Orthodox America

The Cry of the New Martyrs –Alexander Ogorodnikov  

I was told: ‘Mark it on your nose: we either will bring you down on your knees, or will not let you out of these walls’  A. Agorodnikov


    While the victory of Irina's release gives cause for rejoicing and offering thank s to God, news of the depressed state of another young Orthodox Christian prisoner of the Gulag, Alexander Ogorodnikov, is a sober indication that demands for Soviets to cease their violation of human rights should in no wise be relaxed. On the contrary, these efforts should capitalize on the publicity of the Daniloff affair and the concurrent release and emigration of physicist Yuri Orlon from his Siberian exile after seven years in labor camp for his activity as one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Monitoring Group, formed in 1976 to document cases of Soviet human rights abuse.

    A former participant of this group, retired geologist Malva Landa, observes:

    "Honesty, especially in combination with genuine concern about what is going on around one, is, under socialism, an especially dangerous state crime.

    "Exceptional courage (and a readiness for self--sacrifice) is necessary to remain honest, to be true to oneself. One could list dozens of names, dozens of truly tragic fates, where the lives of talented, gifted people, who simply remained honest, were completely ruined.

    "Under socialism, everyone who deviates from the standard, is hounded. A select few (including all or nearly all dissidents over the past 5 to 8 years) are punished especially harshly, although it is hard to determine by what criterion this selection is made. The arbitrariness is evidently deliberate." (The Samizdat Bulletin, #161, 9/86)

    One of these "select few” is Alexander Ogorodnikov whose history as a victim of religious persecution has appeared in past issues of this paper. Briefly, Ogorodnikov was a student at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography when, in 1973, he became an Orthodox Christian. His interest in religion was shared by many of his generation, and he organized the informal gatherings of his friends into regular meetings for the study of religious and philosophical question s. The Christian Seminar, as it came to be called, sprouted in other cities besides Moscow: Kalinin, Leningrad, Ufa, Odessa, Smolensk... attracting as many as 40 participants at the sessions. But efforts to keep a low profile appeared vain as one after another members found themselves hounded by the authorities.

    Ogorodnikov (now 36) was first arrested in January 1979 on charges of "parasitism" and was sentenced to a year in a strict regime camp. In 1980, while still in camp, he was re-sentenced on more serious charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" to six years' strict regime camp and five years' exile. In prison his uncompromising behavior and persistent demands for a Bible and to see a priest have irritated the authorities and in April of this year, just prior to the expiration of his prison term, he was sentenced to a further three years of strict regime camp.

     In the past, letters from Ogorodnikov have given evidence of a rare steadfastness despite his physical deterioration brought on by his lengthy hunger strikes and the harsh conditions, not to mention the savage treatment which his unconcealed Christian convictions have earned him. Indeed, his ordeal defies human comprehension. But he himself is acutely aware that time is playing into the hands of his captors. The threat of re-sentencing is only one of the sinister psychological pressures calculated to wear down the prisoner emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. In two more recent letters, both written after his latest conviction in April, Ogorodnikov describes the de-humanizing process to which he is being subjected, and the toll it is taking upon his spiritual welfare. The first letter was written from the Perm labor camp to friends. The second, a heartrending cry of despair, is addressed to his mother.


To My Friends

    For alleged violation of the camp regimen, with which I have often been falsely charged, I was placed in isolation or the PKT (punishment cell) and now I've been sentenced to another 3 years for the same offense. By repeating and intensifying the punishment, the regime becomes the alpha and omega of the correctional-punitive measures for those in the penitentiary .... The regime deprives people of choice, eliminates the possibility of moral conduct and forbids, under penalty of harsh punishment, any display of such Christian stirrings of the heart as charity, compassion, defense of the persecuted, and love

     (...) The chief focus of the regime's hatred is God, the spirit, the word, and man's need to live in a state of culture· Every written thought, every summary of a Soviet or other book, every scrap of paper with writing on it, is taken away and confiscated· All my notebooks were confiscated· Over a period of seven years I had filled them with thoughts on a variety of topics: philosophy, philology, history, foreign language study... Of course, all the prayers I had written from memory, quotations from the Bible and words of theology, the poems--all were confiscated. Upwards of 45 notebooks·..

