Volume 34, No. 2 - Summer 1988
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Nijolė Sadūnaitė. A Radiance in the Gulag. 

Translated by Rev. Casimir Pugevicius and Marian Skabeikis. Manassas, Virginia: Trinity Communications, 1987. Soft cover. 148 pp. $5.95.

Although Lithuania recently celebrated its 600 year anniversary as a Catholic nation, many of the country's practicing Catholics are considered liabilities by the Communist state, which holds no one, including God, above the Soviet Union.

A Radiance in the Gulag is a story written by a nun, who in 1975 was sentenced to three years in labor camp and three years of exile in Siberia for typing the 11th issue of the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Since 1972, this underground publication has been reporting human rights abuses committed in Lithuania. Despite all attempts by the KGB to stamp out the Chronicle, the publication has been reaching the West with a steady stream of information.

Sadūnaitė's story is an inspirational account of how she defied the KGB by never losing a grip on her steadfast belief in God and truth. Her story has been described as a contemporary, Catholic counterpart to the Diary of Anne Frank.

Sadūnaitė endured years of torture, strategies to break her spirit, and relentless interrogations designed to psychologically reduce her strength. Her single means of defending herself was through her unquestionable faith in God, a weapon which still has not been matched by the KGB.

When Sadūnaitė completed her sentence in 1980, she began writing about her experiences in Siberia, and the events that led her to the concentration camps. The KGB had warned Sadūnaitė that if she wrote about her struggles, she would go back to Siberia. She soon went into hiding. As revenge against Sadūnaitė, the KGB began harassing her brother, who was brought to a psychiatric hospital under trumped up charges. The Soviet Union's mental institutions are notorious for their brutal treatments designed to "recondition" its patients.

Her book, however, was smuggled to the United States in three parts and describes how in 1974, five KGB men barged into her apartment. After pages of the Chronicle were found in her apartment, Sadūnaitė was arrested and interrogated for one year. ''In the cellars of the KGB, the old methods of torture used during interrogations as described in the Gulag Archipelago have been changed for a new kind. There are hot cells and cold cells. They kept me and many others in hot cells where one is constantly being stifled from lack of air and from heat, perspiring ceaselessly. Others were kept in cold, damp cells with water dripping down the walls."

When she was brought to trial in 1975, the Soviets were concerned that the details of the trial would get out. They did not permit any witnesses to remain in the courtroom after testifying and, when the trial was over, Sadūnaitė was transported under special guard to the concentration camp. Nevertheless, the details were disseminated.

She refused to have a defense lawyer throughout her trial, because she didn't want to risk anyone's life on account of her own. If a lawyer could have been found to defend her, he would have spent the rest of his life answering to the KGB. Her defense speech, which in the book is recorded in its entirety, is one of many moving passages.

"Each time people are tried in connection with the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, the following words of Putinas seem most appropriate:

In arrogant tribunals
Murderers condemn the just.
You trample altars,
Both sin and righteousness
Collapse under the weight of your statutes.

During her final statement, she said, "Love of one's fellow man is the greatest form of love, while the struggle for human rights is the most beautiful hymn of love. May this hymn forever resound in our hearts and never fall silent. I have been accorded the inevitable task, the honorable fate, not only to struggle for human rights, but also to be sentenced for them. My sentence will become my triumph! My only regret is that I have been given so little opportunity to work on behalf of my fellow man."

On June 17, 1975, she was sentenced to three years in a labor camp and three years in exile.

"Locking the prisoner up in the punishment cell, they take away all clothing, except for underwear; women are left with just a light striped summer-weight dress. Usually, they lock you up for fifteen days, without taking you out of the punishment cell once; there is an iron pot for nature's needs, a small stool and a little table cemented to the floor."

She often participated in demonstrations and hunger strikes on behalf of fellow prisoners who were brutally punished. She survived her own interrogations and punishments, but was kept just barely alive by the authorities who knew her case was closely watched by Lithuanians in the West.

When she was allowed to go back to Lithuania, after her years in exile, she was forced into hiding, which is a curiosity considering the massive amounts of resources at the KGB's disposal. She often wrote, "I felt that without the will of God, not a hair falls from our head."

Before being detained briefly by Soviet officials in April 1987, Sadūnaitė managed to escape the KGB's snares for five years by disguising herself with wigs when she visited friends. Some of her narrow encounters with the KGB were almost comical and reminds one of a bumbling Goliath against an astute David. A few times, she was inches away from KGB agents who, under unconditional orders from their authorities, were desperately seeking Sadūnaitė.

Her ability to remain "free" is attributed to God's will. "We must all trust in Him and not fear any persecution, but work as much as we are able for the good and the glory of God. Fear is the beginning of betrayal. We have to fear only that we work and worry too little about the things of Christ and the Church, and there is too little sacrifice in our lives."

Today, Sadūnaitė walks a fine line between politics and religion. Given the recent openness of the Soviet Union, if she were taken into custody again, Lithuanians in the West would be immediately alerted.

A Radiance in the Gulag is a book of hope from a land of despair. It's about overcoming struggles in the face of insurmountable obstacles, a testament to inner strength derived from truth in God.

Silvia Foti