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Christians Need To Stop Saying This

With Alexander Ogarodnikov in the Chaliapin Bar at the Hotel Metropol, Moscow

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Christian say some version of persecution would be good for us; the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, then I could pay off a big chunk of Cardinal McCarrick’s lawyer’s fee.

It’s the kind of thing conservative Christians like to say when they talk about the possibility of coming persecution. Of course Christians in America have no idea what they’re talking about. None. Reading the literature of Communist anti-Christian persecution, and visiting with Christians in the former Soviet Union, and in the Soviet bloc, who endured prison, even the gulag, for their faith, has given me the resolve to rebuke anyone who says this in my presence henceforth.

What did it for me was reading Dissident For Life, the biography of Alexander Ogorodnikov, who was one of the leading Christian dissidents in the USSR. I met with him in Moscow recently, and interviewed him for my forthcoming book. Here are some excerpts from Dissident For Life:

Back in prison, he immediately began a new hunger strike to protest his conviction and rough treatment; but for punishment he was locked up for ten days in the kartser (punishment cell). In Kalinin this was a stone dungeon that was cold, damp, and filled with an almost unbearable stench. But he got used to even that after a while. It was a tiny cell, barely three paces across. It had no table or chair, only a concrete cylinder about half a meter high and 25 centimeters across with an iron ring around it; the cylinder was impossible to sit on. The cell was lit by a weak bulb that was too faint for reading or writing. During his isolation in the kartser, Ogorodnikov was given no books, pen or paper — not even toilet paper. When he returned, he had to exchange his clothes for thin cotton prison garments. There were no bed linens, and at . night he slept on a plank fitted with iron springs that had to be hung on the wall during the day.

 

More:

On April 7, 1979, Ogorodnikov was condemned to a “strict regime” for confessing [in the religious sense] just before Easter. This meant that he was locked up for fifteen days in the shtrafnoi izoliator, otherwise known as the shizo (the camp isolation cell). As in the notorious prison kartser, a whole range of additional restrictions were imposed there.

While Alexander was on his knees praying in the shizo, a guard came in and commanded him to stand up. Ogorodnikov quietly kept on praying. After this “serious” breach of prison regulations, the guards used artificial air pressure in the sewer system to pump raw sewage into his cell, leaving a layer of much almost ten inches deep. In the middle of this tiny cell, barely three paces across, there was a concrete post about ten inches wide, on which he could not sit; there was only room for one of his feet. For two days Ogorodnikov stood straight up in that stinking pool as the water subsided with exasperating slowness.

In the Siberian prison camp:

These crushing living conditions gradually affected the spirit of the prisoners. By far the worst was the chronic hunger. Like a constantly throbbing toothache, that feeling of hunger gradually undermined the prisoners’ health. After a couple of years a prisoner could no longer sit on a chair or lie on a bed without pain because his bones poked out against his skin. Other common side effects were swollen joints in the fingers and legs, red patches on the body, liver complaints, scurvy due to serious vitamin deficiency, and stomach ulcers.

Prisoners could borrow five books or magazines from the camp library, all of which were propaganda tools for “socialist realism.” It’s no wonder that all the prisoners were permanently consumed by a boundless longing for their wives and children, good food, and freedom.

From a letter he wrote to his mother from prison:

In the three years of my imprisonment I have spent 176 days and nights in punishment and isolation cells. In the Kalinin prison the floor was covered with water. In Komsomolsk the sewage system was deliberately blocked off so human excrement was constantly floating around in my cell. I tried to keep from making it worse by doing my business on a short concrete post. In winter the temperature in the punishment cell never rises above fourteen or fifteen degrees, while you’re sitting on a concrete floor without any underwear. Daily rations are minimal. One day you get 350 grams [12 ounces] of bread and water and the next day you get a hot meal, but according to the “reduced” norm, which means its mostly water.

There’s much more, including force feedings that knocked most of his teeth out, and the KGB destroying his marriage and teaching his son to hate his father. Mind you, Ogorodnikov was only one Christian; the Soviets did this kind of thing to countless others (those they didn’t shoot, at least). At several points in his long and torturous captivity, Ogorodnikov was offered freedom if he would just denounce himself, renounce his faith (or at least his activism), and on at least one other occasion, if he would agree to leave the Soviet Union and go live in the West. In every case, he refused.