    The basic means of oppression is the exhausting, coerced slave labor for one's ration and the camp gruel. Together with the regime, the meaningless, mechanistic, monotonous and sweaty labor with its very high quotas, chains you to the machine (leaving it for three minutes, even if you have met your quota, is a violation and can even mean the isolation cell), torments you, snuffs out the flame of life, stupifies you by reducing you to a robotizod adjunct of the machine. It transforms the day into an exhausting, protracted, depressing nightmare. The setup is such that after work.., you have neither the desire nor the energy to use the remaining brief interval for self-education. The tedious work, the regimen, the rations, the sleep, the uniformity-all are directed at reducing you from the high calling of the image and likeness of God to a dull, apathetic slave-animal state, capable of snatching the shadow of an opportunity to stuff your sucking belly.

    The regimen is regulated with such thoroughness that it is impossible not to violate it, the more so since by using its total power the violation can be provoked, for the administration leaves the zek defenseless before its arbitrary will. The slightest violation of the regimen can result in the punishment isolation cell--the measure of education favored by our correctors.

    There, herded into a closed area of utter hopelessness, cut off from the world, blindly isolated in a deathly silence broken from time to time by the swearing of the guards and the rattle of keys, hounded by cold, measuring the long, tiring day in small steps, you are acutely aware of how your spirit has been pounded into your flesh, and you are only a small, pitiful creature being torn apart by hunger and cold. (...) 

...This is how the creators of the new anthropology have twisted time itself against us; to the traditional Gulag tortures by cold and hunger, they have added time, transforming life--that most sacred gift of God--into a curse.


Dear Mama

     ·.. "Your silence--in response to my enforced silence which stifles my voice behind the thick walls of the punishment cell--is tacit support of my persecutors. You only began to show signs of alarm when one and a half years had passed since you had a letter from me. The relatives of other prisoners raise a hue and cry if so much as a month passes without their receiving any news of the prisoner .... You must realize the importance of making known, as soon as possible and as widely as possible, lack of word from me. My future depends in great measure on your activity. Those prisoners, whose relatives are active on their behalf, who don't let the world forget about their plight, are the ones who are not only released when their sentences expire, but who get better treatment in the camps because the KGB is forced to take some notice of international public opinion...

     Occasionally it seems to me that I should school myself to accept the idea that my welfare does not interest anyone but God.

....I feel so alone, so forgotten .... The less publicity, the more vulnerable [the prisoner] becomes. Do not fear to publicize my case, it will make no difference to the KGB's attitude toward you .... Since my arrest I have had only fragmentary information about the [Christian] Seminar, which, presumably, has ceased to exist .... Have you had house searches? What has been confiscated? What has happened to the last photos taken before my arrest, especially the wedding photos? Only someone who has spent time here can understand how I value every word I get from you...

    The authorities are so certain of your indifference to my fate because of your inactivity, that they go to whatever lengths they like to humiliate me. Before my trial in April they demonstratively had me thrown into a punishment cell, shaved off my hair and beard, and immediately after the trial returned me to a punishment cell in which the temperature was O°C. And this despite the growing awareness of our [political prisoners'] plight and growing concern among Western governments and people in the West generally! The entire time I spent in the isolation cell of the Perm camp there was a manifest intention to humiliate and "break" me in every conceivable way, which was not the case when I was imprisoned in Leningrad and Kalinin. For instance, I have been thrown into the icy cellars in Perm for up to ten days at a time for merely refusing to squat on the floor with my hands clasped behind my back during a search of my cell .... If all the details of my treatment became known, my persecutors would have to exercise more restraint; this is something which has been proven by experience. Until that time they can do what they like with complete impunity .... Presumably, I will now be sent to a camp for [habitual] criminals [where] all I can look forward to is more incarceration in punishment cells, more beatings, more solitary confinement... 

