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Mikhail Gorbachev was no friend of religion  

09 September 2022

Tributes to the last Soviet leader, who died last week, reflect myths that built up around him, argues Jonathan Luxmoore

WHEN Mikhail Gorbachev’s death was announced last week, the eulogies may have been well-intended. Yet they reflect a wishful thinking largely at odds with the facts, and appear to say more about current preoccupations than about Gorbachev’s real place in history.

Tributes to the Soviet Union’s last Communist boss flowed in from Western church leaders — including the Pope, who acknowledged Gorbachev’s “far-sighted commitment to concord and fraternity amongst peoples”. That few, if any, came from Eastern Europe, even from Russia itself, indicates a continuing gulf between perspectives in the East and West.

Gorbachev was in power for just six years, famously introducing his master-concepts of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). During this brief period, he presided over the 1989-90 collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and the 1990-91 break-up of the Soviet Union amid political instability, economic meltdown, and national revolt.

How much was intended or expected by Gorbachev himself remains open to question. It suited Communist regimes at the time to suggest that events were being steered from the top. What seems likelier is that Gorbachev’s bid to rejuvenate the Communist system, after the waxwork gerontocracy of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, unleashed pent-up forces that he was unable to control, forcing him to adjust his stated aims to suit the fast-changing situation. Suggestions that a lifelong apparatchik from the provinces was really a covert visionary, set on abandoning Marxist ideology and introducing a liberal, Western-style democracy, are clearly far-fetched.

MUCH the same can be said of Gorbachev’s treatment of religion. Here, too, the idea that he was committed all along to freedom of faith and conscience seems fanciful. In 1979, he had co-authorised the KGB’s “Operation Pagoda” to neutralise the influence of a newly elected Polish pope, while, at his first congress as party leader, in 1986, a full year after his appointment, he redeclared war on “reactionary national and religious survivals”.

Even in 1988, while much persecuted Russian Orthodox clergy hoped that the Christian Millennium would highlight the part played by Orthodoxy in 1000 years of Russian statehood, Gorbachev sought, at least initially, to portray it as a stage in the triumph of materialism and society’s liberation from “reactionary clericalism”.
Like China’s Communist rulers, Gorbachev came to realise that official state atheism formed part of a crippling ideological baggage that could now be jettisoned — garnering popular support for his “new thinking” and making it, as he later told the Pope, “easier for us to breathe”.

Here, again, events quickly slipped out of his control. By the time of his celebrated visit to the Vatican, on 1 December 1989, he could inform John Paul II (according to the transcript published 20 years later) that he now believed that it was up to individuals “what philosophy and religion to practise”.

The Vatican visit was, of course, by no means the first by a Communist-bloc ruler. Nor did it prevent the subsequent brutal treatment of human- and national-rights protesters in Lithuania and elsewhere.

By his second meeting with the Pope a year later, however, a new law had widened the scope for religious freedom, allowing savagely repressed Greek Catholics to worship again, and a Vatican ambassador to arrive in Moscow.

From his removal from power in 1991, after a failed coup by party hardliners, Gorbachev made great play of his relationship with John Paul II, clearly seeing this as crucial to his public image.

In 1997, he told me how John Paul II, “the world’s most left-wing leader”, had contributed to his own “understanding of Communism”. During John Paul’s beatification process, Gorbachev offered to testify to his sanctity, recalling in a 2009 La Stampa interview how the pope had given him “a sense of the breath of the Holy Spirit”.

Behind the flattering images, however, no firm evidence exists of a close relationship between the two, nor of any religious conversion on Gorbachev’s part. After a much-reported visit to Assisi in 2008, he disappointed many Christians by assuring Russia’s Interfax news agency that “I have been and remain an atheist.”

PERHAPS the very brevity of Gorbachev’s period in power acted to his advantage, by leaving ample time for him to build legacies and myths around it. His would-be stature as a great statesman who changed the 20th century suits those wedded to the primacy of human agency, as well as those reluctant to concede that Communism collapsed because of its innate contradictions and failures.

Today, it also suits those who seek reassurance that people of substance in Russia stand opposed to President Putin. In reality, Gorbachev firmly rejected the export of “Western values” to Russia, telling the Pope back in 1989 that this was “no way to treat nations, their history, traditions, and identities”. On this point at least, he and Putin would have had much in common.

Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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