The memory of the victims of communism has been honored with various initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic. To that end, a spate of symposia and panel discussions were held in November and December 2003 in Italy, mostly in Rome and Milan.
The symposium “Memento Gulag—Communism in the history of the XIX century,” jointly held November 7-8, 2003, in Rome by two cultural think tanks (Associazione Fiducia and umbrella Comitatus pro libertatibus-Freedom Committees), and the Milan event of December 9-11, 2003, “The Righteous in the Gulag—The value of moral resistance to Soviet totalitarianism,” organized by GARIWO (Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide) shared many facets. Probably the most significant of these was the idea that all totalitarianisms—Nazism and communism—must be rejected, so much so that the concept of the “Righteous of the Shoah” should be extended to those innocent victims of Soviet Gulags who championed an uncompromising human dignity in the face of totalitarianism.
Gabriele Nissim, one of the organizers of the Milan event who has authored many books on the Nazi persecution of Jews, said that it is time for the stories of the victims of Soviet terror to be unearthed and recounted to the public. In his column in Corriere della Sera (December 8, 2003), senior editorialist Paolo Mieli agreed, predicting the usual lament of those unilateralists who “oppose this (but only this) kind of memories: it’s all known, we have been knowing this for years, there is nothing new which needs to be brought to light . . . ” This is nonsense, Mieli countered, citing John Paul II’s statement that it is necessary to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the abysmal tragedy of the Ukrainian “Holodomor” “for young people to remember past events so that similar suffering is never repeated again.” So much attention has been paid to the holocaust, but almost nothing is known about the Holodomor: Who has ever heard of it? The word was coined 70 years ago, Ukrainian ambassador to Italy Boris Hudyma said during the “Memento Gulag” symposium, to mean “mass extermination by hunger.” It was a Stalin-engineered famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, in a country known, the Pope recalled, as “the breadbasket of Europe,” which was “no longer able to feed its own children, who died by the millions.” Under the Kremlin’s instructions, the newly installed communist regime confiscated at gunpoint all foodstuffs in the rural areas to divert them to urban and industrial centers, often outside the Ukraine. As a result, at least seven million rural people died, with entire generations of well-to-do independent farmers and peasants literally wiped out—along with their traditions, spiritual and social life, and cultural and religious identity.
In his keynote speech at the “Memento Gulag” symposium in Rome, Italy’s Senate Speaker Marcello Pera celebrated Russian dissident Varlam Tichonovic Shalamov, who refused any form of cooperation with his oppressors in the Siberian Gulag of Kolyma, where he had been confined. Quoting from what he termed an “extraordinary exchange of letters” between Shalamov and Boris Pasternak, Pera offered glimpses of life in the Gulag. Shalamov’s description of Stalin’s Gulags is not as impressive as the recount of Hitler’s lager, Senator Pera contends. Nonetheless, the Gulags were no less hellish, as shown by the following vivid description from Shalamov’s “Tales of Kolyma”:
A working day lasted 16 hours . . .
the people fall asleep on their spades and may neither sit nor lay down because they would [shoot] you on the spot . . . in the winter night with 60 degrees below zero . . . while the silver trumpets orchestra play marches before the half dead prisoners queue . . . a guard reads out the name list of prisoners fired for having failed to achieve their prescribed levels of production.
Shalamov laments that “There is nothing in the world which is more unworthy than the intention to forget about these crimes.” At the Milan event, Shalamov was celebrated as the perfect example of the “Righteous in the Gulag” for the value of his moral resistance to Soviet totalitarianism.
Another famous Russian dissident likewise deserving of this title is Vladimir Bukovskji, who never compromised with the Soviets.
Though less known, all the more gruesome is the story of another “Righteous in the Gulag,” former Albanian parliament speaker Pjeter Arbnori.
After having been tried as a “traitor and agent” and handed a death sentence—which, luckily, was not imposed for the simple reason that “they had already carried out the required number that week”—he spent almost 30 years in the Albanian Gulag, from May 1961 (when he was only 26) to August 1989, for having sought to establish an opposition party.
Pjeter Arbnori was keynote speaker and guest of honor in conferences and gatherings around Italy, where, besides commemoration and remembrance, other initiatives were debated, including a call for communist war criminals to be tried; the proclamation of a Gulag Memorial Day; the promotion of awareness campaigns “not to forget what Gulag was and still is”; the idea of a “distance adoption” for those who are still Gulag prisoners.
What is being sought is justice, not revenge, as Arbnori, a devout Catholic, shows when he recalls that, as speaker,
every day I see people who spied on me, who accused me, who interrogated and tortured me, judges who brought false evidence and witnesses to testify against me, and I turn my head on the other side so as not to show contempt.
“Hatred is not part of my nature,” he continued.
Revenge has no place in my mind and I am prepared to wholeheartedly grant my pardon to whoever did me evil if they ask for or more simply regret it, preferring to invest my energy in establishing democracy in the country and re-unity with Europe.
