Gheorghe Zgherea - Colecția de la Arhiva SIS Moldova
This ad-hoc collection was separated from the fonds of judicial files concerning persons subject to political repression during the communist regime which is currently stored in the Archive of the Intelligence and Security Service of the Republic of Moldova (formerly the KGB Archive). It focuses on the case of Gheorghe Zgherea, a person of peasant background who was a member of the Inochentist religious community, a millenarian and eschatological movement active in Bessarabia and Transnistria mostly during the first half of the twentieth century. The collection materials are revealing for the repressive policy of the Soviet regime in the religious sphere, showing the Soviet authorities’ hostile attitude toward non-mainstream and marginal denominations, which were perceived as a particularly serious threat. Zgherea, a preacher within his community starting from late 1950, was accused of “roaming the villages” of the Moldavian SSR and spreading “anti-Soviet ideas” among the local populace by “using their religious prejudices.” Arrested on 2 May 1953, he received a harsh sentence of twenty-five years of hard labour. His sentence was reduced to five years of hard labour in June 1955, when he was also amnestied according to a special decree of March 1953. Zgherea’s case thus points to the changing strategies of the regime applied after Stalin’s death, but also to the continuity of repression and to the shifting practices of stifling dissent in post-Stalinist Soviet society.
Chișinău Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt 166, Moldova 2004
- Gheorghe Zgherea Collection at SIS Archive Moldova
Kilmė ir kultūrinė veikla
The present ad-hoc collection focuses on the religious dimension of the Soviet-era repressions in the Moldavian SSR. In the early 1950s, the authorities initiated a wave of religious persecutions targeting denominational minorities with the double aim of eliminating (or at least weakening) any alternative visions of society, which were increasingly viewed as dangerous for social stability, and of strengthening the monopoly in the religious sphere of the only tolerated Christian denomination – the Orthodox Church. Thus, on 1 April 1951 the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was especially strong in the northern regions of the MSSR, was deported en masse to Siberia and Kazakhstan as part of a special “operation” (Operation North / Sever) carried out by the Soviet security services. The Inochentist community was another major target of Soviet repression. Similarly to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Inochentists were deemed to represent a dangerous and “pernicious sect,” mainly due to their millenarian and eschatological worldview, which also implied an active refusal to engage with the state and ultimately a wholesale rejection of the Soviet system as the embodiment of the Antichrist. In contrast to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and to other related so-called “neo-Protestant” communities (such as the Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists), the Inochentists had purely local origins. This community emerged in the early twentieth century in the region of Balta (Transnistria), mainly among the Romanian-speaking population of the area, and quickly spread to Bessarabia thereafter. Its founder, the monk Inochentie, originated form Soroca district in Bessarabia and addressed his sermons (which he held in Romanian) to the local peasantry. He proposed a simplified version of Orthodox Christianity, heavily infused with millenarian elements and rejecting part of the Church’s sacraments. A central element of this faith was the role of Inochentie himself as the new intermediary between God and His “chosen ones.” Inochentie’s role as a self-proclaimed “prophet” and his growing popularity alarmed the Russian church authorities, who proceeded to introduce heavy-handed repressions and exiled Inochentie himself to a monastery in Murmansk region in 1912. He was only able to return to his stronghold in Balta after the Russian February Revolution in 1917, dying shortly thereafter. The appeal of Inochentism derived from its nature as a protest movement against the established church and its hierarchy, as well as from its use of the local vernacular (Romanian) in its sermons and services. This provided an attractive alternative to the local peasants, who felt alienated from the official church because of the dominance of the Russian language. Even after 1918, during the period of Bessarabia’s inclusion in Greater Romania, the community was persecuted by the authorities. Most of its followers in Transnistria were annihilated or exiled during the Soviet Great Terror, but the movement preserved several rural strongholds in Bessarabia (mostly in the northern and southern regions).
