More anti-Russa [sic] propaganda in the Guardian

Russia has on its statute books a set of laws known as anti-extremism laws. These laws have been made by the normal process by which laws are made in Russia, a country which, while not a mirror reflection of a Western ‘democracy’ has, nonetheless, a constitutional political process, an elected President, and a parliament composed of two chambers.

The anti-extremism laws cover a number of areas. In particular they mandate possible prison sentences for calls for extremism, for financing extremism, for public attempts to humiliate people and for organising religious communities that spread extremist ideology. [1] The legislation also provides for the banning of groups which promote religious, social, ethnic or racial discord. [2]

The (stated) motivation for this set of laws is to preserve the unity of Russia from threats emanating from religious or nationalistic groupings. [3] Much of the legislation is similar to hate-speech laws in the UK. As this article by the Wilson Centre [4] notes Russia does indeed have a problem with extremism. Furthermore, the Wilson Centre states that “Few have been convicted and imprisoned under anti-extremism laws”. [4] The Wilson Centre is a US based think-tank part funded by the US government so hardly “pro-Russian”. [5]

The legislation came in two waves. The EU report we have already referred to [2] details the first wave. This gave the authorities power to ban organisations for promoting extremism. The second wave is reported on by RT [1] and introduced prison terms for individuals for promoting extremism. One criticism of the legislation is that the terms of “extremism” are too broad. [4]. That may be; but then, such criticism can easily be made of, for example, the UK’s “anti-social behaviour” legislation. The Russian government is not the only government in the world which likes to give itself leeway when creating offences. The Europa article [2] lists the actions which are considered extremist. One of these is using violence to interfere in an election. Readers who only learn about Russia’s anti-extremism laws from the pages of the Guardian might be surprised that the laws include provision to defend the electoral process in Russia. They are not just about persecuting minority groups (the Guardian’s version).

The above gives a brief introduction to Russia’s anti-extremism laws. (The Europa report is worth reading). [2]. This is an article in the Guardian about a group of Jehovah’s witnesses being persecuted in Russia under this legislation. Following are some extracts together with our comments:

Anti-terror legislation is being used to target those whose faith is only ‘extreme’ in terms of its commitment to non-violence. It should be a warning to us all.

Why? Already we have the main problem of Western liberals writing on Russia (and indeed often on America too). They write from a point of view of a single world order. They assume that we should be worried about what happens in Russia, or the US, as if it was happening here. There may be concerns; but what happens in another country is not of the same import to British readers as what happens here in the UK. If only for the simple reason that the average Guardian reader can (in theory anyway) influence what happens in the UK through democracy but has no way of influencing Trump or Putin through the ballot box.

The small Siberian town of Birobidzhan is set in a mosquito-infested swampland on the far eastern end of the Trans-Siberian railway. It was to places such as this that the Soviets exiled various undesirables. In April 1951 more than 9,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up and sent to Siberia on Stalin’s instruction. They were allowed to take 150kg of their possessions with them. Everything else was confiscated by the state.

A nice caricature of Russia’s far-east and why not bring Stalin into it? We don’t let the Germans forget Hitler so why should we let Russia forget Stalin? (The source given for the Stalin era deportations is a WikiPedia article which references a range of sources. At the time this author checked of the 4 sources explicitly given for the deportations 3 were to web links of which two were not available and one was to a Ukrainian human rights organisation. The fourth citation was to a Russian book).

A couple of months ago, the Russian police raided the Birobidzhan branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and “discovered” extremist literature. The Jehovah’s Witnesses describe the incident thus: “Masked special police disrupted a religious meeting and planted literature under a chair in the presence of the attendees.” The police ordered the place to be permanently closed.

Quite possibly material was planted. Yes; the police in Russia, as elsewhere are capable of planting material. Equally the claim may be a fabrication. (The Guardian links to a video provided by the Jehovah’s witnesses which may or may not show something but such evidence needs to be corroborated). It isn’t clear what exactly happened in terms of the “police ordering the place to be permanently closed”. The legislation states that banning of a group must be ordered by a court. [2] Is the Guardian claiming that this did not happen?

A few weeks later, the Russian ministry of justice demanded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses HQ hand over all information on their 2,277 Russian congregations. After a brief examination of what the police allegedly found, it concluded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were showing signs of “extremist activity”. Congregations in Belgorod, Stary Oskol and Elista have all been shut down. Bibles have been impounded at customs, their literature banned. Many expect that the Russians are gearing up for an outright ban.

That sounds like due process is being followed under Russian law.

So what is it about Jehovah’s Witnesses that the Russians find so objectionable? This week, I decided not to avoid the eye of the couple who hand out literature at my tube station. So many times I’ve ignored them, and their Olympic smiling endurance, brushing past grumpily. Reading about their history, I now feel guilty about my lack of respect.

This is where the Guardian writer, a certain Giles Fraser, moves from simply repeating claims by an interested party (he also gets in a quote in their favour from an ex British Ambassador), to complete fiction. Mr Fraser’s “tube station” is, presumably, in London. But, hang on, I thought we were talking about Russia? How does Mr Fraser know that the material he reads at his local “tube station” is the same as the material the authorities are concerned about in Russia? He doesn’t. Obviously.

On open display was What Does the Bible Really Teach?, the book that the Russian authorities often plant in kingdom halls as an excuse to shut them down.

