Tag Archives: communism

Memorials of faith under oppression in a Baltic state

Guest post by Dr. Chiara Bertoglio.

It is only very rarely that I have time for proper holidays, that is the idea of packing, flying and then enjoying a journey just for the sake of it. Much more frequently, I have to travel for my job, but – whenever possible – I try and make the most of these journeys, particularly attempting to know the places and people I’m visiting.

This happened in the past week, when I had to go to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, for a conference. I was very curious, because I had never been to a Baltic country before. What will follow is just a kind of diary of what I saw, and, of course, I have no pretension to write as an expert of Lithuania or of its history. I’m merely a traveling musician who happened to spend a few days there.

The first thing I discovered was that Lithuania, along with its sister Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, is celebrating this year its 100th birthday. These countries declared their independence in 1918, though the following hundred years were marked by systematic violation of that independence and freedom. They experienced occupation and the deprivation of freedom and democracy, particularly during the long Soviet era.

Though the anniversary celebrations are stressing very strongly that the country’s independence is a hundred years old, and therefore that there is substantial continuity between Lithuania in 1918 and in 2018, they are also not hiding the country’s history and what it suffered in this century.

Just in front of the Academy of Music, where our conference took place, there is a building which immediately caught my eye. It is rather imposing, occupying one whole block; between the Academy and the building there is a small monument, in the shape of a little hill made of rocks, surmounted by a cross and with many flowers and candles spread around and above it. This tiny memorial invites attention, as does a block-long exhibition of drawings by children and teenagers – some of which are really beautiful – and which illustrate the history of Lithuania’s occupation. In fact, the large building a few steps away has had the debatable privilege of being the prison and operational centre of both the Gestapo (during the Nazi era) and of the KGB (during the longer Soviet occupation).

The building is covered in large square stones, on which the names and dates of birth and death of Lithuanian heroes are sculpted; many of them share the year 1945 as the second of the two. Inside the building is the Museum of the Genocide. I must admit that at first I had no intention to visit it. I can’t stand the sight of violence, I never watch horror movies, and I believe that one can learn enough about history without indulging in what I think are voyeuristic descriptions of torture and sadism.

In spite of this, in the end I convinced myself to enter, thinking that I would certainly not miss a visit to Auschwitz if I had the opportunity of going there, and so I had to take courage and enter here too. I was rewarded for this minor act of courage. The museum was by no means a chamber of horrors, even though it was more than a chamber of horrors. In the cellar, the KGB prison has been left as it was; and it is something one has really to see in order to believe it.

For example, you see what looks like a grim but not particularly terrible prison cell, about three by five meters, with three beds with no mattresses. The point is that up to a hundred prisoners were crammed into one of these cells. When you see it and think “well, this must be a cell for three people” and then you learn that a hundred people lived there… it makes you feel how inhuman their condition was. Then you see the showers, which are nothing to write home about, but when you learn that prisoners could take one shower a month you realize how terrible that was (and, incidentally, how the smell of a hundred unwashed people must have been).

There was, indeed, the display of some means of torture, of which I won’t write, but it was not like a splatter movie; rather, it made me deeply touched, sad and intensely moved. I was on the verge of tears when I descended into the execution room. I knew that thousands of people had died there; and while I felt the immense sacredness of a place like that, where heroes, martyrs and common people had been shot and had left this earth, I was also impressed by the “practical details” which made those killings so vivid in my eyes – such as the hosepipe used for washing the blood after the executions. It was like perceiving the reality and the truth of it all, not in the form of a tale, but as a true experience of life.

Similarly, I will never forget some small items which I saw in the museum in the upper floors, where tiny objects from the prisoners’ and the deportees’ lives were displayed. Many unsung heroes of the Lithuanian resistance were in fact sent to Siberia and other pleasant holiday places in the USSR, and, once more, the living truth conveyed by these objects was much more impressive for me than descriptions of tortures or other horrors which these people experienced.

There were handkerchiefs on which a married couple embroidered the portraits of their children: the parents had been sent to Siberia and this was a way for keeping the beloved features of their offspring with them. There were Christmas cards written on birch bark; small bags in which a handful of Lithuanian earth was kept by the deportees. But what most impressed me were the numerous examples of how faith kindled courage and hope in these prisoners.

A rosary made of bread, which belonged to the political prisoner Elena Kirlyte, Kazakh SSR, circa 1954.

