect their internal life nor have any information about their assets.
As a result as of June 2017 foreign societies of Jehovah’s Witnesses own a large portion of the real estate that we found. They own 65% (16.4 hectares and 25,072 sq. m. of buildings and premises, 78 items in all) with an assessed value of more than 500 million rubles. There are 93 items owned by leaders and founders of Russian divisions and their relatives, but these are quite modest assets: 11.5% of the Russian real estate (2.7 hectares of land and 6,020 sq. m. of buildings) with a value of 175 million rubles. And only 23.5% of the real estate (5.4 hectares and 13,989 sq. m. of 40 items in all) belong directly to Russian legal entities of Witnesses, although it is the most expensive, no less than 660 million rubles. This distribution may allow the Jehovists to retain the greater part of property, if actions for its transfer are not challenged.
The state has such a possibility, thinks the senior partner of the board of lawyers “Yukov and Partners”, Irina Adamova: “Since the property was transferred by a gift agreement, then it will be possible to argue that this was an artificial deal for transferring title to property specifically in order to avoid confiscation of this property. If the prosecutor proves that the deals were concluded in order to avoid compliance with a juridical order and not as a free gift, then the state will be able to take possession of this property.”
As to real estate that is owned by leaders and founders of local organizations and their relatives, the state is not likely to be able to make a claim. Irina Adamova says that the prosecutor’s office must prove that the building was bought with money of the religious organization and not with resources of the owner. Doing this and confiscating the property will be much more difficult than in cases with the donation to foreign organizations.
Witnesses of the Last Days
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a confession that was previously known as the “Bible Students Association,” one of the offshoots of Christianity, but its adherents deny most of the doctrines. Jehovists do not believe the immortality of the soul and therefore the supreme good for them is eternal life. They anticipate Armageddon, the holy war of good against evil, after which there will be no evil people and paradise will come to earth, Satan will be finally destroyed, and the righteous will be resurrected to live forever.
Critics of the Jehovists accuse them of inflaming religious strife. “It turns out that more than 100,000 people will not be able to profess their faith. But the only reason that their books are considered extremist is that they proclaim the superiority of one religion over others,” says Ksenia Sergazina, an expert of the SOVA Center for News and Analysis. “But you find this in every religion. It is in Christianity and in Islam and in the others.” Jehovah’s Witnesses also are called a sect, because of their active evangelistic activity and ban on voluntary departure from the community. In addition, for Jehovah’s Witnesses participation in political parties is unacceptable and they refuse to serve in the army, do not celebrate state holiday, and do not participate in elections.
The history of the persecution of Witnesses in contemporary Russia began in 2009. The literature of the Jehovists was ruled to be extremist, since the court found in it information “inciting religious strife, promoting exceptionalism, superiority, and demeaning of citizens on the basis of indicators of their attitude toward religion.” In seven years, 95 printed materials wound up in the list of forbidden materials, and eight regional organizations of Jehovists were ruled to be extremist because of the mass distribution and possession of these materials. In March 2017 the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the parent “Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” and of all regional organization because of violations of the law on combating extremism. Such violations were considered to be importing into the territory of the country and providing to local organizations literature “both already ruled extremist and subsequently ruled extremist” and the financing of regional divisions that “were subsequently ruled to be extremist.” The court agreed with the arguments of the Ministry of Justice, emphasizing that in seven years the parent organization did not attempt to remove the reasons because of which its regional divisions were ruled to be extremist. With special alarm the court noted that the organization “actually justified” the actions of the liquidated regional structures, “considering that they are not extremist.”
Correspondents of TsUR leafed through one of the brochures cited in the court’s decision and that is included in the list of extremist materials. This is a small booklet with pictures, “Listen to God and Live Eternally,” whose whole text consists of short quotations from the Bible in the Jehovists’ translation. The Serov district court of Sverdlovsk province that on 19 February 2016 ruled this booklet extremist did not explain that it considered it to incite religious strife and to promote superiority on the basis of religious convictions.
The most extremist quotation from the book is the call “Do not participate in political affairs of nations.” It is possible that the court decided to interpret this as a call to boycott elections (according to the law “On combating extremist activity” extremism is considered to include impeding the exercising of citizens’ electoral rights). It is impossible to specify since in ruling the Jehovists’ literature to be extremist the courts have not given specific citations.
Daria Averochkina, an adherent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is sure that despite the potential threat of criminal prosecution, the Witnesses will not renounce their convictions: “The rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses as citizens are now being violated. The article of the constitution (the issue is article 28 about freedom of religious confession—TsUR) still guarantees to me the right to profess those religious conviction that I consider correct. History shows that Jehovah’s Witnesses both in the period of nazi Germany and in the soviet period endured opposition on the part of the ruling regime. Nevertheless they found the possibility of assembling and conducting joint services. Now mass services are impossible, because immediately after the decision of the Supreme Court all buildings were confiscated and we cannot gather anywhere. But in any case I think meetings will be conducted. Nobody can deprive a person of the freedom to believe and express his religious convictions.”
The vice-chairman of the Union of Orthodox Standard Bearers, Igor Miroshnichenko, does not agree that the charge that Jehovists are extremist is unjust: “It can only be greeted and welcomed. And, moreover, it is necessary that such sects should be treated in the same way. They say that they are not aggressive. But the Lord said: ‘Do not fear those that destroy the body. Fear those that destroy the soul.’ This is more horrible than if they destroyed physically.” After this, Miroshenichenko displayed with pride to TsUR correspondents a collection of tee-shirts with the slogan “Orthodoxy or Death,” which has been ruled extremist in Russia. As Miroshinichenko declared, the tee-shirts sell very well, despite the judicial prohibition. (tr. by PDS, posted 3 July 2017)
*The Investigations Management Center was created by Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky in order to combat corruption in Russia.