[Update: Since writing this article, it is clear that Watchtower did NOT fake the recording referred to. Here is my apology.]
Last month’s JW Broadcasting episode, hosted by Samuel Herd and Alex Reinmueller, featured a heart-tugging segment about Jehovah’s Witnesses living under communism in the 1950s.
It related the dramatic story of how a recorded message was smuggled out of Russia by being cut up and concealed in the lining of a jacket, before finally finding its way to America. On reaching its destination, the message was played at the 1958 “Divine Will” International Assembly before 253,922 attendees in New York.
There’s just one problem: the message played on the JW Broadcasting episode is not the same as the message played at the actual convention – at least according to an authentic 1958 report from the event.
The JW Broadcasting version of the speech is shown being played to a roomful of tearful survivors from the communist era, who listen intently as the words read by a now-deceased Yuriy Dobychin are played to them for the first time. The message has a clear narrative of persecution (bold is mine):
[Time marker 34:20 – 35:22]
Dear Brothers and Sisters
Because you are gathered together today at an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the great mercy of our heavenly Father, we wish at the very least to send you a short message about our life and activity in Russia.
It is only because of Jehovah, the Most High God, that we can live and work. Since the end of the second world war up until our time, we have gone through a rather difficult and oppressive journey in the fight to preserve our faith and integrity in this old world. However, in all the difficulties and arrests, through the persecution and repression, we have also had much joy. Our joy comes from seeing many people of good will come to know the truth and come under the direction of the Fine Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
[Time marker 31:25 – 31:31]
We assure you that we likewise desire to keep pace with the New World Society.
Compare this with the original translation read out by convention speaker A. Rutimann, as found in the original 1958 assembly report:
While the Rutimann transcript is a message of perseverance, hope and optimism (expressing the desire of the Russian Witnesses to attend their own assembly in the future), the JW Broadcasting version is a grim message of persecution and oppression.
These are two different speeches, but not so different as to be entirely unrelated. You will note how language from the first paragraph of the Rutimann transcript about the Father’s “undeserved kindness” and the leadership of the “Right Shepherd” is echoed at the beginning and end of the JW Broadcasting version – but there the similarities end.
The obvious question is: why are there two versions of the same talk? There are, to my mind, three possible explanations:
- Rutimann falsified the translation that was read at the assembly and later printed in the 1958 report, with no apparent motive for doing so.
- The Rutimann 1958 translation omitted the part about persecution, repression and “keeping pace” with the New World society – again with no apparent motive. Why censor a speech that Witnesses under communism had gone to such great trouble to send?
- The JW Broadcasting version is a fabrication, designed to convey a narrative of Jehovah’s Witnesses being persecuted and oppressed, because the original did not do this sufficiently.
I am happy to let you decide which of these explanations sounds more plausible, but here is the bottom line: either the 1958 convention attendees did not get the full picture, or it is the 2016 JW Broadcasting audience being kept in the dark.
So, would Watchtower really stoop to fabricating a recording of a 1958 recorded message from Russian Witnesses living under communism just to change the narrative to one of persecution? We have no way of knowing. I cannot be certain myself, and I don’t mind if it turns out the JW Broadcasting version is somehow authentic.
There are, however, a few things to consider.
In the JW Broadcasting speech, the writer seems keen to anchor his words in a historical context, writing: “Since the end of the Second World War up until our time…” Bear in mind, this was apparently written only a decade or so from the end of the conflict, so this strikes me as an odd reference to include in a message to thousands of Witnesses in America who were living at the same time and had themselves lived through the war. If you were tasked with writing a similar message today, would you write: “In recent years” or “Since 9/11 up until our time…”? I will let you decide, but I have my doubts.
Then there is the frugal use of footage from the 1958 convention by the JW Broadcasting producers. Rutimann is only shown introducing the recorded speech, and the crowds applauding after hearing it. Why not also show Dobychin’s words being broadcast to the audience in 1958 if the video for this exists? Why not show Rutimann giving his translation of part of the speech? Such footage would have been stirring for Witnesses to see, and would have been helpful in authenticating the material – but it is skipped entirely.
Finally, there is the dramatization depicting the efforts undertaken to smuggle the recording out of Russia. A couple of Witnesses from Poland are shown being asked to get off a train by Russian police, who were tipped off by a “traitor” that they were carrying the tape. The couple are taken to a dimly-lit office to be searched and interrogated before finally being allowed to continue.
The entire story is apparently based on a third-hand account, because the identity of the couple who undertook the mission is unknown. Also, the story is ultimately uneventful: the couple succeed in their efforts and, despite being forcibly detained and told to remove their clothing, do not report any physical abuse before being allowed to resume their travels.
And yet, Watchtower has gone to extraordinary lengths to film a reenactment of this third-hand, relatively unremarkable story. Period locations are chosen, props and costumes are sourced, at least one vintage car is rented, and actors are cast – not to mention the effort and expense of filming and production.
If Watchtower could go to so much trouble to create a dramatic reenactment essentially telling Witnesses that the world is hell bent on persecuting and oppressing them, there is certainly no lack of motive for them to rewrite a speech from Russians in 1958 who didn’t sound sufficiently repressed and downtrodden, and fake a recording of it. (Another point of interest: the Dobychin speech audio is much clearer and crisper than the brief audio of him giving his “last interview” about the matter, presumably years later.)
And if you still can’t believe that Watchtower would stoop to such subterfuge in re-writing its history, I need only point you to the 2010 DVD Faith In Action – Part 1.
The reason I gave myself the name “Cedars” when I first began my activism in 2011 was because of my dismay at a portion of the DVD in which the American flag was deliberately removed from a digital portrayal of the 1922 Cedar Point Ohio convention. You can see the flag hanging prominently around the stage if you check a photo on page 259 of the Proclaimers book, but the stars and stripes are absent from the reenactment. (Check my JW Broadcasting rebuttal video for clips of the relevant part of the 2010 DVD, and you will see what I mean.)
As anyone who has devoted any serious study to Watchtower’s history will tell you, Watchtower has a long history of rewriting it. That is why, though I can’t be certain that the Dobychin speech from the JW Broadcasting video is a fake, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it proved to be so. But as with so many aspects of this manipulative organization, we will probably never know the full story.
One thing we can be sure of is that, like so many branches of Christian fundamentalism, Watchtower is obsessed with persecution. And it will continue to find ever more inventive, extravagant ways to help Jehovah’s Witnesses feel like an oppressed minority on the cusp of being rescued by divine forces when the end comes.
UPDATE: Since writing this piece, one of our readers has brought it to my attention that an original recording of Rutimann’s talk exists online. A link is here. When listening to it, it seems that the part about persecution was indeed included in the original recording, and that the JW Broadcasting version is not a fake. I cannot understand why the part about persecution was read at the assembly but omitted from the convention report, but I am honestly relieved that my fears were misplaced, and that Watchtower has not gone to such extreme lengths to mislead Witnesses.