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Julia Caswell

Praying to Stalin.

Julia Caswell

“How many of you believe in God?”
The teacher’s fierce question echoed around Julia’s cement classroom.
“If you believe in God, let’s see if your God really exists. We will conduct an experiment. Each of you will pray to God for one piece of candy. If he gives you candy: he exists. If he doesn’t: there is no God. Is that fair?”
Julia was in kindergarten in Bulgaria. The teacher demanded they kneel to pray to their God. Her mother had warned her to be careful to do what the other children did and to not stand out or draw attention to herself. So she prayed, “Dear God, please bring me a piece of candy. Please!”
“—Open your eyes!” Shouted the teacher. “You see! No candy on your desk. God did not answer your prayer, because he does not exist.”
Julia looked around at the empty desks and thought of her beloved grandmother who often prayed to an icon. She set her jaw and folded my arms. She thought, “Grandmother would not waste her time praying if no one was there.”
“Now, look at this portrait of our great leader, Stalin,” the teacher said, pointing to a portrait of a uniformed man with a square head and with gleaming black hair. “Let’s try the same experiment with him. Get on your knees and pray to him for candy.”
Julia reluctantly got on her knees once more. “Dear Stalin, please bring me candy.” Eyes still closed.
“Keep praying and don’t look!” The teacher was saying.
“You see!” said the teacher.
Julia opened her eyes. Three wrapped, square, pieces of candy sat on my desk like jewels from a fairy tale.
“Our God is Stalin!” announced the teacher. “If you need something, pray to Him.”

This moment highlighted much of Julia’s experience in school in communist Bulgaria. Often when she came home from school her mother would ask her, “What did you learn in school?”
Julia would loudly respond, near a window so the neighbours could hear, “We learned about our great leader Stalin and our great leader Lenin.” To compensate for all they couldn’t say aloud, they would write notes on slips of paper to communicate. When they were done, they would burn the paper and hide the smell by placing a piece of apple on the pot-bellied stove.

To read more about Julia and her family, see here [add hyperlink to Nevanka’s story].

Research: Michelle Forstrom
Writing: Michelle Forstrom
Editing: Amy Epps & Louise Paulsen
Photography: Courtesy of Michelle Forstrom

Caswell, Julia, Nevenka Kiriakov, and Michelle Forstrom interview: Lindon, Utah, 2019 June 28,

Kiriakov, Nevena. “My Life Story”. December 2003.

Mehr, Kahlile. Mormon Missionaries Enter Eastern Europe, (Provo: 2002, digital edition) pp. 340-344.

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