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Witnesses from the Soviet era

by
20 May 2016

Xenia Dennen recalls martyrdoms behind the Iron Curtain


Church Times

Iconic poet: a prayer vigil held opposite the Soviet embassy in London in July 1986 by campaigners for the release of Irina Ratushinskaya, shown on the placard. She was being held in a Soviet labour camp

Iconic poet: a prayer vigil held opposite the Soviet embassy in London in July 1986 by campaigners for the release of Irina Ratushinskaya, shown on th...

The God of the Gulag: Volume 1: Martyrs in an Age of Revolution

Jonathan Luxmoore

Gracewing £20

(978-0-85244-639-3)

Church Times Bookshop £18

 

The God of the Gulag: Volume 2: Martyrs in an Age of Secularism

Jonathan Luxmoore

Gracewing £20

(978-0-85244-584-6)

Church Times Bookshop £18

 

THE GOD OF THE GULAG is a two-volume history in chronological order of the Church during the communist period in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Starting with the Early Church’s experience of persecution as a comparison, and the treatment of the Church during the French Revolution, Jonathan Luxmoore studies the 20th-century persecution of the Church from the Bolshevik Revolution until the end of the communist period, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

This work is a remarkable feat: with its focus on the Roman Catholic Church as the only “supra-national entity throughout communist-ruled Europe”, this history also weaves in information about other Christian denominations and, indeed, religions. It covers a period of church history which has been studied little and, indeed, almost forgotten.

The Roman Catholic Church, like all religious denominations in a communist country, faced the dilemma whether to resist or comply with government demands; in the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church faced the same challenge. Today, the Polish Church has tried to confront the results of this dilemma, and has exposed those who collaborated and honoured those who refused to compromise, unlike Russia, where the post-communist Russian Orthodox Church prefers to forget about the often compliant policies of its religious leaders before perestroika, and does not mention figures such as Fr Gleb Yakunin and Archbishop Yermogen of Kaluga, who, during the reign of Khrushchev as Party leader, protested against the treatment of religious believers, and suffered as a consequence.

Most historians acknowledge the central part that Mikhail Gorbachev played in the collapse of communism, but Luxmoore also highlights the catalytic effect of a Polish pope — John Paul II — and of the Church in Poland, and observes that both were hardly mentioned during the 25th-anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014.

The theme of martyrdom runs through these two volumes. The bare facts come alive when the author quotes from his own interviews, such as the one with the Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya, who said about her prison experience: “The security which I felt in the labour camp — of knowing that they could only kill my body with torture, nothing more — was something which I’d understood theoretically before. . . But it was another thing to learn that this was actually true. . . It produced a special kind of strength, like imagining yourself flying, then suddenly finding that you are.”

Flesh is added to bones again when we read the words of a prisoner who remembered a man praying — “he hid his face in his palms and began quietly murmuring the words of a prayer in a voice . . . so swollen with pain and tears. It was as if he was prostrating himself at the foot of the cross.”

The scores of men and women who suffered for their Christian faith during the communist period should not be forgotten. The God of the Gulag will help to keep alive the memory of such unsung heroes, whose witness could be a revivifying inspiration for Christians in the 21st century.

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