In the immediate post-war period, although greatly weakened by state repression and the wartime tribulations, the Inochentist community managed to keep its clandestine hierarchy and a basic structure. The case of Gheorghe Zgherea highlights the internal mechanisms and principles of the movement’s operation, as well as its main doctrinal points that were repugnant to the Soviet authorities. Gheorghe Zgherea came from a moderately prosperous peasant family residing in the village of Văleni (Vulcănești district), in the south of the MSSR. His parents and a number of close relatives had been members of the Inochentist community for quite some time, probably joining at some point during the interwar period. This family connection proved fundamental for Zgherea’s own conversion and co-option into the organisation. Born in 1932, he had basic primary education, attending the village school till the age of twelve (i.e., until 1944), which means he mostly received his instruction in a Romanian educational establishment. Zgherea apparently joined the collective farm, together with his parents, in 1948. However, in December 1949, under the combined influence of his parents and some of his relatives and acquaintances (notably the preacher Elena Ciobanu), he became a member of the Inochentist community. Zgherea quickly advanced within the Inochentist hierarchy to become a preacher. Initially, he began preaching among his fellow villagers, but in early 1951 he became an active missionary and left his parents’ household to propagate the Inochentist message in several areas of southern and central Moldavia. This effectively made him an outcast within Soviet society, since he did not pursue any “socially meaningful” activity in the eyes of the Soviet authorities. After over a year of preaching, he was initially arrested in December 1952, but managed to escape from police custody during his transportation to the police headquarters in Cahul, after which he reverted to an “illegal” status. He was finally apprehended by the authorities on 2 May 1953, during a police raid on one of the “safe houses” the Inochentists used in a village in Leova district in Southern Moldavia. Zgherea was accused of pursuing “anti-Soviet activities” among the republic’s rural population by “using the religious prejudices of the believers.” Besides propagating the millenarian views of his community, according to which the Last Judgment was imminent and was to be inaugurated by the descent from Heaven of the celestial host led by the Archangel Michael, who would end all injustice and destroy the “ungodly” Soviet power, Zgherea also preached civil disobedience to the authorities. Thus, he tried to persuade his audience to ignore and reject all the social and cultural activities initiated by the authorities and to boycott elections at all levels. He also appealed to the village youth not to enter the Communist Youth League or the Communist Party, qualifying these actions as “sinful.” Zgherea especially insisted on strict adherence to Christian religious practices, including Lent and other fasting periods throughout the year, and on the refusal to work on Sundays as the main elements of a Christian way of life that would guarantee eternal salvation to believers. These arguments clearly appealed to a peasant society still traumatised by the policies of the regime and correspondingly enhanced the perceived threat represented by the Inochentists in the eyes of the authorities. A final count of indictment referred to Zgherea’s efforts to recruit new members into his “sect.” His success was not very impressive (he only managed to bring in three or four new members), but it was enough for the regime to suspect the existence of a wider network of clandestine Inochentist organisations. This is also obvious from the insistence of the authorities on finding out more details concerning the central structure of the organisation. Although Zgherea was not able to provide such information due to the highly secretive nature of the community, being aware only of a handful of active members, his case was directly related to a previous trial of six influential members of the movement, including several of his relatives and his recruiter, Elena Ciobanu. These people had been sentenced after a trial held in October–December 1952, most of them to long terms in forced labour camps. Thus, the regime had launched a concerted campaign against the Inochentists, and Zgherea turned out to be merely one of its victims.
The case against Gheorghe Zgherea (case No. 33/ 023262) was opened on 2 May 1953 and closed one month later, on 2 June. The case fell initially under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and was later transferred to the Ministry for State Security (MGB). The bulk of the collection materials comprise detailed interrogations of the accused and the accounts of relevant witnesses, including other members of the Inochentist community, Zgherea’s contacts within the organisation, and his various acquaintances in the villages he visited during his preaching activity. Other relevant papers include various procedural documents relating to the investigation and the trial, including the official accusatory act and the sentence. The final part of the collection features several documents relating to the revision of Zgherea’s case in 1955 and to his rehabilitation in 2005. It is occasionally difficult to disentangle the language of the investigators from the defendant’s own discourse, but the inquiry nevertheless provided valuable information on the structure and functioning of the Inochentist community, especially on its rural networks in the south of the MSSR. Zgherea pleaded guilty during the investigation and the subsequent trial, but ultimately refused to renounce his faith when pressured by the prosecution. He was accused according to articles 54-10, part 2, and 54-11 of the Penal Code of the Ukrainian SSR (“anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda and membership in an anti-Soviet organisation aimed at overthrowing, undermining or weakening Soviet power”). Zgherea’s initial sentence, issued on 20 June 1953, was very harsh – twenty-five years in a forced labour camp in the notorious Kolyma region. However, his sentence was revised downwards (five years of forced labour camp and three years of suspension of civil rights) in June 1955. Moreover, he was subsequently amnestied according to the special decree of March 1953, which signalled the end of large-scale Stalinist repressions. However, Zgherea was only officially rehabilitated by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Moldova in December 2005. No further information is available in Zgherea’s file concerning his fate after his release from the labour camp in 1955.
