Workers in a Gulag. Wikimedia Commons

A Smile in the Gulag

She was arrested, tortured, and sent to Siberia. The accusation? Having spread news about the Church in Lithuania. And yet, Nijole Saunaite speaks of her jailers as “my KGB brothers and sisters...”
Luca Fiore

She drove the prison guards crazy. She kept singing and singing. The air ran thin in her cell in the basement of the KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Nevertheless, Sadunaite intoned the hymns she had learned as a child. The guards beat on the door, asking her to stop. They reported to the warden, “They brought us an ‘extra-long’ record and there’s no way to turn it off.” Nijole Sadunaite, now 78, tells the story with a look of amusement. She looks a bit like a gentle grandmother, but she never retired from her passion for freedom and for truth because, in her words, “Still today there are people who, like our brothers in the KGB, answer neither to God nor to men.” That expression–“brothers”–says it all about the kind of woman Nijole is. One with enough gall, even now, to make the Lithuanian political powers of the day uneasy.

She lived in the cell in Vilnius for nine months, growing thin and losing most of her hair. Without her knowledge, they subjected her to ionizing radiation to wear her down and pressure her to confess. She never talked. She never betrayed her friends. Those months of torture, she says, “were the most beautiful months of my life, because I’ve never felt God so carnally close.”

Arrested on August 27, 1974, and tried a year later without witnesses in a closed trial, she was charged with “having typed Issue 11 of the underground magazine Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania” and sentenced to serve six years: three in a gulag close to Saransk, in the Volga region, and three confined in Boguchany in Siberia. The judges listened to the guilty party’s last statement without raising their eyes. “A glorious destiny has fallen to me; not only to fight for the rights of man and for justice, but to be condemned for their sake,” Nijole told the court. “Unhappy is the man who doesn’t love. Yesterday you were amazed how serene I was. That shows that my heart is full of ardent love for my fellow man, because only by loving does everything become joy.”

Hers is the story of a woman full of joy, even in her years in the gulag. She stopped to wonder at the starry sky, made friends with her cellmates, and prayed with them. While in her confinement, she encouraged her dissident friends. She sent the state functionaries responsible for her “reconditioning” into a crisis of doubt. When she was freed, she gave herself to the underground movement, splitting time between Vilnius and Moscow, dedicated to spreading the Chronicle. In 1989, John Paul II asked to meet her during World Youth Day in Santiago de Compostela. After his embrace, the severe case of anemia she contracted from the radiation in her cell in Vilnius was mysteriously healed.

Meeting Nijole Sadunaite today and listening to the way she sees the world has the same effect that it must have had on her jailers. You come out mystified and a bit captivated by her simple and unconquerable faith.

Let’s start from the beginning, how did you become a dissident?
In the 1970s, the Soviet propaganda said that there was freedom of worship in our country. If the churches were closing, they said, it was because people weren’t going anymore. Because of this, we came up with the idea of creating a tool to report on what was happening in the Christian community. We wanted to send our SOS out to the world.

You knew you risked going to prison.
Yes, there were many trials. Many people ended up in psychiatric wards. There were similar initiatives in Ukraine and Moscow, as well. One time, the KGB made it known that if another issue of the Chronicle of the Russian Orthodox Church were to come out, they would, in order to repress it, arrest 10 innocent men and women. Sergei Kovalev, a high-profile professor who helped us Lithuanians, among others, decided that he should be identified as the sole editor. They published his full name, address, and phone number. They didn’t want innocent people to suffer in their place.

How did they find you?
I worked at a typewriter in my brother’s apartment with a friend who dictated to me. We didn’t know that the woman next door was a KGB collaborator. They had opened up a little crack in the wall, hidden by an electrical outlet. They could hear everything over on the other side. During my interrogation, the agents asked me, “You had pity on everyone, but your neighbor had no pity for you. She denounced you right away.”

