Newly available documents shed light on a Cold War struggle for the loyalties of Roman Catholics behind the Iron Curtain, offering this startling information: at least two KGB agents successfully penetrated the Vatican itself—and both were priests.
The two Lithuanian agents infiltrated the Vatican from 1959 onwards and attempted to discredit opponents, sow discord among believers, and block channels of information between Rome and persecuted Christians in the Soviet bloc. The false priests, according to materials in Hoover’s Lithuanian Special Archives collection, met personally with successive popes, among them John XXIII and John Paul II, who were unaware of their true identity. They also went on to become prominent leaders of the Lithuanian church—one of them, Viktoras Butkus, rector of the country’s only theological seminary, in Kaunas, from 1962 to 1989; the second, Romualdas Krikščiūnas, bishop and apostolic administrator of the diocese of Panevėžys from 1969 to 1983.
But at the start of their espionage careers, Butkus and Krikščiūnas were merely agents “Pine” and “Sun,” part of an extensive campaign by the Lithuanian KGB to gain power over Lithuania and its restless, overwhelmingly Catholic population.
STUBBORN CATHOLIC RESISTANCE
Communist governments always regarded churches as potential centers of opposition. After the Soviet takeover in 1944, the Lithuanian Catholic Church suffered tremendously: Josef Stalin had more than 360 Lithuanian priests arrested and sent to labor camps; several were executed. State security organs developed sophisticated methods to infiltrate the church, intimidate believers, and create rival “loyal” groups. From 1950 on, historian Arūnas Streikus estimates, “most of the Catholic Church in Lithuania was run by men controlled by the Soviet security services.” Priests who signed pledges to collaborate with the security services rationalized their actions as the only way to protect the church from destruction. By 1956, 60 priests out of 900 worked for the KGB. The secret police controlled entry into the Kaunas seminary, regularly “inviting” priests there to either persuade or coerce them into working for the state. Refusing to cooperate could mean deportation to Siberia.
After Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev continued to fight religious beliefs, only with less open terror and more emphasis on infiltrating and undermining the church. With a population that was 80 percent Catholic, Lithuania posed a special challenge for the USSR: how to control an institution whose main administrative and political center lay outside the country. Earlier attempts to create a “national” church had failed because priests and bishops were reluctant to cut ties with Rome. In 1949, Soviet courts had sentenced one priest to twenty-five years of forced labor because of contacts with supposed agents of the Vatican, in reality the U.S. embassy chaplain. If the Lithuanian clergy could not be isolated from Rome, the KGB entertained hopes of entering the inner sanctum of its fiercest enemy. Officers identified an opportunity in May 1956.
The goals of Operation Students, which filled a total of 1,016 pages in three volumes, included recruiting agents with access to Vatican secrets and exposing the Lithuanian clergy who campaigned against Soviet religious persecution. Under this covert operation, which started in 1956 and lasted seven years, the KGB managed to send the two agents to study at the Lateran University in Rome, posing as theology and law students. There they were to identify anti-Soviet elements, collect compromising information on Lithuanian priests living in Western Europe, and close down secret communication channels between the Vatican and its bishops behind the Iron Curtain.
Top officials in Vilnius and Moscow closely coordinated the operation, taking years to select suitable candidates among already recruited “loyal” priests. The officials carefully monitored all correspondence between Italy and Lithuania to protect their assets once the “students” arrived in Rome in the fall of 1959.
Communist state security documents generally display a clear bias and do not always faithfully record what really happened. Still, the priests/agents appeared to have reported a great deal of information highly valuable to the KGB during their years in Rome.
SABOTAGING AND FRUSTRATING THE CHURCH
Agents Pine, 36, and Sun, 29, immediately aroused suspicion. Lithuanian exiles noticed that they knew little Italian or even Latin. Reporting to their handlers separately, the agents noted the cautionary reception, especially among strongly anti-communist members of the exile community. The KGB, however, soothed suspicions somewhat by ordering up a letter of recommendation from a conservative bishop back home. In letters to the agents, the KGB regularly warned that they should show themselves worthy of being trusted with the “patriotic duty” of infiltrating anti-Soviet organizations. To check their reliability, the KGB surrounded the priests with up to five other agents when they returned to Lithuania on summer vacation.
In Rome, the two priests set to work reporting on the political and private beliefs of the Lithuanian clergy, suggesting ways to exploit personal weaknesses. In letters to relatives they passionately criticized conditions in “capitalist” Italy and inside the “decadent” Catholic Church. Indeed, the KGB bosses explicitly warned them to tone down their critical remarks about capitalism, fearing that Italian or Vatican counter-intelligence, intercepting these letters, would unmask them.
Regular reports by Pine and Sun feature details about activities at Saint Casimir College, the center for Lithuanian priests in exile in Rome. Their information about internal conflicts spurred the KGB to suggest ways of pouring oil onto the fire, frustrating the college’s campaigns against Soviet violations of religious freedoms. They also collected incriminating material about the activities of exiled priests during the German occupation of Lithuania (1941–44), potentially useful for blackmail or prosecution.