They Shoot horses, don’t they?

 Therefore, I repeat request, a decision I reached after much thought and suffering. You must see that death appears to be the only way to end my agony, the only release, I have already committed the grave sin of attempting to commit suicide: on the 1st, 9th and 17th of May 1984 I secretly cut my veins, but every time I was discovered, unconscious but still alive, so they gave me blood transfusions. So I beg of you again--please appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to show me a measure of mercy by ordering my execution by firing squad in order to put an end to the prospect of lifelong, painfully slow torture by deprivation of living conditions fit for a human being, deprivations of books, culture, torture by hunger, cold, by incarceration in punishment cells, humiliations, total lack of rights, .... They even forbid me to pray, and my cross has been torn from around my neck on numerous occasions. I have spent a total of 659 days on hunger strike to protest against their refusal to let me have a Bible and a prayer-book, and 411 days in the internal camp prison .... I do not know whether there was one Christian anywhere who expressed support for me during those 659 days of hunger strike, and it frightens me to think that maybe there wasn't.

    'Officially there are still three years of camps and five of internal exile before me, but Shchukin, the KGB investigator in Perm, has promised me more: he showed me a file of materials they are already preparing for further charges against me, this time for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" which means [as it would be the second time Ogorodnikov would be tried under that article] a further ten years of camps plus five of exile ....

Is it not the case that the mortally wounded can hope for the coup do grace to put them out of their misery? Do they not shoot horses which have been run into the ground? Why, then, cannot I ask for death? Mama, if you have a grain of compassion, ask the Presidium to order this, and let all people of good will ask it too...

Only the full glare of publicity can alter my fate, and that of others in the same situation. Only this can restrain the hands of those who are otherwise free to wreak whatever atrocities they will with me.

     [Ogorodnikov then gives details of the various charges being prepared against him "for the future" and gives the names and dates of the KGB officials who acquainted him with these "pending" materials--Keston]

    "... It is up to Lena [Ogorodnikov's wife] to make a firm decision. Quite clearly, it is intended to keep me in prison for life. She can, still write tome once a year even if she ceases to be my wife. I am not rejecting her, for "what God has joined, let no man put asunder ," but she must make a decision either way .... As for Dima [his 9-year old son] I have great hopes. I pray that he will start writing to me. I fear greatly that the milieu which is equally hostile to the Church and to me will alienate him from contact with me. I pray that his soul will not fall victim to "tares". I do not even know whether Dima is taken to church, to Holy Communion, and I am afraid that he is not, as Lena has been totally silent on this matter. Does he wear a cross--our defense and visible sign of our allegiance to God--around his neck? I fear he might not...

    [Describing his hunger strike to back up his demands for a Bible and then for the right to wear a cross around his neck, Ogorodnikay writes:]

    ...During those 659 days, hunger, which gnaws at your entrails, tortures you further with illusions of various tastes. To get on your feet is a task of great magnitude, it takes an enormous effort even to turn from one side to the other. In the punishment cell the weakness brought about by hunger is aggravated by extreme cold. When I spent two months on hunger strike in a punishment cell from December 1983 until February 1984, the ceiling and walls of the cell were entirely covered with ice .... My only witnesses were God, and the maliciously grinning warders. The Christian Church has created an immense civilization and a deep spiritual culture over the past two thousand years, but where is the Christian brotherhood, fraternal love, compassion for one's neighbor?...It seems to ma that the outside Christian world knows nothing about my protest fasts, which I have conducted not to secure my release from prison! No! Their aim was to have a Bible at my disposal, a prayer book and a cross to enable me to draw from the source of Divine Revelation. All of Patriarch Pimen’s declarations that there is freedom of religion in our country are negated by the fact that I am denied these things...

     ... What awaits me now? Only God knows. I am kept in a cell with violent criminals, most of them imprisoned for murder .... One of them, who murdered two people, has openly threatened to kill me,. He is awaiting execution by firing squad, and brags that as far as he's concerned, he may as well be shot for killing three people, as for killing two...

