A Pro-Life Conversion Story
In March 1999 I attended Human Life International's (HLI) annual International conference in Toronto, Canada. This gathering provides a unique chance for pro-life workers from around the globe to meet. There were parents, children, religious, pharmacists, surgeons, ex-abortion providers, academics, psychologists and other pro-lifers.
One participant was Galina Maslenikova, HLI's Russian representative. She was sent a ticket by HLI's Polish office in Gdansk and so for the first time flew out to the ‘West’ to Toronto to attend her first HLI conference. Galina works as a psychologist in Moscow. This may not seem remarkable in itself but beneath the surface description of Galina's life and work lies a remarkable story. As I was billeted to share a room with Galina during the conference I came to know something of her life and of her extraordinary journey from atheism to Catholicism.
How did we communicate? This is a good question as Galina speaks Russian and Polish and a little English. Though I was born in Australia, my father was Polish, my mother, Latvian. I retained a knowledge of Polish from my early days in Bonegilla Migrant Camp and was able to put this to good use in speaking with Galina during the busy conference. It was more than a little ironic that one of the first things I had to explain to her was the presence of guards near the International Plaza Hotel where we were staying. They were there to prevent disruptions of the conference by protesters, who were, as their placards announced, ‘Pro sex, pro gay, pro abortion all the way.’ Thinking she could not leave the hotel, I told her she was allowed to go wherever she wanted. She believed me in the end but it was a strange introduction to life in the West. Over a few days. I learned of the journey that brought her from Communism to being a Catholic prolifer at HLI's conference in Toronto...
Galina was born in Tashkent in Uzbekistan in an atheist family. She lost both her parents to illness at the age of 14 and then lived with an older sister, joining the Communist youth organisation, Komsomol. After an earthquake in 1966, which damaged Tashkent, Galina and her sister moved to Tomsk where she studied electronics at a technical university. After completing her degree, she was sent to work in Lwow in the Ukraine.
One day in Lwow, Galina found herself walking past a large Catholic church with open doors. Something drew her to enter and for the first time she felt a strange peace. She just sat at the back of the church staring at the sanctuary not knowing the meaning of anything before her. This was the first of regular trips to the church over the next 17 years. She says at that time she did not pray, as she did not know how. She did not talk to anyone and no one approached her. It is difficult for Westerners to understand that in the Communist era, churchgoers were afraid of spies reporting on them - people went quietly and prayed together but without too much social exchange unless they knew for certain that the person to whom they spoke could be trusted.
So there was Galina, year after year, sitting in the back of the church hearing about ‘God,’ ‘Christ’ and the ‘Holy Spirit.’ She heard that there was a place called Heaven, another called Hell and someone called ‘the Blessed Virgin’ but still could not piece this mysterious story together.
Meanwhile her two teenage daughters became suspicious and questioned her about where she went in her time off. They heard about these trips to ‘a church’ and discussed with each other what this could all possibly mean, genuinely concerned for their mother's well-being.
Finally Galina decided she would try to join the ‘Christians’ and after some phone calls, was directed to go to an Orthodox priest, having no idea of the distinction between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. She found herself with a friend in a crowded waiting room of an Orthodox priest. She says she was scared and held both hands together in fear of not knowing what to expect.
Suddenly an elderly lady walked up to her and asked her distinctly where the Catholic church was. Galina knew that the church she had been dropping into was called ‘Catholic’ without knowing what this meant. Her friend suggested that they should really take the old lady there as she looked too frail to make it herself. As they arrived together at the Catholic church a priest came out to greet them all. Galina said she wanted to be a Christian, upon which the priest replied that the ‘Holy Spirit led you here.’ From that moment on Galina says she felt she was meant to be there and trusted the priest who signed her up for 6 months instruction. As events turned out, Galina's daughters who had been suspicious of their mother’s activities followed suit and in the end they all became Catholics in a triple Baptism on the 6th of January 1989. The priest predicted Galina would take the Faith to others, which surprised her immensely.
In fact, 10 years on, Galina has a string of conversions to Catholicism behind her. One of these was a 15-year-old girl in a school where Galina was working at the time. The girl became pregnant and had great family pressure to have an abortion. Galina talked gently to the girl, showing her the reality of what abortion is and convinced her to try ‘another way’ - to have the child. The girl had the child and she and her family all converted to Catholicism. She then met a man who truly loved her and got married, her husband too converting to Catholicism.
I could see an immense gratitude and faith in Galina who could touch people's lives profoundly. She has no house; lives with friends in shared accommodation and does her best to spread the revolutionary message of the Gospels in post-revolutionary Russia.
Several times Galina has talked girls out of having abortions, on their way to the clinic. She said once she spoke with a girl who had been told that the child she was carrying was disabled and an abortion would ‘be best’ for her. When Galina showed her the Russian version of The Silent Scream with Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s illustrations of what occurs in an abortion, she had a change of heart saying, "I don't care if my child is disabled. This is my, my child who should not be harmed." As things turned out, she had a perfectly normal child and is glad she met Galina. I asked Galina if she had ever heard of the Helpers of God's Precious Infants, whose peaceful presence outside clinics has changed many women's minds. She said she'd never heard of them and I informed her that she in fact was an honorary member.
What I gleaned of Galina's life during the conference was, I suspect, only the tip of the iceberg. I think she is the kind of person who is a living miracle considering the political and economic circumstances of her life. God uses her to produce great changes in people's hearts. She herself is surprised at the effects of some of her words and actions. At one Moscow conference she described the activities of Planned Parenthood (IPPF) whose liberal sex and abortion agenda is disguised in innocuous phrases such as ‘reproductive rights.’ After finishing, Galina was surprised that a member of IPPF was in fact scheduled to speak next. She then saw the whole hall boo and heckle the IPPF speaker who, in the end, had to leave.
In the post-Communist era, the devastating effects of Communism are seen in the economic ruin, in the lessened respect for life, as shown in the abortion rate (many women have had 5-6 abortions at least). In the face of this dehumanisation Galina stresses the value of life, the infinite worth of each moment of existence. It does not worry her that some days she has little food to eat. She is an example of that depth of the Russian spirit, which we often hear about but rarely have the chance to meet. She is doing her best to show people the light of Christ, which is the only light that matters in this world. When she can't directly help she tells people she knows ‘someone who can’ and prays for them.
As if what has already been related of Galina's life is not enough - one day towards the end of our stay she showed me a hundred-year-old set of rosary beads. Many generations ago someone in her family had married a Polish Catholic and the rosary beads were a puzzling heirloom passed down through the generations. As Galina's family were all atheists, an aunt who had the rosary beads did not know what to do with them and thought that Galina might like them. She thinks that 4-5 generations ago someone prayed a Rosary that was a source of grace for her and her family.
As an Aussie of East European background I felt privileged to meet Galina. It was as if I met and recognised the places of the spirit that links me to my forebears. Galina, now 50 and a Catholic for more than 10 years flew back to Moscow after her week-long HLI conference and first trip to the West to continue her extraordinary work for God and her fellow human beings.