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Authors: Victor Sebestyen

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BOOK: Revolution 1989
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Andropov called for as much information as he could obtain on the new Pope. The KGB had bulging files on Karol Wojtyła, dating from the early 1950s when he was a young lecturer in ethics at the Jagiellonian University and a regular contributor of pithy articles in the Catholic press. He was watched more carefully after he was appointed Archbishop of Kraków in 1963. Routine surveillance reports by the Polish secret police, the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (SB), show that the regime in Warsaw had considered his sermons to be ‘subversive’. He was investigated by the State Prosecutor, who thought of charging him, but dropped the idea. Andropov was not unduly disturbed by any of this. He had read countless reports over the years on sermons preached by turbulent priests and he knew most of them could be discounted as no real threat. He was far more concerned by what was said about Wojtyła’s character. Even the dry, monochrome dossiers produced by intelligence agents told of the force of Wojtyła’s personality, his extraordinary charisma, his messianic fervour and the power of his intellect. Andropov was not cheered by the telegram received at the headquarters of the KGB, from their top man in Warsaw, Vitali Pavlov. Within a few hours of the new Pope’s election he reported to Moscow Central: ‘Wojtyła holds extreme anti-Communist views. Without openly opposing the Socialist system, he has criticised the way in which State agencies of the People’s Republic function.’
Just days after Pope John Paul’s enthronement, Andropov and his deputy, Viktor Chebrikov, presented the Soviet leadership with a highly secret plan to counter the threat they now perceived from the Vatican. They urged a propaganda campaign in the Eastern bloc designed to scare people into believing there would be a Soviet backlash against religion of all kinds. In the West there would be ‘active measures . . . to demonstrate that the leadership of the new Pope is dangerous to the Catholic Church’. In addition, the KGB managed quickly to bug the Pontiff. Sophisticated listening devices were twice found by the head of Vatican security, Camillo Cibin, in the rooms most frequently used by Pope John Paul: his private office, his official office, known as the library, where he held most of his meetings, and his bedroom. Cibin naturally had his suspicions about who was responsible, but the Vatican did not learn until much later that it was certainly the handiwork of Soviet intelligence.
Stalin once famously asked: ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ His successors were disturbed by a different question: what if this Pope should embark on an all-out ideological struggle against socialism? This is something none of the religious leaders had seriously attempted anywhere in the Soviet empire. Most of the churches had been suppressed without much of a struggle in the late 1940s and 1950s. There had been a few high-profile ‘martyrs’ such as the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been tortured and jailed
pour encourager les autres
. But with a mixture of brutality, coercion and subversion in most of Eastern Europe the churches had been driven underground and were not seen as centres of resistance. The Vatican since the war had generally compromised with the Communists. Pope John Paul’s predecessor, Paul VI, confessed, almost proudly, that he was pragmatic and had ‘hardly followed a policy of glory’ in his relations with the Soviets. His duty was to save what could be saved, he said. Communism would be around for a long time to come and Catholics unfortunate enough to be living in the Soviet empire would have to accept it.
But in overwhelmingly and enthusiastically Catholic Poland there was an uneasy truce between Church and State. Though modelled as rigidly on the Stalinist colonial system as elsewhere in the Soviet empire, there were some important differences between Poland and most of the other socialist bloc countries. There had been bloodletting after the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Poland in 1945. The Communists took over at the point of a gun, as they had done everywhere. Most of those who had returned to Poland after fighting with the non-Communist resistance led by General Władysław Anders were murdered. But later the purges were less vicious. Poland did not suffer the same terror as Hungary, for example, where more than 10 per cent of the population had either been murdered or, after torture by the secret police, the notorious AVO, rotted in internment camps.