In due time they met high Vatican officials and even the pope. In February 1960, Krikščiūnas attended a general audience with Pope John XXIII and was introduced with the words “this one is from Lithuania.” According to the KGB files, the pontiff replied: “Lithuania is a good nation, a small nation, suffering for the faith.”
Both agents derided the Catholic Church in their reports to the KGB. In 1962, Krikščiūnas reported that Italian “magnates,” out of touch with reality, dominated the Catholic Church. He also saw a propaganda opportunity for the KGB in the papal appointment of the recently released primate of Poland, Stefan Wyszinski, to look after Catholics in Eastern Europe. In view of traditional Polish-Lithuanian rivalries, Moscow would be able to portray Rome as dominated by Poles and thereby weaken Vatican influence among Lithuanian clergy. This would “unmask the true face of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy,” Krikščiūnas added.
He even suggested which members of the exile community might be blackmailed into working for the KGB. Krikščiūnas identified a priest working in the Vatican Archives as a possible target because he allegedly had a girlfriend. KGB officers suggested Krikščiūnas should write a series of articles exposing the secrets of the Vatican, which the Soviets would then publish under a false name in East German and West German newspapers.
But while the Soviet government chalked up some successes in infiltrating and stifling organized opposition, Operation Students had mixed results. The sudden dispatch to Rome of two carefully selected priests did not fool many. Fellow priests commented to them before their journey: “Your trip will lead from Rome to Vorkuta,” an infamous Soviet labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Sladkevicius urged Krikščiūnas “to talk in Rome as your conscience dictates,” a recommendation agent Sun promptly reported to the KGB (Sladkevicius subsequently spent nearly twenty years under house arrest).
The two agents in cassocks had to walk a tightrope between being frank about the situation back home—to engender trust among the émigrés—and remaining true “Soviet citizens,” as their handlers regularly reminded them. Eventually, as the Soviets continued to arrest priests, the Rome-based Lithuanians renewed their distrust of Butkus and Krikščiūnas. The head of Saint Casimir College, Ladas Tulaba, would forbid his colleagues to correspond with Butkus after he returned home. Lithuanian Catholics never forgot that the KGB was keeping a close watch on the clergy, and thus many elaborate schemes to turn the church into a tool of the state remained only pipe dreams of the spymasters.
COLLECTING THEIR EARTHLY REWARDS
Butkus, a.k.a. agent Pine, returned to Lithuania after two years. Sun studied a total of four years in Rome, finishing his doctoral dissertation magna cum laude in 1963. KGB handlers also gave their agents good grades, repeatedly congratulating them for their successful work. Krikščiūnas was deemed “ready to leave the clergy and make a statement against the Vatican, but at the moment this is inappropriate because we foresee for him a role in undermining the Church in Lithuania from within.” With the pretext of theological studies at an end, the operation ended in 1963.
The KGB rewarded its “students” with prominent positions: Butkus headed the only theological seminary in the country for two decades, right up to 1989, two years before Lithuania regained its independence. Because he publicly praised Soviet religious policy, Butkus was distrusted by Lithuanian Catholics, and dissident journals often exposed his statements about the condition of religious life in the USSR as lies. Krikščiūnas—who had joined the KGB in 1950 as a young seminarian—still had the KGB’s trust to carry out missions abroad. He attended the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 and was appointed one of only five bishops in Lithuania in 1969. But eventually, like Butkus, he earned the distrust of his subordinates. He resigned in 1983, formally over health concerns, shortly after visiting Pope John Paul II as a member of a Lithuanian delegation.
After KGB documents were opened for research, historian Streikus wrote: “The case of the priests Butkus and Krikščiūnas constituted only one part of the penetration of the Vatican which the KGB started in the mid-1950s and which continued during the Second Vatican Council and after.” Butkus died in 1993 without being exposed as a KGB agent. When Krikščiūnas died in November 2010, none of the obituaries mentioned his career as a KGB agent either. But in the spirit of forgiveness, a funeral Mass was celebrated by the archbishop of Kaunas, Sigitas Tamkevicˇius, who, as editor of the dissident journal Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, had been a leading voice against collaborating with the KGB. For speaking truth to power, he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp in 1983. Freed in 1988, Tamkevicˇius became the head of the Kaunas Interdiocesan Theological Seminary next year, succeeding, appropriately, Viktoras Butkus, agent Pine.
In 2000, the Conference of Lithuanian Bishops publicly apologized for clergy who had cooperated with the KGB. In a recent letter to this author, Tamkevicˇius reflected on the church’s troubled years under communism, “when some priests and even bishops would fall into the web of KGB. We feel sorrow for their mistakes and give thanks to God for the success of many clergymen who fulfilled their vocation worthily in those hard times. . . . It is to be hoped that we shall be people who are able to have profitable lessons from the past.”