The case of Gheorghe Zgherea is revealing for the attitude of the Soviet regime toward religious activity as a whole and toward marginal and non-mainstream religious communities in particular. While the late Stalinist period inaugurated a comparatively lenient policy (by Soviet standards) regarding the Orthodox Church, which was given a measure of official recognition, “neo-Protestant” and other minority Christian communities were severely repressed. From the materials of this collection, it is obvious that the apprehensions of the Soviet authorities were caused not so much by doctrinal issues as such, but by the social and political implications of the non-participation and rejection of the system propagated by Inochentism and its followers. The militant atheist policies of the regime were, if anything, reinforced under Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early 1960s, despite the general context of the Thaw. However, Zgherea’s case also shows a shift in the authorities’ strategies of repression. The revision of his sentence and his amnesty do not point so much to a genuine liberalisation of the system as to a more selective and less authoritarian approach to individual punishments, which were more attuned to each individual case. Despite these apparent changes, the general attitude of the authorities to any form of religious dissent remained unrelentingly hostile.
The collection contains archival files from the depository of the former KGB Archive (currently the Archive of the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service). Gheorghe Zgherea’s case file was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to that of the Ministry of State Security in late May 1953, during the final phases of the criminal investigation. The one-volume file (totalling approx. 225 pages) includes a variety of documents pertaining to the defendant’s arrest, investigation, and subsequent trial. Aside from standard procedural papers (arrest warrants, material evidence, various certificates, etc.), the content of the file falls into two basic categories: detailed interrogations of the defendant (pp. 7–86), including papers relating to his brief earlier arrest in December 1952, and a number of witness accounts (pp. 87–169), mainly consisting of testimonies given by Zgherea’s fellow villagers, other members of the Inochentist community, the defendant’s main contacts within the organisation, and his various acquaintances in the villages he visited during his preaching activity. In contrast to other similar cases, Zgherea’s own testimonies and the witness accounts were translated from Romanian, since most of the persons involved did not speak Russian. This explains the peculiar style of these testimonies, including the displacement of the voices of the accused and the witnesses by the “official voice” of the investigators, replete with formulaic turns of phrase and frequent instances of “Bolshevik speech” that permeate the narrative. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct a relatively plausible picture of the defendant’s actions and motivations, despite the heavy use of official jargon. This probably also reflects a certain clumsiness and unease of the Soviet officials when approaching religious phenomena. The final part of Zgherea’s file includes, among other papers, the official accusatory act (pp. 179–182 and 190–193, in two copies), the trial records (pp. 200–203), the sentence (p. 204), several documents and official resolutions concerning the revision of Zgherea’s case in June 1955 (pp. 209–220), and the decision of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Republic of Moldova from December 2005 regarding the full rehabilitation of the defendant (pp. 221–225). During the investigation, the Soviet authorities were especially interested in the impact of Inochentist proselytism on the rural areas of the Moldavian SSR and in the movement’s local structures, which they viewed as potential hotbeds of resistance. It seems that the regime was more interested in the pragmatic aspects of the community’s subversive activities than in the essence of the Inochentist worldview, perceiving this group as particularly dangerous due to its direct contact with the peasant masses. Zgherea’s case was considered particularly dangerous because of its connection to the earlier trials of other members of the “sect,” which prompted the Soviet police to suspect the existence of a vast conspiratorial network. As in other cases, Zgherea’s file reveals as much about the fears and apprehensions of the regime as about the purported extent of the Inochentists’ oppositional activity.
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- Cusco, Andrei
Cașu, Igor. 2014. ”Arhivele comunismului: Inochentistul Gheorghe Zgherea, trimis în Kolîma pentru credinţă” (Archives of Communism: The Inochentist Gheorghe Zgherea, sent to Kolyma for his faith). Adevărul.md, 9 January. Accessed June 19, 2018.
Cașu, Igor , interview by Cușco, Andrei, June 15, 2018. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection