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‘Vatican Spies’ Book Chronicles

Church's Suffering in Soviet Union

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

January 3-9, 1999 Issue | Posted 1/3/99 at 1:00 PM

 

WARSAW, Poland—Polish and Russian historians have published the first joint study of the Catholic Church's persecution in the Soviet Union.

The book's editor, a Catholic priest, said it marked a significant step toward closing historical “blank spots,” as well as recalling the shared sufferings of Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Sentenced as Vatican Spies was issued in early December by Warsaw's Catholic Apostolicum publishers.

Co-written by Irina Osipova and Ida Zaikina, researchers from Russia's “Memorial” organization, it includes unique material from the Soviet Union's CHEKA, GPU, and NKVD police archives on the 1917-56 repression of the Soviet Union's Latin and Greek Catholic Churches, as well as documents from the notorious Solovetski Island prison camp.

The White Sea camp, which opened in 1920 on the site of a 16th century Russian Orthodox monastery, received mostly sick and elderly Catholic and Orthodox priests. It served as a prototype for other Soviet labor and extermination centers, and was the scene of numerous acts of cruelty and barbarism.

The fate of several prominent Catholic priests is revealed for the first time in the book.

One, the Belarusan Marian Father Fabian Abrantowicz, a Louvain University graduate and former St. Petersburg seminary lecturer, died in Moscow's Butyrka prison hospital in 1946, after serving as the apostolic administrator of the Catholic Church from Harbin.

The interrogation notes kept on another, Father Wendelin Jaworka, a former rector of Rome's Russicum college, show that he courageously refused to implicate fellow priests, despite physical and psychological pressure.

Father Jaworka was sent to labor camps for 10 years, after being “exposed” as a “Vatican agent” by the forced testimony of a Catholic colleague in 1945.

An Italian priest, Father Pietro Leoni, who headed parishes at Dniepropietrovsk and Odessa after serving as a wartime army chaplain, also showed exceptional courage under torture.

Though sentenced in 1947 to 25 years of hard labor, Father Leoni was freed in 1955. The “act of transfer” to the Italian authorities is the last document in his Soviet prison file.

The Catholic Church's Mohilev archdiocese, based at St. Petersburg, was home to 1.5 million mostly ethnic Polish Catholics in 1917, as well as 400 priests from the Latin, Greek, and Armenian Catholic rites.

All but two of its 1,240 churches and chapels were destroyed or closed during the Catholic Church's dispersal over the next two decades. At least 140 priests were shot in 1937-38 alone, leaving only a dozen still at large after World War II.

Among many Catholic women detailed in Sentenced as Vatican Spies, Anna Brilliantova was a first-year biology student at Moscow University when she was arrested in 1931. She was accused of involvement with Moscow's Greek Catholic lay Dominican community, whose leader, Anna Abrikosova, died in the Butyrka six years later, after being jailed with other female order members.

Brilliantova broke down under torture.

In her interrogation notes, a Catholic nun, Kamilla Kruszelnycka, describes how she notified the Church's Moscow-based administrator, Bishop Pius Neveu, of her first meeting with the gifted student at the capital's St. Ludwik church, and of their subsequent discussions about “atheism and God's existence.”

But in Brilliantova's testimony, the talks are turned into a denunciation of Soviet dictator Josif Stalin.

“Because of this, my terrorist mood increased,” Brilliantova tells her NKVD captors. “Kruszelnycka said she would fight Soviet power to the end even if she were an atheist and young, and would carry out a terrorist act against Stalin. … She also drew my attention to the need to act in the strictest secrecy.”

Brilliantova and Abrikosova were shot by NKVD orders in October 1937 — a month after Brilliantova had given birth to a son, at the age of 28. Their remains were discovered, with those of 32 Catholic priests, in a mass grave of Solovetski Island prisoners in autumn 1997.

In a Register interview, the book's Polish editor, Father Jan Dzwonkowski, said Sentenced as Vatican Spies confirmed the unparalleled scale and cruelty of the Soviet Union's 70-year religious persecution.

He added that, although the Russian Orthodox Church was now attempting to amass information on the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians who died, the history of Stalin's anti-religious purges was still “hardly known.”

