The quiet hours of Leonid Brezhnev

George Weigel

On first meeting Dr. Andrzej Grajewski, you probably wouldn’t guess that this mild-mannered Polish historian is one of the world’s leading experts on the ecclesiastical Dark Side of the Cold War: the relentless communist assault on the Catholic Church. But he is, and his expertise comes primarily from years of patient combing through the Bad Guys’ secret intelligence service files. Some of those files went up the smokestack in 1989 (or are still locked down in Moscow), but many are now available to scholars. Grajewski’s recent research in that often-sordid underworld raises some interesting questions about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

What do we know with certainty about that affair?

We know that, by the fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB (the Soviet secret intelligence service) had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system, both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979, authorizing the use of “all available means” to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.

We know that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a professional killer who somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison shortly after that 1979 decree was issued and received further training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. We know that, after meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran, Agca got into Bulgaria with the help of the Bulgarian security services and lived for two months in a luxury hotel in Sofia. We know that Agca’s finances were handled by a Turk, associated with communist intelligence services, who subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

What we do not have is documentary evidence that all of this was done on the direct orders of Andropov, or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or both. But we do know that, as the Bulgarian spooks would have hesitated to change the brand of soap in their office washrooms without permission from Moscow Center, they certainly wouldn’t have run an operation against John Paul II on their own.

And now we know something else, thanks to an achingly dull, three-volume history of the schedule of Leonid Brezhnev, published three years ago in Russia.        Andrzej Grajewski plowed through these materials, concentrating on Brezhnev’s activities in April and May 1981 (shortly after Agca, by then in Zurich, met with several shady characters to complete the logistical and financial arrangements for the assassination attempt, which was set for May 13, 1981). Over the course of his reign as de facto head of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev did not meet all that often with Andropov, the KGB spymaster. But the tempo of their meetings increased dramatically in April and May 1981, as did the frequency of their phone conversations. Why this sudden intensification of contact between the Soviet chieftain and Andropov, at that precise time? Inquiring minds will wonder.

As they will wonder about Brezhnev’s schedule on May 13, 1981. That morning, Brezhnev met with a delegation from the Congo to sign several agreements. About 1 p.m., he came to his Kremlin office and worked by himself on documents; but the schedule does not indicate that he met with anyone that entire afternoon, nor did he make any phone calls. What was he waiting for? Was news anticipated? After 6 p.m.  — i.e., soon after Agca’s fired his shots in St. Peter’s Square — Brezhnev left the Kremlin for his residence in the Moscow suburbs. The next day he met in the Kremlin with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and on May 15, with Yuri Andropov.

Andrzej Grajewski’s careful but suggestive conclusion: “Does such a sequence of events prove that Brezhnev was informed about…the attack? We do not know that. Assuming that the idea of assassinating the Pope had arisen in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev knew when it would happen. Of course, the records of [his] Kremlin schedule are not irrefutable evidence in this matter. However, they indicate that… May 13, 1981…was not a routine day for [Brezhnev]. His schedule shows that, during almost 18 years at the pinnacle of power, there was only one day, May 13, 1981, when Brezhnev’s attention was not absorbed by acting, directing, managing — but perhaps waiting for something to happen.”

Inquiring minds wonder.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: Herman Wouk, storyteller

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Ten years ago, a friend and colleague suggested that I write “The Great Vatican Novel.” I quickly declined, not just because the truth about life behind the Leonine Wall is often stranger than fiction (and more so since the suggestion was made), but because the idea of writing a novel terrifies me. Writing large books — no problem. Sitting in front of a keyboard or a pad of paper and making it all up out of my head — characters, plot, dialogue — is beyond my imagination.

Which is one reason why I was delighted to meet Herman Wouk, who died this past May 17.

Having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with the 1951 bestseller, The Caine Mutiny, Wouk never took his foot off the authorial accelerator for more than a half-century thereafter, reaching the pinnacle of his popularity with two more World War II novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance (for which he subsequently wrote screenplays). But while fiction was on my mind when we first met, it wasn’t on Herman’s. He was writing a companion volume to his famous introduction to Judaism, This Is My God, and the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, suggested to Herman that he might want me to brief him on developments in Jewish-Catholic relations since This Is My God was published in 1959.

So over lunch at Washington’s Cosmos Club, Wouk and I spent an hour going over Vatican II’s teaching on Judaism and its deepening by Pope John Paul II; the advances recently made in the Jewish-Christian theological conversation by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Rabbi David Novak, and an unofficial group of Jewish and Christian scholars; and what the official terrain of Jewish-Catholic dialogue might look like in the future. As host, Herman could not have been more gracious, so when we were having coffee, I decided to pop the question that had been on my mind from the moment we sat down: How on earth do you write a novel? And specifically, where did Captain Queeg, the principal character in The Caine Mutiny, come from?

Wouk didn’t miss a beat. There had been several mutinies in the U.S. Navy during World War II (all in port, incidentally), and the author had gotten permission from the Pentagon to read the transcripts of the trials that followed. Herman certainly drew on his own naval experience in giving The Caine Mutiny its verisimilitude and its array of characters; but the captain of the fictional destroyer-minesweeper USS Caine, Philip Francis Queeg, “emerged” from the testimonies of various officers at the real trials, Wouk said. OK, I replied, what about Armin von Roon, the aristocratic Wehrmacht general who gives readers the view from the other side of the hill in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance? The answer was about the same: From Wouk’s extensive reading in the memoirs of German officers, von Roon “emerged.”

It may sound simple. What was really at work here, though, was disciplined talent informed by considerable human insight.

One of our last conversations reminded me of the regularity of Herman’s Jewish practice. He’d had his publisher send me the proofs of his penultimate novel, A Hole in Texas, which anticipated nuclear physicists’ discovery of the Higgs boson while lampooning scientific hubris and governmental craziness. I’d read the galleys in a single sitting and called the author on a Saturday evening, Washington time, to congratulate him. But I’d miscalculated sundown in California, and the housekeeper who answered the phone said, very politely, that “Mr. Wouk will be happy to take your call after the Sabbath.”

Herman Wouk’s gift for storytelling was matched by his seriousness and it would not be a mistake to think that he imagined writing as a vocation. Shortly after a lot of America began watching the televised adaptation of The Winds of War in the early 1980s, he reflected on a deep irony of his craft: “It is the paradox of my career that, though I have won recognition as a creator of war literature, I regard war and the preparation for war as the primal curse now afflicting the human race. Some serious writers have understandably averted their eyes from the skull that grins at them from current events, so as to create art from their private preoccupations. I have looked straight at the grinning skull and written about it.”

This gifted, purposeful storyteller died at 103, still writing. May he rest with his forefathers, in the bosom of Abraham.