Now Mr Fraser is falling over himself. If “What Does the Bible Really Teach” is a book that has been deemed extremist in Russia and if this is a common piece of literature for Jehovah’s witnesses is it not likely that this book is sometimes found in Russia and causes problems for the Jehovah’s witnesses?

Jehovah’s Witnesses were taken to Nazi death camps for that very reason [their pacifism ed.]. They refused to swear loyalty to a worldly government and refused to serve in the military. They wouldn’t say Heil Hitler either. So within months of the Nazis coming to power, their meetings were ransacked and a Gestapo unit was set up to register all known Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their children were taken off them to receive a proper patriotic German education. And they were given their own purple triangle to wear as identification. In 1942, Wolfgang Kusserow was beheaded in Brandenburg prison by the Nazis for refusing to fight. “You must not kill,” he said at his trial. “Did our creator have all this written down for the trees?”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are right to fear what is happening to them again, right now, in Russia. They have seen it all before. It should be a warning to all of us that the idea under which they are now being persecuted is that of “extremism”.

This is truly revolting. The Russian legislation (under which few people have been imprisoned, according to the US government funded Wilson Centre [4]) is aimed at preserving the unity of the Russian state and preventing groups from operating in a way which causes social divisions. Certainly including Jehovah’s witnesses in this category reflects a more illiberal position that in say Europe. But there is no equivalence with the Nazis. No concentration camps. No purple badges. No gassing. Few prison sentences; (perhaps none at all for Jehovah’s witnesses?) In reality a law enacted by a fully constitutional government under which groups can be banned. Pacifism is not one of the activities which is deemed extremist under Russian law. But claims about exclusiveness based on religion are. [2] If Mr Fraser is trying to claim that the Jehovah’s witnesses organisation is having problems with anti-extremism legislation in Russia because of their pacifism he is making it up. (And there his Nazi analogy breaks down).

In Germany the Scientology movement is under government surveillance. The authorities have at times come close to seeking a ban. [6] The reason for this is that with the experience of Nazi rule behind them the German government does not want to allow ‘strange’ ideologies to take hold.  In other words; if we want to bring the Nazis into it then we can see that Russia’s anti-extremist laws far from being a repeat of Nazism are arguably the opposite. A valid concern about ideologies which can potentially lead young people to extremism. People who bandy about parallels with Nazi persecution when there is manifestly no parallel in reality diminish the reality of what did happen in Nazi Germany. It shows that their concern about these tragic events is suspect.

There is a total lack of basis to the analogy with the Nazis. None can be produced because there is none other than some vague and unsubstantiated appeal to “they came for you first”. The other problem with this article is that it shows zero understanding of Russia. Indeed the criticism even appears to be based on the author’s experiences outside his local UK tube station. Russia is a different country from the UK. It has a different kind of ethnographic and religious make-up being a unity of divergent peoples. (Britain has a single race which has been augmented by immigration). Russia has very real problems with extremism. Russia is at a different stage of development having, apart from anything else, only recently emerged from 80 years of Bolshevik rule. Young people in Russia may be more susceptible to ideologies; (for example there is a real social problem in Russia at the moment with young people being talked into suicide via online Internet groups [7]). And Russians are, well, Russians. Not English. Slavonic. Why do UK ‘journalists’ think that Russia should apply the exact same standards as the UK now and in all matters? It shows a bizarre lack of historical, political and cultural thinking.

Russia’s anti-extremist laws can of course be criticised. For example; the report by the Wilson Centre argues that they are capable of too broad an interpretation. But it is not as simplistic as the Russian state is using radical Islam as “an excuse to crack down on all religious activity that refuses to bow the knee to Mother Russia” as Mr Fraser suggests. Apart from the grotesque tone on display here (a callow abuse of a term which is indeed sacred to many Russians) a quick review of the details of the actions seen as extremist under the Russian legislation [2] shows that it is not a question of radical Islam + other religious activity, which is of concern to the authorities, but a wide range of activities. These include interference with electoral processes, hate speech, and, as we have mentioned, specifically “propaganda of exclusiveness”. It is quite probably this latter which is causing problems for the Jehovah’s witnesses in Russia. Exclusive salvation is an absolutely key tenet for the sect and the Russian laws specifically describe claims to exclusiveness as extremist. If Mr Fraser was writing journalism he would have taken the trouble to research Russia’s anti-extremism laws and answered his question about “What is it about the Jehovah’s witnesses ‘the Russians’ find so objectionable?” on a factual basis. Instead Mr Fraser offers a piece of theatre based on a chat with some Jehovah’s witnesses outside his local tube station in the UK! He uses their answer to this question – about non-violence – as a lead in to his unsubstantiated and revolting Nazi analogy. In fact if Mr Fraser had done some research he might also have learned that the same laws he denounces as being inspired by the Nazis in fact make it an offence to use Nazi attributes and symbols. [2]

This is standard fare in the Guardian these days when it comes to articles on Russia. Very weak journalism and denouncing Russia for not following the exact same standards as those held (or espoused) by the journalist himself. (Western liberal permissive values). Oh well, in true Western liberal fashion Mr Fraser assures us he now feels “guilty” about his previous “lack of respect” for the Jehovah’s witnesses. (Though he is not so respectful that he fails to describe their literature as “cringeworthy”).

And yes, the Guardian, has indeed headlined one of their anti-Russia propaganda articles as being about “Russa”. Which gives us an inkling of the level of thinking going on here.


1. RT

2. Report from European Parliament on Russia’s anti-extremism laws

3. RT

4. Wilson Centre. January 2013

5. WikiPedia



Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer