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On March 10, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to the premiership of the Soviet Union. By the time he resigned in December 1991, roughly 2,500 days later, the geopolitical map of the world had been redrawn, including a reunified Germany and a wave of democracy in Eastern Europe. The Soviets’ longest conventional war ended; a 45-year unconventional conflict that brought the world to the brink of annihilation wound down peacefully; and his own nation lay in pieces around his feet.

Although Gorbachev had not directly aimed at (and in some cases opposed) many of these specific outcomes, the values that animated him during his tenure as the last leader of the USSR arguably drove every one of them, making him one of the most consequential actors on the packed stage of the 20th century.

Mikhail Gorbachev died in hospital this week at age 91 after a long illness. While the current President of Russia, with whom Gorbachev had a strained relationship, generically offered his “deepest condolences” and a rather neutral eulogy, saying merely that Mr. Gorbachev had had “a huge impact in the course of history,” those outside of Russia, especially in the West, have been more favorable in their commemorations.

The legacy

Gorbachev’s legacy was one of a reformer who was interested in peace and worked multilaterally to achieve it. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that “Mikhail Gorbachev was a one-of-a-kind statesman. The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”

Gorbachev has received warm praise from many of the world’s leaders, from US President Joseph Biden to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the EU’s von der Leyen to Henry Kissinger.

The Soviet leader oversaw the end of the Cold War, taking the reins at a time of economic hardship for the USSR. But rather than being congratulated for the diplomacy and leadership in navigating those tricky times, Gorbachev is generally blamed by Russians for much of the chaos that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union—a dissolution he opposed. Where the West might laud him as having had both hands at the helm of a capsizing Soviet Union and slashing nuclear arsenals, many traditionalist Russians see him as ending Soviet imperialism.

Gorbachev is not to receive a state funeral.

In both a recognition of what Gorbachev truly intended and where Russia now stands on such issues, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said of Mr. Gorbachev that he “sincerely wanted to believe that the Cold War would end, and that it would usher in a period of eternal romance between a new Soviet Union and the world, the West. This romanticism turned out to be wrong.”

Of course, we must be wary of rose-tinted glasses: Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea (to the point that he was banned from Ukraine), he was responsible for the deaths of protestors in the Baltic states, and was a committed Communist.

While having a basic humanity that Vladimir Putin lacks, and disinterested in personal enrichment in the way Putin is, Mikhail Gorbachev remains—as every historic figure generally is—a complex figure.

A growing sense of freedom

In his attempt to play economic catch-up with the West, whose economies were leaving the USSR behind, Gorbachev introduced two ideals that remain in the public lexicon to this day: perestroika and glasnost.

In stark contrast to the direction of travel adopted by Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev set greater economic freedom in motion through the policy of perestroika. Glasnost (which means “openness”) had a wider scope that could be seen to entail an economic openness. Perestroika (literally meaning “restructuring”) wasn’t so much about ending Soviet-style command economics, but updating the system to Socialism 2.0.

But this attempt to implement reforms across government departments by taking elements of free-market thought (such as allowing foreign inward investment) heralded the end of both the Cold War and the Soviet Union.

Depending on one’s perspective, Gorbachev can be seen as either hero or villain.

Glasnost saw a move toward increased democratization of the political system, devolving and decentralizing responsibility out to separate departments, such as the ability to undertake their own foreign trade. This also included loosening restrictions on religious worship. As Gorbachev told a party congress a year before the state’s dissolution, “Spiritual rebirth is as essential to society as oxygen.” Travel and speech were also areas that saw an increased sense of liberty.

But in all of this transitional turmoil, the West refused to step in and help for a variety of reasons. George H.W. Bush preferred a hands-off approach, and perhaps this was a missed opportunity for a more lasting Western influence in the region. As Czech President Václav Havel said in a speech to a joint session of Congress in 1990:

I often hear the question: How can the United States of America help us today? My reply is as paradoxical as the whole of my life has been: You can help us most of all if you help the Soviet Union on its irreversible, but immensely complicated road to democracy….[T]he sooner, the more quickly, and the more peacefully the Soviet Union begins to move along the road toward genuine political pluralism, respect for the rights of nations to their own integrity and to a working—that is a market—economy, the better it will be, not just for Czechs and Slovaks, but for the whole world.

But Gorbachev, though congratulated by the West, was not strategically assisted in these turbulent times.

A personal perspective

Mikhail Gorbachev was born on March 2, 1931, in the village of Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, to an ethnically Russian father and a mother of Ukrainian heritage. Though he was initially named Viktor, his devout Orthodox Christian mother secretly baptized him Mikhail.

Unlike Boris Yeltsin, for example, Gorbachev was not a big drinker or smoker. A fairly private man who cherished his wife, he saw himself as an intellectual and of course a politician. As William Taubman writes in Gorbachev: His Life and Times:

Well into retirement, Gorbachev told his aide/biographer Andrei Grachev that though his “passion and curiosity” grew at MGU into a “steady interest in philosophy and political theory that remains with me until this day, I don’t consider myself a theoretician. What I am is a politician, a politician.”

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His wife Raisa also studied at the prestigious MGU (MSU—Moscow State University) in the philosophy faculty. Though his studies were focused on law, Gorbachev also immersed himself in art, literature, culture, and sports while at university, with his wife playing an early role in his cultural development.

As Taubman notes:

At MGU, students studied the great philosophers in textbooks, outlines, and carefully selected translations. But Raisa insisted on trying to read Hegel, Fichte, and Kant in the original German, and recruited Mikhail to help her. Raisa tried to read Western political theorists in primary sources—Thomas Jefferson, for example, whose vow of “eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man” made a great impression on Gorbachev.” “She read more political theory books than he did,” Liberman [a fellow student] recalled. Gorbachev’s Komsomol duties required a lot work. “He couldn’t study as much, and…sometimes missed classes. So she helped him…with his studying.”

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During his time as a regional party boss, Gorbachev would prefer to spend time at smaller, more-private gatherings where the talk was about philosophy and art, rather than attend the alcohol-fuelled parties that other Soviet officials enjoyed.

The pair were renowned for collecting a considerable library of books, many of them philosophical in nature. By the 1960s, they also obtained “copies of the Bible, the Gospels, and the Koran, none easily available in an atheistic state. In addition, there were the complete works of Marx and Lenin, plus a 200-volume set of translated great works of world literature.” (Taubman, ePub 12.121).

This philosophical and cultural heritage, though constrained by the Communist framework within which he was ensconced, undoubtedly helped to shape his leadership and policy decisions, and subsequently the world.

St Francis of Assisi and a secret Christianity?

On March 19, 2008, The Daily Telegraph ran a story with a remarkable headline: “Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian“—a stunning assertion for the ruler of an atheistic nation. Previously, Gorbachev had admitted nothing beyond a loose pantheistic view in an interview, saying that “nature is my god.”

The Telegraph story stemmed from the visit of the then-77-year-old former leader to the tomb of St Francis of Assisi in Italy. The paper reported that Gorbachev made some interesting remarks concerning Christianity: “St Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, the other Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life” and “It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb.”

Accompanied by his daughter, Gorbachev was said to have spent half an hour on his knees “in silent prayer.” The article also states that Ronald Reagan, himself a fervent Christian, believed Gorbachev was “a closet believer.” It seems that Reagan was interested in comments Gorbachev had made to him such as “only God knows”, “God help us,” and “We have never been at war with each other. Let us pray God that this never happens.”

It was the kind of ongoing “gotcha” most nonbelievers will recognize from their daily experience living among Christian majorities. But even the Telegraph piece records Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, who accompanied Gorbachev at the tomb, saying of the Russian that he merely “silently meditated at the tomb for a while.”

Was there really anything to this story? It caused something of a minor furor at the time only for the rumors to be quashed, at least in an official capacity. Gorbachev declared to Russian news agency Interfax, “Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can’t use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie. To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist.”

