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Inspiration drawn from the Gulag

20 October 2017

One hundred years after the October Revolution, Jonathan Luxmoore honours a remarkable spiritual legacy

A. Burkatovski/Fine Art Images/SuperStock

“Lenin lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live”: Bolshevik and Soviet propaganda

“Lenin lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live”: Bolshevik and Soviet propaganda

WHEN Christians in the former Soviet Union mark the centenary of the October Revolution this autumn, they will also recall the terrible sufferings that it unleashed upon them.

“Revolution Day” commemorates the seizure of power by Bolsheviks under Vladimir Ilich Lenin on 25 October, eight months after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. (Under Russia’s modern calendar, the anniversary is marked on 7 Novem­ber.) Earlier this year, the country’s Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, blamed the ensuing violence on “horrible crimes committed by the intelli­gentsia against God, the faith, their people, and their country”, and urged citizens to commemorate it with “deep reflection and sincere prayer”.

One way of doing so will be to look into the testimonies of the revolution’s victims, some of which should be ranked alongside the most inspiring in Christian history.

“In childhood and adolescence, I immersed myself in saints’ lives, enraptured by their heroism and holy inspiration,” the youthful Metro­­politan Benjamin of Petrograd confided before he was shot as an “enemy of the people”, just one of countless acts of cruelty that shocked religious believers. Fellow-prisoners testified that he and other priests had been dressed in rags so that the firing squad would not know whom they were executing.

“With all my heart, I sorrowed that times had changed and one no longer had to suffer what they suf­­fered,” he said. “Well, times have changed again, and the opportunity has arisen to suffer for Christ both from one’s own people and from strangers.

“It is difficult to cross this Rubicon, this border, and give yourself totally to God’s will. But when it happens, the person is filled with consolation and no longer feels such terrible pain.”


BuyenlargeGospel: “Soviet power does not punish, it corrects” — a slogan on the wall of a gulag punishment cellAS THE revolution’s mastermind, Lenin had sworn to emasculate the Orthodox clergy — those “agents in cassocks” who had been used by the Tsar to “sweeten and embellish the lot of the oppressed with empty promises of a heavenly kingdom”.

He was contemptuous of religious faith as a whole. To call it the “opium of the people” was too kind, Lenin had written in 1909, paraphrasing Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach. It was, rather, “a kind of spiritual rotgut, by which the slaves of capital blacken their human figure and aspirations for a more dignified human life”.

“Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness,” Lenin told the writer Maxim Gorky.

Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose poet-husband, Osip, would die at a camp near Vladivostok after having to rummage through bins for food, was haunted by the brutalities that she witnessed, as places of worship were ransacked and Christians “humiliated with a fervour shown only by people sincerely convinced they had discovered a new truth”.

Those now possessing this “irrefut­able scientific truth” claimed godlike authority. They were con­vinced that they could “foresee the future, change the course of history at will and make it rational”.

“All values, truths and laws had been done away with — except for those which were needed at the moment and could conveniently be given a ‘class’ label,” Mandelstam wrote.

“Christian morality — including the ancient commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ — was blithely identi­fied with bourgeois morality. Every­thing was dismissed as a fiction. Freedom? There’s no such thing and never was! . . . Not only God but poetry, ideas, love, pity and com­pas­­sion were hastily overthrown. We were to begin a new life without any nonsense.”


Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/AlamyMuck-raking: Russian Clergy Shovelling Hay,from a series of watercolours of the Russian Revolution by Ivan VladimirovRUSSIA’s small Roman Catholic Church also found itself on the receiving end.

In the renamed Leningrad, the French Dominican, Michel Florent, recounted his surprise that religious faith lived on — “despite all the threats, difficulties, imprisonments, and deportations”. Yet persecution was taking its toll.

“It’s difficult to express in a few words the anguish and sorrow one must live with here — a daily suf­fering without hope, a slow but certain agony,” Florent confided.

“Certainly the faithful are still coming to church. Yet it is so sad to hear their laments, watch their tears, be taken into confidence about their shocks. ‘Why is God allowing all of this? What is the good of praying when the evil is stronger? Every­thing succeeds for the enemies of God, and tomorrow we will be without priests, without churches, without sacraments. What can we do to remain faithful, when our families are dispersed, those we love exiled or deported, our wives outlawed, our children torn away from us? What is God doing?”


SUCH basic questions generated a substantial literature, much of it in texts smuggled out of the Soviet Union which paralleled the desert spirituality of the Early Church.

For those Christians who showed courage and endurance, there were, as in the days of Rome, plenty of lapsi and traditores — and even more stantes who, in the observa­tion of Cyprian of Carthage, merely avoided difficult choices. The issues debated by such figures as Tertullian, Origen, and Athanasius — How could the Church be saved? Was it right to avoid persecution? Was suffering a privilege or a duty? — had re-emerged in 20th-century Europe.

Not all drew hopeful conclusions. Many prisoners, returning from the “anti-space and anti-time” of Stalin’s camps, admitted to losing their faith. But mystical experiences were also common — and not only among religious prisoners.

