I’m in Moscow, a stone’s throw from Red Square.
I’ve chosen this hotel, the Metropol, after reading Amor Towles’ 2016 bestseller “A Gentleman in Moscow,” where the novel is set. The Metropol, radiating old-world charm, does not disappoint.
But the old man mounting the stairs at the hotel’s entrance, coming to meet me, does not share my daydream affection for the place. The warmth and luxury into which Alexander Ogorodnikov, 70, has stepped from the cold does not melt his icy scowl. We shake hands, and take our seats on a nearby sofa. He mutters something in Russian to my interpreter, who turns to me and says, “Alexander is afraid when he comes into this hotel. In communist times, it was known as a center for the KGB.”
His fear is understandable. Born in the final years of Stalinist rule into a prominent Bolshevik family, he became a leader in the Soviet Union’s Komsomol pro-Lenin youth movement. But in 1973, he scandalized his parents and the Communist Party by converting to Christianity. He organized a small fellowship of fellow Orthodox Christians and began campaigning for religious liberty, for which the Soviets sent him to prison in 1978.
Ogorodnikov wasn’t sentenced to death, but the Soviet authorities nevertheless decided to make an example of the young man who had renounced communist privilege for Christ. They placed him on death row in one of the USSR’s hardest prisons — a facility where, according to one of Ogorodnikov’s captors, the state sent people to be broken, “to bleed you out, drop by drop.”
Recalling the experience to me, Ogorodnikov is pensive and reverential. “When I went into the cell and looked at the others who were there, I told them, ‘Listen brothers, I was sent here to help you meet death, not as criminals but as men with souls that are going to meet their makers, to go meet God the Father,’” he says.
Not yet 30 at the time, Ogorodnikov told these hardened criminals that though he was not a priest, he would still be willing to hear their confessions. “I told them I couldn’t absolve them, but when I die and go before the Lord, I will be a witness to their repentance,” he recounts. “If I wanted to describe for you their confessions, I would need to be Dostoevsky. I don’t have the words myself.”
When the prison authorities realized that confinement in a cell with the worst of the worst was not leading Ogorodnikov to repent of his supposed sins against the Soviet state, they put him in solitary confinement. He was eventually moved to another prison entirely, and it was there where Ogorodnikov says he heard the most haunting confessional. This time, it didn’t come from a prisoner, but from a prison guard.
One night, the single guard on duty entered Ogorodnikov’s cell with a wild look on his face. “They come at night,” the old guard said to Ogorodnikov. He then told Ogorodnikov who exactly was coming at night from the prison guard’s past and haunting him:
“When I was a young guard in a different prison, they would gather 20 or 30 priests who had been behind bars, and take them outside. They rigged them up to a sled, so that they were pulling the sled. They had them pull the sled out into the forest. They made them run all day, until they brought them to a swamp. And then they put them into two rows, one behind the other. I was one of the guards who stood in the perimeter around the prisoners.
“One of the KGB guys walked up to the first priest. He asked him very calmly and quietly, ’Is there a God?’ The priest said yes. They shot him.
“Then, he continued, they went to the next priest, and asked, ‘Does God exist?’
“‘Yes, he exists.’
“The KGB man shot this priest in the same way. We didn’t blindfold them. They saw everything that was about to happen to them.”
Ogorodnikov, whose face remains partially paralyzed from his prison beatings, fights back tears as he comes to the end of telling me this story. In a voice cracking with emotion, the former political prisoner says, “Not one of those priests denied Christ.”
Let’s be realistic: Contemporary America is not the Soviet Union. The United States still enjoys the blessings of liberty, especially religious liberty, and, by any historical measure, a superabundance of economic prosperity. Undue alarmism will not help us read the signs of the times.
Still, as the late Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned, what happened to his native Russia could happen anywhere on earth. With that in mind, the drumbeat of warnings from naturalized Americans who emigrated from communist countries, and who say that they are now seeing in this country some of the things they left behind, commands our attention.
American Christianity is entering a new era — one in which religious faith is no longer a given; one in which a creeping ideological totalitarianism is hostile toward traditionalists who dissent from the claims of today’s progressive brand of politics. There are no secret police, no gulags, no banishments to Siberia, but there are softer forms of marginalization and deplatforming aimed at those who dissent from secular orthodoxies.
