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Ukrainian activist and Siberian Gulag survivor speaks on communism, religious freedom

| Friday, September 17, 2021

The Carey Auditorium of Hesburgh Library was filled with students, professors and clergy from the tri-campus community on Thursday evening. They all gathered to hear Myroslav Marynovych, a Ukrainian activist and Gulag survivor, speak on faith, religious freedom and communism.

Maggie Eastland | The Observer
Myroslav Marynovych (left) and Clemens Sedmak remained after the lecture to greet attendees and answer questions.

Marynovych spent a decade, from 1977 to 1987, in a Siberian prison camp and in Kazakhstan exile. Today, he advocates for freedom of expression as a leader of the Ukrainian Catholic University.

Religious celebrations and spiritual life of any kind were strictly prohibited in most Soviet work camps, including the one Marynovych endured.

When he requested a friend mail him a letter with the Beatitudes written inside, a Soviet official confiscated the mail, deeming it “suspicious in content.” When Marynovych gave his cross necklace to a sick friend in the medical barracks, the doctor refused to treat the suffering man. And when a group of prisoners celebrated Easter together, they endured a brutal punishment: 60 days in a frigid cell with little clothing, no bed covers and starvation rations.

Despite the lack of religious freedom, Marynovych said fellow prisoners of faith banded together and found ways to remain spiritually active, even when Bibles and spiritual texts of any kind were banned, and that the simple act of praying resulted in torturous punishments.

“The Holy Spirit did not comply with the camp guidelines,” Marynovych said.

Marynovych noted how slight confessional differences between Christians faded to the background in the face of suffering. As an example, Christian prisoners would celebrate Easter and Christmas twice, once for the Gregorian calendar and once for the Orthodox calendar.

After leaving the camp, Marynovych began understanding the suffering with the help of Matthew 5:10.

“‘Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake,’” he quoted from the book of Matthew. “It is always a special blessing to suffer for Christ.”

Upon further reflection, Marynovych identified a connection between the rise of communism and the decline of religion.

He remembers a judge in his trial reprimanding him to “‘Stop renouncing the holy name of Lenin.’”

Marynovych described how the Soviet regime took a firm stance against Christianity and religious devotion of any kind as a method to increase loyalty to the regime.

“Communism was a huge mutation of the human spirit,” he said. “People massively transferred what belonged to God… to a godly, earthly Caesar.”

As a result of this moral and spiritual perversion, Marynovych said communism’s greatest victims were not those who died, but those who survived the moral degradation of the Soviet rule.

On a more positive note, Marynovych said he has experienced immense religious freedom, what he calls “one of the greatest achievements of Ukrainian democracyin the country’s 30 years of independence.

“Religious freedom has become not only the fruit of democracy, but also a guarantee of it,” Marynovych said.

While Marynovych said Christianity in Ukraine still faces challenges, he said he hopes institutions like the Ukrainian Catholic University can continue to improve the country and show the relevance of faith in a modern world.

Marynovych’s lecture was part of the Nanovic Forum, a series designed to bring European leaders from a variety of backgrounds together to discuss current issues.

Following the lecture, director of the Nanovich Institute of European Studies Clemens Sedmak presented Marynovych a rosary blessed by University President Fr. John Jenkins before beginning a Q&A session with attending students.

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