On the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR, we look back at the dozen years when a formidable superpower gave way to a revolution of conscience.
As they did each evening, a small Catholic family in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic sat in their living room, watching the evening news. It was October 16, 1978, and the announcer said that that day at the Vatican, a bishop from Poland had been elected as the new pope of Rome. He took the name Pope John Paul II.
The family’s only child at the time was an eight-year-old named Sviatoslav Shevchuk. He and his family, though living under an atheistic regime, were well aware of the Vatican. Because their Church had been made illegal in 1946, they listened secretly to the Divine Liturgy broadcast each Sunday by Vatican Radio. Shevchuk would go on to study for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary. Today, as major archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, he is head of the worldwide Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
As he related the story to this writer in a 2019 interview, Shevchuk recalled that one of his grandparents commented on the news coming across the television that evening in 1978, “Something will be changing in the world.”
Most people believed that the Soviet empire, one of the world’s two superpowers, was virtually indestructible. But the parents and grandparents in the Shevchuk family recognized that a crack had developed.
“If someone from the Soviet, communist part of the world was picked to be the head of the Catholic Church, and they let him go, they are not all powerful,” the elders reasoned, according to Shevchuk. “Something will be changing. … From the TV you could perceive the emotion of fear, and from the audience the emotion of hope.”
Catholics and lovers of freedom throughout the Soviet empire would have to be patient for that change, and still there would be much suffering. But in retrospect, it’s astounding to think that it was just 13 years after Karol Wojtyla’s election as pope that the once-powerful Soviet Union crumbled.
Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, and the red hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin on December 25, 1991. This Christmas marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Though it was not Christmas Day in Russia, where the Orthodox celebrate the Nativity on January 7, according to the Julian calendar, the dramatic events must have been a sweet Christmas gift to people like Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and others who devoted much of their lives to the defeat of communism. Not to speak of the millions of Catholics who had been praying decades of rosaries – for decades – for the conversion of Russia.
And, for the Shevchuks and millions of people of faith throughout the Soviet sphere, there was restoration of religious freedom, which already had been growing slowly but surely.
Historians recognize that multiple factors contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union, including poor economic conditions in the Union itself. Reagan and Thatcher are regularly given credit for helping to push what was considered an inevitable downfall.
But Pope John Paul II also played a major and indispensable role, one that was primarily moral rather than political. His contribution to the downfall of Soviet communism is well documented in George Weigel’s two-volume biography of the pope, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning.
Nine days that changed the world
A central event in that history was the pope’s historic visit to his homeland in June of 1979 [In the photo above, John Paul is depicted speaking to Poland’s Communist Party chief Edward Gierek.] Why? Though Poland was not part of the USSR, it was ruled by a communist regime that answered to Moscow.
“He recognized and said, long before anyone else, this was on its face a spiritual conflict, that at the root the conflict between communism and the rest of the world was not about politics and wasn’t about military might; it was a spiritual conflict,” Barbara J. Elliott, Scholar in Residence and Assistant Professor in The Honors College at Houston Baptist University, said in a recent interview. “When he confronted it that way in 1979, he lit the long fuse that detonated 10 years later under the Berlin Wall. But he did it among his own people in Poland, reminding them who they were, that they were children of God, created with dignity and a responsibility, and that they were meant to be free in him. And that in resisting communism they had to do so responsibly, peacefully and overcoming evil with good.”
A former PBS reporter in Europe, Elliott worked with refugees in Germany coming from east of the Iron Curtain, and later traveled to Russia, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary to interview people who had resisted communism because of their faith. She told their stories in Candles Behind the Wall: Heroes of the Peaceful Revolution that Shattered Communism.
Growing up under communism
In examining the pope’s role in the downfall of Soviet communism, one shouldn’t overlook the obvious: that Karol Wojtyla was intimately familiar with it from living under the Marxist-Leninist regime that ruled his own country beginning in the wake of the Second World War.
As Lee Edwards, co-founder of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, wrote, when comparing Reagan’s interest in the subject with Wojtyla’s, “In the late 1940s and early 1950s — when actor Ronald Reagan was fighting the communists in Hollywood — Fr. Wojtyla persistently rebutted efforts by Poland’s Stalinist rulers to reinvent the country’s history and culture. … In the 1960s — when Gov. Reagan was putting down radical-inspired violence on California’s campuses — Bishop Wojtyla reminded Poles that in their thousand-year history they often had ‘to break through to freedom from the underground. In the 1970s — when presidential candidate Reagan persisted in calling the Soviet Union “evil” and an empire — Cardinal Wojtyla reached out to Polish dissident intellectuals as part of his effort to forge, in the words of George Weigel, ‘a chain of cultural resistance’ to the communist regime. Wherever he went and wherever he was, the Polish cardinal fearlessly challenged what Vaclav Havel called “a culture of lies.” He effectively articulated a Christian alternative to the false humanism of communism.”
During the conclave that elected him pope, Cardinal Wojtyla read a Marxist philosophical journal during ballot counting, according to Weigel.
But the nine days he spent in his homeland turned out to be so consequential that even a secular historian like John Lewis Gaddis of Yale recognized it as a turning point. In The Cold War: A New History, Gaddis writes that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland – and ultimately everywhere – would come to an end.”
