Book Review: With God in Russia

With God in Russia, by Walter J. Ciszek, SJ, with Daniel L. Flaherty, SJ.

In 1939, an American Jesuit priest named Walter J. Ciszek (born in 1904) slipped into the Soviet Union using a false identity, in the hope of ministering to the spiritual needs of everyday Russians, who had been deprived of many of their priests by the Communist government.

In short order, he was arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, convicted of being a Vatican spy, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Siberian labor camps.

After being released and forced to live in Siberia, he made the best of it working as a mechanic, despite being harassed continually by the KGB.

Though it appeared he would live out his life in the Siberian wasteland, he was returned to the United States in 1963 along with another American, in exchange for a couple of communist spies. He continued his priestly work here in the U.S. until his death in 1984.

With God in Russia is Fr. Ciszek’s oral account of his 23 years in Russia, recorded by Fr. Flaherty in a series of audio tapes and then transcribed and edited into this memoir.

What a memory Fr. Ciszek had! The amount of detail in his story is incredible. And although the mental, physical, and psychological suffering he endured and witnessed all around him was unimaginable to most of us, he tells his story with an almost superhuman equanimity inspired by his steadfast believe in God’s providence.

Despite years of interrogation, solitary confinement, occasional torture, starvation, miserable living conditions and even worse working conditions in the Siberian mining camps, he managed to not only hold his own, but actually do what he set out to do. Over his 23 years in Russia, he found ways to offer spiritually-starved Russians Mass, perform baptisms, hear confessions, and offer comfort to prisoners and inhabitants of the towns who were as bad off as he was or even worse. He was tireless.

Fr. Ciszek’s is a story spiritual strength. He is walking and talking proof of how faith enables one to be patient, loving, and strong when it would be easy and understandable to give in to despair and hatred. Fr. Ciszek never compromises his character. He is given many opportunities for an easier life if only he will admit to being a spy (which he was not) or become a spy for the KGB — but he always says no. He conducts Mass and sacraments, sometimes on a fairly large scale, even though he knows the KGB is watching him and could punish him severely. He stands up to his interrogators and savage gang members when he has to, but in general follows the rules and bears his burdens calmly.  He faces what he thinks is certain death on a few occasions, but even then faces his fate with confidence in God’s providence. But there are limits. There are things that disturb Fr. Ciszek and arouse his anger, in particular the duplicity of the KGB, which makes him physically ill.

His survival was miraculous, to say nothing of his return to America. And part of that miracle is that we can read his story and learn so much from him.

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