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How John Paul inspired the bear-killers

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Ever wonder how someone pulls off a superhuman feat? Sometimes, leaders are inspired by other leaders.

Case in point: An obscure Pope elected on the eighth ballot to head the world’s smallest country, Pope John Paul II served as inspiration to those who helped bring down communism.

At least twice in the1980s, the Soviets refused to let John Paul visit Lithuania, his mother’s homeland. In fact, Soviet rule had basically ignored the Vatican.

John Paul finally visited Lithuania. In a country where the average monthly salary reached only $35 and the price of bread had quadrupled in a year, at least 10 percent of the population skipped work to see him.

Why? To understand his importance, consider Nijole Sadunaite, a hero of Lithuania’s resistance movement. In 1975, she was sentenced to six years in Siberia for circulating a small religious newsletter that recorded human rights abuses and acts of defiance. That newsletter became the longest-running underground publication in the Soviet bloc.

Sadunaite’s exile included confinement at a mental hospital, torture and solitary confinement. Two years after her release, the secret police began hunting her again, so she went underground. Disguised, she took a train to Moscow so that her memoir, A Radiance in the Gulag, could be smuggled out and published in the United States.

In 1987, about a thousand Lithuanian sturned out for a protest. A year later, 250,000 people prepared to march, and a year after that, 2 million. In 1990, Lithuania held the first democratic elections in any Soviet state and declared independence.

Asked what motivated her, Sadunaite said: “The Holy Father was always an inspiration for me to be more active. We were ... inspired because the Pope was someone who had escaped from the same system that was oppressing us.”

She explained that free people can’t understand what communism was like.

“But this Pope did,” she said. “He knew what kind of things we were being told. He kept telling us that it was good to resist. He made me want to be strong and courageous, too, even when I was afraid.”

At a KGB building where Sadunaite had been imprisoned often and thousands had been tortured and killed, only one thing was added after it closed in 1991: a poster of John Paul.

— Adapted from “What Would the World Be Like Without Him?” Robin Wright, The Atlantic Monthly.

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