By Dr. Katie Kelaidis
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev died yesterday at the age of 91. As the leader of the world’s last officially atheist superpower, Gorbachev’s official and personal relationship with religion has been the subject of frequent speculation.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which had previously been an integral part of the Tsarist regime, experienced periods of persecution and accommodation in the Soviet Union. Like many people born under Stalin’s regime – and the period immediately after – Gorbachev was baptized in secret by grandparents who remained true to their ancestral religion, but eventually came to embrace (at least publicly) the Soviet atheism.
In late April 1988, in what would be the last years of his presidency and of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen in the Kremlin and apologized for the intense Stalin-era persecution and promised “a new law on freedom of conscience… [to] reflect the interests of religious organizations”.
US President Ronald Reagan had speculated to his aides after a meeting in the 1980s that Gorbachev was “a staunch supporter”. In 2008, his personal faith once again became a subject of speculation when he expressed his admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi during a private visit to Italy. As rumors of Catholicism began to circulate—more damning rumors than accusations of atheism in some Eastern Christian circles, one might say—Gorbachev felt the need to confirm his atheism.
While Gorbachev’s personal faith has often been the subject of public debate, it will ultimately be his public stance toward the Russian Orthodox Church that will have the greatest consequence.
He began, no doubt unwittingly, the chain of events which today bring the Russian Orthodox Church back to the heart of power. And this is a reality that will undoubtedly have significant repercussions not only for the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia, but also for the world and global Christianity.
It was not inevitable that we would end up here. In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Western Protestants, especially American Evangelicals, saw Russia and other former Soviet states not as a traditionally Christian society ready to reclaim its ancestral faith, but as a virgin mission field, ready to be claimed for Christ (in its proper Protestant form) for the first time.
As the Iron Curtain rose, American evangelicals flocked to Russia in search of converts. What these missionaries failed to understand, as American missionaries so often do, was how integral Orthodoxy remained to Russian identity, even when Christian faith and practice in itself decreases. Patriarch Alexy II, the first post-Soviet patriarch of Moscow, ascended his throne at almost the right time in 1990, in the lethargic last days of the Soviet Union.
Like so many Soviet-era churchmen, Alexy was a shrewd politician and arguably outwitted the American preachers who came with their planes full of dollars. Under his episcopate, the Orthodox Church began its intimate relationship with America’s right-wing religion, as it accepted its money to rebuild and fill the coffers of the Russian Church.
It was under the episcopate of Alexis that religious education materials and Bibles printed by American Evangelicals entered the life of Russian Orthodoxy. He also, late in his tenure, began joining them as a culture warrior. In 2008, he supported the decision to ban a Pride parade in Moscow, saying: “I am convinced that the desire of homosexuals to hold a parade in Moscow will not help to strengthen the family as the foundation of a strong state.
And yet, even as Patriarch Alexy accepted money and joined American evangelicals in their favorite social causes, he worked to secure a special place for the Orthodox Church in Russian life.
In September 1997, at Alexy’s request, President Boris Yelstin signed a law protecting the Russian Orthodox Church from competition and giving it a privileged place in society. The law was condemned not only by Washington, but also by Canterbury and Rome.
Although considered at the time to be the least restrictive of the proposed laws, Alexy welcomed the decision saying, “Today’s law is another step towards perfecting legislation that guarantees and upholds the rights of believers in Russia”.
The Russian constitution prohibits a state religion, but 1997 legislation signaled that this would mean something very different in Russia than in other countries with such restrictions. Russia is not the United States or France. Likewise, the Russian Orthodox Church did not assume the role of a largely benign state church. It is not difficult to see the difference between the Russian Orthodox Church and, say, the Church of Denmark or the Church of England.
And that difference may lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of Orthodox history, culture and theology. It’s a misunderstanding Mikhail Gorbachev stumbled upon almost 40 years ago and then repeated by American evangelicals immediately afterwards. This is perhaps a complete misunderstanding of which some continue to be guilty today.
Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, there has been virtually no Orthodox Christian experience with pluralism outside the Diaspora. In all traditionally Orthodox countries, Orthodoxy has always been either an intimate part of the state apparatus or oppressed and marginalized. There is no historical experience of the “middle ground” we see in Protestant nations like the UK and the Netherlands, or even, nowadays, in Catholic countries like Spain. or Belgium.
Orthodox Christianity even has a theological concept centered on the proper relationship between church and state. This concept, the symphony, appeared in the 4th-6th centuries and maintains that the Church and the State act in concert, complement each other, without seeking domination. The reality of how this has played out throughout history has made religious pluralism difficult to evoke in orthodox political theology. The church of the symphonic society must, after all, be singular and harmonious in itself.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after centuries in which religious and ethnic identity in Orthodox-majority cultures has been shaped by opposition to both the Islamic world and the Christian West, it is hard to imagine that there could be a post-Soviet Russian identity. which was neutral towards the Orthodox Church.
As in many Orthodox countries – for example Greece, Romania or Serbia – being Russian has for centuries meant being Orthodox. And while it would have been easy for American evangelicals or Soviet officials to imagine that communism had erased those centuries of identity, that’s just not how identity works.
Mikhail Gorbachev was baptized in secret. He was made (at least in an official sacramental sense) an Orthodox Christian during the period of Russian history in which there was the greatest concerted effort to eliminate the Russian Orthodox Church and religion at large .
Yet even then he did not fully understand the vast historical and cultural forces unleashed by his reintroduction of Orthodoxy into Russian life. Ultimately a product of Soviet communist ideology, Gorbachev perhaps believed that the most fundamental and ancient human impulses, like faith and tribalism, could be controlled and ultimately reformed. In this, like so many other things, his core beliefs were proven wrong.
For a man who probably lived and died an atheist, he took a leap of faith that thrust his ancestral religion into the heart of power.
Dr. Katie Kelaidis is a historian whose work focuses on early medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.