Hide Me Within Thy Wounds: The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the USSR

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Osipova, I.I. Hide Me Within Thy Wounds: The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the USSR. Translated from Russian by Malcolm Gilbert. 2003.

A second subtitle of this book is "From Material in Criminal Investigation and Labor Camp Files". Russian researchers named Serebranniye Niti and I. I. Osipova, working under the auspices of a group called "Memoria's Research and Education Center on Repression of the Clergy in the Period 1918-1953," have combed through an impressive number of long-secret files and archives to document the systematic persecution of Catholic clergy during the communist era. They add material from personal accounts to flesh out the stories. The result of the researchers' diligent detective work and the translation by Gilbert is an account with good reading qualities for the average reader. Quotations in boldface alternate with plain text narrative; some of the quoted material is also in plain text.

At the beginning of the communist era, in the 1920s under Lenin, many priests were summarily executed. "Churchmen were invariably accused of spying on behalf of foreign powers and, one has to admit, that the Chekisty were managing to extract confessions from those they arrested. The campaign was particularly virulent in the Ukraine." As time went by, the government decided that evidence and trials had to be part of the process of condemnation and so created a paper trail that the researchers were able to follow. An astonishing amount of energy went into building cases against priests who were just doing their ordinary work.

The reader gasps as the Chekisty, a name used as a kind of generic for the secret police, systematically accuse and condemn nuns and priests of all rank. Their "crimes" include foreign spying (sending ordinary annual reports to Rome counted here), being anti-soviet, converting members of the Orthodox Church to Catholicism (this even while Orthodox clergy were being similarly hounded), using foreign money to provide aid to impoverished persons, using a chapel at a labor camp too much, and trying to build a Uniate Church under papal leadership. "Confessions" are obtained through aggressive, nonstop interrogation and sometimes outright torture. Some are sent to labor camps in the far north, then condemned and sent again, and some join the gray hordes who are marched onto the steppe and executed in batches. Finally, there are but two Catholic priests, kept for show, in all of Russia, and these are foreigners, not Russians.

The persons who accumulated this information are good scholars and writers. They sort out the periods in the ebb and flow of the persecutions and let the reader surmise when the priests and nuns were falsely accused and when they knew they were doing something illegal in Russia but did it out of a sense of mission. They are also aware of how the Vatican struggled to aid those persecuted but had a hard time doing anything that didn¹t enmesh its people in further trouble. The courage of many was impressive.

This is the first of a projected series of books that will document the repression of religious groups under communism. The researchers do not tell of the fate of ordinary believers, but surely that is another story.

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