And how did you respond?
If that neighbor really believed that denouncing us would do good, because we were people who wished evil on the Soviet people, then she did the right thing. If, instead, she’d sold herself for 30 pieces of silver, I couldn’t help but have pity on her.

Did you ever meet her again?
She still lives in the same apartment. When I go to visit my brother, every once in a while, I run into her on the stairs and we say hello.

Have you ever asked her why she did it?
When I wrote my memoir, A Radiance in the Gulag, I related this incident without mentioning her by name. She told me that it wasn’t true, that she wasn’t the one who turned me in. But the 14 KGB agents who walked into my house came out of her apartment.

What happened then?
My friend Brone and I were taking a break. We had just finished typing the sixth page of an issue of the Chronicle. They burst in saying, “Everyone freeze; we’re going to photograph everything.” It made me want to laugh. “What are you shouting about? It’s not like we’re hiding an atomic bomb or something.” My reaction and sarcasm threw Brone off a little; at first she thought it was all a joke. Then they told us to stand against the wall. I reassured them that all they would find were those six pieces of paper. As they searched, we started saying the Rosary.

Weren’t you afraid?
What could they have done to me? At the most, send me straight into the arms of God. One time, during an interrogation, they set a bottle with some poison inside in front of me. I said, “Thank you so much! I’m a sinner, but this way you’ll send me straight to Paradise. I’ll be grateful to you for eternity.” But they never did what you asked them to. They couldn’t afford to create a martyr. If you’re not afraid, they can’t do anything to you. Otherwise, you start doing everything they ask you to do. I used to say, “If God is with us, who is against us? A million KGB agents is nothing in the eyes of God. A breath and you’re no longer there.”

What was the hardest moment for you?
When they locked my brother in a psychiatric hospital. They told me, “If you talk, you’ll save his life.” It was very difficult. But I knew that, all things aside, my brother was in God’s hands, too. And, in fact, they released him a few months later.

Have you forgiven the people who’ve hurt you?
Of course, I’ve always been grateful to them. It’s through them that I’ve seen God’s goodness. They were very unhappy people. They were confused by the fact that their violent methods didn’t work on me. But God shows us that there’s another kind of force. That is what I experienced. They carried me off to Siberia saying I wouldn’t come back alive. And here I am.

The Year of Mercy ended just recently. What did it mean for you?
Every year, and it was true for this last year as well, is full of joy, and at the same time full of pain (think of all the wars and injustice). Joy and pain always go together; they are the face of our daily life. And what we need the most is really mercy. The Jubilee reminded us of this need we have: I am in constant need of God’s merciful gaze to be able to look at others as He looks at me. When he loses sight of his relationship with God, man becomes a slave to evil.

Is the fight for truth still needed today?
Just as in Soviet times we had our KGB brothers and sisters, so today we have those who think only about their personal gain, always focused on themselves, answering neither to God nor to men.

So what do you do?
I take a stand in instances of glaring injustice and seek to be there, physically, for the victims. When I see a person who’s undergone an injustice, I fight for that person, without worrying about public opinion. Recently, I was asked to intervene in front of the Parliament, and I spoke of a case that wasn’t very clear that the judicial system had declared closed. Neither party had any interest in opening it up again and no one wanted to say what he thought. My one concern was for the 10-year-old girl who was involved. Then, three years ago, I publicly defended a girl who was wrongly accused, for political reasons, of being involved in a terrorist organization. When she got sick in prison, I took her medicine and when she was freed, I helped her out. I’m not interested in political motivations. I defend the truth and accompany the person. I just can’t keep silent, even though many people advise me to do so. They tell me I’m old and senile.

What, in particular, do you hope people will remember from your story?
God is good to everyone, even to us weak sinners. People think that I survived and resisted using my own strength, but it’s not true. If we have faith in God, we’re invincible. Hate is weak. A breath is enough to overcome it. Those who are angry never come out as winners. Not having any arguments for the truth of what they say, they use force. Our force is in our weakness.