XII. Martyrs for the faith

Martyrdom is a special vocation that God gives only to a few so they can publicly testify about Him. However, the action of God’s grace includes free decision of a man and his cooperation with God. Martyrdom has not only internal, but also church and public value. Christian testimony to government and people is directed to the faithful of all times, which shows that each period of the life of the Church had and will have its martyrs. Methods of persecution change, but the reality remains the same. All believers in Christ are called to live in different times as the Easter mystery of Christ. This evidence also gets into the time of the Communist persecution in Ukraine, where various methods of persecution of the Church led to the martyrdom of many Christians. It is necessary to emphasize the word “martyrdom” because this is not about the victims of communist system. “Victim” is someone who surrendered himself to death without choice, but Communists in their documents call the faithful martyrs, for the testimony of their faith in God and in Christ until the shedding of blood to defend it. They are martyrs because they deliberately rejected the way without God, although they had the opportunity to give in and have an easier life promised by the government.

In the years 1918-1919 many monks and priests were shot immediately after the group process. For as the authorities said: “Execution is a form of building a communist society. Without repressions we won’t build communism.”[i] From archival documents to which we have access, we know that from 1918 to 1939 more than 500 priests of the Latin rite were persecuted in many different ways. Driven from their homes, arrested, thrown under a train, nailed to the walls of the prison, given as food to other prisoners, killed in the electric chair, they never renounced their priesthood.

From October 1, 1936, to 30 September 30, 1938, the court declared 36157 sentences, of which 30514 were deaths and 5643 people were imprisonment. During 1937 alone, 1938120 Catholic priests of the Latin rite were shot in the concentration camps. But this is only a portion of the prisoners. In Butavo, which is about 30 km central east of Moscow, an area was made to convince people that this was a military exercise. Prisoners sentenced to death, monks and Christians of various denominations, were transported in closed trucks and an average of 300-400 people per day were shot. Mitchakov, a historian who in 1990 began to publish in the newspaper “Moscow Vecherniaya,” the results of his search of murdered people who were buried in ditches based on the letters of the KGB, states that about 300,000 victims were buried in ditches near Butavo, of which 20762 people were buried from August 8, 1937, to October 19, 1938.[ii] Alexander Yakovlev, an old member of the Politburo, said on November 27, 1995, during one of the press conferences in the presence of Gorbachev and Yeltsin that the estimated number of martyrs persecuted for their faith was two hundred thousand clergymen of various denominations and millions of faithful. Here are some examples of martyrdom of priests and laity: Several soldiers pushed 60 tied prisoners, who in the summer are pulling a sleigh with huge containers that contain sewage from the toilet. The poured all that in a hole in the ground. After that they were all lined up: all 60 of them were priests, one could see turned cassocks onsome of them. The Battalion Chief comes to the first one and asks with irony: “I am asking the last time: Does God exist or not?” “Yes, He does.” One could hear the sound of a shot. The priest falls into the ditch. Then to the second one: “Does God exist or not?” “Yes,” then a third one … a shot again… and all 60 said “Yes!” So all together are lying dead in a ditch beside the road leading from Kahcuga to Nizhemdynsk.[iii]

“I love Jesus” – yelled Father Myroslav Olshevskyi. And because he did not want to renounce his faith, he was flayed alive, they cut off his ears and nose, gouged out his eyes and dragged him through the city, and then threw him into a pit of lime. Father Eugen Svjatopolk Mirsky from the Mohylev Diocese was arrested as well. People came to defend him in court, but in reply soldiers began to shoot them. They dragged the priest to the outskirts of the city, and after several hours of torturing him, they killed him. Communists, according to the testimony of Catholics, during torture forced Father Mirsky to say, “I do not believe in God” or “God doesn’t exist”, but he repeated: “You can kill the body but not the spirit.” A day later they found his body, shot with 5 bullets, with four stab wounds and broken arms and head. The faithful wanted to arrange a funeral, but the government forbade it; only after many appeals they were granted a permission to take the body and bury it, but without funeral rites.[iv]

Father Ksaveriy Martsinyan was killed during the Liturgy. Mykola Terletskyi, a layman, for carrying the cross during the funeral of his relative, and for singing the Angelus, was accused of organizing the “Way of the Cross” against the Soviet government and was shot after the funeral. Abuse and terror of Christians was happening daily: tortured, without trial, they were cut onto pieces and thrown as food to birds. In this way, in 1924, 270 faithful were killed, along with the priest, Father Mykola Kraft.[v]

Communists tortured and destroyed Catholic families: in Letychiv in 1927, they cut off women’s breasts and cut their stomach open in front of their children; men were sent to the camp, and children were taken to orphanages, where they were taught atheism. Before the final verdict, guards mocked those who supported the martyrs, and after torturing them (who? The martyrs or the supporters?), poured kerosene on their head and set it on fire. Witnesses say that there was no mercy even for the elderly. Ms. Emiliya Gulko recalls: “People hid prayer books and religious literature and secretly read it, but it was very dangerous. In one of the villages komsomolets found an elderly man who read the Bible. They took it by force, tore in into pieces and forced him to eat it, so the old man choked on paper and died”[vi].

