From Russia With Love: Red Army Serenade Stirs Anniversary Party

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II could not go to Russia, so Russia came to him.

On Oct. 15, the eve of the 26th anniversary of his election to the papacy, the Holy Father was feted in the Paul VI Hall with a moving, historic concert performed by the Russian Army Choir and Orchestra, also known as the Red Army Choir and Orchestra.

In the years I have worked for the Vatican (and the many before that when I covered this papacy, right from its first day), there have been countless memorable moments: papal liturgies; John Paul's visit to the press office; state visits by presidents, kings and queens; the entire Jubilee Year 2000; doing the second reading at the Pope's midnight Christmas Mass in 1993; attending morning Mass in the Holy Father's private chapel; personally introducing my brother Bill and his entire family to the Pope, one by one — the list is endless.

But the Red Army in the Vatican — this is how it was billed on the official program — was surely one of the most singularly moving events of recent years. For 90 minutes, we were regaled with song and dance by the immensely well-disciplined choir and ballet corps. For 90 minutes, we experienced the melancholy, power, depth of feeling and poetry of the Russian soul, as well as the passion, energy and vibrancy of the Russian people.

And for 90 minutes, all I could think was: Just a mere 15 years ago, this evening would have been unthinkable!


The Pope, seated in the center aisle, was the focus of attention, not only because he was celebrating the 26th anniversary of his pontificate, but because of the immense symbolism of the evening.

John Paul II: Roman pontiff, successor of Peter, a Pole who lived under the yoke of communism and the domination of the Soviet Union and the Red Army. John Paul II: in great measure responsible for the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

John Paul II: the Polish Pope who received Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the Vatican on Dec. 1, 1989, and again a year later, with open arms and a broad smile.

John Paul II: the man who has been bishop of Rome for 26 years, listening to music performed by the Russian Army!

In October 1989, two super-powers were still facing off. A month later, November 1989, one of those superpowers was being faced down. Two months later, on Dec. 1, 1989, the Pope welcomed Gorbachev to the Vatican.

I was privileged to be in Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace on Nov. 18, 1990, when the Holy Father and Gorbachev came out of their second private meeting, exuding warmth, personal charm and friendship. As an American, a citizen of the now lone super-power, the nation that for so long faced off with the Soviets in the Cold War, it was a mind-boggling, indescribably moving experience.

The Red Army concert was transmitted live on RAI, Italian state television, and the images seen in Italian homes also appeared on an immense screen in the audience hall.

One was especially riveting. The Holy Father appeared in the center of the screen wearing, or so it seemed, a cross formed by spotlights. A woman seated next to me said: “Russia is the Pope's cross. It is a cross the Pope has to bear, the cross of lack of unity among Christians and the cross of not being able to visit Russia as he longs to do.”

Krasni, the Russian word for both “red” and “beautiful”, best describes the entire evening — from the powerful, yet warm, images conveyed by the red lighting behind the singers and musicians, to the red of the Cossack costumes, to the beautiful music of the balalaikas and dombras.

John Paul, visible to all in the hall, appeared to greatly enjoy the evening, especially the final song in his honor, a Polish melody. In both Italian and Russian, he thanked the choir and orchestra of the Russian Army for their “traditional songs and dances, a folkloristic repertoire which mirrors the most genuine spirit of the noble Russian people.” He invoked on them “the protection of the Mother of God of Kazan, whose icon recently returned to Russia, a land very dear to me.”

Déjà Vu

Spontaneous shouts of s to lat (“may you have 100 more years”), best wishes for a happy anniversary and loud applause erupted at the end of the Pope's talk and accompanied him until he left the hall. The whole time, the Red Army singers and orchestra stood at rigid attention. When they sensed they could leave the stage, they broke ranks and started waving to everyone in the auditorium — and the audience waved right back and once again applauded their appreciation.

And I had a very strong feeling of déjà vu.

I spent my junior year in college at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. During the academic year, we had numerous breaks, one of which was at Christmas when we went to Zer-matt for skiing, followed by five days in Vienna over the New Year. One of our day trips was to the Austrian-Hungarian border, which was guarded — on the Hungarian side — by Soviet soldiers, the Red Army.

It was a dark, snowy day, with no color visible for miles except for white, gray or black. We were in the middle of nowhere. The silence was deafening.

We were so awed that we could not speak. The Iron Curtain had existed since Churchill coined the phrase in 1946, but the Berlin Wall was eight months away from being built. Nothing moved — except the Soviet border guard on patrol.

All of a sudden, one of my classmates — who loved pranks but did not always think things through to their logical conclusion — made a snowball, heaved it at the guard and shouted, “Hi!”

All 30 of us were frozen in our tracks. Had we just created an international incident?

But then the most amazing thing happened. The guard put down his rifle and waved — and we waved back, and he waved again. We could not see it, but we knew in our hearts he was smiling. And we knew in our hearts that some day in the future there would no longer be such border guards.

The borders came down, with the help of Pope John Paul II. And I think the Red Army wanted to say, “Thanks!”

Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”