There are reasons‘s December Special IssueThe 30th anniversary marks the end of the Soviet Union. We are exploring the legacy of this evil empire around the world and trying to ensure that it does not continue. The terrible consequences of communism cannot be ignored.
Pope John Paul II was able to return to Poland in 1979 after less than a decade of ascending to the top office of the Catholic Church. At the airport, he disembarked, kneeled, and kissed Polish soil. It was this moment that marked the beginning for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In an officially atheist country, millions of people—more than a third of the population of Poland—showed up to see the first ever Slavic pope during his nine-day trip. John O’Sullivan’s 2006 memoir, John O’Sullivan writes that John Paul was “walking among huge, enthusiastic crowds.” The President, Pope and Prime Minister. “The pope declared not only political but also religious and patriotic hope.”
John Paul, while celebrating Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square at Mass, pointed out the tomb of an unknown soldier to the attention of the crowd. “In how many locations has he wept with his loss?” he asked, adding that “there can’t be just Europe without Poland being marked on the map.” This was a remarkable political repudiation of the Soviets who, after World War II, had established communist governments in Eastern Europe. They were only “independent” by name.
John Paul, in an attempt to rebuke another kind of argument, had just stated that the “exclusion of Christ from history of mankind is an act against him” at any latitude or longitude. In response, the crowd had begun to sing, “We want God….We want God.”
Former California Governor. Ronald Reagan became enthralled by the events. He later said that he had felt a sense, especially during the visit of the Pope to Poland. It was a strong feeling.
The following year, a trade union called Solidarity burst into being in the city of Gdańsk. This union, which would eventually spread throughout the country representing millions of Poles across every industry sector and became the focal point of nation’s anticommunist resistance, was soon to span the entire country. Members fought for the right of organization, liberalism, and democracy under a banner often accompanied by John Paul.
They succeeded within 10 years, in spite of a severe crackdown. The rest of Soviet bloc did the exact same thing.
As the labor organizer and future Polish president Lech Wałęsa put it, John Paul’s pilgrimage “awakened in us, the Poles, the hope for change….I have no doubt that without the pope’s words, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible.”
“To Praise God’s Mother and to Spite on the Bastards”
Remember that the Soviets had been determined to replace religion—the “opium of the masses”—with their own “scientific atheism.”
Paul Kengor’s 2017 book, 1919 says so. Pope and president“Lenin sent a strong order. To kill any person who attempted to observe Christmas.” Soviet leader demanded “the whole Cheka to be on alert in order to make sure that people who aren’t showing up for work due to the holiday don’t get their jobs.” [the religious holiday]”
The Soviet Union saw thousands of monasteries and churches destroyed. Their bells were then melted down, and they were rebuilt into “more useful” objects. Priests and bishops who refused to comply with the regime’s demands were either imprisoned, or even executed. Kengor says that Bolsheviks banned religious instruction to children under 18 years old. “Children were encouraged to give up any teachings about God to their parents.”
Mikhail Gorbachev would, as the Soviet’s last leader, eventually admit that the USSR was involved in a war on religion.
The efforts in Poland were not as successful, as the country is a predominantly Catholic nation and it was difficult for people to give up their religious beliefs. It created Nowa Huta in 1949. This was a utopian workers’ community with no space for a church. So John Paul, then a bishop in Kraków named Karol Wojtyła, held equally conspicuous outdoor Masses nearby, attracting large crowds, until the authorities finally permitted a church to be built.
The Soviets realized they were in trouble when the same bishop was elected pope as 1978. This one, however, was not like his immediate predecessors (all of whom were Italians), and they couldn’t keep it out of Eastern Europe.
John Paul demonstrated a type of peaceful, unapologetically religious resistance that Poland’s Christians could use to resist the regime during his 10 year-long visits. O’Sullivan writes that “They showed their hostility towards Communism, not by rioting, but by publicly showing their loyalty to God and Our Lady, The Church, John Paul,” O’Sullivan says. When asked by O’Sullivan why someone would want to become a Christian living in communist countries, a Polish miner said it: “To worship the Mother of God” and “To spite those bastards.”
‘I saw Neighbors taken from Their Homes’
Many Poles came to seek out John Paul’s blessings in the summer of 1979. That energy became more organized opposition a year later.
Workers at state-owned steel and railroad companies became increasingly disillusioned by the rising food prices, as well as ongoing political oppression. In August, Wałęsa—then an unemployed electrician in Gdańsk—led his colleagues at the Lenin Shipyard in calling a strike, an effort that soon morphed into the establishment of the nationwide Solidarity union.
John Paul encouraged by Rome, the Polish Catholic church blessed the demands of laborers for “independence and self-government” with the blessings of the Polish Catholic Church. Kengor notes that Solidarity’s membership increased from zero to ten thousand in just three months.
The overwhelming popularity of the Polish government led to the decision by the Polish government to accept the union. The victory did not last.
Moscow, a rigid believer that the Communist Party is the sole legitimate representative of workers in a country, threatened to invade if the Polish government didn’t bring the union into line. O’Sullivan says that there was already a military plan. O’Sullivan writes that Sol-idarity leadership was to be arrested, court-martialed and then shot.
