A Gulag Christmas

Published January 7, 2004

The Catholic Difference

“Vorkuta” has not become a universal metaphor for unmitigated evil, like “Auschwitz.” Indeed, one of the striking things about the collapse of European communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that, in its aftermath, there was no real reckoning with the industrial-strength slaughters committed in the name of the Soviet god who failed. The lethal wickedness of German National Socialism has been measured with considerable precision; the lethal wickedness wrought by Lenin, Stalin, and their henchmen has not been measured, much less seriously addressed.

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek of Belarus knows all about the Vorkuta camps of the Soviet gulag, built in northern Siberia so that prisoners could mine coal and other minerals for the glory of the Soviet state while being starved or frozen to death. Ordained in April 1939, Swiatek was immediately arrested by the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, and thrown into a death row prison cell in the city of Brest. He remained on death row until the chaos caused by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 gave him the opportunity to escape. After three years of wartime ministry, Father Swiatek was arrested again by the secret police in December 1944. In July 1945, after the war, he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor and shipped to Vorkuta.

Something of the atmosphere of the place is conveyed in these chilling sentences from Anne Applebaum’s epic book, Gulag – A History:

During the winter of 1937-38, “no hot food was given to the prisoners at all; the daily ration consisted of 400 grams of half-dried bread. [In March 1938], a new group of NKVD officers arrived from Moscow. The officers formed a ‘special commission’ and called out the prisoners in groups of forty. They were told they were going off on a transport. Each was given a piece of bread. The prisoners in the ten heard them being marched away – and then [heard] the sounds of shooting.”

Those were the circumstances in which Father Kazimierz Swiatek tried to carry on his priestly ministry. He recently told the Italian newspaper Avvenire about one Christmas in Vorkuta:

“Once, in the Vorkuta gulag, I organized a Christmas vigil Mass. I brought with me two daily rations of bread, which I had put aside the days beforehand…As I was speaking to those in attendance, the door flew open. With riot-stick in hand a government official rushed in with a soldier bearing a rifle and bayonet. ‘What are you doing?” he asked. I stood up and explained that we were celebrating Christmas Mass. Then, while holding the host, I asked if he wanted to receive it, too, so as to exchange Christmas greetings with us. It was a very unusual and tense situation: both our hands were held tight – his clutching a riot-stick while mine held firmly onto the host. The officer put down his club, excused himself for not being able to receive the host while on duty, and allowed us to continue our vigil service. He left the room with the soldier. The next morning, however, I was…sent to the far-off tundra region to the north.”

Now almost 90 years old, Cardinal Swiatek is archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev in Belarus and one of the great martyr-confessors of contemporary Catholicism. There were hundreds of thousands, even millions, like him – lights that could not be extinguished by the surrounding darkness, because their fire came from the Holy Spirit. We should give thanks for their witness throughout the Christmas octave, which reminds us, in the feasts of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, that, from the very beginning, the darkness has sought to extinguish the light that shown over Bethlehem.

The darkness has receded in the last twenty years. But there are Christians who will celebrate Christmas 2003 in circumstances not unlike those Father Swiatek endured in Vorkuta, a half-century ago. Today, they are in prisons in China and Vietnam and Cuba and North Korea; today, they must celebrate the birth of the Christ Child clandestinely in Saudi Arabia and in parts of the Sudan and Pakistan. We are linked to them in the bonds of faith. Let’s not forget them as we celebrate Christmas in freedom.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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