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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Resounding Message for Russia

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They say that back in 1978, when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Yury Andropov, then head of the KGB, warned the Politburo that there could be trouble ahead. You have to give the Soviet spymaster credit: He had guts.

Though not a Catholic, and not even a Christian, I always envied the Poles, ever since the golosa, as we called broadcasts from beyond the Iron Curtain, reported the speech John Paul II delivered to millions in Poland in 1979, shortly after he became pope. He preached freedom to a nation that was still a collective of slaves without rights. He told them: "You are men. You have dignity. Don't crawl on your bellies."

It was the most important message ever delivered to my part of the world. For cowardice, regardless of faith and ethnicity, was the region's main feature. "Crawling on your bellies" was the only way to survive, inculcated over the centuries and reinforced during the Communist regime. It took a giant to say it that simply. Yet it was difficult and dangerous to comprehend and to accept that freedom of choice was the main gift God gave humanity. Without freedom there is no dignity, and without these two virtues people cease to be citizens, people cease to be human. He or she becomes "it" and is treated accordingly.

No wonder the KGB took the pope's message very seriously. The Fourth Department, in charge of church affairs, worked around the clock. Reports from the late 1970s and 1980s were full of information about the KGB's successes in recruiting agents and promoting them to the top hierarchy among the clergy of all denominations in Russia, whether Orthodox Christians or Muslims, Jews or Protestants. "Agent 'Pavel,' who is being sent to Irkutsk, is to be promoted to a leading office in the Russian Orthodox Church," stated a report dated April 1980. "Through agents working among the pastors of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tula, a new election was held for the senior church pastor for the central region. As a result, agent 'Svetlov' was promoted to this post," a 1984 report said.

Those who resisted were jailed or intimidated: "There are 229 church officials and sect members serving sentences. ... KGB officers have more than 2,500 cases of surveillance over hostile elements from this category of citizens," one high-ranking KGB officer proudly reported to his superiors in 1982.

The religious community was successfully divided between those who preached the superiority of the state over individual freedom -- with the aim of converting the Communist elite and bringing them to the church -- and those who believed in human rights as a precondition for the spiritual revival of the nation. The former obviously won, got promoted and secured their posts in post-communist Russia as well -- they are still there. No wonder the church hierarchy fiercely resisted John Paul II coming to Russia -- and he never did. And the practice of recruiting agents among clergy of different faiths has been revived in the past few years of President Vladimir Putin's presidency.

This is where, I believe, we lost out in our attempt to emerge as a democratic nation from Communist tyranny, as compared to Poland or, say, the Czech Republic. There was no one in Russia like Karol Wojtyla was in Poland or Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, no one to lead the nation who had the moral authority and strong beliefs in the supremacy of the individual and freedom. Neither Andrei Sakharov nor others like him who possessed these qualities were ever allowed to the top.

Russian leaders, on the contrary, have been very skillful in calculating costs and benefits; they know plenty about supply and demand, but they have never seen freedom as the most important virtue for the nation.There is still an urgent need for a leader who will say, "You are men. You have dignity," as the late John Paul II once did.

Yevgenia Albats is professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.