Catholic Persecution in Communist Russia Chronicled in Landmark Book

WARSAW, Poland—The head of Russia's Catholic Church has welcomed a book documenting the cases of hundreds of Catholics killed or jailed under communist rule.

However, a leading Russian lay Catholic warned that further work was unlikely to be allowed on Soviet secret police archives, adding that the author had already been barred from continuing her “unique research.”

“This is the first compilation of its kind, and its publication is a good development,” said Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the Moscow-based apostolic administrator for European Russia's 300,000 Catholics.

“It contains plenty of historical material. And although the documentation is far from complete, it provides a lot of new information.”

The Russian-language book, In Your Wounds Hide Me, detailing the fate of 317 Catholic priests and laypeople, was published for the first time in a limited Moscow edition during 1996.

Its author, Irina Osipova, a member of the Moscow-based Memorial Research Organization, said she had studied interrogation and trial minutes, as well as NKVD (paramilitary police) reports from as far afield as Krasnojarsk, Archangel, and Vorkuta.

The book, whose title is taken from the Anima Christi prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola, documents the imprisonment or execution of three dozen Latin Catholic priests and nuns, after the first wave of Church arrests in 1923. These included Archbishop Jan Cieplak of Mogilev, who was later granted a reprieve from a death sentence, and his vicar-general, Father Constatin Budkiewicz, who was executed on Easter night. Among those arrested, only a single Dominican nun, Sister Nura Zolkina, was released in 1927.

Besides its exarch, Father Leonid Fiodorov, the founder-members of Russia's Eastern-rite Greek Catholic Church, including Dominican Mother Anna Abrikosov, all also died following long prison terms under the rule of dictator Joseph Stalin.

Describing conditions on the White Sea's Solovetsky Islands, where most Catholic clergy were imprisoned in the late 1920s and 1930s, Osipova says 23 priests were locked in a 40-square-foot cell, and forced to sleep “like sardines.”

Although 17 Polish priests were repatriated in exchange for captured Soviet agents in 1932, their places had already been taken by 35 Ukrainian priests, who were sent to the Islands in 1930 on charges of “spying for Poland and the Vatican” and “anti-Soviet agitation.”

The book records that several priests, including Fathers Josip Paul, Adam Belendir, and Aleksi Kappes, were arrested after going into hiding to escape a 1929-31 crackdown on the Volga region's ethnic German Catholic minority.

Of these, Father Kappes later broke down during NKVD interrogations and named alleged accomplices in a supposed German spy ring.

However, a 1937 NKVD report said he had continued “systematic agitation” while imprisoned on the Solovetsky Islands, and had “attracted counter-revolutionary elements” while performing illegal prison Masses.

The remains of Fathers Paul, Belendir, and Kappes were identified this summer in a mass grave of Solovetsky Island prisoners at Sandormoch, north of St. Petersburg.

At least 32 priests, including 12 ethnic Poles and 11 Germans, were brought from the White Sea and shot through the back of the head at the site Oct. 27-Nov. 4, 1937.

An ecumenical memorial service for the two-acre grave's 1,111 victims, who also included a Georgian Catholic bishop, Shio Batmalashvili, a Catholic nun and four Russian Orthodox bishops and archbishops, was staged by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy Oct. 27.

The Sandormoch grave is one of dozens exhumed since the collapse of communist rule. The latest, containing approximately 15,000 bodies, was unearthed in Ukraine's Volyn region Oct. 30.

In a REGISTER interview, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said he had recently set up a “martyrology commission” to study Soviet atrocities against the Catholic Church, adding that a book of Catholic memoirs, covering events in the St. Petersburg region, was expected to be published in early 1998.

“Such work is only at the beginning, and we still lack the people and resources needed for a full-scale search for material,” the archbishop said.

“But the commission is attempting to act, despite the obstacles and problems.”

However, a lay member of Russia's Dominican order, Ivan Vladimirovitch, said he believed it was “a kind of miracle” that Irina Osipova's book had been published, and predicted that Catholic researchers would not be allowed further access to former NKVD and KGB archives.

“Uniquely, Osipova was permitted to obtain charge-sheets and protocols from the Stalinist era, and has produced an objective and truthful book,” Vladimirovitch added.

“But she hasn't been allowed to print all the information she wanted to, and wasn't permitted to name her informants.”

Vladimirovitch said the Russian authorities had allowed Osipova to consult the archives, at the written request of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, as a “gesture” following Russia's opening of ties with the Vatican in the early 1990s.

However, he added that the author had had “conflicts” with former KGB officials since her book's publication, and had not been allowed back.

“Although Russian law theoretically gives Catholics access to police records, Osipova is the only person who was actually allowed to act on this,” Vladimirovitch told the REGISTER.

“The laws are now being tightened anyway, and state bureaucracy given a new lease of life, as people idealize the Soviet period and yearn for its stability. So this opportunity won't be repeated.”

Among other cases documented in In Your Wounds Hide Me, several Jesuit priests, including the Slovak Father Jan Kelner-Brinsko and a Pole, Father Jerzy Moskwa, were shot in the early 1940s after volunteering to work in Russia for the Vatican's Commission for Eastern Churches.

A U.S. Jesuit included in the book, Father Walter Ciszak, spent more than 20 years in Soviet labor camps after volunteering to work as an undercover priest in the Urals. He has been recommended for beatification by Russia's Catholic Church.

Osipova says close prison friendships were often formed between Catholic and Orthodox priests, some of whom secretly celebrated Mass together.

A Dominican priest, Father Sergei Soloviev, the nephew of celebrated Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), was arrested after negotiating the Catholic Church's possible reception of Russian Orthodox priests who opposed Metropolitan Sergei Stragorodsky's controversial loyalty declaration to the Soviet regime in 1927.

A leading Russian Orthodox preacher, Archbishop Varfolomei Remov, claimed to have joined the Catholic Church during later interrogation by the NKVD.

Archbishop Remov, who was known for his friendship with Bishop Pius Neveu, the Catholic Church's Moscow-based leader, confessed to charges of leading a “terrorist organization” during his NKVD interrogation and was shot in 1935.

Asked about a possible message for the present-day, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said he believed closer “Catholic-Orthodox cooperation” in uncovering Christian communist-era sufferings was possible but unlikely.

“Cases like this remind us that when times are hard everyone becomes a brother to his neighbor,” the archbishop said.

“But I don't expect this part of the book's message be will heeded in a way which leads to closer ecumenical ties today.”

According to Osipova's book, the last major trial of Catholics in 1948 resulted in seven surviving nuns from Mother Abrikosov's Dominican order being jailed or sent to gulags.

Although several imprisoned or exiled Catholics were granted amnesty in 1956, occasional Masses at two legally functioning churches in Moscow and St. Petersburg became the only public Catholic activities in Russia until the 1980s.

A 1995 Russian government commission said more than 200,000 mostly Orthodox priests and nuns were killed. Many others were imprisoned or deported in Stalinist purges, in the greatest persecution in Christian history.

The commission confirmed that many Christian clergy were crucified on church doors by communist “terror squads” or doused in water and left to freeze in winter.

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

Jonathan Luxmoore, the REGISTER's Eastern Europe correspondent, writes from Warsaw.