The Soviet Terror

ROBERT ROYAL

In Moscow and Petrograd, priests, nuns, and lay people were arrested, including a whole community of Dominican nuns along with their mother superior, Anna Abrikosova, a convert. Their ultimate ends are largely unknown.

Though Russia is a predominantly Orthodox country, it has long held many Catholics. Parts of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other territories containing significant numbers of Catholics were joined to Russia as borders shifted. Russia naturally pressured Catholics into becoming Orthodox. But when the Czar issued an edict of toleration in 1905, at least a quarter-million apparent Orthodox (perhaps quite a few more) openly declared themselves Catholic again. Such signs suggested that the Catholic Church might finally be treated fairly. That hope ended when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917.

As early as Jan. 31, 1918, Pravda announced that all church and monastic funds would go to local soviets; commissars would run religious libraries and presses; “enemies of the people” had to be registered; that done, the State would leave religion in private. Such decrees were not unprecedented in Czarist times. But unheard of were the quick nationalizations of schools and seminaries, and then the ban on churches owning property. These measures effectively stripped the Church of its independence.

Soon real persecution and death began. In April of 1919, Archbishop Edward Ropp, the Russian Catholic leader, was arrested. He would have been shot if some Soviet leaders had not convinced their more hard-line colleagues that he might be exchanged for a jailed Communist in the West. That night, the government tried to round up several priests; most managed to hide. Four did not: Ladislas Issajewicz, John Wasilewski, Anthony Racewicz, and Aleksei Zerchaninov. Wasilewski and Zerchaninov were to die under arrest, like many Catholics, after a decade in prison camps.

Archbishop Ropp’s successor, John Cieplak, would feel the steel directly. In one of the most lurid trials of the early Soviet years, Archbishop Cieplak and his assistant, Msgr. Constantine Budkiewicz, were condemned to death for anti-Soviet activity. Many priests elsewhere were being arrested or executed, church property was being seized, and church buildings confiscated. By 1925, the number of Catholic priests in Russia had fallen from 245 to 70. Probably 200,000 Catholics disappeared in the eight years between the Bolshevik Revolution and 1925. Some may merely have fled; but a sizeable portion may also have fallen to nefarious acts.

In Moscow and Petrograd, priests, nuns, and lay people were arrested, including a whole community of Dominican nuns along with their mother superior, Anna Abrikosova, a convert. Their ultimate ends are largely unknown.

After Archbishop Cieplak was arrested, tried and expelled in 1924, and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy dispersed, the Kremlin refused to allow the Vatican to appoint any more bishops unless the Holy See recognized the Soviet government. Not wishing to leave Russian Catholics without ecclesial support, Pope Pius XI decided on the secret consecration of a remarkable French Assumptionist who had been living in Russia for twenty years, Father Eugène Neveu.


Today the martyred Catholic Church operates well below to its pre-Soviet level. One of the factors in its favor is that it was not compromised during Communism, which counts a lot with the people and has led to conversions.


Neveu bravely confronted the Communist persecution. The secret police immediately started surveillance of him and those with whom he came into contact. Among those he helped survive were some remarkable figures, both in their lives as Catholics and in the price they paid. The most prominent of these, leader of his own group, was Sergei Mikhailovich Soloviev, a convert and priest, the nephew of the great modern Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. The younger Soloviev, though a great intellectual, simply cracked and went mad under torture. Others, particularly Catholic women, were tougher. For the most part, their fearlessness meant three- to five-year sentences, which for some turned even worse. Camilla Krushelnickaya and Anna Brilliantova, of the Catholic youth group in Moscow, were arrested and tortured into grotesque “confessions” that were used to portray the Church as a fanatical groups of terrorists, plotting the assassination of Stalin, the return of capitalism, and other obviously trumped-up schemes.

Both were sentenced to the camps. Boleslas Sloskans, who became the apostolic administrator of Minsk and Mogilev, kept a diary of his experiences in the Solovetski Islands in the White Sea. He estimated that 700 out of 1,000 detainees died there in 1928 alone.

One of the earliest detainees, Father Felix Lubycsynsky, was first arrested in Ukraine for “illegal instruction in the catechism.” By 1931, Father Felix was dead from camp life. And he had only experienced the Solovetskis before intensified persecution. In 1929, the Soviets unleashed a massive roundup of Catholic priests in Ukraine when it seemed clear that the Vatican could no longer be of any use to the regime internationally.

Ironically, the Solovetski Islands had long been a spiritual center, where various churches and monasteries, surrounded by rich fields and abundant wildlife, had provided a pleasant place for the religious life. The Soviets wanted the prisoners to help construct a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic. The labor often consisted of back-breaking transporting of blocks of ice or snow and cutting wood. The food was hardly adequate to such labor in cold temperatures. And the barracks where they slept were so overcrowded that it was hard to breathe. It was a system intended to slowly break down all but the hardiest prisoners while extracting the maximum amount of manual labor from them sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. In short, it was simple slavery. And it continued for decades in the Solovetskis and elsewhere.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Catholic Church has slowly rebuilt itself. Even under the new constitution, however, it is classified as one of the “non-traditional” religions not granted full rights. Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism are the only fully recognized faiths. Though recently the Russians have sometimes given indications of rethinking this classification system, the martyred Catholic Church operates well below to its pre-Soviet level. One of the factors in its favor is that it was not compromised during Communism, which counts a lot with the people and has led to conversions. By an odd twist, the gulag system distributed Catholics to places they had never been. Siberia now has a sprinkling of viable new communities. But 70 years of repression weigh heavily on the Church. It remains to be seen where and when the spirit of its many martyrs will blossom again.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Royal, Robert. “The Soviet Terror.” Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).

Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.

THE AUTHOR

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald


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