The writer, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, is the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official ever to defect to the West, having spent years at the highest levels of the communist espionage world as Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s top adviser and head of that nation’s foreign intelligence service. After his defection to the U.S., Pacepa’s first book, “Red Horizons,” was credited with playing a major role in the overthrow of the communist tyrant Ceausescu, and was embraced by President Ronald Reagan who called it “my bible for dealing with dictators.”
Did Iosif Stalin try to assassinate Pope Pius XII?
There is now strong evidence that he did. And from the Russian tyrant’s point of view, why not? The outcome of World War II opened Stalin’s horizon to the great game of international politics and gave him the confidence that, with a little ingenuity, he and Russia could become No. 1 in the world. He saw Pope Pius XII as his only rival for world domination.
Stalin knew he could not control the pope and his enormous sphere of influence the way he could control the Orthodox Church – by having the Russian patriarch in his vest pocket. Since time immemorial it has been a Russian tradition simply to assassinate your rivals if you cannot win them over. For Stalin, the obvious way to neutralize the powerful and far-flung Catholic Church was to cut off its head.
Just as Peter III was assassinated so his wife could become the tsarina Catherine the Great, so did Stalin arrange for the assassination of all other members of Lenin’s Politburo so he could become the leader of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Stalin firmly believed that in politics, if you eliminated the head, the body would wither away. He had seen this conviction vindicated with the assassination of Leon Trotsky in 1940, after which the whole Trotskyite movement simply melted away, contrary to what his advisers had been predicting. Why wouldn’t the same tactic work against the Catholic Church?
Ever since the Kremlin ventured out onto the international stage, it has continued to exhibit a restless trigger finger in its wars against the Vatican. Not only have many Catholic priests been sacrificed in Russia, but in particular there were many attempts to assassinate Pope John Paul II. Not only did he follow the example of Pius XII in vigorously condemning communism, but he was regarded as inciting his flock in Poland to rise up against their Soviet overlords.
On May 13, 1981, the pontiff came within a hairsbreadth of being assassinated by a bullet fired by a Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca. Caught in the act, Agca confessed to having acted under Bulgarian direction. The results of an official Italian investigation, later supported by documents found in Polish and East German archives from the communist era, confirm that the 1981 attempt (and several others) to assassinate Pope John Paul II originated in the Kremlin.
During World War II, Stalin had already set the precedent for trying to resolve wars with the Vatican by using the simple, lethal solution, although he was not yet bold enough to take aim at the pope himself.
In the summer of 1942, Stalin’s intelligence station chief in Rome learned that Pius XII had been talking with President Roosevelt’s envoy to the Vatican about trying to arrange a separate peace between Britain, the United States and Germany – thereby cutting the Soviet Union out of any post-war plans for Europe. Pius had instructed his representative in Ankara to solicit support for the plan from the local German ambassador, Franz von Papen, who was rumored as Hitler’s replacement in the event of such a peace.
Upon hearing this, Stalin reportedly became so furious that he ordered Pavel Sudoplatov, the chief of his Special Tasks (i.e., assassinations) component, to have Papen killed, as he was to be the central figure in the proposed new German government. Sudoplatov immediately dispatched his most experienced assassinations officer to Turkey, where he spent eight months organizing the operation. In the end, however, the Bulgarian recruited to actually pull the trigger became so nervous that he botched the job, killing only himself and slightly wounding Papen.
Stalin never forgot what he considered the pope’s treachery. As the war drew to a close, Stalin derisively asked: How many divisions does the pope have? Radio Moscow was ordered to mount a campaign to smear Pius XII so as to render him impotent. That operation went nowhere, but Stalin evidently kept looking for a way to defeat Pius once and for all. Intriguing evidence has now come to light that in the late 1940s Stalin must have ordered his assassination experts to begin looking for a way to simply wipe Pius XII off the map.
Stalin’s mortal enemy
At the end of World War II, Stalin was riding high – so high that he entertained delusions of grandeur: Under his leadership, the whole world would soon become communist.
