By Kevin J. Jones
When former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev died Tuesday at the age of 91, the Cold War briefly returned to the news.
His death revived shaky rumors that the last head of the communist and officially atheist Soviet Union was a Christian convert.
Gorbachev had been more friendly to religion than most of his predecessors. His reformist principles of openness and restructuring, known as “glasnost” or “perestroika,” had a broad impact on Soviet social and economic freedom and helped end some draconian burdens on religious worship. His Cold War rival U.S. President Ronald Reagan was preoccupied with the idea that Gorbachev was a secret religious believer, according to Reagan biographer James Mann.
In March 2008 Gorbachev had to dispel claims he had become a Christian. Various news reports, citing the Italian news media, claimed that Gorbachev had kneeled for thirty minutes at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi during a visit, on which he was accompanied by his daughter Irina.
Gorbachev, the former head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, clearly rejected these reports.
“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,” he told the Russian news service Interfax. “To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist.”
He said he had visited St. Francis’ tomb as a tourist, not a pilgrim, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2008. He said he acknowledged that religion plays an important role in society and he noted he looks forward to visits to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship.
News accounts had claimed Gorbachev had referred to St. Francis as an “alter Christus,” Latin for “another Christ.” The former Soviet leader had allegedly said he was fascinated by the life of St. Francis and claimed that the medieval saint’s story “has played a fundamental role in my life.”
A spokesman for then-Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II had responded to the reports, saying, “He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him.”
Gorbachev and his wife Raisa had been baptized Christians in the Russian Orthodox Church, the two said in 1989, but they depicted this as part of normal family custom at the time of their births. They did not baptize their daughter.
Raisa died of cancer in 1999 and her funeral included some Russian Orthodox rites. Her husband will be buried next to her grave in the cemetery of Moscow’s Novodevichy Convent, Reuters reports.
This is the same burial place of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and various leading Russians. Most Soviet leaders are buried at Red Square near the walls of the Kremlin.
Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to visit the Vatican and had a December 1989 meeting with Pope John Paul II, a pontiff who strongly backed resistance to the communist, Soviet-dominated government of his native Poland.
In 1985 Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party, at the age of 54. While engaging other countries on issues like nuclear weapon reduction, he rolled back the oppressive social and economic system in the USSR.
He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War. That same year, he took on the newly created role of president of the Soviet Union.
However, Gorbachev’s reforms prompted a counterreaction from communist hardliners, who launched a failed coup attempt in August 1991 and briefly held him under house arrest. Russian president Boris Yeltsin, a political rival of Gorbachev, came to prominence by resisting the coup. In the wake of the coup attempt, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics fell apart into fifteen separate countries. By December, Gorbachev resigned from the presidency.
His role in post-Soviet Russia was entirely marginalized. He was often blamed for the severe, sometimes deadly economic hardship that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.
On Wednesday Pope Francis wrote to Gorbachev’s daughter Irina Gorbachev, extending his “heartfelt condolences.” He voiced his “spiritual closeness” to those grieving.
“As we gratefully remember his far-sighted commitment to concord and fraternity amongst peoples, as well as to the progress of his own country at a time of important changes, I raise prayers of suffrage, invoking eternal peace for his soul from the good and merciful God,” the pope said.