There were rosary beads made of breadcrumbs (and one can only imagine how precious a breadcrumb could be for these people in forced labor at the end of the world); tiny holy vessels with which the priests celebrated Mass, sometimes even on the trains which brought them to Siberia, as witnessed in a “Mass diary” kept by a priest; minuscule crucifixes made from toothbrushes (!); portable altars carved in wood, or Lilliput prayer books written by hand. There were also some exquisite Christmas decorations which a deported bishop, from his internment at a kind of lunatic asylum, sent to his little niece; her picture was found in his own portable altar, so that he celebrated Mass for this little child.

I emerged from this visit with a full heart. I was impressed by some dates, telling me that some of these events happened during my own lifetime; in fact, I can distinctly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, though I had forgotten about the human chain made by some two million inhabitants of the Baltic republics in 1989 (the “Baltic way”).

Outside the museum, I found a vibrant city, with a wonderful Old Town which is part of the Unesco World Heritage and modern shops like those I find in the major Western cities (though whether this homogenization is a positive aspect is debatable). But I also found an elderly man who sold simple bunches of homegrown flowers, tied with a shoelace – a touching reminder that freedom is not the same as well-being, and that consumerism is not the antidote to past abuses. The true antidote, I think, is in the deep faith and values of the Lithuanian people, some of whom I saw praying in the Cathedral church of Vilnius. I will not forget an old nun, who was so beautiful in her prayer that I couldn’t resist taking a picture of her.

The country, along with the other Baltic countries, will be receiving a visit by Pope Francis in a few days; possibly he will also go on pilgrimage to the Hill of the Crosses, a place I longed to see but which was too far from Vilnius to be compatible with my schedule. But I hope to be able to visit it in the future: it is yet another living witness of the power of faith and love to heal the deepest and most painful sorrows of humankind.

Dr. Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Originally published at MercatorNet.

Featured image: Hill of Crosses, Lithuania / PD-US
Photos: Chiara Bertoglio.

Tyrannical Charity

sovietAmong the many things that Christ taught His disciples, charity is one of the principles focus groups in office buildings would label as a “core value.” He told us to love one another as we love ourselves, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Through a parable, He admonished those of us who ostentatiously hand over a dollar to the collection plate versus the poor widow who tossed in her life savings in the hope of helping someone else. One could surmise that love for the good of another is at the heart of true charity, and without this internal motivation, charitable acts in themselves are inherently worthless.

Christ laid this charge on each of us and so it is our individual responsibility to help those in need. I could greatly digress on the completely warped perception of what is needed in today’s society, but for the sake of this article, suffice it to say that we need three physical things: food, clothing, and shelter. Everything else is superfluous to include fancy cars, the latest iPhone, very expensive clothes, etc. Since we all bear this responsibility to our fellow man as given to us by Jesus, there have been different ways throughout the centuries that we have fulfilled (or unfulfilled) this burden. We can give resources, mainly money, to individuals in need, or we can give our money to organizations that use our donations to perform charitable acts. It is our responsibility to ensure we are donating our money wisely and also to discern if merely giving money is the most we can do to fulfill our God-given responsibility.

In today’s age of government handouts and sweeping welfare programs, one can easily get lost in the thick jungle of bureaucracy and lose a sense of charitable purpose. Our taxes go to a national federal collection plate where they are spent many times over on welfare programs and other government handouts. (The US public debt is currently over 17 TRILLION dollars) With all of these programs, it is certainly easy to think that our personal responsibility to help those in need is solved, isn’t it? All we have to do is refer that struggling family over to the department of social services and go on our merry way to buy that extra large latte. The latest government monstrosity that has come about is what is commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” Yep, now the government is going to be subsidizing health insurance. Forget that insurance does not equal actual health care, but at least we can all be covered now, right?

Caring for the sick certainly falls into a subsection of charity, so when something like Obamacare rolls out, we Christians can rejoice that the sick can be taken care of and we can go about our lives and not have to worry about it. It doesn’t matter that this program has been an unmitigated disaster so far (I’m not gonna leave a link, just Google it. Trust me it’s there), or that there are millions of people who are losing their current coverage or seeing their costs skyrocket. Now when we see someone who is sick and desperate we can refer them to the fully functioning and easy to access healthcare.gov. (That was sarcasm, just so ya know) The government has now taken the burden of responsibility of charity from all of us, as well as more of our money, and is helpfully reaching out to give food, subsidized housing, cash assistance, free cars, free cell phones, and now free health care. I mean, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, right? We don’t have to think about it anymore, the government will take care of everybody.

Let’s all take a step back to reality. Creating monstrous programs that plunge us further into crippling debt, that play on people’s fears and buy their votes, that subsidize immoral practices is an evil that the US has allowed to come about through it’s own negligence. Just as when the means of production is owned by a few a certain slavery is created, that same slavery is created when the people’s earnings are taken from them and distributed in the name of charity. The good intentions that pave the way to the inferno also pave the way to the great social programs that befall nations. Socialism and communism in all their forms are not charitable, but erase the beauty of the individual and spread economic suffering to the masses all in the name of helping them. They do not work. Period.

And there lies the crux of the situation. By sitting back and feeling good about ourselves while unsustainable programs are created that dole out fist-fulls of cash to the masses, we actually allow a tyranny to emerge. This tyranny creates a dependency on something that is historically undependable. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, should we not be wary of those who are in power even under the best circumstances? When government confiscates more of our wealth, (and I’m not talking about those “rich guys” on Wall Street or the ones with CEO on the doors of their corner offices) uses it for abortion, contraception, and the like, we bear some of the responsibility because at some point, a lot more of us thought it would be a good idea than we would like to admit. A lot of us didn’t get speak up when we had the chance. Through those wonderful intentions that lead to Gehenna, we allow it to be built before our very eyes by enslaving people to a meager living.

Let me take a step back for a minute. I know that there is a whole boat load of people out there that have been hurt badly by the economic downturn over the last few years. There are people who have had to go to extraordinary lengths just to put food on the table. I’m not deriding those who have had to go on some kind of program just to make ends meet. I’m just saying that we cannot go forward without taking a serious look at how we take care of those who struggle to make ends meet. I merely think that we Catholics, especially some of our more liberal friends, should really discern what true charity is all about. Is it merely referencing someone to go on foodstamps, which rarely are enough anyways, or providing material needs while also bringing the Good News of Christ to them while recognizing His presence in the poor.

Pope Francis recently had some interesting insights into the Church as a charity organization. He said ““In this, the Church is like Mary,” he continued. “The Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all. She does not bring herself — whether small or great, strong or weak, the Church carries Jesus and should be like Mary when she went to visit Elizabeth.” It’s interesting to note that he said the Church isn’t an NGO, or Non-Government Organization. The Church isn’t just meant to hurl bowls of soup and some blankets at the homeless. That is not charity. If we are not bringing the joy and peace of Christ to people as we tend their physical needs, it is no longer charity but mechanically going through the motions. (here’s the article with the Pope’s quotes)

To summarize, we can all recognize that Christ is the Prince of Peace. He is also the source of true freedom. An act of charity should, among other things, be essentially rooted in the peace of Christ and in the freedom that He brings. That freedom is the freedom from sin, vice, and also the freedom to love and serve Him more faithfully. Acts of charity that enslave people through dependency and also allow others to casually shrug off their own burdens of responsibility to others create a tyranny under which all suffer.

Interesting facts

  1. Welfare pays more than minimum wage work in 35 states
  2. More Americans on welfare than working full-time
  3. Unemployment is really at 14.7%
  4. Op-Ed: When Work is Punished: The Tragedy of America’s Welfare State
  5. Definition of Charity, via the Vatican
  6. (We’ve got it waaaay better…)

From the Belly of the Dragon

By Thomas Hedden, via Wikimedia Commons

“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”

This is the question pondered by Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner at a forced-labor camp in the Soviet Gulag system. Shukhov is the imagined narrator of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Though Shukhov may be fictional, his experiences come out of Solzhenitsyn’s own real-life experience. Arrested in 1945 for criticizing (in private letters to a friend) Joseph Stalin’s military decisions, Solzhenitsyn was interrogated, beaten, and sentenced to eight years in various Soviet labor camps.

If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s name is not familiar to you, it should be. Once a loyal Red Army captain, Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in prison and later in exile led him to reject the communism into which he had been indoctrinated. Although it cost him dearly—his works were seized, he was expelled from the state-sanctioned writers’ union, he was categorized as a “non-person,” the KGB attempted to assassinate him—Solzhenitsyn continued to write and call attention to Soviet atrocities. In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The honor, it turns out, gave Solzhenitsyn little protection at home: in 1974, the Soviet government arrested him, stripped him of his citizenship, and deported him.

Do Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet communist system he spoke out against concern us today? Before you answer the question, consider this: According to a survey conducted by Newsweek and reported on in 2011, 73% of Americans could not identify communism as the ideology America opposed during the Cold War. Judging by this statistic, I’m not sure that Solzhenitsyn or his experiences concern us very much today at all. But should they? That brings us back to Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s question: Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?

Or to put it another way, as Solzhenitsyn did himself in a speech in New York in 1975:

Is it then possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?

Solzhenitsyn suggests that the experience of those who have suffered can serve as a warning to those who are not yet suffering. Maybe it seems like we don’t need to be warned about communism—the USSR collapsed in 1991—but the lies about the human person that Soviet communism grew out of preceded the USSR and will probably plague men until the end of history. I often heard it said (and repeated it myself) that “communism is good in theory but it just can’t work in the real world.” This is simply not true. Communism is not “good in theory.” It rejects an objective standard of good and evil; it treats men as objects to be manipulated; it scoffs at God and presumes to redeem the world and usher in a sort of heaven-on-earth through a coercive politics that leaves no room for civil society. In the last century, these ideas manifested themselves in the communism of Marx and Lenin. But the root temptation to reject God’s authority lurks in many other ideologies and movements and indeed in our own hearts.

St. Peter thus exhorts us in his first epistle:

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.

Echoing Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, St. Peter says that one way in which we resist the father of lies is by sharing in the “experiences of suffering” endured by our “brethren.” This requires that we recognize what G.K. Chesterton calls “the terrible secret” that “men are men—which is another way of saying that they are brothers.” Here is where the importance of stories like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes in.

The statistics of suffering may shock us—Solzhenitsyn estimates some 60 million were killed by the Soviet regime—but we cannot empathize with numbers. We empathize with those who suffer by learning their stories. The first time I read Ivan Denisovich, passages like this made me realize that I had never been truly tired or hungry in my life:

Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village — whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kolkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his cheeks as he sucked it. Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing could be tastier. How much had he eaten in the last eight or nine years? Nothing. And how hard had he worked? Don’t ask.

Though I’ve never experienced anything like this hunger or exhaustion, I found that the more I read, the more I could relate to Shukhov—the more I understood him to be my brother. I think many of us can feel a kinship with Shukhov in passages like this one:

“Thanks be to Thee, O God, another day over!” . . .

Alyoshka heard Shukhov thank God out loud, and looked around.

“There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is asking to be allowed to pray to God. Why not let it have its way, eh?”

Shukhov shot a glance at him: the light in his eyes was like candle flame. Shukhov sighed.

“Because, Alyoshka, prayers are like petitions — either they don’t get through at all, or else it’s ‘complaint rejected.'”

So: can a man who’s warm understand a man who’s freezing? Not completely, and certainly not easily, but the answer can be “yes.” The answer is yes if we make the effort to learn the stories and if we pay attention to the story-tellers who are often prophets. “I have been in the dragon’s belly, in the red burning belly of the dragon,” Solzhenitsyn said. “He wasn’t able to digest me. He threw me up. I have come to you as a witness to what it’s like in there, in the dragon’s belly.”

Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another? Again, the answer can be yes if we properly meditate on those bitter experiences. After all, that is what we do when we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Importantly, we do not meditate on those mysteries in the hopes of avoiding them. Rather, we pray that we may “imitate what they contain.” In this life, to some degree, we will suffer. What we can learn from prophets like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and what we seek to imitate in the Sorrowful Mysteries of our Lord, is how to, in solidarity with our neighbors, offer our sufferings to God.

This coming Wednesday, November 7th, marks the tragic anniversary of the Lenin-led Bolshevik/communist take-over of Russia in 1917. (Russia used the Julian calendar at the time, so this is often referred to as the October Revolution or Red October.) As we just concluded October’s “month of the Holy Rosary,” it’s an especially good time to reflect on the decades of sorrowful mysteries that communism inflicted on the world and on what we can still learn from the suffering of our brethren. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I highly recommend picking up a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s a small but powerful portrait of life under (and in spite of) the lies of communism.