The book jacket to El Campesino: Life and and Death in Soviet Russia boasts that, “this is not another memoir of a tortured intellectual wrestling with his conscience. This book is in every sense a tense narrative of action, played out against the world’s most important struggle.”
Enough obsessive Russians! “I was elected to lead, not to read!”
This blurb is accurate, however. The main character, Valentin Gonzalez, “El Campesino” (the Peasant), is indeed a man of action and not reflection. His narrative tells the story of his struggle in the Spanish Civil War, which makes him a hero of the Communist Party. Feted by the Soviets, they whisk him away to Russia for specialized training. He quickly grew disillusioned with the Soviet system. His fiery personality led to numerous conflicts with party officials, which led to his imprisonment. Gonzalez’s relentless forward-looking energy helps him escape not once but twice from prison camps, and eventually to freedom–the stuff of legend.
Such a triumph would indeed never happen with a more introspective “intellectual wrestling with his conscience.” Gonzalez’s accomplishments come with a host of morally questionable actions he takes, but true to his nature, he hardly blinks an eye. Gonzalez tells us that in the gulags the political prisoners often die within six months, while the ordinary criminals find ways to survive.
He decided to survive.
Of course one can’t help but root for him. In many respects we certainly should root for him–for one, we obviously have to root against the Soviets. Some introspection, some torturing of his conscience, however, might have helped him do more than merely survive.
One incident fairly early in the book jumped out at me that illumined the dark caverns of the Soviet system, and humanity besides.
Upon their arrival in Moscow Gonzalez and other “Heroes of the Revolution” received royal treatment. Each of them had a “maid” assigned to them. These maids came young, pretty, perfumed, and quite willing to do anything at all. In fact the girls sought to sleep with them. This, they knew, would be part of their weekly evaluations.
Possibly one of these “heroes” might have traditional ideas about sexual behavior and marriage (Gonzalez did not). But such a man would face a terrible dilemma. If he did not sleep with her, she might receive poor evaluations and perhaps even a punishment. He would feel sympathy and wants to protect her. So he sleeps with her. But the maids sleep with the men primarily to put them off their guard so that they might reveal “anti-Soviet” thoughts. They received big rewards for successfully extracting useful information for the NKVD.
The Soviets certainly recognized our need for fellowship and intimacy, but they exploited this not only to turn people against each other, but to turn someone against their very selves. This result seems almost inevitable given the circumstances.
The life of Father George Calciu, however, shows us a different path.
Father George lived in Romania and came of age just prior to the communist takeover after World War II. They arrested him in 1948 not so much for any specific crime, but mainly because he was one of the younger, educated set that the communists needed to make their own. The old did not matter so much. Romania’s traditional culture and deep roots in the Orthodox faith could die out with them.
Father George and others like him went to an Orwellian style prison designed to break them psychologically more than physically. Their captors sought via a variety of techniques to separate them from the past and themselves straight out of 1984. Father George confessed that such methods worked. He said things to his interrogators he regretted. After some months he found that he could not remember much about his childhood. He could not remember how to pray.
Then two things happened. First, he realized that he did remember one prayer–“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This helped him remember himself and led to his remembering the the Lord’s Prayer and a few others. Second, the interrogation process culminated when they successfully recruited prisoners to help them torture other prisoners. Father George had said things he regretted, but this he would not do. He felt terribly alone, for if he had agreed to this, he would have found at least some form of fellowship, some kind of sense of team with the other guards.
But then a curious thing happened. The jailers lumped all the resistant prisoners together, perhaps not wanting them to infect their own converts. Here Father George found a new community centered around their mutual faith in Christ and a commitment to human dignity.
Now, he knew himself again.
Some years after his release he felt called to deliver a series of Lenten sermons to Romania’s youth and a similar pattern emerged. The seminary where he taught knew these messages might provoke trouble with the authorities. They refused to support him, and once again Father George found himself alone. But he went forward anyway, and to his utter shock, thousands and thousands of students came to hear him each week. His “Seven Homilies to the Youth” had an international distribution. He faced a second term in prison. But now he was an internationally known dissident, and this gave him a small measure of protection. In both instances, Father George refused to give in to the communist inspired ideals of community.
I admire the courage and audacity of Valentin Gonzalez. But Father George Calciu showed us a better way.