ES/ OL Vienna, May 18, 2021
The death of Ricardo Estarriol (1937-2021), legendary Eastern Europe correspondent and pioneer of the Opus Dei movement brings to an end one of the more unusual lives of any journalist in the post-war.
Everyone who covered the “East Bloc” during the last throes of Communism – maybe 20 or 30 of us – knew Ricardo Estarriol, or thought we did. Restless, immensely diligent, older and more experienced than any of us, he wrote for the Spanish daily La Vanguardia as well as producing a regular blog about Austria.
A MAN WITH A MISSION
He was an object of admiration and mystery – and for some of some of us of a certain suspicion too, because of his connections since the age of 16 with the controversial Catholic organisation Opus Dei and its growth in both Austria and the former Communist countries.
Ricardo was one of the first Western European colleagues accredited to report from the USSR, then-Communist Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Austria, which became his home, and where he died at the weekend aged 84.
Born to a well-known political family in Gerona, Catalonia, he studied law and journalism in Barcelona and arrived in Austria as a young reporter in 1964. But he had another task. He soon founded what is now the regional vicariate of Opus Dei with the explicit task of making Vienna the headquarters of the movement and its “gateway to the East”.
He was helped by Cardinal Franz König. The late Cardinal, a hugely-loved figure in Austria, was however often later became more reticent about the ever-growing influence in the Vatican of an organisation now roughly 100 000-strong.
During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Estarriol was the contact person for Austrian media and foreign correspondents in Vienna. He travelled around all the countries of Eastern Europe; his despatches were always serious and based on deep knowledge and experience.
“I often met him during the Solidarnosc period in Poland in the early 1980s and at various Communist party congresses, from Warsaw to Budapest to Belgrade,” remembers Otmar Lahodynsky, the AEJ’s former president and professionally a writer for profil in Vienna. “He was multilingual, and had good contacts among Communist officialdom as well as the dissident scene and of course in church circles.”
PUTTING HIMSELF IN OTHER PEOPLE’S SHOES
Ricardo was “always friendly and modest despite his immense knowledge,” Lahodynsky said. “When I became a correspondent in Brussels, I lost contact with him until he sent some young students to see me – they were on a trip to Brussels to exchange ideas about Europe.” The young visitors were staying in Linnéplatz, an Opus Dei student hostel in the smartest part of Vienna which Ricardo had helped establish.
La Vanguardia‘s obituary said: “To know which leader was rising and which was falling, to know the mood in the factories and in the queues in front of the grocery shops, one had to deal with the incessant bombardment of the Communist propaganda apparatus, as well as the network of spies and eavesdroppers spun around the correspondent by the secret services.
“For example, anyone who went to a room in the Hotel Jalta on Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989 to find out about the negotiations between the Communist regime and Václav Havel was caught in the crosshairs of a merciless bugging system.”
It went on: “Estarriol mastered information because he knew how to put himself in other people’s shoes. Thanks to his empathy, he managed to win the help of a colleague from the Soviet Novosti agency and the friendship of a Polish Communist worker, both of whom were at the antipodes of his ideology and spirituality.”
Estarriol dispatch from Vienna
Report on Austrian radio https://religion.orf.at/stories/3206593/
Otmar Lahodynsky tribute in the Wiener Zeitung