Lena Avilkin at home in Turku, Finland, with her three children. She and her husband, Sergey, decided to flee Russia after the Supreme Court declared Jehovah’s Witness an “extremist” organization and effectively outlawed it in April last year. Credit: Janne Korkko for The New York Times
TURKU, Finland — Sergey Avilkin, one of the hundreds of Russians now sheltering in Finland to avoid arrest as “extremists” in their home country, has no interest in politics or politicians and says that he has always followed the biblical injunction to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
But Mr. Avilkin, a 42-year-old father of three, said before President Trump met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, on Monday, that he would like Mr. Trump to ask Mr. Putin a simple question: Why are Russians who pay their taxes, follow the law and embrace the Christian values promoted by the Kremlin being forced to flee their country?
“We don’t steal, we don’t smoke, we don’t drink and always try to obey the law,” said Mr. Avilkin, sitting in the kitchen of the apartment he recently rented for his family in Turku, a city west of Helsinki, while he waits for Finland’s immigration service to process an application for asylum. “But I am 100 percent sure that if I had not left I would now be in prison.”
Along with most of the other Russians who have sought shelter in Finland, Mr. Avilkin and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that the Russian Supreme Court declared an “extremist” organization and effectively outlawed in April last year.
With issues like arms control, the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, and Russian meddling in the 2016 election in the United States discussed, it was never likely that the two presidents would have the time — or the inclination — to address the fate of Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met. They did not, and neither mentioned human rights at a joint press conference on Monday evening.
The Avilkin family rented an apartment in these blocks. Credit: Janne Korkko for The New York Times
But Mr. Avilkin, his wife, Lena, their three school-age children and around 300 other Russians scattered in refugee camps and low-rent housing around Finland are a stark reminder of the obstacles, rarely mentioned by Mr. Trump but still very real, that impede his desire to “get along with Russia.”
The Russian court ruling, which put Bible-reading Christians who reject all violence in the same category of extremism as supporters of the Islamic State, set off a harsh crackdown across Russia. The Jehovah’s Witness headquarters near St Petersburg were seized by the state, prayer halls around the country were raided by the police and scores of believers were arrested.
“What we have seen in Russia since the Jehovah’s Witness organization was banned outright last year is without doubt the most severe crackdown on religious freedom since the Soviet era,” said Geraldine Fagan, the author of “Believing in Russia — Religious Policy after Communism.”
“In key respects, it is uncannily reminiscent of late Soviet-era practice,” Ms. Fagan added.
The State Department has said it is “extremely concerned by the Russian government’s action targeting and repressing members of religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, under the pretense of combating extremism.”
But Mr. Trump, who won the 2016 election with strong support from evangelical Christians, has so far remained silent on the matter.
Finland, like the rest of Europe, has years of experience dealing with asylum-seekers, but until Russia branded Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, those seeking refuge in the country were largely from the Middle East and Africa.
“I am 100 percent sure that if I had not left I would now be in prison” Mr. Avilkin said, referring to Russia. Credit: Janne Korkko for The New York Times
Anu Karppi, an official in the asylum division of Finland’s immigration service, said that 193 Russians had applied for asylum in 2016, including homosexuals who said they faced persecution and others who fled for economic reasons. In 2017, after the crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses began, that number rose to 405. An additional 240 Russians have applied so far this year. Before 2017, only a handful of Jehovah’s Witness from Russia requested asylum in Finland
Ms. Karppi said applicants needed to establish that they faced a real risk, not just a fear, of persecution in order to gain asylum in Finland. The few applications processed so far have been rejected, and Ms. Karppi said that while Russia was certainly “enforcing measures” against Jehovah’s Witnesses, the severity of the campaign varied from region to region.
“We look at every application case by case,” she said. “At the moment, the situation does not seem to be that every Jehovah’s Witness is under the threat of persecution, but we follow the situation closely. If everyone was being persecuted, then everyone would be granted asylum.”
After initially targeting only male Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian law-enforcement agencies this month arrested a woman, Anastasiya Polyakova, a follower of the denomination in the Siberian city of Omsk. Her husband, Sergey, was also arrested, after being severely beaten during a police raid on their home.
Forum 18, a Norwegian group that promotes religious freedom, reported that more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses are now under investigation in Russia on criminal charges of “extremism.”
Unlike many religious groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who number more than 170,000 in Russia and more than eight million worldwide, have a policy of staying politically neutral and have not assembled a powerful lobbying machine in either Washington or Moscow.
Members of the Kikot family, Jehovah’s Witnesses who fled Russia. Credit: Janne Korkko for The New York Times
The group’s distaste for politics and sometimes idiosyncratic theology, which puts it at odds with many other Christian denominations, has made the denomination an easy target in Russia, where the Orthodox Church, a close ally of the Kremlin, views Jehovah’s Witness as a heretical sect.
Because followers generally do not vote and have a long record of resisting military service and all collaboration with the security services, they have no allies in Russia’s political and security establishments, which have united against them.
Mr. Avilkin’s wife, Lena, recalled how doctors at a state hospital in Moscow where the couple took the daughter, Katya, for cancer treatment as a baby had, after consultation with Russian prosecutors, told them to “take your child away and let her die” after they refused to allow blood transfusions, which are banned by their faith. The couple later found a private doctor in St. Petersburg willing to operate without transfusions and their daughter, now a healthy 12-year-old, survived.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2013 that the hospital had violated human rights by divulging the medical record of the Avilkins’ daughter to Russian prosecutors, who had demanded that public hospitals report all cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused transfusions.
The issue of transfusions has been at the center of a long campaign of criticism by Russian foes of the denomination, who include some medical professionals and disenchanted former followers, but are mostly people close to and sometimes funded by the Orthodox Church.
While the decision by Jehovah’s Witnesses not to get involved in politics and their determination to live out the teachings of the Bible may be points in their favor in Russia, their lack of patriotic fervor and the fact the group’s worldwide headquarters is in the United States have made them deeply suspect in the eyes of the Orthodox Church and the Russian state.
Valeri Kikot and his family live in a single room in Turku, sharing a kitchen with asylum seekers from Syria.CreditJanne Körkkö for The New York Times
“In Putin’s eyes, they have no political value; what ‘traditional values’ they may have are of no use to him if they cannot be co-opted,” Ms. Fagan said.
Valeri Kikot, another Jehovah’s Witness who fled to Finland, said he had made a good living in Russia running a small construction company and had benefited from the stability brought by Mr. Putin’s 18-years in power.
“We had a good life,” he said. “I was never against Putin and, if the authorities had not turned against us, I would definitely have stayed in Russia.”
Mr. Kikot, 55, now lives with his wife and two young children in a single room in a hulking building for refugees in Turku. They share a kitchen with asylum seekers from Syria.
A committed atheist until he became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult, Mr. Kikot said he had never imagined ending up as a refugee and had fled Russia only because he worried that the authorities might prosecute him and his wife, a former follower of the Russian Orthodox Church, and seize their children.
“We understood that they could enter our house any day and take away our kids,” he said. “We had to leave.”
Correction: July 16, 2018
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a Jehovah’s Witnesses follower in Omsk, Russia. She is Anastasiya Polyakova, not Anatastasiya.
(c) 2018 The New York Times