Father Symon Bavarskyi from Volochysk was thrown to the dogs as food. Father Richard Knobelsdorff was tied to a cart and dragged to Oshmiany. After they cut the sign of the cross into his shoulders, Father Knobelsdorrf was buried alive. We can complement these records with memories of prison friends of Father Felix Lubchynskyi who, although he had the opportunity to leave the USSR, stayed with his people: “The Poles were leaving, and I was advised to go with them as well, because they were convinced that the Bolsheviks would cut me into pieces. Also, the majority of my parishioners went with the Poles, and I was left alone, like a shepherd without sheep.” Bolsheviks cut him into pieces and threw into a well. In one of the sermons Father Lubchynskyy said: “I will not serve two rulers, both God and the Soviet government.” His judicial acts say: “A strong and brave man, who does not like the Soviet regime and is not afraid of anything. Affirms that only God and faith exist and will remain.”[vii] Father Yoan Brydytskyy from Kamyanets-Podilskyi diocese was arrested in April of 1935, and was waiting for the verdict in Kiev. Sentenced to five years in prison in 1936, he was severely beaten, hung on a tree, doused with gasoline and burned alive. Komsomol did this. Father Richard Shishko-Bohus from Kamyanets-Podilskyi diocese was accused of betraying the country, because he did not give a list of church property, liturgical garments and things, which the authorities wanted to confiscate. Because of this, he was locked in complete isolation in Yaroslavl, where he suffered from various tortures, including having his feet burned. Later he was transferred to a concentration camp in Solovki, was sentenced to death on November 25,1937, and was executed December 8,1937. Also, Father Francis Chyrskyy was convicted in Yarmolyntsi on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, when soldiers on horses, with pistol shots and whips, chased away people who came to help him. He was sentenced to “complete isolation” in Yaroslavl on the Volga and shot there in 1937. Father Mychailo Tsakul was considered guilty because he “helped prisoners, organized a church choir, an illegal monastery group, an anti-revolutionary group of Third Order priests, and a group of Catholics of the Byzantine rite, and used the church for anti-revolutionary and anti-Soviet purposes.”[viii] On May 3, 1937, he was killed on the altar at the beginning of the Liturgy.

Father Leonard Gashynskyi was also persecuted by the KGB. During a search of his room in Kharkov, he was accused of crimes and arrested on August 12, 1937. He was the last Catholic priest from eastern Ukraine. Before his arrest, they also arrested an old parishioner, who cleaned the temple. A month later, his sister along with another ten people of the “twenty” members of parish council was also imprisoned, and their property was confiscated. These Catholics were among fifty who came together to form a new parish community. It was a heroic act. The priest was sentenced to death on September 24, 1937, and shot the same day. A year later, the temple made into the theater, and only because of this it was not destroyed. Father Zygmunt Kwasniewski from Kamyanets-Podilskyi diocese was arrested and taken to the prison in Kiev, and in 1938 was killed in the electric chair in the prison of the NKVD. Father Sevastiyan Sabudzynskyi was persecuted from the beginning of his pastoral work, because he was a Catholic priest. After the verdict in 1939, he was sent to 10 years of forced labor, and later transferred to Vorkuta in Siberia, where he was forced to work in coal mines. The priest was often called in for interrogation, during which he was threatened in order to force him into apostasy. Numerous witnesses say that they had seen him crucified on the wall of the prison “like Jesus.”[ix]

Father Ludwik Wrodarczyk, from the Congregation of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), Father superior of the village Okopy, was brutally tortured by Ukrainian nationalists (UPA) on December 7, 1943. He was wounded with a gun, and then had his heels burned with hot iron, and was finally cut in half with saw. Because he was still alive, they hung him from a tree and shot him.

The greatest imagination could not come up with more methods than the Bolsheviks used to torment their victims. They gouged out eyes, skinned prisoners, cut out tongues, buried them alive and used other horrific medieval methods to prevent people from believing in God, as one can see from the following testimony: “There was no respect for women”, – S. Huzhalska says, crying. “Wanda, who was with us in the barrack, was tormented in a terrible way. We know that she belonged to the parish choir and was the sister of a priest, but she did not say anything, because she was afraid. Twelve of us were on the bunk, and others were underneath. Oh! I cannot think about it (crying), and Wanda was also underneath. The guard came to mock her, then the second, third…, she was tormented to the point where she lost consciousness. She was pulled out of the barrack and we do not know what happened to her after.”[x]

There was someone who was killed or arrested and exiled to Solovky in almost every family. In just one night in 1933, in one of the villages near Bar, 90 people were arrested and never returned. Four years later another 360 people were deported to the Caucasus and Kazakhstan, and so because of their faith all the inhabitants of the village were gone.

From 1937 to 1938, almost 690,000 of them were killed. It was enough to just pray a rosary or read religious books in order to be arrested. In Hnivan, Pelagia Ilnytska was killed because she did not give up the keys to church. Another 124 people were arrested and deported to concentration camps. On December 2, 1937, in the same city Ludwiga Tushynska was killed because “after closing of the temple, she gathered women from different cities and villages for in illegal prayer, and in the guise of religious propaganda conducted anti-Soviet activities.”[xi] Ivan Huminskyi faced similar a fate when on October 10, 1937, he was arrested in Zhmerynka and later executed for his faith in Kiev in Lukyanovska jail on March 2, 1938.

