The Chroniclers

Published March 1, 1987

You won’t see it offered for discount sale by Publishers Clearing House. You may not even be able to find it in the better public libraries. But it is, for all its obscurity, perhaps the most impressive human rights journal in the world today.

We refer to the samizdat “Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania,” which on March 19, 1987, marks the fifteenth anniversary of its first issue. Since 1972, over seventy issues of the “Chronicle” have reached the West—the longest unbroken streak of samizdat publishing in the history of the Soviet empire. In the United States, the “Chronicle” is carefully translated and published by the Brooklyn-based agency Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid.

The remarkable record of the “Chronicle” has been established at great personal cost. Many Lithuanian men and women have suffered in the gulag for being clandestine writers, editors, and copiers of the journal (which, it should be noted, has an enviable reputation among Western scholars for honesty and accuracy). The linkage between Lithuanian nationalism and Lithuanian Catholicism is, of course, as strong in Lithuania as it is in Poland. And so the “Chronicle” remains a threat, not only to the official atheism of the Soviet state, but to Russian hegemony within the multinational Soviet empire.

In the past several months, there has been much talk of a cultural thaw in the USSR, of a policy of glasnost, or “openness.” There is an element of truth in this analysis. Some plays are being performed that wouldn’t have been produced in earlier years. Pasternak’s work will be available to his fellow Russians. The occasional movie is critical of aspects of the Stalinist system. There is public criticism of the Brezhnev regime’s economic failures. Anatoly Shcharansky is in Israel, Yuri Orlov is at Cornell University, and Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner have been allowed to return to Moscow from their exile in Gorky. Some things are different.

But whether these amount to systemic change in the USSR is another matter, and a rather more dubious proposition. The Sakharov case, for example, was considerably more than a humanitarian gesture on the part of Mikhail Gorbachev. The current regime has not only reaped impressive public relations gains by letting Sakharov resume his scientific work; it has also virtually destroyed the world scientists’ movement for human rights in the USSR, which had proved effective in extracting costs (e.g., in access to frontier research in physics and chemistry) for Soviet abuse of dissident scientists.

But the clearest demonstration of the essentially Leninist cast of the Gorbachev regime is in its policies toward religion. For example, 1987 is the six hundredth anniversary of the conversion of Lithuania to Christianity. But the Catholic bishops of Lithuania have been informed that they will not be allowed out of the country—for example, to visit Rome for anniversary celebrations—during the year. Moreover, visas to Lithuania will be restricted so as to hold down the number of those able to celebrate the anniversary. This policy of repression stands in sharp contrast to the rather more benign attitude that the Soviet regime seems to be taking toward the 1988 millennium of Christianity in what is now the USSR: a celebration being orchestrated by the considerably more malleable Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

On the other hand, recent reports of a religious renaissance brought back to the West by sophisticated observers of the Soviet scene, including Dr. James Billington of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, form another piece of a complex mosaic. That religious belief and practice in the USSR are on the upswing is now an established fact, and one that may seem to have an independent dynamic of its own. Yet one cannot help speculating that the religious revival in the Soviet Union is related to the very problems of social decay and cultural malaise that Mr. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost is supposedly intended to address. More thoughtful Soviets—even within the Soviet Communist party—may now be recognizing that economic distress, and social diseases such as the plague of rampant alcoholism, cannot be addressed by fine-tuning the existing regime machinery. They are systemic problems, whose solutions lie in systemic change.

Might that systemic change include a less-draconian attitude toward religious belief and practice? In the short run, the answer is probably no. In recent months, for example, both Mikhail Gorbachev and leading party ideologist Yegor Ligachev have given speeches denouncing the idea that morality had to be based on religious conviction. Gorbachev has gone even further, and proclaimed a “determined and pitiless contest against religious factions.” In the short run, then, a return to the Khrushchev pattern seems likely; some modest cultural openness in literature, theater, and film, coupled with further repression of religious believers and institutions.

Yet, in the wilderness of mirrors that is the Leninist mind, this very repressiveness is testimony to important currents in the wind. Why, for example, would the two leading figures in the Politburo give speeches denouncing the notion that morality (which they wish to strengthen) has something to do with religion—unless that very idea was being broached within the nomenklatura elite itself?

And thus, by a round-about route, we return to the achievement of the “Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania” as we honor its fifteenth anniversary. The “Chronicle” is important in its own right, of course, as a testimony to the human spirit. But this undeservedly obscure publication may well have a larger, world-historical significance.

Peace requires the evolution of a civil society in the USSR. Such a civil society now exists only fragmentarily, and under great pressure from the leviathan of the Leninist state. But the fragments exist, as the record of the “Chronicle”—and the experiences of Ukranian Catholics, unregistered Baptists, Jewish refuseniks, the independent secular peace movements, and the human rights community—demonstrate. In these small communities of conscience, to borrow from Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, and George Konrad, the denizens of the Soviet state can learn and guard the fragile politics of truth. In them, brave men and women are rejecting the bonds that the Leninist system requires them to place upon themselves. And if the day should come when a truly civil society can emerge in the Soviet Union, these communities of conscience will be the foundations on which it is built.

And thus the writers, editors, copiers, and smugglers of the “Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania” serve more than their own religious and national cause. At the end of each issue of the “Chronicle,” a kind of honor roll of key prisoners of conscience currently in the gulag is printed, always in the same format.


Lithuanian, remember that:
Father Alfonsas Svarinskas
Father Sigitas Tamkevicius
Father Jonas Kastytis Matulionis
Decent Vytautas Skuodis
Viktoras Petkus
Vladas Lapienis
Romas Zemaitis
Jadvyga Bieliauskiene
Povilas Peceliunas
Gintautas lesmantas
Julius Sasnauskas
and others wear the chains of a prisoner so that you might be able to believe and live freely.


The claim is too modest. These men and women touch lives far beyond the borders of tiny Lithuania. All those who work for peace and freedom are in their debt.

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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