Yet, judging from his unspeakable sufferings, a desire for revenge, though not acceptable for a Christian, would have been understandable. Another reason he was spared execution was that the authorities believed that he was hiding a great deal of invaluable information, so he was brutally tortured for a couple of years after the death sentence. He was confined to a cell without a bed, without blankets and wearing only his underwear; the temperature was far below the freezing point, and snow came in from an open window. Day and night, he was kept in chains, which were increasingly tightened as the questioning dragged on and on. How could he survive? I believe in God, I am Catholic and God saved me, he usually answers.
The psychological and spiritual torture, Arbnori vividly recalls, was the most difficult to withstand. The investigators would play a taped cassette with the voices of members of his family, pretending they had all been arrested and tortured. Listening to the screams, many prisoners broke down completely, some committed suicide, and others gave up and told the communists anything they wanted to hear. The greatest fight was to keep one’s moral dignity intact, “so we would never be ashamed of this period of our life.” Arbnori persevered, however, and relentlessly continued his activity against the dictatorship from prison by smuggling out his writings and organizing the resistance of inmates against the regime. This cost him a ten-year extension of his prison term.
Some of the most outstanding examples of moral resistance and spiritual strength were offered by incarcerated priests, in the wake of the Communist Party’s policy in the 1960’s declaring Albania the world’s first officially atheist state and, thus, seeking to erase Christianity. Arbnori met most of the Albanian martyrs, who sacrificed their lives to defend the Faith in word and deed. “I was together with them,” he recalls.
In the prisons I attended their masses by stealth, I took communion from their hands, I listened to their sermons, I suffered together with them. I saw their heroic example and therefore I can witness to their martyrdom.
In a way, Arbnori considers himself a lucky man. “My great destiny was that I lived in a[n] extraordinary, albeit tragic, epoch,” he contends.
I met and came across people one could hardly meet in centuries. For never had such an organized struggle against the Church and her followers been seen for centuries and centuries. Tragedy produced heroes, absolutely exceptional people.
All of them, he stressed, had a common feature: “[D]espite their extremely difficult plight, under no circumstances whatsoever did they ever deny God, serving Our Lord and also publicly professing their faith.”
How did this persecution initially come about? The communist regime needed a pretext to arrest priests and had hidden an arms cache in the Franciscan church in Gjiuhadol for the Sigurimi (the secret police) to discover. The friars were accused of plotting an armed rebellion. As a result, many innocents were executed by firing squad, and others were sentenced to long prison terms. During one of the trials, however, the author of the ploy, Sigurimi officer Pjerin Kçira, publicly repented and cleared the friars of any guilt.
In turn, in July 1948, he and his collaborators were arrested and accused by the authorities of having formed an anticommunist party group aimed at discrediting the regime. “I was present at the trial against Pjerin Kçira, whom I knew well,” Arbnori says. “He persecuted many priests, even though in the past they had helped him much, since he was [an] orphan.” In a way, he was a Judas, but of a different kind: Before being shot behind the wall of the very cemetery where he had previously executed so many members of the clergy, he sincerely asked for pardon from his victims. He was 26 years old.
The news that the Franciscans had been the innocent victims of a government-driven plot soon spread across the country. The regime’s violent anti-Christian pressure did not abate, however, culminating in the government order in 1967 (“the black year,” in Arbnori’s words) to close down all the churches, with the ensuing arrest of all the clergy and confiscation of religious properties and items. During this period, Arbnori says, two Jesuit fathers, Anton Luli and Pjeter Meshkalla, became particularly popular for their heroic and unwavering resistance. Meshkalla, a philosopher and humanist, was a constant thorn in the side of the regime, since he had the rare ability to turn his trials into blistering anticommunist propaganda coups.
Their shining examples, together with those of many others—religious and laymen alike—destined to remain forever unknown, contributed to the demise of the anti-Christian regime in 1989, when Arbnori was finally released. He immediately joined the democratic movement and was elected speaker of parliament’s for Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party in 1992 and 1996. In what Arbnori calls “a mafia-communist coup,” in June 1997, the Socialist Party, the “recycled” rump of the old communist establishment, won the elections, and it seemed that somehow the bad old days had returned. For the opposition to be granted sufficient media access, Arbnori went on a 20-day hunger strike, and international pressure saved him from a coma, compelling the Albanian parliament to adopt the Arbnori Amendment. This amendment has remained largely unapplied. The problems are still so many, Arbnori laments: Roads and power stations are needed; there is no distribution of gasoline; hospitals are inadequate. Most of all, he says, Albania lacks security, so foreign investments are slow to flow in.
Though the picture may still be somewhat bleak, the very existence of people of the caliber of Pjeter Arbnori and many other inspiring figures bodes well for the future of Albania, as well as the realization of the leitmotiv underlying every Gulag symposium: never again totalitarianism; never again communism.