I traveled to Russia and to other former Soviet bloc countries to meet with numbers of Christian dissidents to learn what we in the West should know about how to endure persecution for Christ’s sake. In these conversations, a thread emerged connecting the persecutions of early Christians and the faith born of suffering in our own day. For these persecuted Soviet-era Christians, love of Christ was the mortar that bound them to each other and to God. Suffering was the proof test. For Ogorodnikov, the gulag was where he learned that he was not just an admirer of Christ, but his disciple.
And he was not the only one.
I am on a Budapest tram with a Hungarian friend in her early 30s – let’s call her Kristina – while we are on the way to interview an older woman who, with her late husband, withstood persecution by the communist state. As we bump along the city’s streets, Kristina talks about how hard it is to be honest with friends her age about the struggles she faces as a wife and mother of young children.
Kristina’s difficulties are completely ordinary for a young woman learning how to be a mom and a wife — yet the prevailing attitude among her generation is that life’s difficulties are a threat to one’s well-being and should be refused. Do she and her husband argue at times? Then she should leave him, they say. Are her children annoying her? Then she should send them to day care.
Kristina worries that her friends don’t grasp that trials, and even suffering, is a normal part of life — and maybe even of part of a good life, if that suffering teaches us how to be patient, kind and loving. I tell Kristina that this is the argument that the character John the Savage has with the World Controller near the end of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, “Brave New World.” The Savage, I explain to my friend, is an outcast in a world that sees suffering, even mere unhappiness, as intolerable oppression.
He is fighting for his right to be unhappy — “and so,” I tell Kristina, “are you.”
As we step off the tram and walk to our meeting, Kristina and I talk about the irony of the social about-face that has overtaken post-communist Hungary. The woman I am about to meet, like all the Christians I had been interviewing, allowed the suffering inflicted by the communist regime to deepen her love for God and for her fellow persecuted believers.
Now, in liberty and relative prosperity, the country’s first post-communist generation have fallen to a more subtle, sophisticated tyranny: one that tells them that anything they find difficult is a form of oppression. These sentiments are by no means limited to young Hungarians. A 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly 4 out of 5 young American adults said “self-fulfillment” is key to the good life, while a distinct minority believed that religion, patriotism and having children are an important part of life. Similarly, University of Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith found in his study of adults 18 to 23 that most of them believe society is nothing more than “a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
These are the young people who may not object to soft totalitarianism even if it offended their conscience, because, well, they have been taught that the highest good is a life free from suffering. If they have been taught a faith at all, it has been what Huxley’s World Controller calls “Christianity without tears.”
“Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy. It’s just a search for comfort,” says Yuri Sipko, a Russian Baptist pastor I met in Moscow. “When I meet with brothers in faith, especially young people, I ask them: Name three values as Christians that you are ready to die for. This is where you see the border between those who are serious about their faith and those who aren’t.”
Perhaps one of Christ’s hardest commands in the gospel is to: “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44, KJV)
Many of us find it difficult to be charitable to a salesclerk who is rude, or to someone who cuts us off in traffic. Few of us would be able to love someone responsible for us losing our job, or worse, being blacklisted in our profession. Rare is the man or woman who could find love for someone who deliberately and repeatedly inflicts harm on us or our loved ones.
But then, most of us aren’t Silvester Krcméry.
Krcméry (pronounced “kirch-merry”), who died in 2013, was one of the most important figures in the Slovak Catholic anti-communist resistance. In his eventual court trial, communist prosecutors called him a liar for saying that Czechoslovaks had no religious freedom. You are allowed to go to church to worship, aren’t you? they taunted. Krcméry turned the accusation around on them. He said Jesus is not satisfied with mere churchgoing, but wants believers to live for Christ in all times and places.
This is what Krcméry had learned studying under Father Tomislav Kolakovic, his spiritual mentor who, starting in 1943, prepared small groups of Slovak Catholics for persecution in anticipation of the postwar communist takeover. When the secret police arrested Krcméry, he laughed, because he understood that he was being given the gift of suffering, just like Father Kolakovic had anticipated.
Like other political prisoners, Krcméry endured repeated tortures. He decided to offer his pain as a gift to God for the sake of other persecuted people: “I repeated again and again … ‘I’m going through all this so I can help others, and the church.’”
Torture, deprivation, isolation — all of those things could have destroyed Krcméry, and made him a hateful man, or at least a defeated one. But the transcript of his 1954 trial shows how it did the opposite. In his final defense statement, Krcméry defiantly said to the court: “God gave me everything I have and now that I face persecution because of him, and am called on to profess my faith in him, should I now pretend I don’t believe?”
In his masterwork, “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn reveals how he and his fellow inmates were beaten, humiliated, made to live in filth and freezing temperatures. and to endure many other grotesque manifestations of communism’s determination to create heaven on earth.
That’s why nothing in that epochal book’s pages shocks more than these lines:
And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison! ... Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
Solzhenitsyn’s audacious claim was that suffering taught him to love. There is nothing in the Gospels that requires Christians to seek out suffering. The Word of God is not a prescription for masochism. But the life of Christ, as well as the Old Testament’s example of the prophets, compels believers to accept that suffering, if rightly received, can be a gift.
In a similar way in the United States, Brigham Young taught his band of persecuted Latter-day Saints, who settled Salt Lake City and Utah, that “we are infinitely more blessed by the persecutions and injustice we have suffered, than we could have been if we had remained in our habitations from which we have been driven.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 346)
Accompanying those suffering, I was told, could also lead to deep spiritual renewal. From 1949 to 1951, the Romanian communist regime undertook perhaps the cruelest experiment in the entire Marxist bloc. At a prison called Pitesti, the government labored intensely to brainwash and break prisoners through unimaginably vicious tortures and acts of obscene sacrilege. Solzhenitsyn called the Pitesti experiment “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”
One of the experiment’s survivors was George Calciu, an Orthodox Christian medical student who was eventually ordained a priest. In 1985, he was sent into exile in the United States, where he served at a northern Virginia parish until his death in 2006. In a lengthy 1996 interview, Father Calciu told about his encounter with a fellow prisoner named Constantine Oprisan. They met when Father George was transferred from Pitesti to Jilava, a prison that was built entirely underground.
The communists put Oprisan and Father George in the same cell. Oprisan was deathly ill with tuberculosis. Even in his condition, Oprisan “was like a saint,” according to Father George. He was so weak that he could barely talk. But every word he said to his cellmates was about Christ. Hearing him say his daily prayers had a profound effect on the other three men, as did simply looking at the “flood of love in his face.”
Oprisan was a physical wreck because he had been so badly tortured. Yet, according to Father George, he would not curse his torturers and spent his days in prayer. Looking back on that drama nearly a half-century later, Father George said that nursing the helpless Oprisan in the final year of his life revealed to him “the light of God”: “We were in a cell without windows, without air, humid, filthy — yet we had moments of happiness that we never reached in freedom. I cannot explain it.”
Francis Webster, a Latter-day Saint survivor of the deadly 1856 handcart migration to Utah, later concluded of his experience, “The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.” America is changing. So, too, is Christianity in the West. Things might get harder for traditional believers. Much of today’s discussion surrounding these developments is negative; but for Christians there is always a reason for hope – which, for the Christian, is not the same thing as optimism.
Optimism tells us that everything will improve. But it might not. Optimism had no place in Gethsemane; Jesus was about to endure a trial that took his life. So, too, have all the martyrs and confessors of the church’s long history. Hope, by contrast, tells us that even if we are called to surrender everything, even our lives, for the sake of Christ, that God will redeem our sacrifice. Even if ebullient optimism in the present moment is a bad bet, we still have every reason to hope.
The emerging cultural environment will not be a second Soviet Union — as the saying goes, history rhymes more than it repeats — but the times to come will undoubtedly present believers with opportunities to rediscover the core teachings of historical Christianity; to rediscover the pilgrim’s path walked by generations of believers since the Twelve Apostles. The path is steep and filled with adversity — but as Solzhenitsyn, Father Geroge-, Krcméry, Ogorodnikov and so many others can attest, to take up one’s cross and walk without fear is the purest imitation of Christ.
Adapted from “Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents” by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2020.) Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative magazine.