"As if needles passed through the fabric..."

Years of Silence: Bahá'ís in the USSR 1938-1946
By Asadu'llah Alizad
George Ronald

In his poignant account of life as a prisoner of conscience in the former Soviet Union, Asadu'llah Alizad gives numerous examples of how small acts of unselfishness made all the difference between survival and nonexistence in the harsh system that flourished under Stalin.

Take, for example, this account of sharing an egg with a fellow Bahá'í and Siberian exile, presented in Mr. Alizad's recently published memoir: Years of Silence: Bahá'ís in the USSR 1938-1946.

"He asked me to have breakfast with him," Mr. Alizad writes of his last encounter with Ali-Asak Usku'i, who was dying of tuberculosis. "He prepared hot water, placed some bread on the table and joyfully offered me the only egg, which was his meal that day. When he put the egg in front of me and with genuine love and sincerity invited me to eat it, such a feeling came over me that I cannot describe. I removed the eggshell, divided the egg into two, gave him one half and ate the other. I have attended, before that breakfast and since, many banquets and large feasts but never have I felt the inner happiness, joy, spiritual feeling and closeness that existed that day between the guest and his host. I did not see Mr. Usku'i again as he passed away some time after our meeting."

Written in a simple and spare style, Mr. Alizad's memoir preserves for posterity the kinds of sacrifices and hardships endured by the small community of mostly Iranian-born Bahá'ís who remained in Russia after the 1917 Revolution, intent on living the principles of their Faith in an adopted land.

Further, as one of the first published accounts of the experiences of Bahá'ís inside the former Soviet Union, Years of Silence also documents a hitherto largely unknown episode of religious persecution - and the heroic response of those who endured it.

Mr. Alizad begins by telling how Iranian-born Bahá'ís established a flourishing community in Russian Turkistan before the Revolution. In the city of Ashgabat (also known as Ishqabad or Ashkhabad), the community numbered more than 4,000 and had built there the world's first Bahá'í House of Worship. They had also established an elementary school, a medical clinic, and a highly developed community life, featuring libraries, social clubs and societies devoted to drama, gymnastics, and other pursuits.

The problems for the community began in 1927, Mr. Alizad writes, when government officials - as they had done with other churches and temples in the Soviet Union - sealed the doors to the House of Worship and gradually began to crack down on Bahá'í activities. In 1929, all nine members of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ashgabat, the freely elected local Bahá'í governing council, were arrested and deported to Iran. Over time, many Bahá'ís were dismissed from their jobs.

The main blow came in February 1938, when about 80 male Bahá'ís were arrested one night, including Mr. Alizad. At first, most were held, along with a number of Muslims, in a local prison in severe, overcrowded conditions. "The room was … about five by seven meters, and had no windows," Mr. Alizad writes, describing the cell that was to be his home for the next 22 months. "A hole about 50 by 80 centimeters had been made in the ceiling. This hole was so small, the ceiling so high and the area so vast that neither any light penetrated nor was there any ventilation."

Gradually, the number of prisoners in the cell increased until it reached 95, and the prisoners were forced to sleep head-by-feet, packed in like sardines. The only toilet facility was an open 20-liter tank, which quickly filled up each day. "The foul smell permeated the air and created a living hell for those who had to live in the room," he writes. He also notes that in 22 months, the prisoners' clothes were never changed or washed.

On top of those conditions, prisoners underwent frequent interrogation, beatings and torture to force them to sign "statements" confessing their "crimes." According to Mr. Alizad, the statements bore no relation to the truth. "The authorities were intent on building up a file and documentation against the Faith by every means possible so that [it] could be held up as a movement opposed to the government," he writes. "The political department was determined to coerce [the Bahá'ís] to falsely declare that the Bahá'í Faith was a movement in defiance of the government."

In late 1939, many prisoners were given their "freedom" - they were sent to work camps in Siberia. Conditions in Siberia were preferable to imprisonment, in that the exiles could move about the countryside with relative freedom, but the hard labor, harsh climate, and intense poverty claimed many lives.

The first winter was the worst for the exiles, who were completely unprepared for the cold temperatures. "The protection for our feet consisted of the same shoes and cotton socks that we had worn when we arrived," writes Mr. Alizad, describing a day when the temperature was 25 below zero Celsius. "When we walked on the soft snow, our shoes sank into it and when we pulled them out, they were filled with snow. When the wind blew, it was as if needles passed through the fabric: it penetrated our clothes and reached our skin. The unfortunate thing was that with the onset of the cold weather, our meat ration was reduced from 500 grams to only a hundred grams, which was insufficient to keep our bodies warm."

The Bahá'ís shared what little they had, he says, whether food or clothing. "As soon as the weather turned cold, the Bahá'ís took practical steps to help each other," he writes. "Everyone placed whatever he had on a platter and offered it to his friends. Mr. Akbari had an old coat, out of which he made a hat for me and one for himself. Mr. Aminu'llah Akhgar gave me his boots. Another one had an extra shawl which he offered to his friend. This enabled all of us to be better prepared for the winter. We also extended help to our sympathetic Muslim friends."

Mr. Alizad spent some five years in Siberia, and was repatriated to Iran in 1946. Much of the book profiles fellow prisoners, with short accounts of how they fared in such conditions. While many did not survive, many did, and the impact is uplifting. For, as in the above account, the overall story is one about how cooperation and selflessness in the face of extreme hardship can bring out the best in the human spirit.