Stalin made sure everyone knew that it was his Soviet soldiers that had been the decisive factor in winning the war. His former allies – the United States, Great Britain and France – were focused on turning their economies back to functioning successfully in peacetime, while his intelligence services (military, foreign security and party) were doing a terrific job at infiltrating those former friends’ governments and gradually winning them over to the socialist side. For similar reasons he was confident Germany would before long be united and fall into line under socialism. His conquest of all Eastern Europe was coming along nicely, thanks to the clever footwork of a few stalwart “negotiators” like Andrey Vyshinsky, aided by the heavy hand of Pavel Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks group of illegal intelligence officers, who were pulling off kidnappings and assassinations beyond the Soviet borders.
As early as 1936, in parallel with the foreign intelligence component running operations centered around Soviet official representations abroad, Stalin had created within his foreign intelligence service an extremely secret assassinations component called the Directorate of Special Tasks – later colloquially known as mokriye dela, meaning “wet” (or bloody) affairs. Special Tasks was staffed by several dozen illegal officers and ran its own operations independently from the rest of the foreign intelligence service.
Since 1994, with the publication of fascinating memoirs by former chief of Special Tasks Pavel Sudoplatov, we have learned more than perhaps we ever wished to know about the operations of that organization. Sudoplatov was proud of his service, utterly unrepentant, meticulous in his reporting and scrupulously concerned to check out the facts wherever possible. His memoirs are entirely credible, even though there is little corroborating information available. Briefly, Sudoplatov describes Special Tasks as “responsible for sabotage, kidnapping, and assassination of our enemies beyond the country’s borders.”
The war may have been over, but as the 1940s wore on, and as Stalin surveyed his growing empire and his own increasing importance on the world scene, he surely believed everything was going his way, with the only fly in the ointment being the Vatican. To be specific, the fly was still Pope Pius XII, who was encouraging the Catholics in Eastern Europe to resist the Russian Orthodox takeover of churches and the communist takeover of government in their countries. (The pope was consistently outspoken in his criticism of communism. In 1949 he would, in fact, throw down the gauntlet by excommunicating members of the Communist Party.) Pius XII became Stalin’s mortal enemy.
But Stalin was not a fool. Not only had it taken almost two years of meticulous planning in a friendly and chaotic place like Mexico City to successfully eliminate the émigré who was once Stalin’s principal rival, without causing any negative blowback on the Soviet Union, but the assassination of a world leader living in a tightly controlled Western enclave would present an enormous operational obstacle, as well as a potential threat to Stalin’s newfound international prestige, should anything go wrong.
At first, however, Stalin apparently thought that, if Pius XII could be credibly smeared as having supported Nazi Germany during the war – considered a capital offense – such an operation might take care of his whole Vatican problem. (The world might be seduced into falling for the slanderous lie, because Pius had once been the Vatican nuncio in Germany, even though that was before the Nazis had come to power, and, in fact, he had never met Hitler.) Therefore, on June 3, 1945, Radio Moscow began telling the world that the pope had been pro-Nazi and had done nothing to help the Jews. The trouble with this attack was that the pope was still alive, as were many of the people he had saved from Nazi clutches; therefore, nobody paid any attention to such obvious lies coming out of Moscow’s official radio.
What to do? For the moment, Stalin turned his attention to lesser members of the Catholic Church who were closer at hand. In the immediate post-war period, Stalin successfully eliminated many of his rivals both in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe by slandering them as having been pro-Nazi and throwing them into prisons or gulags, from which they might or might not emerge alive. Stalin used this tactic against hundreds of Roman Catholic clergymen in his newly acquired East European domain and even against such prominent enemies as Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac in Yugoslavia in 1946 and Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty in Hungary in 1948. The latter two prelates were tortured and held under arrest for many years, but then under international pressure eventually released. Many lesser clergy were simply murdered outright.
Expertise in planning assassinations
Now, new evidence has come to light strongly suggesting that, far from forgetting about Pius XII, in about 1947 Stalin must have turned in utmost secrecy to thoughts of actually having him assassinated.
Selected for the job was evidently Iosif Grigulevich, probably the most remarkable and versatile Russian illegal intelligence officer ever, who is still essentially unknown to the West. Born in 1913 as a Lithuanian Jew, he joined the Cheka as a teenager and developed a special talent for flawlessly assuming Western identities, particularly as a Latin American. His entire intelligence career was spent in Special Tasks, organizing assassination operations at first in Lithuania, then in Spain during the Civil War, and most famously in Mexico City, culminating in organizing the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940. Grigulevich spent most of World War II in Argentina, training teams of local dockworkers to conduct sabotage on visiting German ships.
