East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Conscientious Objectors in Eastern Europe Through 1989

Lawrence Klippenstein

Conscientious objectors view the taking of arms in military forces as an unacceptable form of serving one's country. Pacifism and conscientious objection have tended to spring more readily from the Protestant side of the post-Reformation church spectrum, and more specifically from what has come to be known as the "free church" tradition. Where state and church have cherished century-long and close cooperation, as has often been the case in the Catholic and Orthodox experience, such dissent has not come to the fore in the same way.

Conscientious objectors (COs) rose to prominence in Eastern Europe only after World War II. In six of the regime's nine nations the question of conscientious objection came to be a matter of public debate, calling for government action and resolution. Military legislation of Marxist regimes typically included very stiff penalties for those who refused to fulfill their "sacred duty to the Motherland" and to "uphold socialist peace."

Roots of Russian Pacifism
In Russia, several sectarian bodies that came into being during tsarist times showed fairly strong pacifist leanings. For Dukhobors and Molokans, such inclinations could be traced back to strong antimilitarist sentiments expressed as early as the eighteenth century when those groups were formed. In the nineteenth century when some of their members converted to the Stundists, Baptists, Evangelical Christians, and later, Pentecostals, they sometimes took their pacifism with them. The influence of philosophers like Grigorii Skovoroda and Leo Tolstoy caused others to accept the pacifist point of view. Only Mennonite colonists, immigrants from Poland and Prussia in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, managed to negotiate a legal alternative to service in the armed forces in 1874. These arrangements, effective from 1880 on, permitted young Mennonite recruits to fulfill their state duties in special forestry camps and hospital work.

Soviet Suppression of Christian Pacifism
In January 1919, Lenin signed a special decree establishing people's courts to which conscientious objectors could appeal their call-ups to military service. During the Russian Civil War this decree allowed tens of thousands of Evangelical Christians, Dukhobors, Baptists, Tolstoyans, Seventh-day Adventists, and Mennonites to be freed from military service obligations on grounds of religious convictions. About two years after Lenin's death in 1924, the exemption decree was revoked in practice if not in form. All pacifist-oriented groups had been pressured prior to this date to review their positions on military service and enunciate explicit statements of loyalty to the new government. By 1926 both Baptists and Evangelical Christians had issued official conference statements rejecting pacifism. Arrests of ministers, the closing of churches, and general repression directed against all religious bodies seemed to crush all resistance, even among Mennonites, by the mid-1930s.

East Germany
Following the westward advance of the Red Army at the end of World War II, Communist regimes came to power in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, and military forces dominated by the Red Army remained a crucial element in the survival of these governments until their demise in 1989-1990. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), founded with Stalin's blessing in 1949, was the first of the subjugated areas where conscientious objection became a public issue in the postwar period, partly because of the largest church body in the GDR, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands, or EKD). In significant ways the Evangelical Church championed the cause of conscientious objectors throughout the 40-year history of the East German state.

The Soviet Union
Opposition to the state's policies on religion easily became a psychological and spiritual "home base" for conscientious objectors in the post-Stalin era. In the sixties and seventies a growing number of Soviet COs appeared among unregistered Evangelical Christians-Baptists (ECBs) and other similarly illegal and dissenting groups. Notably represented among these objectors were independent Pentecostals who had not joined or who had left the state-sanctioned ECB union, dissident True and Free Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, who were often targeted in press attacks for their "exceedingly intransigent" pacifist stance.

In the early 1970s clandestine publications began to mention increased harassment and mistreatment of young believers serving in the army. The violent death of 20- year-old CO Ivan Vasilievich Moiseev, a member of an ECB church in Moldavia, was widely publicized in Western media. Moiseev had refused to take the military oath for reasons of conscience. Quite a few of the new conscientious objectors, especially those from unregistered Baptist communities, launched their protest with a refusal to take the military oath. Punishments typically included imprisonment for three to seven years in times of peace and possibly the death sentence during wartime.

