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News   -  06  ( 20.07.2005 )

Usole, Siberia

Carmel in the Russian Federation

Damaso Zuazua
General Secretary for the OCD Missions

I set out on a journey to Russia, the country with the largest land mass of any in the world. My destination was Eastern Siberia or Asiatica, and the city of Irkutsk, where there is a time differential of seven hours, the same as Madrid to New York. On a map the area I was going to can be seen near the lake Baikal or the border with Mongolia.  Having arrived at Moscow there were still six hours flying time before I reached my destination; the same journey takes three days on the Trans Siberian Express. 

In the heart of Siberia

This is a huge land: 14 million square kilometres, only two people per sq.km. Its forest extends for more than 5 million sq., kms., an area the size of India.  The forests of Siberia contain more natural reserves than the Amazon forests in Brazil.  There are 53, 000 rivers.  Petrol was discovered in 1965. Gas is piped from here to Western Europe. This is where they filmed the award winning classic Doctor Zivago by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960).  Eastern Siberia is less well known and is where our Carmelites are situated. 

Siberia entered into modern history with Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), marking the end of the empire of Ghengis Khan.  Its colonization began with the trading of skins and hides. Military forts grew up later becoming cities; Irkutsk was born in 1651.  

Ivan the Terrible entered into accords with European countries.  Italy and Austria were favoured with trading rights.  The Tzarina, Katerina II gave permission to foreigners to establish themselves freely throughout all of Russia.  They were permitted a certain independence and could build churches and parishes, only new monasteries could not be built. 

Christianity in this land owes its origin to the deportation of German princes in the time of Ivan the Terrible (16th century) and then later, the immigration of Poles in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Napoleon=s campaign in Russia, 1812, increased the Catholic faith among the many soldiers and officers taken prisoner. After the 1930 insurrection in Poland a further wave Catholics poured into Siberia. 

Maxim Gorki described Siberia as a land of hills and ice.   From 1650 onwards it became the place of exile favoured by the Tzars.  Over the years many people sere sent here including the famous Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevski, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.  The repressive confinements eventually ended at the beginning of the 20th century.  However, Stalin reestablished them later sending thousands there into exile, where they were forced into labour, and where many died in concentration camps, or were locked up in psychiatric hospitals. These places became known as Agulags@.  It was Alexander Solzhenitsym who revealed this terrible tragedy to the West. From a population of 30,000 in 1928 it grew to 8 million by 1938.  Here they speak of 20 million people dying in the gulags.   

We should not forget the heroic faith and martyrdom of many Catholics in this place, where the faithful lived constantly fearing persecution.  They tried to suppress the Church.  The people survived by writing prayers by hand, learning hymns by memory, by their resolve and determination to survive.   

Irkutsk 

The city is known as the Paris of Siberia!  It was founded in 1651.  Today the inhabitants number 600,000.  It is the administrative centre of Easter Siberia, and the Episcopal See for the region, which boasts of being the largest diocese, geographically, in the world.  It is important to remember that this is Asia.  The first parish church dates back to 1884, the Polish chapel is a few years earlier.  In 1991, now a post communist society, a Cathedral was erected. 

I admired particularly the railway station. The Trans-Siberian Express passes through here.  The Tzar, Alexander III, first authorized its construction in 1886.  From this point in Siberia the track splits in two both branches eventually leading to Peking in China.  From Moscow to Vladivostok is 9,946 kms.  Thanks to this train Siberia has become that much more open to the world, encouraging trade and attracting tourists. 

I also admired the huge Baikal lake, the size of Belgium, the largest lake in the world.  It is surrounded by undulating mountains which are covered in ice six months of the year.  Usole 

This city, on the banks of the river Angara, is 80 kms from Irkutsk.  Its inhabitants number 100,000, whose main source of employment is in the local salt mines. It is a town without a centre or even a main street, rather it is made up of groups of simple and crude soviet style buildings.  There is no infrastructure as one would expect. It is here in this remotest of towns that Carmel has taken root.

