The National Catholic Review
Walter Ciszek
From March 28, 1964
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My plane landed at Idlewild International Airport, at 6:55 A. M., in the gray dawn of October 12, 1963. All during the long flight from Moscow, I had wondered what it would be like to see the United States again after 24 years in the Soviet Union, mostly in Siberia. Yet, as we taxied to the terminal, I forgot all about that; I could think only of my sisters and of the fellow Jesuits I saw waiting to meet me. My throat seemed somehow to grow suddenly tighter; I felt a nervous happiness in the expectancy of that first meeting. I hardly remember much about Idlewild, therefore, except flashing lights in the early dawn, the crowd of reporters and that feeling of joy at being home. It was a long while before I could even begin to sift out my impressions of things here.

Cars, of course. Everybody asks about that, and its true. You notice them immediately. Moscow streets are busy, but here the streets are crammed with cars--north, south, east and west--cars coming, cars going, and block after block of cars standing along the curbs. Not just in the cities, but along the country roads and in small towns, the main streets and the side streets and the alleys seem almost carpeted with cars.

And what cars! For five years I was a mechanic at ATK-50, the government garage in Abakan, working on the citys fleet of taxis. Those are really about the only cars there are, for few people can afford their own. The average workingmans salary is 90 rubles (roughly $90) a month; a really good salary is 150 rubles a month. But the little four-cylinder Moskvicz costs almost 3,000 rubles (nearly three years salary!), and the bigger, six-cylinder Volga costs about 6,000. Those were the cars I worked with, and practically every American car I have seen looks like a battleship compared to them--especially after they had spent a month on the roads around Abakan.

Two other things connected with American cars amazed me. One was the very low cost of a second-hand car; even a dilapidated, rebuilt refugee from ATK-50 would cost a minimum of 2,000 rubles in Abakan. The other was the sight of a nun driving a car. When I stop to think about it, I suppose nuns are no better--or worse--drivers than anyone else, since most young people here seem to grow up behind the wheel. But I hadnt seen a nun in a religious habit for almost twenty-five years; the sight of one behind the wheel of a car struck me as incredible--and funny.

Housing, of course, impressed me tremendously. I dont mean the skyscraper skyline of New York and the block on block of soaring glass, steel and aluminum towers that loom over you as you walk through the city. Everyone expects that of New York. What struck me, however, was the mile after mile of neat, well-painted and well-kept houses: the big, comfortable farmhouses in the countryside, the trim, sharp rows of "modern" brick and glass homes in every suburb, the solid, sturdy brick houses with their frame front porches in every little town.

Sometimes I still feel uneasy when I visit these homes. The idea that one family should occupy six, seven or eight rooms! I cant shake the feeling that something is wrong. And every room has carpets, pictures, mirrors, lamps, chairs, even a radio. A house that had four rooms was a luxury in Siberia, and even then the "spare" room was generally rented out. I lived in such spare rooms all through my stay in Abakan, sleeping on a little iron bed with boards in place of springs. Frankly, you couldnt have fitted some of the "standard" American beds--with their oversized frames and mattresses a foot thick--into the room I had for the last two years in Abakan.

I cant get used to the notion, either, that hot water is available all day and all night, or that you can take a bath any time you want. In Siberia, houses that had hot water had it only twice a week, at best, during the winter. Central heating where I lived meant that the corners of the big, brick kitchen stove stuck into all four rooms of the house. Here even the poorest homes have central heating, and stoves are gas or electric, with the kitchens full of electric toasters, electric mixers, electric frying pans, electric roasters--electric everything, including can-openers. Everybody has a vacuum cleaner; I even saw teen-agers walking around with portable hair-dryers. When people here buy a washing machine (and everybody does), they can choose between a dozen makes, all with special features and most of them with matching dryers. In Russia, there is only one type, the Bielka , with a hand wringer, no dryer--and you put the water in by hand! When you can get one, it costs 90 rubles, just about a mans whole wages for a month.

You dont just walk into the Magazin (department store) and buy a washing machine; you order one, and you put your name at the bottom of the list of those who have ordered before you. Then you go back every week and put a check beside your name to show that you still want and need that machine. If you fail to check your name for two weeks in a row, or if you miss about three times all told, your name drops off the list. There may be 500 or more names on the list, but only 35 or 40 machines will be delivered to the Magazin each month; so a wait of more than a year is not unusual. The same thing is true of rugs and refrigerators; it seemed incredible to see a kitchen with two refrigerators back home in Shenandoah, Pa.

The food in those refrigerators, or in the stores! You cant imagine what it means to see fruit in the middle of winter. Apples, melons and grapes were about the only fruit we had in Abakan, and then only during harvest time. If you saw someone with an apple, even a stranger, youd go right up to him and ask where he got it--then go there right away. We did buy oranges a few times while I was there, but they were little Chinese oranges, and of course you never see them now. We never saw grapefruit, or such things as peaches, pears, plums, cherries and pineapples. Bananas were so rare that some people honestly and literally didnt know what to do with them; they couldnt be sure whether they were fruit or vegetable, whether they should be cooked or eaten as they were. But here, store windows are full of every kind of fruit all winter long--and the people pass by without looking.

