Arts & Books

Book review: The modern martyrs we’ve already forgotten

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalya at the Gulag history museum in Moscow (AP)

The God of the Gulag, Vol 1 and Vol 2
by Jonathan Luxmoore, Gracewing, £20 each

Jonathan Luxmoore, a writer who has specialised in Church news from Russia and Eastern Europe for many years, has written a superb history of Christian persecution under communism from its inception to its downfall. At 900 pages altogether, it has been a labour of many years as well as of love. In their breadth and meticulous research, these two volumes describe not just a broad survey of the fortunes of the Christian churches, mainly Catholic and Orthodox, within the USSR and behind the Iron Curtain, but also the heart-rending stories of those courageous individuals who refused to give up their faith and whose names have been forgotten for many decades.

Throughout the books, Luxmoore often draws parallels with the persecutions of Christians in ancient Rome. This provides the reader with a historical context, reminding us in the West of the price that is sometimes demanded of those who have witnessed to Christian faith and rejected a pagan or atheist ideology. As the author writes in his prologue: “The fate of the martyrs reminds us that not everything is objectively predictable and rationally verifiable.” It is another way of saying that religious faith exists in the depths of man’s being, even “in the darkness of prison cells, labour camps and execution yards” and that, despite the deliberate destruction of churches and their worshippers, it can never be eradicated.

Volume I begins with the Russian Revolution and ends after the death of Stalin in 1953. Volume II takes us through the subsequent decades to the collapse of Communism in 1989-1990 and the state of the Church in those countries where communism had dominated all social and intellectual life.

The author does not gloss over the deaths of the millions who fell foul of Stalin’s policies, such as the kulaks in Russia and the Ukraine, and the “bourgeoisie” and intellectual and political dissenters, but his purpose is to charter the particular martyrdom suffered by religious believers. His narrative focuses on the Catholic Church as the only institution “present as a single, supra-national entity throughout communist-ruled Europe.”

In the first volume, Luxmoore describes the tragedy that unfolded following the hatred unleashed against Christianity by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Churches were destroyed wholesale and thousands of priests were imprisoned, summarily executed or sent to the Gulag for years. Few survived their ill-treatment.

By the late 1940s, “society was … permeated at every level by hope and fears, dreads and illusions.” Despite strongly worded condemnations from time to time by popes Pius XI and XII, the Vatican was essentially powerless to prevent the concerted, long-drawn-out war of attrition against Church members. Where tiny religious groups survived in Eastern Europe, communist regimes presented them as “backward and reactionary, a legitimate target for ridicule and repression”.

There were heroic Church leaders, such as Metropolitan Slipyi of Ukraine and Cardinals Mindszenty of Hungary and Wyszyński of Poland. But they differed in their approach: Mindszenty paid the price of torture, then long years of internal exile in the US embassy in Budapest, for refusing to deal with the communist regime; Wyszyński concluded that a “strategy of confrontation … would not work” and tried to find a minimal and workable modus vivendi between the Polish episcopate and the government.

With the election of Pope John XXIII and especially of Paul VI, there was a change in Vatican policy, outlined in Volume II. Ostpolitik, later criticised for its seeming accommodation with the state, sought to minimise confrontation, remain silent rather than protest and work through diplomacy.

In Volume II there is less a record of a martyrdom of blood than the different kind of martyrdom of the living, who were harassed, intimidated and kept under surveillance within a hostile, atheist environment. Luxmoore details the differences in severity towards Christians between the regimes of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland. The election of Pope John Paul II proved to be the catalyst for far-reaching, irrepressible and dynamic change. Having experienced communism, he constantly drew attention to its democratic deficits and disregard for ordinary human rights.

As Luxmoore comments, the Polish pope knew that “agreements with communist regimes were worthless, unless backed by powerful pressure”. He helped the repressed populations behind the Iron Curtain to recognise that although communism could not be “intimidated by confrontation … it could be undermined through the power of values, by a moral victory over fear and hatred”.

Behind his roll-call of heroic individuals, as well as the petty, cowardly and sadistic functionaries and secret police that persecuted them, Luxmoore shows how communism finally died from within, its promises and premises revealed as bankrupt. He has written a splendid work of recent Church history, citing formerly secret archival material that deserves to be widely known.

This article first appeared in the August 5 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here