In the basement of the monastery, near the city Tyvriv immediately after World War II, 225 people were murdered, including 83 children and 2 pregnant women.[xii] Children were also victims of persecution: left without parental care, they were taken to the children’s colonies, orphanages or children’s homes. In most cases they were orphans, whose parents were shot or died of starvation. According to Article 58, there was no age limit for criminals, so even 6 year olds were condemned. They worked in the gardens and orchards, grazed goats, studied and sent money to parents, stating they wanted to suffer for God as their parents did. In the orphanages girls lived in constant fear. The director was always saying: “You are children of enemies of the people and you are still given food and clothes” Olena Zatorska recalls: “I will never forget the day that we were taken out of our home under the barrel of a shotgun, we carried out all our belongings and ordered us to sit down on them. At the age of six I was called “the daughter of the enemy of the people”; there was nothing more scary than this name.”[xiii]

A young man named Ivan Tetruyev, in a letter sent to his parents on July 14, 1972, demonstrates his own love for Jesus Christ: “You will soon stop receiving letters from your son. They forbade me to pray too. They will not leave me alone. I am persecuted, but I obey the Lord’s command.”[xiv] These are just some examples of what I found. In Ukraine, however, there also are unknown martyrs, those who will never have a canonical process and about whose fate we cannot find anything. They are the true heroes of the 20th century, the century of martyrdom, who state: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other kind of creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Rom 8, 38-39)

In the 1990s, Catholic priests and many monks and lay people – victims of the regime – were completely exonerated. The documents noted: “Acquitted for lack of evidence”.

Remembering the names of these martyrs, we cannot leave out the names, carved on monuments to the fallen in the war, that are in many cities of our country: it is not only about the soldiers who died on the battlefield, but also about the priests murdered for the liturgical ceremonies and celebrations: the Poles, Germans and citizens of the Baltic countries, those who were able to return to their home countries but decided to stay close to their people in order to ensure they could receive the Holy Sacrament. They could have been freed by renouncing their faith and the priesthood. But these people sacrificed their lives and “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and disliked their life unto death” (Rev 12,11). They had their arms and legs broken, their teeth knocked out, eyes gouged out, nd were cut like trees, but they remained steadfast in their fidelity to the Catholic faith, their vocation and proclaiming the Gospel.

Martyrs are the expression of the suffering of Christ; their life and death is a constant catechesis of Christian life. They teach us to follow Christ the first martyr with bravery, because only He promises to reward eternal happiness to those who stay with Him till the end.


[i]AA. VV., Terrorisme et Comunisme, Paris 1924, с. 206.

[ii]A. WENGER, La persecuzione dei cattolici in Russia, gli uomini, i processi, lo sterminio. Dagli archivi del KGB, Milano 1999,c. 167.

[iii]A. FASOLINO (a cura di), Croce e risurrezione nell’URSS, documenti sulla passione della Chiesa nell’URSS, Pessano 1979,c. 78.

[iv]R. DZWONKOWSKI SAC, Losy duchowieństwa katolickiego w ZSSR 1917-1939. Martyrologium, Lublin 1998, c. 476.

[v]R. DZWONKOWSKI SAC, Losy duchowieństwa katolickiego w ZSSR 1917-1939. Martyrologium, Lublin 1998,сс. 326.

[vi]Е. ГУЛЬКО, м. Городок, 12.02.2000, ст. 106, в П. ГОНЧАРУК, Духовнежиттяпереслідуванихосіб…, с. 77.

[vii]I. OSIPOWA, Duchowni katoliccy na Sołówkach, in AA. VV., Skazani jako „szpiedzy watykanu”. Z historii Koscioła katolickiego w ZSRR 1918-1956, Red. R. Dzwonkowski SAC, Ząbki 1998, c.104.

[viii]И. А. РЕЗНИКОВА, «Поляки на Соловках», вAA.VV., Поляки в Росии: история ссылки и депортации. Тезисы докладов конференций, Санкт-Петербург 1995, с. 186.

[ix]R. DZWONKOWSKISAC, LosyduchowieństwakatolickiegowZSSR 1917-1939. Martyrologium, Lublin 1998,сс. 193, 239, 316, 579.

[x]С. ГУЖАЛЬСЬКА, с.м.т. Маків, 26.04.2000, ст. 21, в Там само, с. 37.

[xi]А. ЛИСИЙ, Нариси історії гніванського костелу 1906-1996, Вінниця 1996, сс. 65-67.

[xii]„Alive!” The newspaper for all the family 72 (2002) 3-4.

[xiii]H. ZATORSKA, rel. z 04. 01. 1996, Czemeryskie.

[xiv]A. FASOLINO, (a cura di), Croce e risurrezione nell’URSS, documenti sulla passione della Chiesa nell’URSS, Pessano 1979,c. 76.