Here you can go into any store on any street and buy meat, milk, butter and every kind of vegetable, fresh, frozen or canned. My sisters began to think the years in Siberia had affected my mind, when I went wandering for hours through a supermarket, staring wide-eyed and unbelieving at so much food. All the stores are that way. You never have to stand in line for anything, except the time it takes the girl to check out the baskets of food each person buys. In Abakan, you stood in line for everything; when there was a line in a store it meant they finally had something to sell. Before you went to work, on your way home from work, if you saw a line you automatically got into it. Whatever they were selling, it would be something you needed.

It isnt only the food in the stores that amazes me, its the food an average family puts on the table for an average meal. The first few times I went to visit friends in Shenandoah, I felt guilty because they were going to such an expense for me. Several times I asked them how they could afford it. Theyd look at me as if they didnt understand, then smile at me and wink at one another. In Abakan, I used to cook myself a pot of soup from cabbage, onions and potatoes, with perhaps some beef or lamb bones I had saved--or a piece of meat if I could get it--and that would be my breakfast and my supper for the next three days. A handful of lard added to the soup, so that it would be covered with a layer of grease as thick as your little finger, was the way I added fats to my diet. A chunk of chewy, dark rye bread completed the meal.

I seldom had meat, except now and again a piece of boloney with another piece of bread for lunch. Otherwise, my lunch at the garage consisted of a piece of bread and an onion, or perhaps a piece of bread and fat. Here in America, Ive watched mothers in the kitchen after a meal throwaway more food, and better food, than I might eat in Russia in half a week. The dogs here eat more meat in a week than I did in a month. And I simply cant help staring when people leave their plates half full, as they do so often in restaurants.

The waste of paper here! Everything comes wrapped in paper, boxed in paper, rolled in paper, packaged in paper. And if it isnt paper, its plastic. Each piece of fruit is individually wrapped, vegetables are bagged in cellophane, and everything is boxed in brightly printed, attractive cartons. Then all this is thrown away or burned! In Siberia, on the other hand, you bring your own wrapping paper to the store. Most people found the best solution was to buy a newspaper; it gave you something to do during those endless waits in line, too.

When I say things like this, of course, I am only recounting my impressions, not offering criticisms. Somewhat like a Siberian Rip Van Winkle, I cant help being struck by things in my own country that seem strange and new to me. After all, as Wladimir Martinovich I lived the life of the people in Siberia, conformed to all the regulations, got used to all the customs and came to take for granted all the hardships. Abakan, Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk--the Siberian cities where I was allowed to live as a free man after my release from the camps--are not Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev or Odessa. As a released "political" prisoner who had been accused of "spying for the Vatican," I was not allowed to live in any of those major, or "regime," cities. Neither am I a sociologist; so I dont pretend to judge life in the Soviet Union as compared to life in the United States, or vice versa. I am only recording my surface impressions, the things that struck me when I first returned and continue to startle me from time to time in many little ways.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I was struck by the sight of a crucifix on the classroom wall as I talked to the children in St. Ladislaus parish school in Philadelphia. You never see that in Russia. Somehow I suddenly felt strange; I almost felt out of place. I could see in the childrens eyes an eagerness and a respect for what I was (not who I was), a priest whom they called "Father." I thought of the Russian children who used to come to me for help with their English lessons. How cautious I had to be with them never to mention God! Here in this classroom, beneath the crucifix, I could tell these children anything, speak to them of anything. In Abakan I felt restricted, and I had to be careful not to startle the children.

I remember a day I forgot and made some reference to God; I could see the surprise and the near-horror in their eyes. "Wladimir Martinovich," said one little girl, "is it possible that you believe in God, a smart man like you? How can you still let yourself be influenced by unscientific stories about God and religion?" She was perhaps in the seventh grade. I didnt want them to go away without an answer, so I told them they would come across the idea of God wherever they went; it was a serious problem that troubled many people, and they would make a serious mistake if they didnt consider it carefully and try to solve it for themselves. Under the circumstances, that was the best I could do. I had just been warned again by the KGB not to "agitate" the people about religion. If I had tried to tell these children about God, or to instruct them, it would have been considered "proselytizing immature minds." Thats how it is in Russia.

Article 124 of the Constitution of the USSR states that "in order to ensure the citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the USSR is separated from the state, and the school from the church. Freedom of religious worship and freedom of antireligious propaganda are recognized for all citizens." What that means in effect is that the right to propagate religion ends at the church door or at a mothers knee. In the churches that are open (generally only the Orthodox churches, except in the big cities like Moscow), services are held and people are free to attend--as long as they are not Party members or do not hold responsible jobs or positions they would hesitate to lose. That is "freedom of worship." But you cannot proselytize or talk about religion or try to make converts; whereas with the "freedom of antireligious propaganda" exercised by the schools, the Party, the labor unions, the press, radio and television, atheism is actively and continuously preached.

