Hide Me Within Thy Wounds: The Persecution of the
Catholic Church in the USSR
Book review by Pavel Chichikov, Poetry Editor of Catholic
Has the era of the martyrs ever really ended? More Catholics were
slaughtered in the 20th century than were killed by pagan Rome. Drawing
on secret sources, a new book tells us how it happened and makes us
question our own moral courage.
A Spiritual Holocaust
In 1917 there were approximately two million Catholics in Russia.
By 1939 the Catholic Church in Russia had for all practical purposes
been annihilated. This spiritual holocaust is described in Irina
Osipovas new book, Hide Me Within Thy Wounds.
Drawn from transcripts of interrogations, from letters, and even
from informers reports, Hide Me Within Thy Wounds is an
uncensored witness to martyrdom. We travel into the cells and torture
chambers of an all-powerful regime that was bent on crushing Catholicism.
Faith and endurance were the only weapons of the martyrs.
Yet we can read this prophetic dialogue between a KGB captain and
an Italian priest in a Soviet labor camp:
God? But if your God really existed he would not permit you to
be stuck here.
Why would He not permit it? Look, I have been found worthy to
suffer for Him and I am sure if I endure everything to the end
He will grant me an eternal reward.
A vain hope, since God does not exist.
God existed, exists now and will always exist. Soviet power
on the other hand...
Soviet power, he interrupted me, existed, exists now, and....
...Will not exist in the future, I completed the sentence, interrupting
him in my turn. This stubborn argument cost Fr. Pietro Leoni two
months in the Severe Regime Barracks. He survived. Other Catholics,
including thousands of priests, did not. Many were condemned and
Who were these priests? Some were members of the Russian Catholic
Church of the Eastern Rite. Others were priests of the Volga German
community, which had settled in Russia generations before. Still
others were illegals, priests who crossed the Soviet frontier at
the risk of their lives to evangelize and re-evangelize the Russian
people. All of them were informed-upon, spied-upon, and hunted men.
The Russian Catholic Church originated in the secret conversion
of two Russian Orthodox priests to Catholicism. Pope Pius X made
this Church an official entity in 1908. It was dedicated to a fusion
between the two churches. From the beginning Russian Orthodoxy was
hostile, but after 1917 the GPU (secret police) began watching this
Church, especially after the Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon expressed
support for reconciliation in 1920. Surveillance became active hostility,
which in turn led to arrests.
In 1922, anticipating his own arrest, Fr. Leonid Fyodorov, Exarch
of the Russian Catholic Church, wrote to his ecclesiastical superior:
If this case goes as far as execution, then I will perhaps be
a victim, and this I confess I greatly desire. I am convinced
that if our blood is to flow...this will be the best outcome....Otherwise
we shall not live but rather freeze in our dark and hopeless Soviet
A Soviet official commented:
Fyodorov is a dangerous man...Millions will go to his infamous
Fyodorovite church, and thus enter the international Catholic
organization....The matter is decided. The church will be liquidated.
Anna Abrikosova, the wife of an exiled priest (Russian Catholic
priests were permitted marriage) prepared for the inevitable:
Christ desires now in Russia the individual sacrifice of those
who...go as lambs to the slaughter....Obedience until our death
upon the cross, together with humility these are the two virtues
I preach to the sisters.
Abrikosova died as a result of her hardships in the prisons and
camps, much loved as an angel of charity and faith.
By 1956, ...not a single Russian Catholic priest remained alive.
How Strong Is Our Faith?
Many priests those of the Russian Catholic rite, of the Latin rite
from western Ukraine and the German Volga region were imprisoned
on islands in the White Sea known as Solovki.
A letter by Fr. Roman Dzevonlowski described conditions in the
We, Catholic priests, and almost all elderly or sick, are often
forced to undertake the heaviest labor...excavating trenches for
building foundations, hauling great rocks, digging in frozen ground
in winter...sometimes...for 16 hours a day in winter, without
a break and with no shelter.
Yet, in their replies to interrogators, they could say:
In this place I have become an even more committed Catholic and
nothing can shake me.
There were group trials, which ended in executions. For instance,
in October and November of 1937, 32 priests were shot.
For this reviewer, the most striking passage in the book is from
a memoir by a young man who was sent to Solovki at the age of 15.
He wanted to continue his education and inquired among the priests
if there was anyone who would teach him languages. His mentor became
Fr. Peter Weigel, a priest serving the Volga Germans. In 1933 a
secret police court sentenced a large number of priests to death.
Weigels student watched as the condemned were being taken to prison
And the ranks passed by one by one. I waited for my Teacher.
Several Polish priests had already passed by. Where is my teacher?
I cried....I caught sight of the pale, emaciated and melancholy
face of my Teacher. He smiled and said very distinctly: Auf, bade,
Schler, unverdrossen die irdische Brust im Morgenrot [Goethe:
Rise, pupil...bathe your earthly breast boldly in morning light]...And
one by one the ranks passed by. More than a thousand prisoners
were taken from Solovki on that gloomy October evening.
These melancholy and defiant faces still live in the remarkable
police mug shots reproduced at the end of the book.
By the end of the 1950s there were only two Catholic churches and
two Catholic priests in the whole of the Soviet Union. Both priests
were foreigners, and their contacts with Russians were strictly
Ultimately, Fr. Leoni was right, and Soviet power was conquered.
Yet Catholicism is still only grudgingly permitted, and the struggle
is by no means over in Russia, or in places like China and Sudan.
The power of this book challenges every believer. How strong is
our own faith? Would we break or would we endure in troubled times?