For the last five years the bishop of Novosibirsk has entrusted the pastoral care of two parishes to me – St. Augustine in the university area and St. Joseph in Berdsk, a suburban city of one hundred thousand inhabitants – as well as various other small communities scattered in a 125 mile radius around our house. Iskitìm is a city of some seventy thousand people, about twelve miles beyond Berdsk, an area that is park of our parish’s territory. There once was a forced labor camp here, active between the 1920’s and 1950’s. Common criminals, dissident politicians, landowners, peasants, intellectuals, doctors, priests and religious were all sent here. I had heard Fr. Giampiero Caruso talk about it. He had gone there on pilgrimage with the bishop and other priests of the diocese. His story moved me deeply and made me curious. So one Saturday in May, I went to go look for the site. An unevenly paved road led me to Lozhok, a little village made up of old country houses, abandoned factories, and apartment blocks with crumbling facades. The old gulag buildings had been completely removed. The area that used to be filled with prisoner barracks, is now a school and a cultural center. The village is all that remains of the prison guards’ residences. The surrounding hills are carved out by streams and old streets that once were full of the trucks driving back and forth from the quarries.
Up until rather recent times, through reading, I had gotten the idea that the most difficult Soviet camps were Kolyma and Vorkuta, situated respectively in the extreme East and North of the once Soviet Union. But then I discovered that just the name “Iskitìm” could make any Soviet prisoner shiver. The Russian painter Michail Sokolov said that when prisoners were given assignments at Magadàn, the prisoner distribution point, they would say, “Anywhere but Iskitìm.” This camp, besides the hard work and the extenuating glacial temperatures, meant certain death: by firing squad, obviously, but also by just the work itself. At the bottom of the quarries, where the prisoners mined and extracted calcium and stone, the winter temperatures could reach -45° Fahrenheit. The calcium dust corroded lungs and skin. Nobody survived for more than a few months.
At the second intersection, there’s sign that points out the “Holy Spring.” The road goes up for a few miles where birch trees cover the remains of who knows how many ex-detainees. Here there are even the bodies of some Italians who lived in Russia and who, for various reasons, were deported to Siberia. So many dead priests and religious – killed by exhaustion or firing squads or buried alive – were laid to rest here. And suddenly, the forest clears and opens up to an enchanting countryside with a church in the foreground that the Orthodox just finished building. It is dedicated to the “New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church.” Behind this, as though protected by its walls, there is the Holy Spring, a font that bubbles up from Karstic origins. The pilgrimages began in the 1950’s, when the spring became a destination for devout visits and a miracle site. People go to the spring with big bottles and jugs to collect the blessed water, in the hopes of obtaining material and spiritual benefits. Today the place is officially recognized as a holy site by the Orthodox ecclesial province, because of certain events of a spiritual and religious character – healings and apparitions of the Virgin Mary and other saints.
Talking to one of my parishioners of Polish origins who lives in Iskitìm, I found out that near the old quarries, one of the factories is still in operation. It seems that still today there is a suggestion rising out of all of those rocks extracted by the prisoners: use them for the new Church that that bishop asked me to build at Berdsk. “Augustine saw that martyrdom is a particular way in which Christian victory is proclaimed in this age of the world,” writes Benedict XVI in “The Unity of the Nations. A Vision of the Church Fathers”. He continues, “In the martyrs there is the sign of the Church: the Church lives and triumphs in this world by way of suffering, by saying no to the powers that determine public opinion.” The “yes” of the martyrs of yesterday and today, united with my “yes” to Christ in the daily Eucharistic sacrifice is truly the seed of the “Holy Spring” of the new Christians of the one Body of Christ.
In the large photo, the lake that covers part of the rock quarry in Lozhok.