Alexander Ogorodnikov never broke. I strongly encourage you to read the entire book, or at least the post I wrote the other day about my interview with him in Moscow. It would be not only wholly inaccurate, but morally obscene, to compare the things that are now beginning to happen in the West to what happened to believers in Soviet Russia. But Ogorodnikov startled me by beginning our conversation like this:

“I’m already shocked by the totalitarianism that already exists in the West, within social opinion. Someone makes some kind of announcement that’s not up to progressive social standards, and immediately there’s an exclusion zone around them. It gets to the point just in order to be understood you have to constantly simplify, in order not to hurt or offend anyone.”

It starts somewhere, people. While in Moscow, my translator Matthew and I went out to the Butovo firing range, now a memorial to the 21,000 men and women the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, shot there in a 14-month period during Stalin’s Great Terror. I wrote a post about that too. There we started talking to an old man standing near a fence. Vladimir Alexandrovich — we didn’t get his last name — comes to the memorial service here every year to pray for his father, who was murdered elsewhere by Stalin’s goons, and for the priest and another member of his church, both of whom were killed here.

“And for what?” he said, not expecting an answer.

Speaking to him in Russian, Matthew told him what my new book was about. When I told him that people are losing their jobs in the US over political issues, he said, “That’s a bad sign.”

“History always repeats, one way or another,” he said, heavily.

In Russia, someone else told me, in a discussion about people in the US losing their jobs and their businesses over their beliefs, “That’s always how it starts.”

My point today, reader, is this: I am convinced that we are headed into persecution. I don’t believe it will be nearly as harsh as what Christians in the Soviet bloc endured. But it will be real, and it will cost us. The depth and breadth of it depends in part on how hard we fight now against the small things those who hate us are doing. But I do not believe that it can be fully stopped. This is why I exhort my fellow believers to prepare themselves and their communities. This is why I’m writing this new book.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this reading, and all these interviews with those who suffered intensely to bear witness to their faith, it’s that we Americans who speak lightly of persecution, and who speak of it as something that might be good for us, and make us more serious about our faith — we have no idea what we’re talking about, and we should never, ever say something like that. Imagine how obscene it would be for Jews to say, after Auschwitz, that maybe some anti-Semitic persecution would be good for them, because it would make them more committed to Judaism, or Jewish identity. After talking with Ogorodnikov (and the others, throughout the Soviet bloc, with whom I’ve spoken), that’s how the easy conversation among American Christians about persecution sounds to my ears these days.

And look — what the faithful endured in the USSR was not as bad as what they endured in Romania, in the prison camp of Pitesti. If you read this blog post of mine criticizing the Jesuit magazine America‘s essay attempting to rehabilitate Communism — yes, they actually published such an abomination — you’ll see this excerpt from 1966 US Senate testimony by Pastor Richard Wumbrand, a Lutheran clergyman who endured Pitesti:

[Richard Wurmbrand:] A Westerner can’t understand God is here and knows that I will not tell you the whole truth because if I will tell you the whole truth, you will faint and rush out of this room, not bearing to hear what things have happened. But I will tell you that in a prison they crucified a cat before ourselves. They beat nails in the feet of the cat and the cat was hanging with the head down, and can you imagine how this cat screamed and the prisoners, mad, beat on the door, “Free the cat, free the cat, free the cat,” and the Communists very polite, “Oh, surely we will free the cat, but give the statements which we ask from you and then the cat will be freed,” and I have known men who have given statements against their wives, against their children, against their parents to free the cat. They did it out of madness, and then the parents and the wives have been tortured like the cat. Such things have happened with us.

[Sen. Thomas Dodd:] Did you have any fellow Christians like you imprisoned?

We had hundreds of bishops, priests, monks in prisons; my wife who is near me, she has been with Catholic nuns. My wife tells that they were angels; such have been put in prisons. Nearly all Catholic bishops died in prison. Innumerable Orthodox and Protestants have been in prison, too.

The point I was getting at – and I guess I did not make it clear – where the Christians treated any differently or mistreated any differently?

Everybody in prison was very badly treated. And I cannot be contradicted on this question, because I have been with physicians, I have much more broken bones than anybody, so either I broke my bones or somebody else broke them. And if I would not have been a clergyman but a murderer – it is a crime to torture a murderer, too. The Christian prisoners were tortured in a form which should mock their religion. I tell you again in the prison of Pitesti one scene I will describe you about torturing and mocking Christians, and believe me I would renounce to eternal life to paradise after which I long, if I tell you one word of exaggeration. God is here and knows that I do not say everything. It cannot be said. There are ladies here. There are other people hearing it.

One Sunday morning in the prison of Pitesti a young Christian was already the fourth day, day and night, tied to the cross. Twice a day the cross was put on the floor and 100 other cell inmates by beating, by tortures, were obliged to fulfill their necessities upon his face and upon his body. Then the cross was erected again and the Communists swearing and mocking “Look your Christ, look your Christ, how beautiful he is, adore him, kneel before him, how fine he smells, your Christ.” And then the Sunday morning came and a Catholic priest, an acquaintance of mine, has been put to the belt, in the dirt of a cell with 100 prisoners, a plate with excrements, and one with urine was given to him and he was obliged to say the holy mass upon these elements, and he did it. And I asked him afterward, “Father, but how could you make this?” He was half mad. He answered to me: “Brother, I have suffered more than Christ. Don’t reproach to me what I have done.” And the other prisoners beaten to take holy communion in this form, and the Communists around, “Look, your sacraments, look, your church, what a holy church you have, what fine is your church, what holy ordinance God has given you.”

I am very insignificant and a very little man. I have been in prison among the weak ones and the little ones, but I speak for a suffering country and for a suffering church and for the heroes and the saints of the 20th century; we have had such saints in our prison to which I did not dare to lift my eyes.

I am a Protestant, but we have had near us Catholic bishops and monks and nuns about whom we felt that the touching of their garments heals. We were not worthy to untie their shoelaces. Such men have been mocked and tortured in our country. And even if it would mean to go back to a Rumanian prison, to be kidnaped by the Communists and going back and tortured again, I cannot be quiet. I owe it to those who have suffered there.

The fact that a major Catholic magazine published a big essay attempting to rehabilitate the ideology that led to the torture camps that murdered and tortured countless Christians of all confessions is a sign of the times. 

This and other signs — the public shunning, the losing of jobs, and so on — are ones that all of us Christians must take seriously, and resist. We may be forced to go to places we would rather not go, but we should not go quietly! But let me also warn you not to ever, ever speak of persecution lightly. We Americans have no real idea how bad it could get. What the Chinese Communists are doing to the Uighur Muslims is a contemporary sign for us.

Finally, from the Ogorodnikov biography, here is part of an open letter from Russian Orthodox Christians sent in 1986, and published by the Keston Institute:

In November 1986, the Keston Institute published a forty-four-page brochure on the case. The brochure also contained an appeal to the West from a group of Russian Orthodox Christians in Moscow: Your Christian delegates are keen on visiting our country; your Christian preachers return home with a host of pleasant memories; you are all inspired by the simple beauty of our churches and the numbers of people filling them. This picture lingers in your memory, evoking the best and warmest emotions. But we wish you to understand that what you have seen is the sum total of what is permitted to us. In all other aspects of our lives — family, social, political and cultural — we are not allowed to be Christians. We may only “perform our cult.”

However, the life of a Christian is not confined within church walls; there he receives the highest fulfillment of his Christian endeavors and finds the starting point for all other aspects of his life. But it is precisely in those other spheres of life that we are not permitted to live by simple Christian feelings — to believe, to be merciful, to entreat, to defend, to love, to bring up children, to work and to teach. All these attempts are met by harsh persecution.

“Perform our cult” means “worship in church.” Whenever you hear an American or other Western progressive say that there is no threat to religious liberty here, because the government will not be telling anybody that they can’t worship as they please — understand that this claim is correct, but utterly irrelevant, as the Soviet experience proves.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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