Students of the Cold War’s dark arts know that Communist intelligence services deeply penetrated the Vatican in the 1970s. Yet few know that Pope John Paul II, whose centenary will be marked on May 18, had his own secret agent in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. That relationship led to a remarkable personal encounter that helps explain what made the pope the man he was.
John Paul’s unlikely 007 was Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti, the Russian-born widow of an Italian diplomat. A former personal assistant to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, she met the pope quite by accident during a papal audience in the early 1980s. A friendship quickly developed between them. As the Gorbachev thaw made access to the U.S.S.R. easier, Alberti traveled to the country several times a year. “If I learned anything interesting,” she told me years later, “I’d call the pope, we’d meet, and I’d tell him.” Vatican diplomats, who liked to keep such matters on close hold, didn’t appreciate that kind of back channel. But John Paul had a habit of going around his mandarins when he thought doing so might yield useful information. He ignored the traditional managers and kept in touch with his clandestine operative.
As it happened, Alberti was also a friend of Yelena Bonner, the tough-minded wife of Soviet nuclear physicist and human-rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov. Under house arrest in 1985, Sakharov went on a hunger strike and demanded Soviet officials let his wife leave the country for critical medical care. The authorities finally agreed, but Sakharov was hostage to Bonner’s good behavior abroad. That meant no meetings with world leaders or the press.
Alberti still thought Bonner should meet the pope. When she came to Rome after her medical treatment, Alberti organized a subterfuge that had the Roman press corps chasing Bonner’s children as she drove the recovering dissident into Vatican City, incognito. Emotionally hardened by decades of battling the KGB, Bonner wasn’t given to sentimentality. Nor was she religious. Yet a two-hour, one-on-one meeting with Pope John Paul II left her sobbing. She told Alberti afterward, “He’s the most incredible man I’ve ever met. He’s all light. He is a source of light.”
The Bonner-John Paul II relationship continued for years and eventually led to a lengthy private meeting between the pope and Sakharov, who sought advice about playing a political role in the endgame of the U.S.S.R. It was that first meeting with Bonner—and her reaction to this Pole, a man she had never met before and the leader of a faith she didn’t share—that is worth pondering on John Paul’s centenary, though.
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