      It looks as though I will be sent to a camp for hardened criminals, where I will be totally at the mercy of camp administrators, and will be bereft of even that moral support which prisoners ac cord each other in the "political" camps ....         My only hope is the Mercy of God...

      ...I have had the cross torn off from around my neck on thirty occasions .... Is it not possible to appeal to Western churchmen to take it upon themselves to ensure that I receive a Bible and a prayer book, even if they be in English, French or German?... Will not the universal Christian Church say at least a word in support of one of Her persecuted sons--errant and sinful, but still Her son?…"

    No, Alexander has not been forgotten either by his relatives or by his friends. But their efforts on his behalf have been stifled by the Soviet authorities who have manifest singular disregard for cries raised on the home front. Although the Soviets have been shown to react to international pressure, few cases have been able to stir the free Western community into action. Why? In a recent issue of "The National Review" (8/15), columnist Joseph Sobran comments:

    "The Communist persecution of Christianity is the greatest scandal in the world today. It has been going on since 1917 and has ceased to be a serious topic of interest even in most of the free churches of the West. Communism seems to have more accomplices than critics among the Western clergy, while Christians are still imprisoned, tortured and murdered by Communist regimes from Cuba to Poland to Vietnam.

    "By torture I mean beating, gouging out eyes, sexual mutilation, and forcing people to watch their children tortured and murdered. Sometimes Christians have been forced to torture and kill each other, producing agonies of betrayal and destruction of self-respect in addition to the physical pain.

    "It is not too much to say that these things are diabolical. If Aquinas has five proofs for God's existence, Communism offers mountains of evidence for Satan's. Yet the secularized West, including Christians, prefers not to acknowledge this dimension of Communism, horridly cruel and envious even in earthly terms, but instead observes a diplomatic inattention."

    In May, friend s of Ogorodnikov in Moscow wrote an appeal to Christians of the free world, urging them not to be duped by empty talk of religious freedom in the USSR, and asking that concerted action be mobilized to save their suffering brother in Christ.


HELP SAVE ALEXANDER! Your Christian delegates are keen on visiting our country; your Christian preachers return home with a host of pleasant memories; you are all inspired by the simple beauty of our churches and the numbers of people filling them. This picture lingers in your memory, evoking the best and warmest emotions.

    But we want you to understand that what you have seen is the sum total of what is permitted to us. In all other aspects of our lives--family, social, political and cultural-we are not allowed to be Christian. The "cult ritual" alone is allowed to us.

     ...Knowing this...please refrain from helping the persecutors to hammer yet another nail into the crucified Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which you do every time one of you makes confident assertions that there is no persecution of believers in the USSR...

    Alexander Ogorodnikov, an organizer and leader of the Christian religious philosophical Seminar in Moscow, has already spent seven and a half years in hard labor camps under inhuman conditions precisely for trying to tell people, from his Christian point of view, about their having been created in the image and likeness of God, about the experience of evil and about man's responsibility for the world created by God. Such a confession of faith did not fit into the framework of a "religious cult"; instead, expanding beyond the latter, it inevitably fell under the iron heel of the Criminal Code...

    Those of Alexander Ogorodnikov's letters which have reached us ominously reflect the unending and unrestrained acts of violence exercised by the heartless servants of the regime over the innocent man in his isolation and complete defenselessness. This situation-that is, when the State intentionally delays the ultimate death of a man who is isolated from the public view in a concentration camp but who persists nevertheless in confessing his Christian faith and insists on his right to possess a Bible and wear a cross-this situation, then, tells us incomparably more about the nature of the society in question, than all the declarations about religious freedom which are intended for the gullible West and are broadcast either by the faithful servants of the State, or by those of our bishops who have forgotten their duty to the Orthodox Church.

    We appeal to you, Christians!...If you help "one of the least of these My brethren," said the Lord, "ye have done it unto Me"... We entreat you to raise your voice in defense of Alexander Ogorodnikov and, with all the means available to you in your free and democratic way of life, to try and secure his discharge and repeal of the unjust sentences passed on him.