This is not the first foundation. There was a recent short-lived attempt to make a foundation of our Nuns in Moscow.  But the Orthodox Church objected just as they had done just a few years previously with a more ambitious plan for the Carmelites of Lithuania in Nigegorodcki.  The local Bishop of Siberia was helpful in making a foundation in Novosibirks,Western Siberia, but the very first place where Carmel was planted in Russia is Taganrog, in the northern Caucasus.  Here a Lithuanian Carmelite, Serafin Goldfeld, made a foundation in 1812.  The original Carmelite Church, taken from us in 1923, still stands proud in the centre of the city now converted into a library.  Thanks to the Aperestroika@, the more open attitude in Russia, the Polish Carmelites attempted to take back the Church.  After many letters, including one to the then President, Boris Yeltsin, they were told that it would be restituted to them, even without having to pay for it.  But it was another story for the local authorities: they demanded huge sums of money.  The case is still ongoing.  Meanwhile the first Polish Carmelite established himself in the town, in October 1997, later to be followed by two more.  The first Russian Carmelite has since made profession on June 19, 2005, in Poland.  

On the 14th December 1999 the small Carmelite Community left and moved to Usole in Siberia.  Why this move?  The memory or the spiritual calling of St. Raphael Kalinowski (1835-1907).  He was exiled here from Poland for his part in the insurrection against the Tzar Nicholas I, in January 1863.  In his book, published by Ryszard Bender, Kalinowski recalled his years in Irkutsk and in Usole, from 1865-1872.   

Today in Usole there are Polish Friars from the Warsaw Province and Nuns from the Carmel of Kalisz.  There are just two Friars, one 73 the other 34. The former had worked in Poland as a worker-Priest as well as a missionary in Burundi, Africa. The latter worked as a missionary in Byelorussia; both had lived together and moved together from Taganrog. Their=s is a difficult ministry, and is principally one of witness.  They live in a very small flat over a factory.  Nearby they have built a small chapel, the only place of worship in this city of 100,000 people.  The main crucifix and the painting of St. Raphael Kalinowski are the work of a prisoner. 

There is a sadness about the local people, no doubt due to decades of life under a oppressive communist regime. But our Friars there, though admitting they don=t yet understand the people, love them; this is their pastoral principle. 

It is a strange city, without even a Church tower.  All religious buildings and towers had been systematically destroyed.  I saw old photos of communist youth dynamiting the beautiful Orthodox Church.  Today a new one is under construction.  A Polish Congregation of Nuns helps out in the Parish.  There are many social problems for them to tackle, including problems within families, young children destroyed by abuse of one kind or another; alcoholism is another evident problem, not to mention children abandoned in the street, corruption and the growing number of religious sects. In spite of all this our two Friars remain optimistic, not least for the youth who attend their catechism classes, and for the adults who attend meetings for alcoholics.   

A third Carmelite is shortly to join the tiny community:  Fr Stanislaw Praciak, of the Cracow Province.  He will be working on a project to build a shrine dedicated to St. Raphael Kalinowski.  This will take time, a lot of time, not only because of the long freezing winters, during which it is impossible to build, but also due to Russia=s painfully slow and inefficient bureaucracy. But our men are up to the challenge.  

The Carmelite Sisters arrived in 2002.  It is the only monastic house in the region.  They are living in temporary accommodation. There are plans to build a proper convent but they still lack official authorization for this, which will take some time.  They have already two Postulants, who have gone to Poland for their formation. 

I asked them the following questions: 

- What attracted you to Siberia? 

AIt was the memory of St. Raphael Kalinowski. We wanted there to be in Usole a special place of prayer.  Everyday we try to incarnate the ideal of Carmel in this land@

- Do you see yourselves as missionaries in Usole? 

AChristianity came to Russia many centuries ago.  The Orthodox Church considers the country to be exclusively theirs.  But there is so much to be done to christianize Russia.  We hope that our simple presence will help to attain this goal@. 

- What has been your greatest difficulty so far? 

AObtaining a visa to remain here.  Every year we have to leave the country in order to apply anew, which they only give for one year.  This does not help the cloister and all the travelling is expensive. Another difficulty has been the poverty: we gets lots of hungry, malnourished children calling at our door@.  

I was privileged to be able to celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Usole.  It was celebrated with our Sisters in the morning.  At the evening Eucharist there were Priests and Religious, both male and female, from Irkutsk and other places.  In that place and atmosphere I had a strong sense of community, of that koinonia that the first Christian community enjoyed. I pray that just as that community grew and spread throughout so too will ours.  

The Usole mission has been blessed from on high, it is going ahead thanks to the commitment and sacrifice of the first Carmelites.  I finished my visit with this conviction: the seed of the Carmelite charism planted in Russia appears to contain a resonance with St. Therese of Lisieux: AIn the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love@ (Ms B 3v).  

Usole, 20th July 2005

 

     
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