With God in Russia

by Walter Ciszek SJ and Daniel Flaherty SJ, Harperone, 403pp, £15

Originally published in 1964 and recently reissued, this account of a priestly life spent in Soviet prisons and Siberian labour camps for 23 years has become a modern classic. On his release and return to America in 1963, Fr Ciszek recounted his extraordinary story to a fellow Jesuit, Daniel Flaherty, who wrote it down, commending the author’s detailed memory.

More than merely relating what happened to him in those gruelling years Ciszek, who speaks entirely without rancour or bitterness, reveals the dehumanising horror of the Gulag system as it functioned under Stalin.

The centenary of the Russian Revolution was commemorated last October. None of the speakers on radio or television have, to my knowledge, spoken of the systemic persecution and brutality to which the Revolution inevitably led. In this unvarnished account (and without self-pity) Ciszek describes how the providence of God sustained him during his initial imprisonment, which was then followed by an arbitrary sentence of 15 years’ hard labour in a prison camp at Norilsk in Siberia.

A tough Polish-American boy born in 1904 and ordained in 1937, he had always cherished the dream of being assigned to a Jesuit mission in Russia. Sent to Albertin in Poland, he slipped into Russia in disguise with a priest-friend in 1939, still trying to pursue, rather unrealistically, a missionary vocation in this formidably communist country. He relates that “crossing the border gave me a strange sense of exhilaration and yet of loneliness, of a beginning and an end to the life I had known.”

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