In the post-war period, Grigulevich pulled off his most astonishing impersonation, turning himself into Teodoro B. Castro, allegedly the illegitimate son of a wealthy and recently deceased Costa Rican. In 1949, he and his wife (an agent he had recruited in Mexico, who also got a new identity, as a Uruguayan) settled in Rome. There he posed as a rich coffee merchant, charmed the visiting president of Costa Rica into embracing him as a relative, and talked his way into the Costa Rican diplomatic service, by 1952 becoming the Costa Rican minister plenipotentiary to Italy, as well as later becoming simultaneously the nonresident Costa Rican minister to Yugoslavia.
Jumping ahead a little for the moment, we note that in early 1953 Grigulevich (who was still in Rome) was recommended to Stalin by top state security management as the single person qualified to personally eliminate Yugoslavian leader Josip (Broz) Tito, whose arrogant independence infuriated the Soviet leader. It was pointed out that Grigulevich had an outstanding record in such operations, and that he could easily arrange for diplomatic accreditation in Belgrade. When Special Tasks chief Sudoplatov was consulted, however, he spoke out vehemently against top management’s suggestions, saying that the proposed operational plan was childish and naïve and included no escape plan for the officer; that Grigulevich had no “combat experience,” having previously been used only to prepare assassinations, not to take part in the actual assault; and that the plan exhibited bad tradecraft in proposing to send an untrained officer to kill a heavily guarded target without having had any chance to study the surrounding situation.
Stalin agreed that the plan should be rethought. Shortly thereafter, Stalin died and the proposal was presumably shelved, although Grigulevich did open relations with Belgrade and assign a consular officer to move there.
Why was Grigulevich sent to Rome in the first place, unless he was targeting the Vatican? His whole career was as an officer of Special Tasks, and from Sudoplatov we learn that his expertise was in planning assassinations. Surely, the only person in Rome that Stalin might have wanted eliminated was Pius XII. (Sudoplatov, who evidently was not directly involved with Grigulevich’s assignment to Rome, describes him as having been “ambassador to the Vatican,” in a perhaps revealing slip of the tongue.)
Furthermore, why was Grigulevich given cover as a Costa Rican, when he might have been more comfortable pretending to be from Argentina, a country he had become familiar with during the war? Here we can cite an even more suggestive fact. On Feb. 22, 1947, one Prince Giulio Pacelli – according to his passport, a photocopy of which is publicly available – became the Costa Rican minister plenipotentiary to the Holy See.
The public announcement of that appointment was undoubtedly reported back to Moscow by the Soviet station chief in Rome. Pius XII was born Eugenio Pacelli, and he was Giulio’s uncle.
Before Grigulevich left for Rome in 1949, he spent many months in South America perfecting his new identity. A recently published Costa Rican biography of Grigulevich reveals some very interesting things about his preparation for that new assignment. He familiarized himself with Brazil and Uruguay, countries where he had allegedly lived. In Chile, two local Communist Party members who had served with him in Spain devoted months and months to working with him on his new legend. They selected the name Teodoro Castro Bonnefil for him, which he converted “in the American manner” to Teodoro B. Castro, and they tutored him in how to meet and cultivate important Costa Ricans, influential Western diplomats and ranking members of the Catholic Church. They chose the name Teodoro for him, because it was said to mean “gift of God.” He was told he had to be a devout Catholic, because that would invite the trust of others who were religious believers. And it was suggested he needed to have some ecclesiastical-sounding title, something like Knight of the Holy Sepulcher. All these details suggest that both he and his trainers were aware that his focus would be on the Vatican.
As an assassination organizer, Grigulevich knew he should slowly and carefully go about learning a thousand things about his target milieu, the Vatican, perhaps even spending years on planning a successful operation against the pope. Who had access to the pope? How many agents would be needed and where would they come from? Where could he establish safe areas for planning the operation and training the agents? What would the assault weapon be and where would it come from? Who could provide false identity documents for the agents? What escape route could be used? What kind of after-the-fact disinformation could be planned, to ensure that Moscow would not be blamed?
Once in Rome, Grigulevich quickly made many friends by being charming and throwing lavish parties (thanks to Moscow’s generosity). He came to know several cardinals of the Church, one of whom became a particularly good friend and helped him to impress visitors – such as the president of Costa Rica – by arranging audiences with Pius XII.
KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, who defected to the British in 1993, reported having seen Grigulevich’s personal (not operational) file in KGB foreign intelligence archives. The file boasts that Grigulevich “successfully cultivated the Costa Rican nuncio [sic] to the Vatican, Prince Giulio Pacelli, a nephew of Pope Pius XII” and also “had a total of fifteen audiences with the Pope.” (Although Special Tasks was integrated into regular foreign intelligence in the 1950s under various names, including the infamous Department Thirteen, its operational files would never have found their way into the archives seen by Mitrokhin. The suggestive information cited above evidently slipped in as simple bragging when the file was sanitized for archives.)
Stalin died on March 5, 1953, before Grigulevich would have been able to complete any detailed plans for assassinating Pius XII. The operation to assassinate Tito was canceled, at least for the time being, and the same would have been true of anything involving the Vatican. In the post-Stalin leadership confusion in Moscow, any thought of such major operations with international crisis potential would at the very least have been put on hold. In commenting on the plan to assassinate Tito, Sudoplatov had stressed the need to plan meticulously, because it would be “the first operation against a head of state, not against an émigré or agent of dubious loyalty.”
Even after Stalin’s death, however, Grigulevich did remain in his cover job in Rome for the time being. He was recalled in December 1953 only because Moscow headquarters believed, correctly, that his identity had been compromised by former defector Aleksandr Orlov. The latter had worked with Grigulevich in Spain in the l930s, and in 1953 he began publishing memoirs and photographs in Life, the American magazine. Information on the Trotsky assassination was also beginning to leak out, thanks to the indiscretions of Caridad Mercader, the mother of the assassin, who had participated in the operation in Mexico City.
(Incidentally, both Grigulevich and Caridad received Soviet medals for Trotsky’s assassination, a Red Star and an Order of Lenin, respectively. Her son, the actual assassin, was made a Hero of the Soviet Union.)
Given the nature of Grigulevich’s past experience and very specific expertise, it seems likely that for the rest of 1953 he was still collecting background information on the Vatican and evidently also on Belgrade, without as yet having been able to organize any detailed operational plan targeted against either Pius XII or Tito. When Moscow ordered Grigulevich to leave Rome, he invented a story for public consumption, saying that his wife had become critically ill and required treatment in Switzerland. The Costa Rican diplomatic service granted his request for an extended leave of absence so that he could accompany her to a hospital in Switzerland. On Dec. 5, 1953, the legation driver drove the Costas to the train station in Rome and saw them off for Switzerland. They were never heard from again.
Shortly thereafter, two other employees of the Costa Rican legation mysteriously disappeared. One was a young Uruguayan whom Grigulevich had brought into the legation in 1951 as an attaché. The other was a Costa Rican consul from Milan, whom Grigulevich had befriended and sent to the new Belgrade legation in April 1953.
In December 1954, since his illustrious career as an illegal officer had been definitively compromised, Grigulevich was honorably retired from Soviet state security and settled down in Moscow. He studied to become an academic, subsequently publishing many books under the name Lavretsky (his mother’s maiden name) on subjects related to the Vatican and South America. He died in Moscow in 1988.
Pope Pius XII died on Oct. 9, 1958, universally acclaimed by world leaders both Christian and Jewish.
With its ace assassination organizer now unavailable, and with all of Moscow caught up in political succession maneuvers following Stalin’s death, presumably there was for the moment no Kremlin interest in pursuing either Pius XII or Tito. After Nikita Khrushchev consolidated his leadership of the Soviet Union, he concentrated his efforts on pacifying Tito and slandering the pope to keep them quiet, although he surely still believed that assassination operations were one of the perks of his new office.
Sources for the factual material presented in this column include:
David Dastych, “New investigation: KGB behind all plots to assassinate John Paul II: Ali Agca’s Secret Services,” Canada Free Press, May 19, 2006.
Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerold L. and Leona P. Schecter, “Special Tasks: The memoirs of an unwanted witness – a Soviet spymaster” (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994).
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, “The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive” (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
Marjorie Ross, “El secreto encanto de la KGB: Las cinco vidas de Iósif Griguliévich” (Heredia, Costa Rica: Grupo Editorial Norma, 2004).