(The full text of this appeal from Ogorodnikov's friends appeared in the Paris based Russian newspaper, "La Pense Russe," where it was received from Keston College; translated by Orthodox Action of Australia.)


What Is Being Done

    To those concerned about the persecuted Church, Ogorodnikov's name is hardly new. He has been featured in various publications of Keston, CDPOC, Orthodox Action (Australia branch), CREED (Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents), Open Doors and others, all of .which are now making an extra effort to publicize his case as widely as possible--not an easy task considering that religious persecution has never been a popular cause with the media. Ogorodnikov himself said that his future may depend on the publicity of his case--or the lack of it. Given the media's powerful influence, more should be done to solicit its coverage. In England the media was attracted to Irina Ratushinskaya's case largely by the fast conducted by Anglican Clergyman Dr. Richard Rodger's; Hoping to secure the same strength of Publicity for Ogorodnikov, 'Rev. Rodgers, together with Orthodox Christian Athanasius Hart – a member of the Aid to Russian Christians group in Bath, will begin a 25-day total fast for Alexander on Monday, December 1, to take place in St. James Church, London,

     In this country, one of the more promising developments may be the strengthened liaison which CREED has established with various members of Congress. For some time Ogorodnikov has been treated as a priority case by CREED whose President, Dr. Ernest Gordon, submitted a list of 25 "priority prisoners" when, on July 30 this year, he testified before a hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Human Rights. In a dialogue following Dr. Gordon's presentation, Creed's fall newsletter reports that "Congressmen Gilman, Yatron, Solomon and Dorman recommended that they, in cooperation with CREED, should challenge the major networks for their failure to present the facts about the Persecuted Church." These Congressmen should he commended for their proposal and urged to ACT on it,

What YOU Can Do

     Not long after the recent Reykjavik meeting, Secretary of State George Shultz told a group in southern California that while the Soviets continued to abuse human rights there was little point in pursuing arms control talks. This may be an auspicious time to press the point in Washington. We encourage our readers to write to their Congressmen, urging them to take a strong position against Soviet human rights violations and their blatant disregard of the Helsinki accords which they signed in 1975. Mention specifically Ogorodnikov' s case and ask that demands be made for his release. Among those Congressmen who may be particularly sympathetic to his cause are the following members of the Helsinki Commission; Senators John Heinz (R-PA), James McClure (R-ID), Malcolm Wallop (R-WY), Gordon Humphrey (R-NH), Claiborne  Pell (D-RI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dennis DeConcini:(D-AZ), and Representatives Dante Fascell (D-FL), Sidney Yates (D-IL), Edward Markey (D-MA), Timothy Wirth (D-CO), Don Ritter (R-PA), Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and John Edward Porter (R-IL). Address your letters to: Congressman (Name), U.S. House o f Representatives, Washington, DC 20515, or: Senator (Name), U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510. Write TODAYI

     In distributing copies of Ogorednikov's letter to his mother, Orthodox Action in Australia appended the following appeal which we in turn offer our readers as a final exhortation:

Believing firmly that faith without works is dead, let us begin to do something!

     "Every day before we sit down at the dinner table, lie down in a warm bed or when we admire our children--let us remember Sasha [Alexander]; enjoying our peace and freedom --let us remember Sasha; tearing off a page of the daily calendar--let us remember Sasha; and imagining, for a moment at least, that he is our son, brother or husband--let us prayerfully remember him.

     "If our conscience is still alive, if love and Christian compassion for our neighbor has not yet left us, let us publicize Alexander Ogorodnikov' s true situation, let us give him our support not once or twice, but as many times as it will take to contribute to his release.

     "But, first of all, let us be more fervent in our prayers for the servant of God Alexander and other persecuted believers in Christ, that they maybe strengthened spiritually and physically, and released. What is impossible for us in our weakness, is possible for our Saviour Who triumphed over death!”