Religion in Russia, therefore, is not suppressed or persecuted, as people here understand the words. Instead, it is talked about as something that retards the movement toward communism and impedes the education of the "new communistic man." In special courses, seminars and lectures, Party members, school teachers, komsomols (members of the official youth organizations) and labor union members get a thorough grounding in atheism in order to help fight religion--not by government legislation, but by word of mouth and by example. In school, everything is "scientifically" explained to the children; ideas of God and of religion are treated as holdovers from the unscientific past. Children are told to humor their elders who still believe in such things and have never had the scientific and technical training that would show them how incompatible such notions are with modern science. The method can be devastatingly effective, up to a point.

Older people, however, still believe in God, and their influence is still noticeable in family life. As a result, the young people hear talks against religion in school but still can see examples of religious practices at home. It confuses them. Publicly, they do not believe; they will argue with anyone who suggests they should believe. Privately, however, they are not sure. I have had young married komsomols come to me to have their children baptized. When I asked about the possibility of religious education for the child, and why they wanted him baptized, they would tell me simply they had heard all sorts of things about God and against God, in school and in the Party organizations, but they were not convinced. They wanted to do for their children what their parents had done for them--just in case. When I asked, then, if they would teach their children what their parents had taught them, they were eager to agree. It was a strange and sad and yet, somehow, hopeful experience. The more I see here in America, the stranger it seems in a way. For the contrast between that hidden faith, fluttering as if it were always about to go out and yet somehow remaining alight, and the open, free and almost proud profession of faith in this country is simply staggering.

Yet when I walked through St. Patricks Cathedral in New York, do you know what impressed me most? The few people, out of all the crowds streaming by, who came in through those open doors to make a visit. I understand that my impression was not fair, that at noontime on a working day the church is jammed with office workers who take time out from their lunch hour to go to Mass and to Communion. At first glance religion here seems almost a formality, an obligation that can be dispensed with if you have been out late the night before.

In Siberia, when I said Mass, people risked arrest to come; here, they risk nothing, neither do they always come. In Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk, when people learned a priest was in town or was saying Mass at such and such a place, they came for miles, bringing their children to be baptized, going to confession before Mass and then Communion during Mass, asking to have their marriages blessed after Mass, begging me to come and bless their homes or sing the panikida (a requiem service) for members of the family who had died. They came to huts, to barracks rooms, to private homes, and they risked their jobs, their union membership, their chance for an apartment or an education for their children. Having ministered to such faith, therefore, it was incredible to me to think that people here could look on Sunday Mass as an obligation, or the supporting of their parish and their school as a burden.

I should repeat again that these were my first reactions, my impressions, and are not meant in any way as criticisms. I am only reporting what struck me when I first looked at America again. As a priest who had worked very hard to help people who were so eager just to be able to go to Mass, I could not help being struck, thunderstruck, at this initial impression of indifference to religion in a country where there was nothing to restrain its open practice.

There is one topic about which people always ask me: the race question. Quite frankly, I was amazed to see Negroes eating in restaurants, working alongside white people (even in the government in Washington!), sitting beside them on trains and buses, talking with them freely and openly. I couldnt believe my eyes at first. I had read of riots in America, of Negroes being beaten. I had heard they couldnt go to school to get an education or eat with whites, and that they werent allowed to hold certain jobs. I had seen pictures on television of several Black Muslim speakers in Harlem calling for a separate section of the country as their own, where they could be free and independent of the whites.

I tried to tell the Russians who asked me about this that such stories must be exaggerated. But what could I say about the TV pictures and the news photos, or the statements by prominent American leaders, both Negro and white, that were quoted so frequently in the Soviet press? What could I think? I had left America to study theology in Rome in 1934; I had no way of knowing what things were like in America after 30 years. I could say the news was exaggerated, but was I sure? You can imagine, then, how stunned I was to see Negroes walking freely everywhere, accepted by everyone. Again, this was my first impression, my spontaneous reaction in view of what I had been led to believe. I have begun to learn what problems still remain and how much is still to be done; but perhaps my impression will show how much the average Russian knows about America.

I am an American, happy to be home; but in many ways I am almost a stranger, as you can tell by these initial reactions to America. It may take me a while to feel at home, but I am happy to be back. What sort of picture, though, must others have of us who have no way of finding out the truth?

Walter Ciszek, S.J., a Jesuit missionary who served in the Soviet Union, was arrested by Soviet officials in 1941 and accused of "spying for the Vatican." After time in Moscow's notorious Lubianka prison, he spent decades at hard labor in Siberia.

Comments

David Pasinski | 4/7/2008 - 8:26pm
It is fascinating to read this reflection 44 years later. I first heard of Father Ciszek in his book, "With God in Russia" that was read (forever it seemed!) for ten minutes at each noon meal at the seminary of Wadhams Hall (Ogdensburg, NY) around 1967. While we often gagged at some descriptions of his putrid meals at the end of our lunch, these many years later most us remember something more substantive about the man and his faith and witness in that Cold War era. His enthusiasm for American freedom and consumer goods at that time is interesting to contrast in this era when we are more aware of extremely privileged consumer status, how our nation has approved of torture, and how our freedoms are under great surveillance and attack --not by any enemies but some in our own government.