By Paul Goble
When Stalin defeated Trotsky for the leadership of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, all of the general secretary’s victories in the first years were in the periphery of the country where in many cases Stalin had drawn the lines and installed his people. Only near the end did the future dictator defeat Trotsky in the major cities where the latter was stronger.
That long ago history comes to mind when one considers Vladimir Putin’s repressive campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a campaign that so far has been conducted in the periphery of the country where traditional values are strongest and where the Kremlin leader exercises greater control over the regional heads and over media coverage.
All of the top five federal subjects ranked according to the number of criminal cases brought against the Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the periphery: Primorsky kray with 12, Khabarovsk kray with 11, Voronezh Oblast with 11, Rostov Oblast with nine, and Krasnodar Kray with nine (jw-russia.org/docs/prison.html).
Experts point to the reality that the Witnesses and Protestants generally have expanded over the last 30 years primarily on the periphery of the country and in any case far from the major cities, and they have suggested that regional officials desirous of making a name for themselves may be more enthusiastic about carrying out these repressive matters.
Undoubtedly, those factors explain some of what is going on. But the fact that there have been so many cases on the periphery and so few in Moscow and none at all in St. Petersburg sends a clear message that once again, the freedom of Russia is being snuffed out by the Kremlin but from the periphery in rather than the center out.
That pattern may be harder to track in many cases, but with regard to the hard-pressed Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is too obvious and important to ignore not only in terms of the violation of the rights of this religious community but also in terms of the insight it provides on Putin’s strategy against the Russian people.