The Polish comrades were given more leeway by their masters in the USSR. Only a tenth of the land was collectivised, by far the lowest proportion in the socialist bloc. The Church was allowed a degree of independence. The Party made a historic compromise with the Catholic hierarchy. The Church was permitted to run a few schools. In early 1975 the Polish Church establishment numbered two cardinals, forty-five seminaries, seventy-three bishops, 13,392 churches, 18,267 priests, 35,341 monks and nuns and twenty million weekly communicants. This was considerably more than officially Catholic countries with similar populations. The Catholic University of Lublin was world-famous, with more than 2,000 students. The Polish Church sent large numbers of missionaries to Asia and Africa. About one half of the country’s Communist Party members said that they were also regular church attenders, according to an opinion poll. The true number was probably greater, as many would go to mass but not admit it.
Such paradoxes abounded in Poland. The erstwhile Communist fellow traveller Jean-Paul Sartre described it as the land of ‘socialist surrealism’ and said when he visited in the early 1970s he discovered a world of ‘perfect absurdity’. Poland, he said, was
a country torn from its past by violent measures imposed by the Communists but so bound to that past that the capital demolished in the war was rebuilt from the pictures of Canaletto . . . it has a capital where the citizens have taken up residence again in the ‘old city’ which is entirely new . . . a country where the (official) average monthly remuneration does not exceed the price of two pairs of socks, but where there is no poverty . . . a socialist country where church festivals are public holidays . . . a country of total disorganisation where nonetheless the trains run on time . . . a country where censorship and satire both flourish . . . the only country in the socialist bloc whose citizens are freely allowed to buy and sell US dollars but not to possess them . . . a country where one can talk with the waiter in English or German and the cook in French, but the Minister only through an interpreter.’
Poland seemed as anarchic to an orthodox Marxist as it did to a capitalist brought up on free markets. It limped along from economic crisis to crisis, utterly dependent on Western loans guaranteed - and this was another surreal part of Polish socialism - by Communist Party bosses in the Kremlin. Now there was a Pope who understood communism from first-hand experience, and this worried men like Yuri Andropov.
One of the first decisions Pope John Paul made was to visit his homeland. If his election had been a shock to the men in the KGB headquarters at the Lubyanka it had also come as an enormous surprise to the Faithful. The Catholic world for centuries had been used to elderly Italian popes. Here was a vigorous fifty-eight-year-old, a man who still looked athletic, a Slav, an inspirational pastor rather than a Curia politician. He believed God had selected a Polish pontiff for a purpose, and that Poland’s suffering in the twentieth century was for a purpose. His own tragic childhood and youth typified his country’s painful history. Karol Wojtyła’s mother died when he was eight; he lost his only sibling, his elder brother Edmund, three years later and his only other close relative, his father, died in the war when the future Pope was in his teens. He had to train as a priest underground during the Nazi occupation.
Pope John Paul had a natural gift for timing. He wanted to make a substantial difference quickly with a grand, symbolic evangelising mission that would set an early seal on his papacy. In Poland his election had been welcomed with extraordinary scenes of joy. The authorities knew better than to suppress any of the huge public celebrations. Even some among the Communist leadership were secretly proud that a Pole now sat on the throne of St Peter. On the day after the election the Polish Party boss, Edward Gierek, messaged Moscow, probably more in hope than with any real conviction. ‘It is good that Wojtyła has left for Rome,’ he told Vadim Zagladin, the highly influential senior man at the Soviet Communist Party’s International Department. ‘Here, in Poland, he would be a disaster. He could create great difficulties for us. In Rome, he is less dangerous . . . to some extent he can even be useful there. After all, he has “exported” a lot of ideas and considerations inspired by communism.’
In early November 1978 the Pope ordered his officials to start negotiations with the Warsaw regime for a papal visit as soon as it could be organised. The talks were delicate. The Polish Communists wanted to refuse, but thought they could not. Denying Poles a visit seemed politically impossible. They believed they would be taking the lesser risk by letting him come on a carefully controlled tour and thought they could even gain some credit for allowing Poles to see their national hero. Some more far-sighted figures warned of the consequences, but they were voted down. The Soviets had to be persuaded to let the tour go ahead. Grudgingly, they agreed. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev told Gierek: ‘Take my advice, don’t give the Pope any reception. It will only cause trouble.’ Gierek spoke of the domestic pressures on him and said he couldn’t risk vetoing the pilgrimage. Brezhnev reluctantly gave his approval: ‘Well, do as you wish. But be careful you don’t regret it later.’
