An `Underground Nun' in Lithuania. Nijole Sadunaite works for religious freedom, and views Gorbachev with skepticism. INTERVIEW: SOVIET DISSIDENT
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA, USSR
SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring) generally gets good reviews among the citizenry here. But not from Nijole Sadunaite.Skip to next paragraph
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A smiling, round-faced woman with a buoyant confidence and a rapid-fire speech, she knows first-hand the harsher side of a Soviet system - much of which she documented in her book on the subject, published in the United States as ``A Radiance in the Gulag'' (Trinity Communications, Manassas, Va., 1987).
In a recent interview conducted through an interpreter, she put on record an important minority opinion: that while perestroika seems to have diminished religious oppression in the Soviet Union, the era of human rights abuses is by no means over.
``Soviet power is basically Stalinist,'' she says, referring to the now-discredited Soviet leader who perfected the police-state reign of terror. ``They're all Stalinist, beginning with Lenin and ending with Gorbachev.''
With Mr. Gorbachev's popularity riding high both at home and in the Western news media, and with the Kremlin now repealing decrees imposed in the 1960s that severely limited religious activity, Miss Sadunaite's views are sometimes dismissed by Lithuanian activists as outdated, extreme, and counterproductive. She is, however, held in high regard among Lithuanian Roman Catholic dissidents both here and in the United States.
Imprisoned in 1975 for three years, she was then exiled to Siberia. Her crime: typing six pages of the Lithuanian Chronicle, an underground publication that records incidents of oppression of Catholics in this small Baltic republic.
Last November, she and her friends set up something called the Group for Aid to Former Political Prisoners and Exiles. Collecting money from donations, they dole it out - 30 to 50 rubles at a time - to the neediest cases. (The average Soviet wage is 200 rubles a month.)
What motivates her work, Sadunaite makes plain, is a religious impulse. ``You might consider that I entered an underground convent,'' she says. Although much church activity has been illegal until recently, she says that there are more ``underground nuns'' now than there were ordinary nuns during Lithuania's brief period of independence before World War II.
Stalked by the KGB
``That's where the strength is,'' she says, ``not Gorbachev, but spiritual power. David and Goliath: What can Goliath do when God is on our side?''
Back in 1974, the modern-day Goliath of the KGB secret police was following her through the streets of Vilnius. On Aug. 27, 1974, she was arrested. In July of 1975, she arrived at camp ZHKH-385/3-4, a women's prison in Moldavia. In 1977, when her prison term ended, she was sent to exile in Boguchany, a small town in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia.
``They told me I'd never come back to Lithuania,'' she says. To make sure, they put her with eight alcoholics who were in exile for failing to pay alimony to their former wives. The intention, she says, was to put them all in a camp far out in the tundra, 36 miles from the nearest town.
Arriving at night at the militia station in Boguchany, she found that the bus to take them to the camp had broken down. Meanwhile, she recalls, a fight broke out among three of the men ``over who would get me.''
The five other men, afraid of rearrest, prevailed upon the cleaning woman in the militia station to take Sadunaite home with her for the night. The militia inspector agreed.
``That evening,'' she says, ``I found out that they needed cleaning women in that little settlement.'' She never did go out to the forest camp, but went to work in the school for the three years of her exile.
Later, she learned from one of the eight men that they had been given a supply of vodka and told to rape and beat her. She suspects the KGB intended to have her murdered - a suspicion which, given patterns of KGB behavior reported through the years by other former prisoners, may not have been far fetched.