In the past five years I’ve met many people who’ve had direct, sometimes horrific, experience of communist rule. But I was more excited about doing a recent interview than I had been about any of the previous ones. It was going to be with a nun in a convent in Lithuania.
I had imagined the scene: we would enter a large, gloomy, medieval stone convent. We would be cautiously admitted into a cavernous hallway and then ushered by a silent nun into a small, bare room for visitors. Then, dressed in black nun’s garb, Sister Nijolė Sadūnaitė would enter the room, head bowed, and sit in a plain wooden chair, her face lit only by a candle.
When the day arrived we drove out of Vilnius but then, to my horror, the taxi pulled up in the drive of an ordinary suburban house. We went up some steps and found ourselves in a brightly lit hallway with apricot walls and not a gloomy medieval stone in sight. A short, elderly lady in a woolly cardigan with a wide face and a grin stretching all the way across it ushered us into a similarly brightly lit room with an old-fashioned sofa and the sort of table you could have bought at Ikea.
Was this run-of-the-mill house really a convent? Apparently so. Five nuns live there and each of them has a separate room or cell upstairs.
The interview was not as I had expected, either. I was there to hear about all the terrible things that Sister Nijolė had experienced at the hands of the KGB in punishment for her part in publishing and distributing an illegal newssheet called Chronicles of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. This was a unique piece of samizdat in the communist world because it described in detail the many ways in which the communist authorities repressed the church.