I thought about this book review recently and decided it was time it was added to the new blog. I am reposting it as/is, the way I wrote it on June 23, 2018.
Sometimes Facebook can be a great place to find books, even from memes posted by long, lost co-workers from twenty years ago. That’s how I happened to read Father Walter Ciszek’s harrowing story of being held prisoner the Soviet Union for twenty years. My friend, Courtney, is a devout Catholic and she shared a meme featuring one of Ciszek’s quotes. Not being Catholic myself, I had never heard of the man. I do find books about the Soviet Union and the prison experience fascinating, though, so I decided to download Father Ciszek’s book, With God in Russia: The Inspiring Classic Account of a Catholic Priest’s Twenty-three Years in Soviet Prisons and Labor Camps.
With God in Russia was originally published in 1964, but it has been republished several times. I read the version that was released in June 2017. The price was right at just $1.99. The book is Father Ciszek’s story written by ghostwriter Daniel Flaherty. It includes an afterword by James Martin. Father Ciszek, who died in 1984, has been considered for possible beatification or canonization since 1990. His current title is Servant of God.
Who was Walter Ciszek?
Walter Ciszek was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in November 1904. His parents were Polish immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1890s. When he was a young man, Ciszek belonged to a gang. He later surprised his family when he decided to become a priest. At age 24, Ciszek entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1929, Ciszek volunteered to serve as a missionary to Russia, which had become part of the Soviet Union in 1917. At that time in Russia, there was a real need for Ciszek’s services. Religious rights for most citizens were curtailed and those who were religious suffered from persecution. There weren’t many priests around to offer religious services to believers.
In 1934, Ciszek went to Rome to study the Russian language, history, and liturgy, as well as theology. He was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite and took the name Vladimir. Just as an aside, not being Catholic myself, I don’t understand the practice of taking different names for religious reasons. I was a little confused as I was reading the book and Ciszek was referred to as Vladimir.
In 1938, Ciszek went to eastern Poland to do his missionary work. The following year, the Soviet Union invaded Poland and forced Ciszek to close his mission. At that point, Ciszek decided to go east, into the Soviet Union, under the assumed name Władymyr Łypynski. He and two others journeyed 1500 miles to the logging town of Chusovoy, where he worked as a logger and provided religious services on the side.
In 1941, Ciszek was arrested and accused of spying for the Vatican. He was sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he spent five years, most of which were in solitary confinement. During his time at Lubyanka Prison, Ciszek was drugged and tortured. After enduring severe torture, he signed a confession. Convicted of espionage, Ciszek was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the GULAG. He spent four more years at Lubyanka, then was sent to Siberia, where he worked in mines. Throughout his many years imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Ciszek maintained his deep faith in God and provided religious services to other prisoners.
In 1955, Ciszek was released from prison and was finally able to write to his family, who had assumed he was dead. He lived in the city of Norilsk with restrictions. He wrote of how local authorities tried to get him to take a permanent Russian passport, which he refused to do. Three years after his initial release, the KGB forced Ciszek to move to Krasnoyarsk, where he secretly established missionary parishes. When the KGB learned of what he was doing, they required Ciszek to move again, this time to Abakan, a town about 100 miles south. There, he worked as an auto mechanic for four more years.
In 1963, he received his first letter from his sisters. A few months later, the Soviet Union exchanged Ciszek for two Soviet agents who had been held by the United States. He did not know he was going to be exchanged until he was handed over to a State Department representative, who told him that he was still an American citizen. He left Russia in October 1963.
From 1965 onwards, Father Ciszek continued his missionary work in the United States, working and lecturing at Fordham University and providing counseling and spiritual guidance until he died in December 1984. He published two more books, one of which was released posthumously, and has left an impressive legacy to Catholics.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not Catholic and I don’t know that much about Catholicism. I didn’t read this book because of who Ciszek was in a religious sense. I read it because I am interested in the Soviet Union and what life was like for people who were imprisoned there. I spent two years in the former Soviet Union just after it fell apart.
Although Armenia isn’t Russia and it wasn’t part of the Soviet Union when I was there, the Soviet Union had only just fallen. Some aspects of Ciszek’s descriptions of life there rang very familiar to me. I’m sure Armenia still maintains some remnants of that time even now, although I can see from pictures and Facebook posts from Armenian friends that the country has changed since I knew it.
Ciszek’s story is very engaging. Flaherty did a good job making it read as if it came directly from Father Ciszek himself. He describes the monotony of daily prison life, particularly when he was in Lubyanka and basically sat in solitary confinement for years. He writes of the struggles of staying nourished while he was at hard labor. I was particularly fascinated by his descriptions of meal times, when prisoners would bring out a large pot of soup and dish it out to all the prisoners. The ones who were served first got the thinnest and least satisfying helpings and would demand that the soup be stirred before it was served to them.
In Ciszek’s voice, Flaherty wrote of special duties that would score prisoners extra rations. For instance, the prisoner that would dump the bucket used for toileting would get another bowl of soup. The prisoners would be so hungry that some were eager to take on that duty. Naturally, because it was a prison, a lot of the people Ciszek did time with were actual criminals. He wrote a lot about the “thieves” who would try to trick other prisoners out of their rations in Machiavellian ways.
I was impressed by Ciszek’s devotion to God, even when it seemed like he couldn’t get a fair shake. Make no mistake about it, Ciszek’s time in prison wasn’t fun. I remember how Ciszek was given extra rations one day, not told that it was to last him for two days he’d spend riding on a train to another prison. There he sat with his Russian handlers, who had plenty to eat and didn’t share with him. When a piece of buttered bread fell to the floor on the train, he tried to get it with his foot without attracting the attention of one of his guards. The guard eventually did catch him in the act, but Ciszek pleaded with him to let him eat the dirty piece of buttered bread. The guard was indifferent, so he got the bread. There is something about the desperation of that story that sticks with me. Ciszek appealed to the guard’s humanity to ease his suffering just a tiny bit and it worked.
Although I am not a very religious person, I am fascinated by people who are committed to their faith, particularly when their commitment is genuine and not motivated by greed or a desire for power (although those people are also interesting for other reasons). Father Ciszek was able to maintain faith, hope, and courage in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. He did not become a bitter shell of a man who hated God or blamed God for the twenty plus years he spent incarcerated in Russia. Instead, he turned that situation into an incredible life story, full of adventure and hope. He sets an example of a man who did not give up or give in to self-pity or doubt. A lot of religious people, particularly the leaders, could learn from Father Ciszek’s example.
In any case, I highly recommend With God in Russia, particularly to Catholics who aren’t already familiar with his story. I found it a very interesting and inspiring book. I suppose the very fact that I read it proves that not all Facebook memes are useless.
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