Gaddis believes that while “the material forms of power” the United States and the Soviet Union embraced, such as their military strength, began to “lose their potency” by the early 1980s, real power rested “with leaders like John Paul II whose mastery of intangibles – of such qualities as courage, eloquence, imagination, determination, and faith – allowed them to expose disparities between what people believed and the system under which the Cold War obliged them to live. The gaps were most glaring in the Marxist-Leninist world: so much so that when fully revealed there was no way to close them other than to dismantle communism itself, and thereby end the Cold War.”
Poles, already proud to have one of their own sitting on the Throne of Peter, were ready to welcome their favorite son. Massive crowds turned out to hear him, and millions more listened to his words on television.
Throughout the pope’s sermon in Warsaw’s Victory Square on June 2, 1979, the crowd responded rhythmically: “We want God, we want God, we want God in the family, we want God in the schools, we want God in books, we want God, we want God. …”
“Seven hours after he had arrived, a crucial truth had been clarified by a million Poles’ response to John Paul’s evangelism,” Weigel notes in Witness to Hope. “Poland was not a communist country; Poland was a Catholic nation saddled with a communist state.”
A revolution of conscience
The 1979 pilgrimage ignited a revolution, Weigel writes. The Polish trade union Solidarity, which played a key role in eventually defeating the regime in Warsaw, was born in its wake. A subsequent papal pilgrimage to Poland, in 1983, helped keep the revolution alive. And a third, in June 1987, “was intended to prepare the ground for the revolution’s victory and identify the basic issues the free Poland of the future would face,” the author states.
Toward the end of the decade, the momentum increased sharply. Weigel says in Witness: “What had seemed immutable since World War II – Soviet hegemony over the world’s last great political empire, and the rule of communists within the vassal states of that empire – began to change with striking rapidity in April 1988.”
A slew of events transpired in that and the following year: the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Gorbachev promised a new law on freedom of conscience. The Baltic republics made moves toward independence. Gorbachev announced major cuts in the Soviet military. Hungary allowed opposition parties. Czechoslovakia had its “Velvet Revolution.”
In the pope’s homeland, the government legally recognized Solidarity, whose party won big in Poland’s first semi-free elections. Later in 1989, Solidarity member Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist prime minister of an east central European country in 40 years.
Meanwhile, East Germans taking refuge in Hungary were able to escape to the West when that country opened its border with Austria. Others flowed from Prague and Warsaw to West Germany. Finally, on November 9, 1989, the infamous Berlin Wall was opened for a free exchange of peoples between the East and West sectors of the old German capital.
In the midst of this frenzy, on December 1 of 1989, Gorbachev visited John Paul at the Vatican. In Weigel’s characterization, “the representative of the world’s greatest experiment in atheistic humanism [a social experiment meant to prove that man can organize himself without God, and that, indeed, belief in God stood in the way of complete human fulfillment], the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, came to the Vatican to call on the world’s foremost representative of Christian humanism.”
Among other issues, the pope raised the issue of religious freedom for Greek Catholics in Ukraine, whose Church had been illegal since 1946.
Weigel believes the visit was an “act of surrender.” At the end of the visit, “Gorby,” as he was often called in the West, introduced his wife to the pontiff: “Raisa Maximovna, I have the honor to introduce the highest moral authority on earth.” To which he added, “… and he’s Slavic, like us!”
The flag comes down
Various republics of the USSR, such as Estonia and Lithuania, had been declaring independence from the Union. In August of 1991, communist hardliners and military elites, frustrated by Gorbachev’s failed reform measures, tried to overthrow him. Gorbachev survived the coup, and John Paul wrote to him, expressing his hope that he would be able to resume his “tremendous task for the material and spiritual renewal of the Soviet Union.” But the next day, Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Many republics, including Ukraine, declared independence in the following days and months. The secession of the Baltic states was recognized in September 1991.
In late 1991, the leaders of three of the Union’s founding republics – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, and 11 more republics joined them shortly thereafter. Kazakhstan was the last nation to leave the Soviet Union.
On December 25, Gorbachev resigned and turned over his presidential powers to Boris Yeltsin. That evening at 7:32 p.m., the Soviet red banner was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the Russian tricolor flag. The following day, Declaration 142-Н of the Supreme Soviet’s upper chamber, the Soviet of the Republics, recognized self-governing independence for the former Soviet republics, formally dissolving the Union.
The USSR had existed since 1922, five years after the Bolshevik Revolution and two years after Karol Wojtyla’s birth in Wadowice, Poland.
“It might be tempting to characterize Pope John Paul II as the political foe who vanquished communism. But that would be untrue,” Barbara Elliott has written. “His position challenged communism in the metaphysical realm, not in the political arena. His message was never one advocating political positioning. Rather, he understood that the error of communism lay in its fundamental understanding of man, who is not merely a unit of labor engaged in a perpetual class struggle, as Marx claimed, but a creature made in the image of God, with a soul and an eternal destiny. John Paul II never took his eyes off God, his heart and mind like a compass pointing to true North. He encouraged people to love God more deeply, to cherish relationships with the people they love, and to obey God with abandon. He challenged communism on his knees, praying to God, ‘Thy will be done.’”