After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, COs also began to come forward in Central and Eastern Europe. Around 1975 a small Protestant minority group, commonly known as Nazarenes, and an even smaller Catholic "base" community calling itself "Bokor" (The Bush), brought Hungarian conscientious objectors into the limelight. Pacifists in neighboring Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland may have drawn inspiration from a struggle for alternatives that was headquartered in Budapest. The 150- year-old Hungarian Nazarene community locates its pacifist roots in the teachings of Samuel Heinrich Froehlich, founder of the Swiss "Neutaeufer" (New Baptizers), who was strongly influenced by Mennonites. Hungarian Nazarenes finally regained official recognition in 1977. With it came the privilege of exemption from military service. The concerns of the present-day body of about 3,500 members have not, however, been widely publicized in the West. The granting of such an exemption in Hungary in the late 1970s was, however, also significant for other groups. Hungarian Jehovah's Witnesses appear to have received their exemption about the same time as the Nazarenes. The government was granting both groups a form of noncombatant service, something that Nazarenes could accept with appreciation but that Witnesses, who reject any form of military service, would not. Refusal to serve almost invariably meant imprisonment for two to three years. Hundreds of young men from Witnesses congregations sat in Hungarian jails during several decades.

The growing number of Catholic conscientious objectors and the publicity they generated increasingly exacerbated church-state relations in the late 1970s and 1980s. "Basic communities" led by Father Grgy Bulnyi manifested a profession of nonviolence and Christian pacifism that helped create the first Hungarian Catholic COs. In 1985 Hungarian prisons were holding about 150 persons for their pacifist convictions. Most came from smaller churches, but at least a tenth were Catholics.

Poland and Czechoslovakia
In Poland, 22-year-old Maciej Glebocki helped to force the issue when he refused military service in 1982. He was sentenced first to three years imprisonment, then had the sentence extended by another 30 months. In 1986 the difficult case of imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses began to gain attention in the West. Some 300 to 500 Jehovah's Witnesses served prison sentences in Poland as conscientious objectors.

The escalating struggles of Polish conscientious objectors probably made an impact on related groups in neighboring Czechoslovakia. That country, owever, had taken some earlier initiatives of its own. At the outset these initiatives flowed in large measure from the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren (ECCB). There is clear evidence, though, that some of the smaller religious groups, particularly Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, were adding significant numbers to the objectors' groups as well. In the late seventies, documents from Czechoslovakia stated that "an increasing number of young people have refused to serve as conscripts in the army." Ales Brezina's case was widely publicized in the West. A member of the ECCB and a signator of the human rights document, Charter 77, Brezina was tried in June 1977 and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for attempting to evade military service. In November 1983 an ECCB general synod formulated a broad resolution in which it called for arms reductions and for the right of COs to do alternative civilian work.

In the 1980s the Ljubljana Peace Working Group began to publicize the cause of conscientious objectors in Slovenia. Most of the cases brought to light were Jehovah's Witnesses reluctant to campaign politically on their own behalf. Resentencing had become the specific issue for a number of individuals who had received a second or third prison sentence. The matter had become a point of debate in churches as well. An April 1986 petition of the Church of the Nazarene protested "the breach of Tito's decree ruling out the practice of repeated sentences." In May 1987 Peace Group lawyer Slobodan Perovic took the issue to the Constitutional Court, stating that compulsory military service was contrary to their beliefs and to the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Yugoslav Constitution. The court's ruling, handed down on 27 November 1987, was that no one could be exempted from military service on religious grounds. At least a dozen COs, all members of religious groups, remained imprisoned in Yugoslavia during 1988, including eight Jehovah's Witnesses from Slovenia and Vojvodina, one Serbian Seventh-day Adventist, and one Nazarene. Also in this group was Father Don Andro Ursic, the first Yugoslav Catholic and priest to refuse military duty on grounds of conscience.

Romania and Bulgaria
During the seventies and early eighties, the West became aware of Romanian and Bulgarian conscientious objectors, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists. Some were able to obtain noncombatant military assignments. Romanian authorities claimed that some religious groups were being granted exemptions, although it seemed they were granted in an arbitrary fashion.

