An `Underground Nun' in Lithuania. Nijole Sadunaite works for religious freedom, and views Gorbachev with skepticism. INTERVIEW: SOVIET DISSIDENT

SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika (restructuring) generally gets good reviews among the citizenry here. But not from Nijole Sadunaite.

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that severely limited religious activity, Miss Sadunaite's views are sometimes dismissed by Lithuanian activists as outdated, extreme, and counterproductive.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.

Threats of `accidents'

``That's what the KGB said,'' Sadunaite recalls. ``They said, `All kinds of things happen in exile. A car can run over you. A brick can fall from somewhere. It's an accident, and nobody knows the difference.'''

``It was God's hand,'' she says, reflecting on her survival and eventual return to Lithuania. ``Not a hair on my head was touched, and I remained pure.''

With Gorbachev's ascendancy, the church has gradually regained some of its former power. Recently, for example, the Church of St. Casimir in Vilnius was returned to the Catholic Church - after years as a government-operated Museum of Atheism. Elsewhere in the USSR, too, religious restrictions have lifted since last summer's celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of the coming of Christianity to Russia: According to American Bible Society figures, close to 300,000 Russian-language Bibles have recently been sent to the Soviet Union; 100,000 Ukrainian Bibles have been approved for import.

For Sadunaite, however, such moves are only ``crumbs.''

Gorbachev, she says, ``speaks very sweetly and on insignificant things seems to be very generous. The change in policy toward the church is his hypocritical smile that he's just using to get help from the West.''

`Just leave the Soviet Union'

When World War II began, she says, ``Stalin smiled the same way.'' He clamped down again when the war was over.

But isn't the Gorbachev era different? For an answer, she cites incidents of KGB oppression since her return from exile:

``Last year, on February 16, [1988] I was arrested and brought in for 24 hours to the KGB. First they said, `Just leave the Soviet Union. You cost us 4 years to find you.' And I said, `No, I don't want to leave.'''

Instead, she told them she would prefer to go to prison again - because ``prison is a very good place to achieve true repentance.'' They let her go.

Her latest brush with the KGB, she says, happened last June 19, after she had been officially invited to take part in the millennium celebrations in Moscow that summer. Emerging from her house one morning, she was grabbed and shoved into a car so roughly that her arms were bruised. Taken to the KGB station, she was again questioned about her role with the Lithuanian Chronicle.

In Moscow shortly afterward, she visited the American Embassy, where, she says, ``they are looking at the Soviet Union through rose-colored glasses.''

When she told them of her experiences with the KGB, she recalls, ``they tried to tell me, `But look; it's getting better, it's getting easier. It's not as bad as it was before.' So then I showed them the bruises that I had and showed them that it hasn't changed quite as much as you think.''

Still no packages from abroad

Further evidence of lack of change, she says, lies in the fact that in the nine years since she returned from exile, she has ``not received one [package] from abroad'' in the mail.

``I have an uncle in Chicago, and he has been trying to send us parcels, and we have received nothing. When we ask [the postal officials] why they don't give us the parcels that he sends us, Moscow answers, `In the Soviet Union, undesirable people cannot receive anything.'

``This year my uncle sent me a one-kilogram parcel. He thought, `This is perestroika now - I can send you sugar, tea, coffee, a linen towel.' It was returned. This is a trivial detail, but it shows the situation that exists.''

Is she worried that her story, published in a Western newspaper, might endanger her? She laughs, shaking her head. ``I speak just as candidly with the KGB,'' she concludes, ``so I can speak that candidly with anybody.''

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