The Polish Communist, Alek­sander Wat, who had hero-worshipped Lenin with “horror and fascination” in the 1920s, had tried to learn lessons from his years of interrogation and torture, when the destruction of “enemies of the people” had resembled the lynching of village witches.

Communism, he concluded, had depended on “poisoning and killing the inner man”, so that its alterna­tive catechism and commandments could be lodged in his being.

Granger Historical Picture Archive/AlamyPresumed dead: Fr Walter Ciszek (right) arrives at Idlewild Airport (renamed John F. Kennedy Airport), New York City, after his release from detention in Russia“I chose Satan because he is beautiful; he provokes and irritates the Philistines. He is severe and cruel and strikes fear in the pro­fane,” Wat wrote of his experiences. “Such things had been anticipated and attempted in history’s darker hours, but this was the first time the re-forging of souls was carried out on such a colossal scale, with such speed and logic.”

Wat’s life was transformed one night in Saratov prison, with a vision which bore echoes of St John the Divine’s Revelation. Unable to sleep because his cell light was left on, he began to hear laughter, “a flourish of laughter that kept ap­­proach­ing and receding”.

“I saw a devil with hooves, the devil from the opera. I really did see him — it must have been a hallu­­cination from hunger — but not only did I see him, I could almost smell the brimstone. My mind was working at terribly high revolutions. It was the devil in history. And I felt something else: that the majesty of God was spread over history, over all this, a God distant but real.

I can’t decipher it fully, I can’t remember it all, but it was so actual, so sensual, as if the devil was in my cell, the ceiling of the cell was lifted away, and God was above it all. . . It was then that I became a believer.”


SOME Christian prisoners con­­trived to continue a religious life, conserving their crucifixes and rosaries and even fasting and re­­­­ceiving the sacraments.

The American Jesuit Walter Ciszek left Russia in 1963 as part of a “spy-swap” after 15 years of impri­sonment and hard labour, making the sign of the cross through the plane window as he flew out, with the Kremlin’s spires in the distance.

Ciszek had been listed as dead by his order since 1947, and his fellow-Jesuits had said masses for his soul. He was struck by the “timelessness and purposelessness” he had experienced in Siberia, but also by a sense of divine providence.

Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, weeping in captivity by the rivers of Babylon, Christians like him had pondered the age-old questions demanded of God in Psalms 12 and 13: “How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?”

In the end, Ciszek had seen the sufferings of Christians as a sign of God’s love, “to wean them away from trust in kings and princes, or in the armies or the powers of the world, and put faith in him alone”.

Ciszek felt some sympathy for idealistic Communists who, like the early Christians, had begun to re­­alise that “the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, was not just around the corner,” and were now concluding with bitterness that the “golden age of Communism” had been a deception.

“It dawned on me how futile were the attempts of man or government to destroy the Kingdom of God,” Ciszek later wrote.

“You can close churches, im­­prison priests and ministers, even set men and churches to fighting among themselves, but you cannot uproot thereby the good seed. . . What was I, in comparison with the might and power of the Soviet government? What were any of us, really, in the face of the system around us, with all its organs of pro­­paganda and powers of persecu­tion? Yet, in God’s providence, here we were — it was the place he had chosen for us.”


SUCH hopeful deductions had come at a price. At least 21 million people died in repressions and “terror famines”, including 106,000 Orthodox clergy shot during Stalin’s 1937-38 Great Purge alone, while tens of thousands of Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews had been sim­ilarly butchered, according to data from post-Soviet governments.

Barely 100 of Russia’s 60,000 Orthodox churches had been left open within two decades of the revolution, while all but two of the Roman Catholic Church’s 1240 places of worship had been turned into shops, warehouses, farm buildings, and public lavatories.

To make sense of the new Great Persecution that the revolution had unleashed, it was necessary to survive it.

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek penned a modest account of his “long winter in Stalin’s gulag”, re­­calling the “endless enclosures of barbed wire where thousands of prisoners died”, and how he had used a ceramic cup as a chalice and hidden consecrated hosts in a match­box for fellow-prisoners.

He remembered the camp com­­mandant’s surprise that a man on whom “there was no need to waste a bullet” had survived the exhaus­tion and hardship. With Com­­munist rule now over, Swiatek saw the need for forgiveness.

“For most, it came as a surprise that this forgiveness could be offered by someone who still bore the marks of persecution on his own body,” the veteran church leader told me many years later. “Yet never, even when various sentences were passed against me, did I feel any desire for revenge.

“Over its two thousand year hi­­story, the Church has faced good years and bad, from the first cen­turies when they threw Chris­tians to the lions to the persecutions of the French Revolution and Stalinism. But it endured, and will endure.”

Lenin’s system of rule had made it hard to live honestly, and even harder to aspire to goodness. That many did both, by conscious choice and effort of will, was an important mark of redemption. The heroism of the few had compensated for the timidity and weakness of the many, atoning for their sins and failures and contributing to the salvation of whole communities.


Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of Communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing at £20 (Vol. I) (CT Bookshop £18); £20 (Vol. II) (£18).

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