Father Walter Ciszek is an American Jesuit who spent 23 years as a priest in Soviet prisons and doing hard labour in Siberia, from 1940-1963. His time included 5 years in the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and 15 years in a Siberia mainly working in and around the town of Norilsk. He has written a mesmerising account of those years which has been recently republished by Ignatius Press, it is called ‘With God in Russia’.
Reading the book is a testament to an incredibly tough guy – who also seemed to be blessed with a deep faith and outstanding pastoral skills. His survival was a miracle in itself – enduring long periods of isolation and interrogation in Moscow. Then the harrowing stories of him being transported to Siberia after being sentenced as a ‘Vatican Spy’ to 15 years hard-labour. The conditions which he endured as they left Moscow which was under prolonged attack by the Germans.
The account is absorbing and well worth reading, told with clarity, without sentimentality, at times so crisply that it catches the breath – the terrible hardship and cruelty expressed in a couple of sentences. Highlights for me include –
- His faith in God’s providence that helped him beyond the limits of physical endurance, with never any hint of feeling sorry for himself (maybe twice in the whole book did he momentarily succumb to despair)
- How when in solitary confinement – for months on end – he would order his day around the ‘ordo’ he remembered in the novitiate – from his Jesuit training, to keep him from going mad.
- How his fellow prisoners, even the violent thieves, were keen to protect him as a priest in a savage world of survival. How well organised he and the other priests became – and the remarkable ministry they were able to give in secret – sacramental, but also giving retreats!
- His constant and varied scrapes with Death – Physical Torture, beaten and being injected with chemicals by KGB, Explosions in Coal Mines, Being fired on by Russian Soldiers during a prison revolt, Immersion in Freezing Rivers when logging, Surviving Scurvy from inadequate prison rations, Acute Food Poisoning, prolonged periods of starvation, Constant exposure to arctic conditions in inadequate clothing, Fumigation on two week barge journey etc etc!
- The risks prisoners would take, even unto death, to hear Mass or go to confession – their courage of practising their faith in the face of brutal repression
- And finally how he celebrated Easter and Christmas both in captivity and then when he was released on a limited permit. When he was freed, he celebrated an Easter Vigil that finished at 3am – although communion was distributed from then until after 9am so big were the crowds. Right under the noses of the KGB. It was such a success – with so much joy – with so great numbers greeting each other ‘ Christ is Risen’ – ‘He is risen in indeed’ that he was forcefully deported to another town and banned from religious activities!