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Totalitarianism’s daily humiliation

The Redemption of Ružena Vacková, Komunella Markman and Milena Semiz

There have been many victims of totalitarianism that will never be known because they suffered violence or daily humiliation without death.  Totalitarianism has exposed an infinite range of broken lives, both physically and morally.  Surprisingly, however, among the millions of unknown victims we can also find a large number of people who resisted it, people who in one way or another did not allow themselves to be crushed by its power and threats.  They knew how to overcome their resentment and transform it into forgiveness.

There are many courageous figures still to be uncovered.  Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Regime many stories of human dignity were found by chance, from diaries left behind and letters found at the bottom of drawers.  They are witnesses to the surprising capacity of human resistance.

Ružena, Komunella, and Milena were three women (one Czech, one Jewish and the other Russian) that lived during the dark totalitarian times enduring physical and moral hardships, marginalization and isolation, but they remained faithful to themselves with courage and even happiness.

Ružena Vacková, a Catholic professor of archeology, was living in Prague in 1944 when her brother Vladimir died at the hands of the Nazis.  In 1945 she too was arrested and condemned to death but escaped thanks to the arrival of the Red Army.

These experiences left a positive mark on her and brought her to conversion.  As Father Zverina remembered at her funeral, “She was confronted with a critical dilemma:  nihilism or meaning, God or nothing”.  Through conversion her life had acquired purpose.  Her students had vivid memories of her at University:  she taught with living and personal dialogue, invited them out to restaurants, cared about their problems and even sent them to her father, a doctor, when they were ill.

In February 1948, after the Communist coup d’etat, Ružena was the only professor from the University of Carolina to attend the protest against the Regime and denounce the school council in support of the students who’d been expelled.  As a result she lost her position and was forced to live on the help of others.  But she didn’t abandon her students and continued to teach until 22 February 1952 when she was arrested.  There was a farce trial against a group of Catholic activists which condemned one person to death and another was sentenced to life in prison.

Ružena was forced to live in Pardubice, a woman’s prison.  Despite forced labor and harsh rules, she still sought to live prison life with human dignity.  For sixteen years she taught classes to fellow prison mates.  Along the way she accompanied many thieves and prostitutes helping them to become “wonderful women, commendable and diverse”.

The classes, called “afternoon academics”, were held in the prison bathrooms, an unexpected place to discover the liberating power and beauty of art, which even in daily life is difficult to find.  One of the women remembers, “There she was, this incredible woman, humiliated and shivering from the midnight cold, and yet she continued to teach us among the disgraces, evils, and seemingly meaningless existence… We smoked and talked enthusiastically until dawn, we felt neither cold nor hunger; rather than the prison of hell, we experienced the thoughts from courageous women, which proved to be stronger than our weakened bodies.  At the same time, in another part of the world, students were getting ready to go to school, probably a bit reluctantly…we, on the other hand, were like the students of medieval times taking in the teachings of Peter Abelard like sponges.”

One of the prison guards at the time wrote about Ružena saying, “She’s not interested in being educated by the communist ideology, and she refuses to teach it to the other inmates.  She’s proud of being punished by the Regime.  And she doesn’t believe that she did anything wrong and says if she were released, she’d continue to do what she did before.  She has nothing to apologize for.  She’s religious, I’d say fanatically so.”

She was released from prison in 1968 following the so-called Prague Spring and immediately returned to her role as professor, teaching in secret.  She participated in various civil activities, and became a  member of Charta 77.  Ružena died in 1982 and President Havel made her an honorable member of the Order of Masaryk.

For Komunella Markman, on the other hand, the Christian faith was foreign.  The faith in her family was Marxist, transmitted to her by revolutionary Jewish parents.  She was ingrained with a stoic ideology, which meant:  disdain physical pain, never cry and fight for the cause.

However the events of history intervened in their lives.  Komunella’s father, a political official in Caucasus, was murdered in 1937 and her mother arrested immediately afterwards because she was a wife to “an enemy of the Regime”.  Fifteen year old Komunella and her thirteen year old sister Julija were separated when the war began and Julija subsequently died from hunger during the siege at Leningrad.  Komunella, desiring vindication, didn’t hesitate to join a terrorist group.  She was arrested in 1948 and condemned to 25 years in a prison camp, in other words, a prolonged agony and a certain death.

Being reared under stoic ideology it’s not surprising what Komunella wrote to her mother:  “Mother, I know you don’t care much about life, and neither do I, so let’s agree on a day and time to commit suicide together”.  Fortunately, her mother responded saying it was worth the while to wait and see “what our lot in life is, if for no other reason than out of plain curiosity”.

The fate in store for Komunella was very different.  During one of the nights spent in solitude and despair she encountered Christ.  Through this she realized who her true neighbor was and her life quickly took on new meaning.  She was able to see the prison camp, full of misery and brutality, as a place with enlightening encounters and extraordinary generosity, even among the depraved criminals and guards.

Today the elderly Komunella lives in Moscow.  She is incredibly peaceful and has only good memories of her life.  She sees the goodness and the many miracles life has brought her.  It has taught her to never give up.  And she has learned that the human person will always surprise you.

Milena Semiz, a Russian Orthodox, never personally experienced imprisonment, although she lived with the long drama of her father’s detention.  She was an art scholar who worked at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, one of the most important museums in the world.  With the onset of war and the evacuations from the city Milena, a once promising student, was now an unemployed social outcast with no place to live.

The conditions in which Milena and her mother lived are unimaginable.  They were forced to live in a small medieval church at the edge of the city of Vladimir without heating, running water or a bathroom.  But her love for beauty and a sense of dignity wouldn’t allow her to give in to a simple fight for survival.  Instead she gathered children around her and told them about the marvels of Egyptian art, Rublev’s frescos and recounted Biblical stories.  She gave them novels from world literature that fed them with imagination and good values.

After the war had ended everyone who had been previously employed at the museum were called back, but not Milena.  She was the daughter of an enemy of the Regime, hence deliberately excluded and humiliated.  Although the hope to return to normal life wasn’t possible, she still had a sense of importance knowing she had a lot to give.

For years she relentlessly sought out work and, at the same time, refused to stop proclaiming the richness of the art she loved.  Finally, in the sixties, she found a job as director of the Library of the Museum of Antique Russian Art in Moscow.  She felt at home there and throughout the years she helped the museum save many ancient paintings and icons which in turn transformed people, converting them one after the other.  It was perhaps the only institution in Moscow where there wasn’t a political cell present and this allowed many unique conferences to be held there such as:  Antonij Blum, Dmitrij Lichacĕv, Leonid Uspenskij.  These were not only about art and culture, but became moments of sharing and discussion about the essential things in life.

Even though Milena Semiz did not have a family nor a proper “career”, she was an art expert who left behind disciples that followed her for her intelligence, cultural background and wit, but above all for her spiritual discernment.  She put faith at the center of her life, a faith which unifies all and makes all situations human.  The treasure of faith was given to her by her mother, who, in line at the Leningrad prison whispered in the ear of the Poet Achmatova, “Can you describe all of this?”.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 10, 2019