How many people have died as a result of Communism? The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation makes the bold statement on the front page of their web site that 100 million human beings have been killed by Communism. Could this be true?
Obviously, simply living your entire life in a Communist state doesn’t mean that you were killed by Communism.1 However, there are some unique features of Communism as a form of government that make it easy to believe that such a staggering human cost is not unlikely. For example, the Communist government in Russia instituted prison camps where death was almost a certainty for its prisoners; letting someone know that you believed in God was sufficient cause to be sentenced to one of them.
When Communist countries invaded other countries for the sake of their ideological goals, those who died in the resulting wars were clearly victims of Communism. People who died by starvation due to the poor economic policies which are inherent in Communism were also obviously victims of Communism. These three categories alone start to make 100 million victims sound reasonable.
But how can we measure such an immense loss? Who can fathom the joys, sorrows, and inherent worth of 100 million individual human lives? Only God can. That’s why the saints and blesseds of the Church who died under Communism can help us see not only the tragedy of an individual life cut short, but why someone would choose death rather than blindly follow the ideology of a form of government that not only denies the existence of God, but also denies human dignity.
Olga Bida was born in 1903 in the little village of Tsebliv in Ukraine. She was raised in the Greek Catholic Church. To understand her life, it helps to understand a little of the history of her native country.
For about two hundred years prior to Olga’s birth, Ukraine had been under the control of czarist Russia. A revolution in Russia in early 1917, when Olga was only a teenager, gave the Ukrainian people hope for independence, but that hope was in vain. When Vladimir Lenin took control of Russia several months later, Lenin was unwilling to give up control over the food produced by the fertile land of Ukraine. It took four years of fierce fighting, but Lenin eventually won, and Ukraine fell under Communist control in 1921. Lenin loosened his tight grip over the country for a few years to avoid grumbling from the nation’s farmers, and Ukraine briefly experienced a national revival in folk customs, religion, and the arts.
At about that time, Olga discerned that God was calling her to religious life. It is always difficult for a person to discern a religious vocation, and living under a regime that denied the existence of God couldn’t have made it easier to make such a choice. However, Olga entered the Sisters of Saint Joseph and took the name in religious life of Olympia.
Life in Ukraine changed when Lenin died. Joseph Stalin wanted greater control over the troublesome Ukrainian people, so in 1929, he ordered thousands of their scholars, leaders, and scientists summarily shot or sent to prison camps. He took land away from their farmers, and he sent those farmers—and many others—to work in mines as virtual slaves.
When the people unsurprisingly continued to resent his propaganda and threats, Stalin punished the entire country. In 1933, he stole all the food produced in Ukraine and conspired with Communist sympathizers all over the world to pretend that the Ukrainian people were not starving to death, when, of course, they were. Descriptions of emaciated children and the sight of people dropping dead in the streets were conveniently omitted by the foreign press corps while 25% of the Ukrainian people—several million human beings—died of starvation.
During the famine of 1932-1933, how many people did Sister Olympia personally know—other sisters in her community, family members, friends, classmates—who died from starvation? We don’t know. But everyone who survived the Holodomor, the name which was given to this event and which means, roughly, “killing by starvation”, experienced a deep personal suffering as a direct result of Communist ideology and politics.
In 1938, Olympia became the superior of her community in the town of Khyriv. She and her sisters cared for the sick and the elderly, taught young women about the faith, and quietly did what all religious sisters do: prayed to God and witnessed to the grace and beauty of a life lived solely for Him. Persecution of believers continued as control of the country changed from the Soviet Union, to Nazi Germany, and then back to the Soviet Union after World War II.
In 1950, the NKVD (Soviet secret police) decided that Olympia was engaged in “anti-Soviet activities”; her only crime was probably that she was a Catholic and a leader of other Catholics. Olympia was sentenced to hard labor in Boryslav (Ukraine) and then lifelong exile in Russia. The almost subarctic conditions of the Tomsk region of Siberia, combined with the inhuman conditions of her prison camp, made life extremely harsh. Olympia served as the superior of the other sisters who had also been sentenced to the camp, she cared for those in need, and she led other prisoners in prayer.
She died less than two years after her arrest, in early 1952, having inspired those around her with her faith. The Church considers her a martyr. After all, it was her faith in God, not her political opinions, that caused her early death. Blessed Olympia’s feast day is celebrated on January 28.
What did she accomplish by being a Catholic and a religious sister, when her life could have been much easier and much longer if she had simply given up her vocation, her responsibilities to others in need, and her faith in God? In a letter she wrote to her superior before her death, Blessed Olympia spoke of God’s providence. She expressed her trust that God continues to care for every single one of His children, even those who are far from home and imprisoned for their faith.
Blessed Olympia knew God, loved God, and served God. Even Communist prisons cannot prevent a person from fulfilling the purpose for which God made every single one of us. And fulfilling that purpose can make any one of us a saint.
1 For historical information about Communism from a Catholic perspective, see Dr. Warren Carroll’s The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution. For information about Communism and Socialism as a form of government from a Catholic perspective, see Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk’s Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?
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