Russian President Vladimir Putin has bestowed the Family Glory award on a family of Jehovah's Witnesses -- just one month after the Russian Supreme Court declared the group an illegal "extremist" organization.
At a recent Kremlin ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented the state Family Glory honor to eight families with seven or more children.
"In this hall, there are many genuinely happy people," Putin told the families who assembled in late May. "Day after day, together with your children, you repeatedly appreciate the world; you share with them the feeling of pride at their successes and you see how, because of your efforts, they develop new capacities. I am certain that you are doing everything to make sure they grow up to be honest, decent people and worthy citizens of our country."
The award is given to "model families" that are exemplary in terms of education, athletics, and a healthy lifestyle.
But one of the families receiving the honor and shaking Putin's hand belongs to an organization that Russia's Supreme Court less than one month earlier officially labelled an "extremist organization": the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Valery Novik is a mechanic from the northern city of Petrozavodsk. He and his wife, Tatyana, have eight children. And all the Noviks are Jehovah's Witnesses.
"We follow the principle of love," Novik told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a telephone interview published on June 11. "When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he spoke the words that are quoted in the Book of Matthew. The first commandment is to love God, and the second is like the first -- to love your neighbor as yourself."
On April 20, in response to a request by the Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court labeled the confession an "extremist" group, in part because it was distributing materials that purportedly could be interpreted as casting doubt on other religions, including the Russian Orthodox Church. Kremlin-friendly Russian media have portrayed the group as a pernicious sect that destroys families and threatens lives because of their opposition to blood transfusions.
'175,000 Prisoners Of Conscience'
The Jehovah's Witnesses are appealing the ruling, which suspended all of its 395 branches across Russia, but if finalized the group will be banned from operating in the country.
Anatoly Pchelintsev, a lawyer handling the appeal, told RFE/RL that, if the Supreme Court's ruling stands, Russia would effectively have 175,000 "prisoners of conscience."
In accepting his award from Putin, Novik mentioned that he is guided by the words of "one wise book," but otherwise the topic of religion was not raised.
"There wasn't much time," Novik recalled. "You couldn't say everything. And I wanted to treat the head of state respectfully. A leader is a leader and we have to respect that. You don't express your problems, your complaints to him. Afterward, he sat with us and one other family. We drank some tea and, as he was leaving, he saw my daughter dancing and he praised her. Then he left."
The Noviks' path to the Family Glory award was a long one. First, they were approved by the municipal authorities in Petrozavodsk. Then they were nominated by the regional government of Karelia -- in 2015. After that, nothing but silence until they were informed in April -- the same month as the Supreme Court decision -- that they had been selected.
"On the Internet, my wife read that there should be a monetary award," Novik said, noting that according to the most recent data the prize was 100,000 rubles in 2014 ($1,750). "But no monetary award has been sent. No one promised us anything specific, but they did say there should be a prize."
Novik said he was not offended by the government's ruling against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"And I'm not angry," he added. "It is true that before I could go around from house to house and tell people the good news about the kingdom of heaven. But since April 20, it isn't possible to speak about that freely. Just the same, I still talk to people about it in informal conversations."
"It is true we can no longer meet together in our hall," he added. "We don't have that right. But in private conversations, I can talk about what I have read in the Bible."
The Jehovah's Witnesses have long been viewed with suspicion both in the Soviet Union and in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general. Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four traditional religions, and rights activists say other faiths and confessions frequently face discrimination.
'Genuinely Upstanding Citizens'
Yaroslav Sivulsky was the head of the Jehovah's Witnesses administrative center in Moscow, which was closed following the April decision. He is not surprised that the Noviks were honored by the Kremlin.
"Jehovah's Witnesses are genuinely upstanding citizens," he told RFE/RL. "They respect the law. So, of course, this shows the absurdity of the accusations against us. It is obvious we have nothing to do with extremism or any illegal activity. And this situation just proves that simple truth."
Sivulsky added that the court's decision has led to an increase in activity against the organization. In April, unknown attackers threw rocks into a Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall in St. Petersburg. On April 30, a drunken resident of a village outside Moscow threw a Molotov cocktail that destroyed a home inhabited by Jehovah's Witnesses.
In May, a Danish Jehovah's Witness named Dennis Christensen was arrested in Oryol after attending a private meeting of the confession. He faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of extremism.
"We are seeing an escalation of the situation regarding freedom of conscience in Russia," Sivulsky said. "There have been acts of vandalism and violations of the rights of believers, as well as dismissals from work. The real oppression of innocent people merely for their religious views has begun. And this problem is just going to snowball."