A few cases of sentencing Bulgarian COs came to the attention of the West. One was that of Emil Kalmakov, a Pentecostal from southeast Bulgaria who was imprisoned five times for refusing to serve in the Bulgarian army. He was first arrested in 1979 and during the following six years served a total of four and a half years in prison. A subsequent term of three years ended when the authorities announced his release in December 1988.

1988-89: Easing Up on COs
In July 1988 the Polish "Sejm" legalized alternative service. Not many days after the "Sejm's" action, 86 Jehovah's Witnesses and 13 Freedom and Peace activists serving sentences for refusing military service were released from prison. All those released had agreed to exchange two years of military service for three years of civilian alternative service. A government spokesman admitted that several hundred Jehovah's Witnesses and about a dozen or more Freedom and Peace workers remained in prison.

In 1988 COs still in Hungarian prisons included 146 Jehovah's Witnesses, six Catholics, one Nazarene, and one Adventist. In February 1989 Justice Minister Kalman Kulcsar announced all conscientious objectors remaining in prison would have their sentences suspended. In August of that year 209 of 31,800 new army recruits had asked for exemptions. Of these, 14 were Jehovah's Witnesses and two were Nazarenes. Two other Nazarenes and 27 Jehovah's Witnesses had refused to perform either civilian or military service.

In June 1988 a leading legal expert, Valeri Savitsky, deputy director of the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences, announced the possibility of ending criminal prosecution of COs in the Soviet Union. At that point the majority of religious prisoners listed in Western publications such as Keston News Service and War Resisters' International Newsletter were COs. During this period 16 members of a new, formerly Baptist group in Estonia that called itself "Word of Life Church" all refused to join the Soviet army. Chief of Staff Mikhail Moiseyev told Pravda later that 6,647 men had evaded the draft call-up in 1989 compared with 1,044 the previous year. About 90 percent of these were "ethnic objectors"-- conscripts from the Baltic republics, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other national groups who considered conscription into the Soviet Red Army a violation of their national sovereignty. Local authorities often refused to cooperate, so most of the evaders were never prosecuted. Reports of more arrests continued to reach Western research centers, mostly concerning Jehovah's Witnesses. A prisoners' list released in March 1990 revealed that at least eight Christians and 17 Jehovah's Witnesses in a larger group of 67 were in prison as COs.

In Czechoslovakia imprisonments continued into 1989, even as events were moving rapidly toward the "Velvet Revolution" at the end of the year. One CO case had to do with the 14 June sentencing of 19-year-old Libro Frank, who belonged to the Hari Krishna community. Frank later agreed to serve in the armed forces.

In Eastern Europe the struggle for freedom of conscience registered significant successes. The majority of former Marxist regimes adopted alternative service legislation. With foreign domination gone, serving in the army of one's homeland may seem less onerous, and eventually no longer a problem.

Protestants were not alone in standing with COs, nor always necessarily the most aggressive. Groups like the Mennonites of the Soviet Union, holding to a centuries-old pacifist tradition, tended to seek at least some accommodation, seeking exemptions from carrying arms within the framework of the army itself. Jehovah's Witnesses, not clearly part of the Protestant ethos, have demonstrated perhaps the most consistently radical position, while Czech Brethren and German Lutherans often rooted their pacifism in the varied objectives of the larger peace movements of Eastern and Western Europe. Baptists and Pentecostals sought their rationale in a very personal, and in some ways simple, conviction that killing humans is wrong, and that too is a principle that changing politics and economics do not really affect.

Lawrence Klippenstein, retired historian/archivist of the Mennonite Heritage Center, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is the author of "Mennonite Pacifism and State Service in Russia: A Case Study in Church-State Relations, 1789-1936" (University of Minnesota Ph.D., 1984).

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia: The Communist and Postcommunist Eras, edited by Sabrina Petra Ramet (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).

Lawrence Klippenstein, "Conscientious Objectors in Eastern Europe Through 1989," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 3-5.

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© 2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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