The lacklustre Polish leaders regretted it almost as soon as Pope John Paul’s Alitalia Boeing jet arrived on the tarmac at Warsaw airport at about 11 a.m. on Saturday 2 June 1979. The Pope knelt, kissed the ground in a gesture that became famous on all his many future foreign tours, opened his arms in a blessing and was greeted by rapturous applause from an adoring crowd. A heatwave hit Poland that summer. Temperatures soared to more than 40°C. The Pope criss-crossed the country for a week. A third of the entire population went outside to see him in person at some point during the visit. People waited for hours in boiling conditions along his route just to catch the briefest glimpse of him. His visit was proof that after three decades, the Roman Catholic Church commanded far more loyalty among Poles than Communism ever had. More than two million people attended some of his outdoor masses. His final address on 10 June, in Kraków, was by the government’s own admission the largest public gathering ever held in Poland. His addresses were carefully scripted. Vatican officials had agreed with the Soviets and the Polish regime that at no point would Pope John Paul say anything incendiary or anything that could be taken as an anti-Communist crusade. But they were amazingly powerful speeches that resonated with everyone who heard them. ‘I have come to talk about the dignity of man,’ he said at one of them. ‘Of the threat to man, to the rights of man. Inalienable rights which can be easily trampled on - by man.’ Everyone understood what he meant, though technically he never broke the terms of his agreement.
The Pope ran rings around the regime, who had no answer to the sensational power of his appeal and his message of hope. He grasped the nature of public relations instinctively. State television, in a typically cack-handed way, tried to show that the crowds were mainly swooning nuns or elderly peasants. All Poles had to do was go outside on street corners to see otherwise. Their efforts brought more people out to meet the Pope. ‘Why did I go?’ one congregant managed to tell the Pontiff. ‘To praise the mother of God - and to spite those bastards.’
He inspired and galvanised people as nobody had before and he fatally wounded communism - a fact acknowledged by the grim-faced Polish Defence Minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. The Pope never said so openly but his triumphant return home amounted to an unmistakable call for resistance to oppression rather than compromise. The call was heeded a few months later.
Gdansk, Poland, Saturday 9 August 1980
ANNA WALENTYNOWYCZ was a diminutive woman. In her fifty-first year she was beginning to put on a little weight, but throughout the vast, sprawling Lenin Shipyard she was still called ‘Tiny’ Anna. Everyone in the shipyard knew Anna, one of the most popular workers in the plant. A bustling figure full of energy and warmth, she had worked there for thirty-three years. Now she was just five months short of retirement.
Orphaned in the war during the occupation of Poland, she became a convinced Communist. Her dream from adolescent years had been to build socialism and the place she would start was at the Lenin Shipyard. She was a model worker, a welder who because of her size was often sent into the most remote and narrow crannies of a ship’s frame where other workers could not reach. At twenty-one years old, a proud member of the Rosa Luxemburg work brigade, she won a ‘Hero of Labour’ award. During 1950, according to the citation, she had increased her work productivity by 270 per cent - ‘one of the proudest moments of my life’.
After sixteen years with the blow-torch, Anna rose to the more responsible position of operating a crane. Only a handful of women at the yard - which mostly made cargo vessels for export to the USSR - were qualified to handle such valuable and potentially dangerous machinery. She was married, briefly, in 1964, though the relationship did not last. The following year she was diagnosed with cancer and given less than five years to live. Later, after radiotherapy, the doctors told her they had been entirely wrong and gave her a clean bill of health. Throughout these personal crises she had been a hard worker, patriotic, loyal to communism. She was so well respected that, increasingly, co-workers brought their problems to her. She would try to help in practical ways or, more often, just listen sympathetically to moans and complaints. Gradually, she began to open her eyes and see how short of the ideal socialist paradise her new model Poland had fallen. But Anna was no natural rebel.
BOOK: Revolution 1989
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