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Testimony: A Priest in the Gulag

November 07, 2017
Walter J. Ciszek (center).

Captured by the Russian army during World War II and accused of being a spy for the Vatican, Walter J. Ciszek (1904-1984), an American Jesuit, spent twenty-three years in Soviet prisons and the Siberian gulags from 1940 to 1963. One-hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution, this book testifies to the reality of Communism.

There was no lack of struggles in the life of Fr. Ciszek: as a young Levite, he found seminary life difficult and joined the Jesuits on an impulse. His dream as a young Polish American was to become a missionary in Communist Russia. For there is nothing greater than undertaking difficult things for the greater glory of God. Walter Ciszek’s wish was granted: after his novitiate in the United States and two years at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome, he was sent as a missionary to Poland and then Russia.

In June 1941, he was taken prisoner by the Russians: “I was taken by train to the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, to be interrogated as a ‘spy for the Vatican’. And I remained there for the rest of the war, regularly undergoing aggressive interrogations at the hands of the NKVD.”

The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) was the Soviet secret police. Created in 1934, its role was to watch the population closely. Its leaders answered only to Stalin himself.

Unfair Condemnation at the Hands of the Russians

After five years in prison, the Jesuit was condemned to fifteen years in a work camp in Siberia: “like thousands of other prisoners”, he soberly explains, “I had to work in construction brigades outdoors in the extreme polar cold, when we weren’t in the coal or copper mines, poorly dressed, poorly fed, poorly lodged, in wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire and a safety zone.”

At the end of his sentence, Walter Ciszek was forbidden to leave Siberia and had to work various jobs in order to survive. Finally, in 1963, he was exchanged for two Russian spies who had been arrested in the United States.

The Jesuit’s description of the preconceived notions his fellow prisoners had of priests before meeting him say much about the spiritual decay in Soviet Russia: “For them, priests were perverts. The most educated prisoners and the lowest members of the Communist Party had been filled with false ideas of the Church by Communist pamphlets that explained the errors, abuses and injustice of the Church. A priest, in their eyes, was at best a misfit who had no place in the Socialist society and at worst a fool at the service of the Church that of course is simply an instrument in the hands of the Capitalists.” Militant atheism and its deceitful propaganda had done their work.

An Important Testimony

With God in Russia is a book that is of the greatest historical interest. Indeed, there are few published accounts of the ministry of Catholic priests in the Soviet camps during this period. But it is above all the story of an impressive spiritual journey that Fr. Ciszek accepted to write because, after his return to the United States, he was constantly asked how he was able to survive such trials.

With great simplicity, he relates the events he lived through and that led him down a path of great detachment and ever more trusting abandon to Providence, to the interior serenity that preserved him from the “arrogance of evil” that surrounded him.

He tells of his distress, his sufferings, but also of the interior progress he made. With faith and the help of divine grace, he realized how all events, even trials, are a gift of Providence and the expression of the holy will of God.

“All throughout these years of isolation and suffering, God gave me an understanding of life and His love that only those who have experienced them can understand,” wrote Fr. Ciszek in the preface to his book.

The book is a spiritual odyssey worth reading or rereading.

With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest's Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps, by R.P. Walter CISZEK.