“We are only just beginning to retrace what happened,” said the priest, who teaches sociology at Poland's Catholic University of Lublin. “The persecution cut such a vast swath that our inquiries will never be exhausted. But if we can succeed in reducing some of the blank spots, that at least will have meaning.”

Father Dzwonkowski, whose chapter recounts two petitions sent to the Soviet regime by Catholic and Russian Orthodox inmates on Solovetski, published two separate volumes earlier this year with biographical and legal data on prewar Catholic purge victims.

He said he believed recollections of shared sufferings in Soviet prisons and camps could “bring the Churches closer,” en route to a planned ecumenical proclamation of 20th century “martyrs to the faith of Christ” in the year 2000.

“In some ways, the Catholic Church suffered a better fate than Russian Orthodoxy, since it was totally destroyed and forced underground, whereas the Orthodox Church was allowed to keep its institutions, but became a tool of Soviet policy,” Father Dzwonkowski told the Register.

“But at a time when Orthodox leaders are still criticizing us and keeping their distance, the memory of how Catholic and Orthodox met together in the camps must help rebuild links between us.”

A 1995 Russian government commission said more than 200,000 priests and nuns, mostly Orthodox, were killed, and half a million more were imprisoned or deported during the prewar Soviet purges. This constituted, in numerical terms, the greatest persecution in Christian history.

The same commission confirmed that many Christian clergy were crucified on church doors by communist “terror squads” in the years following the 1917 revolution, or doused in water and left to freeze to death in winter.

Sentenced as Vatican Spies contains new archival data from a number of sources, including the Polish Red Cross, whose Moscow office was directed in 1920-37 by Jekaterina Pieshkova, the first wife of writer Maxim Gorky.

Besides relaying information requests to the Soviet regime, Pieshkova arranged prisoner exchanges involving Polish priests and Russian communists jailed in Poland.

However, her efforts were often unsuccessful.

Among the documents contained in the book is a letter from the elderly mother of a Belarusan priest, Father Hieronim Cerpento, seeking information on his whereabouts five years after his arrest by the Soviet GPU in 1930.

“Write to us about yourself, so we can reply to your mother,” the Red Cross asked the priest through contacts.

The priest sent back a letter from Siberia confirming he'd been allowed, despite heart problems, to perform rites for local Catholics in Siberia. When he dispatched a second letter in 1936, he asked Pieshkova to pass news to his family that he'd been re-sentenced to an even longer camp term with a Catholic nun for “counterrevolutionary activity.”

There are no more letters in the file. Father Cerpento was tried secretly again for “political crimes” and shot on Jan. 18, 1938.

A 67-year-old Polish priest, Father Mateusz Brynczak, also writes to Pieshkova after being sent to Siberia for three years in 1931.

“I ask you, Jekaterina Pavlovna, to try to obtain permission from the central authorities only for me to say Mass (without a rector's functions) in the church at Tomsk,” the priest pleads. “In this way, you will lighten my cross, and this is my final ardent request.”

Father Brynczak's plea was not granted. In 1936, the Red Cross sent a brief message to Warsaw. “We notify that we have received information of the death of priest Mateusz Brynczak in exile at Tomsk. We learned of his death from a note attached to a money bill and a returned parcel. We do not know the date of his death.”

The Warsaw launching of Sentenced as Vatican Spies was attended by Walenty Woronowicz, the last known Solovetski camp survivor still living in Poland, and included a unique exhibition of photos from the island, collected by Russian researcher Juri Brodsky.

In his Register interview, Father Dzwonkowski said he believed the book was “one small contribution” toward correcting a “banal imbalance” in contemporary attitudes toward Nazi and Soviet crimes.

“Nazi crimes weren't only much shorter-lasting: they were also condemned and punished, whereas communist crimes have never been brought to justice, and are still widely defended today,” the priest said.

“This book is just one drop in the stream which will one day wear a hole through this stony indifference. It offers proof of the power of spirit which enabled people to preserve their faith and integrity, even in the most extreme conditions.”

Russian schoolbooks say 20 million Soviet and East European citizens died in communist-era labor camps, while 15 million more were killed in mass executions, deportations, and officially orchestrated “terror famines.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.