A Catholic Priest Survives the Gulags – What About America?

Howard Duncan - Gulags


What is the American equivalent of what the Russian’s called a Gulag? A familiar word to Americans, because of our cold war relations with the Soviet Union. GULAG is actually an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel-no-trudovykh LAGerei or ”Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps” that operated the Soviet system of forced labor camps in the Stalin era. There has not been anything equivalent in scale in our history for imprisonment for purposes of labor. But in brutality, during the civil war a Confederate prison camp named Camp Sumter, commonly known as Andersonville, existed. As one prisoner described it, “Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.”

Actually, the of starvation at Andersonville was closer to what the National Socialists did in Europe than what Stalin did in the Gulags, but not surpassed by his attempt to starve the entire Ukrainian Republic into submission. Exact equivalency is not always possible when making comparisons, so one comes as close as possible in order to make a point. In this case horrible suffering of imprisoned human beings inflicted by other human beings – in America.

Father Peter Whelan a Catholic priest and free Confederate citizen, voluntarily administered to the prisoners at Andersonville after the horrible conditions became known to churchmen. In my lifetime, a Catholic priest and political prisoner named Father Walter Ciszek, S.J. administered to the prisoners of the Gulags. He told his story in the book, With God in Russia, written after his release from the Soviet Union via a prisoner exchange with the United States.

ConstitutionThe Law

What is the American equivalent of Конституция СССР? It translates as The Constitution of the USSR. Our American equivalent is, of course, The Constitution of the United Sates of America. What in the world does this comparison have to do with anything?

There were previous constitutions, but in the time period of Father Ciszek’s stay in the Soviet Union the one of 1936 read regarding religion:

“ARTICLE 124. In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the U.S.S.R. is separated from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda is recognized for all citizens.”

And of course our Constitution’s very first amendment preceded by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (at left) that recognized that rights flow from God.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So Religion Is Secure, Right?

As we know, the Soviet system was not kind to religious people despite it’s founding laws. There were various periods in Soviet history when religion was actively suppressed and then loosened. As can be seen from a more detailed view from the Library of Congress here and from an interesting anti-religious point of view that defends Marxism here. As you can see, what a constitution says and what a state does can be dramatically different.

Father Ciszek, an American Jesuit, had always wanted to serve as a priest in Russia. He was ordained in 1937 and in 1938 managed to be sent to Poland. During Hitler’s aggressive World War II years the Russians and Nazis carved up Poland. Father Ciszek had reached his goal, but unfortunately the Soviets sentenced to 15 years in prison for being a “Vatican Spy.” After years in the famed Lubianka prison in Moscow, he was sent to Norilsk in Siberia where he spent his remaining prison time in various Gulags.

There were several Gulag uprisings that took place in 1953. He describes a final assault at his prison by solders:

Troops mounted on trucks roared through the gate, firing as they came…..Our hearts were in our mouths….We watched some prisoners, as they were herded into groups, kill themselves by ripping their bodies open with knives.

He was released in 1953 a free man, but not free enough to chose even where he was to live. He was not allowed to leave the country, and lived for years as a Soviet citizen with limited rights. He managed to administer to Russian citizens in various cities of Siberia after his release, Norilsk being the first. Wherever he was told to live, he began his priestly duties however he could; a friendly family giving their home and risking social devaluation. He took over for another priest in a temporary hovel. He was always being watched by the MVD (Ministerstvo Vnutrennikh Del) the Interior Ministry, and regularly ordered to report for interrogations.

As I began the solemn intonation of the Easter Mass, I thought the chapel would explode with sound…..the enthusium of the people that night I shall never forget……tired as I was after more than forty-eight hours without sleep….I felt suddenly elated and swept along.

The MVD stayed for the whole service. Anatoly, the old choirmaster, told me later how tense he had been at first, for fear we would all be arrested. It was impossible to distribute Communion because no one could move move. Communion has to be distributed after Mass.

Fr. Ciszek was finally allowed to return home to America in a strange journey from Siberia to Moscow by air – a couple of days there not knowing why he was there or where he may be going. Then at the last minute at the Mezdunarodni Airport, he was taken to a room with several KGB ( Committee for State Security) men standing around. Two men entered and one said to him, “Father Ciszek, I’m glad to meet you.”

I was startled, then I smiled and thanked him for the greeting. It was the first time in years that anyone had addressed me as “Father”. Even in Siberia, those who had known I was a priest never used that term. “Now Father Ciszek, you’re an American citizen.” “Really?” I asked, momentarily stunned. “Yes, you are an American citizen again.” “It’s all a fairy tale,” I mumbled.

He was finally free to return home.

A Familiar Sounding Beginning

declaration2“By 1924, an Antireligious Commission had been set up by the Central Committee, and a newspaper, Bezbozhnik (The Godless) had begun to appear. In August 1924, the call by Emelian Iaroslavskii, a prominent Bolshevik, for a national organization of atheists was realized with the formation of a Society of Friends of the Newspaper Bezbozhnik. Less than a year later, in April 1925, a congress of Bezbozhnik correspondents and Society members met in Moscow to establish the All-Union League of the Godless under the leadership of Iaroslavskii. Aside from publishing newspapers and journals, the League sponsored museums of atheism, anti-religious exhibitions and lectures. The notion that exposure to rationalist explanations of natural phenomena, the wonders of applied science, and ethical, clean-living atheists would demystify religion guided the efforts of the League — at least until 1929 when it added “Militant” to its name in accordance with a more direct assault on religion reminiscent of the civil war years.” [SovietHistory.org]

The experience of Fr. Ciszek can be repeated here. Our government is now in the process of forcing religious organizations and religious people to violate their faith and follow the governments will. This coercion is taking the form of the New Health Law’s provisions that allow a governmental department to create rules it sees fit, without regard for any form of representatation. There are orgainzations like the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State that actively attempt to eliminate religion from American life. While at the same time going to court to remove the signs of Christianity that have been a part of government since our founding, anti-religious organizations argue that America never was a Christian nation. We have very visible signs of this heritage like the marble reliefs including Moses over the U.S. Congress House of Representatives or not so visible signs of our Christian heritage like the inscription “Laus Deo” (Praise be to God) on top of the Washington Monument. George Washington in his Address to Congress in 1789 after taking the oath of office with his hand on a bible said in part:

Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

Do we as a nation now prefer to view our Declaration of Independence as it is seen on the right above, a faded old document not in keeping with how we wish to change ourselves. Remember Washington’s words and remember also what happened to the Soviet people as witnessed by Father Ciszek.

© 2014 Howard Duncan. All rights reserved.


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11 thoughts on “A Catholic Priest Survives the Gulags – What About America?”

  1. Is it any wonder even the KGB and MVD men came to admire him? I get the impression they were loathe to punish him in the end. I mean I got that impression before reading that the KGB officer spoke to him so respectfully, when giving him his US passport.

  2. Have you ever read David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb and Anne Applebaum, The Gulag? If you’re interested in Soviet history, those are two books I would recommend. It’s also been years since I’ve read them.

    …given your background in film and photography, you will also enjoy David King, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalinist Russia. What Stalin would’ve done with Photoshop, I shudder to think.

  3. Fr. Ciszek’s books “With God in Russia” & “He Leadeth Me” were some of the most inspiring books I’ve read! May the Servant of God, Fr. Ciszek, intercede for us!

    1. Excellent article, Howard. Fr. Ciszek is an inspiration. Why aren’t we teaching these stories to our children–of the heroic virtue of the Catholic priests, and nuns and lay faithful?
      It can’t happen here? I’m sure the good people of Germany and Russian said the same thing in the last century.

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