By Paul Goble
Because Roman Catholics in Russia have so often found themselves at odds with the state, they are, “regardless of cultural ‘roots’ often Siberians by place of residence.” Novosibirsk is the host of the most important Russian Catholic media, and the current nuncio in Moscow wrote his dissertation on “The Catholics of Siberia.”
That history and geography profoundly affects not only the Russian Catholic community’s commitment to remembering past oppression, Elena Berdnikova writes in “Novaya gazeta;” it also plays a significant role in defining Siberian regional identity as well (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/12/24/71015-pamyatlivye-lyudi).
Anyone who travels along “the Catholic routes” in Russia “sooner or later comes to a prison for precisely in it are preserved the navigation maps of Russian Catholics, wave after wave for 15 years, they have been sent into places of unfreedom because they have struggled ‘for freedom.’”
Now, priests often say mass where once prisoners were kept in the GULAG. There are still “few priests, as their flocks are spread across a territory equal in size to Europe,” Berdnikova says. One such priest now, Father Lescek Hrichuk who was born and trained in Poland now serves in several churches and fills his homilies with Polish jokes.
Often he and his fellow priests are the first official ones since the 1930s – there were underground Catholic communities in the interim but no priests – and they must deal with the task of rebuilding the churches and reforming the flocks that had been decimated by Soviet anti-religious policies.
Under Stalin, the Roman Catholics of the USSR suffered horribly. They included Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Austrians; but it is perhaps significant they were all listed by the NKVD as “’aliens’” and almost all were sentenced according to paragraphs six, nine and eleven of the notorious Article 58.
The Catholic church in Kurgan is located now in an apartment two steps away from the place where in 918 was erected a monument “For the Freedom of the Czech Republic.” Now, there is another monument there to the victims of political repression. It was put up in the early 1990s; but, Berdnikova says, shifts in Russian attitudes mean the Catholics couldn’t do so now.
In the Catholic churches, she continues, there are eternal discussions about the past and about what believers have gone through. In this, the Catholics are more constant than are many Russian Orthodox. “Memory can preserve the Catholics,” Bernikova writes; and they have reasons for thinking so.
“In Russia,” she continues, “East Europeans and especially Poles are considered vindictive complainers” who do nothing but talk about how they have suffered at the hands of Russia or the USSR. “But they have their own history and their own memory,” and that history and memory preserves them.
“The Catholic hierarchy loves to repeat that it is not building any ‘ethnic church’ in Russia; that the church is open to all. And in Siberia [today], a large segment of the Catholics consists of ethnic Russians.” But the past suffering of non-Russian Catholics informs their feelings as well.
The Catholics remember, Berdnikova says, because “if the church doesn’t remember its martyrs, who will?”