Although he liked to visit churches and synagogues, he was clear: “But all these years, it has never occurred to anyone to list me among followers of any faith on that basis.” 

The Russian Orthodox Church was less than impressed with the whole event. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II declared, “In Italy, he spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith. He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him.”

There is little reference to any faith or even religion in general in his biography. The fact that he loosened rules that allowed religion to resume operating in the Soviet Union and beyond is what fuelled conspiracies at the time of a secret belief. Yet there is no real evidence that he was anything other than the atheist he declared himself to be.

In fact, Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa (an atheist) had even taught classes on atheism. It would be an odd situation (though not impossible) if the two had opposing religious worldviews. Indeed, he had a grandmother about whom he said, “I had a grandmother [who] was a Christian and my grandmother used to go to church every day and would come to the Kremlin and visit me and say, ‘Mikhail I prayed for the atheists today. I prayed for you.'”

Gorbachev loved long walks and was a fan of natural environments, and it is perhaps due to this that Christianity Today concluded at the time:

I suspect that Gorbachev was attracted to Francis because of their mutual connection to nature and the environment. That seems to be the draw—one oddly capable of dropping the man to his knees in prayerful silence for 30 minutes. Francis himself would have been perplexed. For now, Mikhail Gorbachev appears, still, to be seeking and preaching a kind of green humanism. 

Laying the groundwork for the Church’s resurgence

Returning to the present, the Law of Unintended Consequences might well be in play as the Russian Orthodox Church is being used divisively by Vladimir Putin and the Russian state. Typical culture wars battles are being fought and won by conservative ideologues. For example, a 2013 “gay propaganda” law banning any person or entity from promoting homosexual relationships to children is just about to be extended to adults, with doubled fines. What denotes “LGBT propaganda” is, of course, up for debate.

This sort of regressive legislation is becoming increasingly common. It is ironic that Gorbachev’s ideal of glasnost may have laid the groundwork for the Orthodox Church to re-establish itself and grow in power, only to be used to curtail the very policies of freedom that allowed its growth.

For a leader driven to find peace (and who won the Nobel Peace Prize), this twist would be so painful. Italian Premier Mario Draghi recently observed the following after hearing of Gorbachev’s death:

After a life in the Communist Party, with courage and determination he ended the experience of the Soviet Union and tried to construct a new season of transparency, rights and freedom. His desire for peace and his opposition to an imperialistic vision of Russia earned him the Nobel Prize (for Peace). These messages are more relevant today than ever when faced with the tragic invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been complicit in the invasion of Ukraine as part of Putin’s desire to reinstall the Soviet empire, reversing the journey started by Gorbachev. Indeed, one archbishop told local news agency Regnum in late March, “Everything the president does is right. Speaking as a monarchist, I would personally place a crown upon Putin’s head if God granted the opportunity.”

Gorbachev initially supported Putin until their relationship soured over issues including the rights of citizens. He told the present leader “not to be afraid of his own people” and announced that Putin’s inner circle was full of “thieves and corrupt officials.”

As Fr. Mark Drew says in a Spectator op-ed:

[W]e need to understand not only the centuries-old link between political power and religious authority in Russia, but also the record of the key players. One major figure is Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Putin’s and has not relented in his praise for the war. In his sermon on Forgiveness Sunday, he described Russia’s ‘military operation’ as justified and almost sacred. Repeating accusations of genocidal behaviour towards the breakaway Russian entities in the east, he complained that Ukrainians were waging a more sinister war at the meta-physical level, against Russia and against Christianity, by backing immoral causes like gay and transgender rights.

Kirill’s endorsement provides a religious gloss for the Kremlin’s ideology of a ‘Russkiy Mir’ or Russian world. The term implies Russia’s destiny is to bring the peoples of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires under its leadership. It looks back to the idea of Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, which saw ‘Holy Russia’ as the protector of the Orthodox peoples. It is perfectly attuned to the nostalgic imperialism promoted by Putin.

If anything, this sort of politic will have Gorbachev turning in his soon-to-be-filled Novodevichy cemetery grave.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...