Orthodox America

  The Cry of the New Martyrs – Women in the Gulag

         The author of the following profiles, Nijole Sadunaite, is a Lithuanian Catholic nun. Born in 1938, she attended a Soviet school, but was unable to continue her education because of her open profession of faith. Christian love for her fellow man inspired her to become a nurse and later to prepare and disseminate the "Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church ," documenting persecution and harassment of believers, which the authorities regarded as "anti-Soviet propaganda'' and for which she was sentenced, in 1975, to three yrears' strict regime camp and three years' exile. At her trial, she expressed joy at having been arrested on account of the "Chronicle" which "fights against physical and spiritual tryanny. This is the same as being sentenced for truth and love towards others!"

        When Nijole returned from exile, the Soviet authorities plagued her even more cruelly-by persecuting her brother Janis and his family. Finally Nijole disappeared into hiding. There she wrote a book of Notes (later smuggled to the West) from which the excerpt below was taken.

        The Orthodox women she describes all belong to a group called True Orthodox Christians (Catacomb Church) which separated from the Moscow Patriarchate in the '20's when Patriarch Tikhon's successors recognized the new Soviet government as legitimate. They regard atheist communism as the regime of anti-Christ; many, even refuse to carry official identity papers. The authorities have found their uncompromising attitude particularly irksome and have meted out to these Catacomb Christians harsh sentences of 10-12 years and more. 

        The oldest prisoner in our camp, born in 1904, was an Orthodox woman, Tatiana Karpovna Krasnova, whom we called "Baba Tanya." She was of average height, utterly emaciated and illiterate. What terrible thing had she done to deserve seven years' strict regime and three years' exile as an "especially dangerous criminal"? Perhaps she had committed her "crime" in the same way as nine other Orthodox women in the camp, who had dropped into mail-boxes hand written verses condemning the persecution and harassment of believers. In other words, they were guilty of "anti-Soviet agitation.'' Openly confessing themselves to be believers, the women quite frankly spoke of the Soviet regime as the "kingdom of satan."

        "Baba Tanya" stood out from among the rest by virtue of her exceptional purity. Like all the other Orthodox women, she spent the whole day in prayer. They decried the concessions made by certain Orthodox hierarchs to the atheist regime, their cooperation with it and their betrayal of the interests of the faithful. The women considered themselves to be true confessors of Orthodoxy; they fasted strictly and ate neither meat nor animal fats, subsisting almost exclusively on bread. Often pieces of burned lard would get into the barley gruel, in which case they wouldn't eat it--even if it only smelled of meat. Finally we began asking the camp administration to tell the kitchen not to put meat products into the gruel, otherwise the old Orthodox women would go hungry, and the rest of us could not watch this with indifference. Our complaints invariably met with the same response: "You don't like it? Don't eat it. This isn't a resort!" And it began all over again. 

        Sometimes, occasioned by a holiday-May 1 or November 7, days which the Orthodox called "satan's feast days"--a white roll was added to our ration [1] But not one of the Orthodox ate hers.

       Once we organized a protest over the fact that such an old woman as "Baba Tanya," who was completely illiterate besides, was sentenced to such harsh punishment. Nowhere in the history of humanity can one find another case of a 74-year old woman, unable to read or write, who was considered "an exceptionally dangerous state criminal." As a result of our protest, some kind of commission came to the camp. They summoned Baba Tanya for a talk, but she replied that she had no intention of asking for any kind of leniency from the "representatives of satan's regime."

       They held her in the camp another year, and in 1979 they transferred her--now 75 years old--into exile. During transit, she was robbed of what little food and clothing she had with her--even her warm undershirt. It was already the end of October, and early November is often wet and cold. The journey dragged on for a month, stopping at several prisons along the way--hunger and cold. All this exhausted her remaining strength, and on November 23, 1979, on the steppes of Kazakhstan where she was among total strangers, Baba Tanya gave her soul to God. May she rest in peace with Him!

       Baba Tanya had with her the address of my Siberian exile, and at her request a kind woman wrote to me that "Babushka" had arrived there severely ill and had soon died. The militia took her body; no one knew what they did with it. She died far away from her relatives, and where her mortal remains were laid is unknown. But, certainly, the sacrifice of her life was not in vain; martyrs are the brightest stars of the winter night and a blessing upon the Church militant.

       In the past Baba Tanya had already sat out a term in very cruel conditions. For three years she was confined in a cramped cell without being let out for exercise. She slept on the cement floor, her daily ration consisted of nothing more than bread and water.

       The Orthodox peasant woman Clavdia Grigorievna Volkova, "Baba Clava"(b. 1907), was a kind woman, calm and quiet. When I first came to the camp, I slept under her for a time. The iron plank bunks were uncomfortable; one was constantly turning from side to side, making the whole construction shake and waking up the other person. But "Baba Clara" never complained that it was stuffy under the ceiling, while there I was, tossing about like a fish on the sand. She spent long periods of time in fervent prayer.

       Occasionally, all the Orthodox women prisoners would gather in a separate corner and sing as a choir, their voices low. Once, having learned their melodies, I joined them. I felt as though I were in a cathedral--such peace and warmth filled my soul. Not without reason is it said that prayer flows from heaven. But joint prayer was forbidden in the camps, and we were often forced to disperse. Time passed and again we would gather to praise the Lord and thank Him for His love towards us sinners. Common prayer is, without doubt, the brightest, happiest occasion in camp life.

The youngest of the Orthodox women prisoners was Nadezhda Mikhailovna Usoeva (b. 1942). She was found guilty of the same "crime" as all the others--disseminating religious poetry. She was sentenced to six years' strict regime camp and three years' exile. Like the other Orthodox, she refused to engage in the compulsory labor [considering it as working for satan's regime--trans. ]. Because of this they constantly tormented her by locking her up in the camp prison. In the camp itself she would spend a matter of days or weeks before being sent off again to the isolation cells where again she would have to suffer cold and hunger.

        Nadezhda was altogether emaciated, ashen skin stretched taut over her skeletal frame, But she was marked by an unshakable calm and a cheerful disposition. Finding herself an unoccupied corner, she would spend hours in solitary prayer. She would have a few days of this "rest", and then the guard would come, beaming with perverse pleasure, to inform Nadezhda that it was time for her to return to the prison. And with a gentle smile Nadezhda calmly prepared herself for a new term of suffering. Only the merciful God can give a person such superhuman powers and such great love towards his tormentors! 

(Translated from "Russkaya Mysl ," 3/13/87)

[1]Usual rare is rye bread, hard and coarse to the point of being indigestible.