With God in Russia
by Walter Ciszek SJ and Daniel Flaherty SJ, Harperone, 403pp, £15
Originally published in 1964 and recently reissued, this account of a priestly life spent in Soviet prisons and Siberian labour camps for 23 years has become a modern classic. On his release and return to America in 1963, Fr Ciszek recounted his extraordinary story to a fellow Jesuit, Daniel Flaherty, who wrote it down, commending the author’s detailed memory.
More than merely relating what happened to him in those gruelling years Ciszek, who speaks entirely without rancour or bitterness, reveals the dehumanising horror of the Gulag system as it functioned under Stalin.
The centenary of the Russian Revolution was commemorated last October. None of the speakers on radio or television have, to my knowledge, spoken of the systemic persecution and brutality to which the Revolution inevitably led. In this unvarnished account (and without self-pity) Ciszek describes how the providence of God sustained him during his initial imprisonment, which was then followed by an arbitrary sentence of 15 years’ hard labour in a prison camp at Norilsk in Siberia.
A tough Polish-American boy born in 1904 and ordained in 1937, he had always cherished the dream of being assigned to a Jesuit mission in Russia. Sent to Albertin in Poland, he slipped into Russia in disguise with a priest-friend in 1939, still trying to pursue, rather unrealistically, a missionary vocation in this formidably communist country. He relates that “crossing the border gave me a strange sense of exhilaration and yet of loneliness, of a beginning and an end to the life I had known.”
Fortunately, Ciszek could have had no knowledge of the way his new life would turn out. Arrested by the secret police and convicted of being a “Vatican spy”, he was to spend the next four years in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. Unable to continue his priestly mission in solitary confinement, Ciszek reminded himself of his resolve “to do whatever I did for God”. Whenever the opportunity arose he would console dying prisoners and give them absolution.
In 1945 a friend and fellow Jesuit, Nestrov, was imprisoned with him. Immediately the two priests devised a strict daily timetable of prayer, the rosary, Confession and meditation. Ciszek relates that it was in the Lubyanka that he learned the lesson that would help to fortify his spirits in the years to come: “That religion, prayer and love of God do not change reality, but they give it a new meaning.”
In 1946, he was transferred to Norilsk to work first in logging and then in the coal mines. In his seminary days Ciszek admits that he “took great pains not to be thought pious” and that he had always chosen the “hardest thing” to do, whether a physical or mental challenge.
Such unwitting preparation proved very useful in the prison camp, where working long hours every day, often in sub-zero temperatures, coupled with wretchedly inadequate food, was standard. The Polish prisoners stuck together: friendship was necessary to stay alive, and Ciszek’s ability to understand and sympathise with others helped to stave off loneliness and despondency.
After five years he was introduced to other priest-prisoners who secretly provided him with homemade wine and wafers. For the first time he was able to say Mass: “My joy … cannot be described,” he comments. When his 15-year sentence came to an end, he was released, but only on condition that he live in the town of Norilsk. Making contact with another priest, Fr Viktor, Ciszek was finally able to fulfil his dream of ministering to Catholics living in Russia, by setting up a clandestine “parish” in the town, where he was able to say Mass, hear Confessions, administer baptisms, marriages and funerals.
The numbers of people wanting the sacraments was overwhelming, proof that denying the existence of God and persecuting those who refused to give up their faith could not vanquish the fundamental human longing for spiritual things.
In April 1963, while working as a car mechanic, Ciszek was finally allowed to leave Russia and fly home to the US, where he had been presumed dead for many years. The Byzantine workings of the Soviet secret police made this final twist in his story as inexplicable and mysterious as all his earlier brushes with authority. Just before leaving, he spent a couple of days in Moscow, where he joined the queue to visit Lenin’s embalmed body. In his typically understated fashion, Ciszek said a prayer for the dead Bolshevik revolutionary: “ ‘He was a man, after all,’ I thought, ‘and he may be in need of more prayers than he’s getting here.’ ”
What do we learn from this most moving testimony? That whatever the dire circumstances of life, you are never beyond God’s love. As Ciszek was to learn, many times over, in the words of John Henry Newman, “God knows what He is about.”
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