The Polish regime changed course after recalling how Soviet troops brutally suppressed uprisings against Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the ’50s/’60s. O’Sullivan says that all Polish private telephones were shut down at 3:00 a.m. on 12/12 1981. Wałęsa was arrested along with thousands of others. Striking was outlawed. “Tanks appeared from military camps, drove to strategic points in Warsaw’s streets and took the name of Martial Law. “Martial law was declared.”
The “temporary emergency measures” were lifted two years later—just after John Paul’s second trip to Poland as pontiff, perhaps not coincidentally—but the persecution of the union continued until 1989.
Wojciech Bogdan from Warsaw, Poland, says that his parents were members of Solidarity and would receive underground papers. He grew up during the period in north Poland. They were not arrested but they did come close. It was illegal to have anything connected with Solidarity….I saw neighbors taken from their homes.”
John Paul was assassinated by a Turkish agent working for the communist government in Bulgaria in May 1981. He was attending an audience at St. Peter’s Square in Rome. He survived. His brother priests weren’t all as fortunate.
Priests, Couriers and Labor Organizers as well as Intelligence Operatives
Following the imposition of martial law, the pope expressed his support for Solidarity by broadcasting radio addresses over the Iron Curtain. But he did more than offer moral consolation to his suffering homeland—he set out to help keep the now-underground union going.
This led to some strange bedfellows.
Ronald Reagan, a strong anti-communist and president of the United States at this time, was perhaps the most surprising. However, he was not the only one.
“Tons of equipment—fax machines (the first in Poland), printing presses, transmitters, telephones, shortwave radios, video cameras, photocopiers, telex machines, computers, word processors—were smuggled into Poland,” wrote Carl Bernstein in a 2001 Time Cover story. “The Solidarity office in Brussels became an international clearinghouse: for representatives of the Vatican, for CIA operatives, for the AFL-CIO, for representatives of the Socialist International, for the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy….Priests, couriers, labor organizers and intelligence operatives moved in and out of Poland with requests for aid and with detailed information on the situation inside the government and the underground.”
Western resistance to communism is a challenge to the left-right binary 21st Century Americans are accustomed to expecting. Reagan, the great advocate of free market capitalism was open to working with America’s labor unions in order to provide support for Polish dissidents. Reagan himself was once the head of Screen Actors Guild. Lane Kirkland who was the president of AFL-CIO’s progressive branch for 16 years, was not afraid to align with the Catholic Church or its conservative leader.
Solidarity’s emergence in Eastern Europe also challenged political assumptions. However, these results proved to be more dangerous.
Soviets claimed they created the “dictatorship for the proletariat”. Kengor says that the communists had “smashed the proletariat” with 1981’s declaration by the Polish government of martial law. The conflict with Solidarity, Poland’s Communist Party (officially called the Polish Uni Workers’ Party), could have been characterized as a battle between lowercase and uppercase.L Work against uppercaseW Workers. Many people could not tell who was actually representing them.
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski wrote years later that Solidarity was the closest thing the 20th century saw to the kind of working-class revolution predicted by Karl Marx. Ironic, communism, that “it was directed against socialist states, and carried out with the blessing from the Pope under the sign of cross.
“At This moment, I’m Participating In a Miracle”
The Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko, Solidarity’s 37-year-old Catholic chaplain, who often used his homilies to exhort the faithful to peaceful resistance, was kidnapped by three agents of the Polish secret police. The three agents from the Polish secret police bound him and put him in their vehicle. They beat him to death then sank him into the river.
When the priest went missing, Kengor writes, Wałęsa hurried to his church “and pleaded with Poles not to react with violence.” According to reports, the funeral was attended by a quarter million people after the body was found.
“I still remember the emotions I felt after Fr. Popiełuszko was killed, although I was just a child,” Bogdan says. “People just got fed up. It was the end. It was not fury. What more can we endure? “We have to end it.
Pope John Paul II visited Poland for the third time in 1987. Unincorporated unions were banned at that time. However, Solidarity banners were raised by supporters during the papal Mass, which was attended by 800,000 people.
Reagan made the same statement in the Brandenburg Gate speech that week: “Mr. Gorbachev!
The Berlin Wall was torn down two years later. It is often referred to as the first major event in Eastern Europe. It actually happened a few months later. After Poland had its first semifree parliamentary elections. Solidarity won 99 percent of all the seats. Wałęsa was on his way to becoming the president of a democratic Poland.
It would happen that one Soviet bloc country would soon follow another. The Soviet republics would eventually fall, with the dissolution of USSR thirty years later. Many of these locations saw the resumption or continuation of religious services as a marker of the end of communism.
In December 1989, the long-persecuted dissident Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. John Paul, a short time later, visited the country.
Havel said to the pope, “I’m not certain that I understand what a miracle looks like.” “Despite this, I can say I’m participating in a miracle. The man, six months ago, was detained as an enemy state. He is here as president of state and wishes to welcome the first pontiff of Catholic Church history to step foot on this soil.
These events were a victory for individual freedom. Eastern Europe became safe again for believers after four decades of living under an oppressive system that sought to eradicate Christianity. It had been able to bring down one the greatest modernist experiments in tyranny and restore basic political rights for hundreds of millions. The opposition movement had managed to do this while simultaneously demonstrating the power of nonviolent and nongovernmental action to completely remake the world.
“I am the son of a nation,” John Paul, who died in 2005 and was canonized by the Church in 2014, once said—a nation that has “kept its identity…not by relying on the resources of physical power but solely by relying on its culture. It was this culture that proved to be more powerful than any other forces.