I grew up during the Cold War, an era dominated by the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Then in 1989 came one of those history-changing days that no one had predicted. Guards at the Berlin Wall, trained to kill anyone attempting to escape, instead opened the gates to freedom, and the hated wall crumbled without a shot being fired. As the tremors of “people power” spread, some 60 nations rejected their authoritarian regimes in favor of democracy.
This seismic change traces back to Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on August 30 at the age of 91. The first general secretary of the Communist Party born after the 1917 Russian Revolution, he had traveled through Western Europe, an experience that profoundly affected him. “Why was the standard of living in our country lower than in other developed countries?” he asked.
In 1991 Gorbachev allowed the 15 republics of the Soviet Union to decide their own future, and 13 of them voted to leave the alliance ruled from the Kremlin. Russia was in chaos. The shock of shifting abruptly to a free economy had caused a startling increase in poverty, disease, crime, corruption, and homelessness. Meanwhile, the once dominant Communist Party was losing its grip. At one point, communist hard-liners held Gorbachev hostage in the Crimea region until the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, “rescued” him by climbing atop a military tank to rally a huge crowd of demonstrators outside the Russian White House.
In the midst of such bedlam, a group of prominent American Christians received a surprising letter signed by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. “In the difficult, often agonizing transitional period that our country is experiencing,” it read, “spiritual and moral values acquire a great, if not paramount significance.” In essence, the leaders were asking how to restore morality to a spiritually bankrupt society. A friend forwarded the letter to me, asking if I was available to accompany the group as a journalist, to report on what might transpire.
I agreed on short notice to join the ad hoc delegation that included television and radio broadcasters, educators, lawyers, publishers, Russia specialists, pastors, businessmen, and mission executives. The government had promised to approve visas overnight and to pick up expenses within the country. It seemed an ideal way to visit Russia, bypassing the red tape that deterred many visitors.
Some members of our delegation came with specific agendas: to obtain official sanction for their religious broadcasts, to speed the process of publishing Christian literature, to establish Christian study programs. Gradually, however, it became clear that we were not “using” the Soviet officials nearly so much as they were using us. Five years earlier, most of the activities of evangelical Christian organizations would have been illegal; now the government was reaching out to those same organizations in a desperate attempt to stave off anarchy and societal collapse.
As “Guests of the President,” our group received VIP treatment and press coverage wherever we went. In our meeting with the Supreme Soviet, we could hardly believe the deputies’ warm welcome. Over the previous seventy years, from these very offices in the Grand Kremlin Palace, other Soviet leaders had directed a campaign against God unprecedented in human history. Now, after introductory formalities, the Chairman got right to the point. “We need Bibles,” he said. “Is there a way to distribute them free instead of charging, so more people can get them?” I stole a glance at a mural of Lenin on the wall, wondering what he would have thought of these developments in his motherland.
Incredibly, we heard much the same message at the headquarters of the KGB. General Nikolai Stolyarov, Vice-Chairman in charge of all KGB personnel, began by saying, “How to bring peace and quiet to the hearts of people is a great problem for us. We are united with you in working together against the powers of evil.” He continued, “In our study of scientific atheism, we were taught that religion divides people. Now we see the opposite: love for God can only unite. Somehow we must learn to put together the missionary role—absolutely critical for us now—and also learn from Marx that man can’t appreciate life if he is hungry.” (Later, General Stolyarov would oversee the distribution of 1.5 million New Testaments to the Russian armed forces.)
At the Journalists’ Club of Moscow, professionals known for their cynicism asked such questions as, “What is forgiveness? How can we find it? How do you get to know God?”
At Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party in Russia, the editors said, “We’re mystified. We who were trained in Marxism have so much in common with you Christians. We’re against racism, and you are too. We care for the poor, as you do. We both support equality and dignity for all. And yet, starting with the same ideals, we created the greatest monstrosity the world has ever seen. The author Solzhenitsyn suggests we have killed 60 million of our own people. What made the difference?”
Throughout the trip, our promised meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev hung in limbo, subject to the latest political crisis. We did not receive definite confirmation until a few days before our scheduled departure.
Our bus was late, and when we motored through the red brick Spassky Gate, presidential assistants met us on the run, gesturing wildly for us to hurry. A procession of evangelicals dressed in our best attire sprinted across cobblestone plazas and alleyways until we reached the presidential office complex, in an elegant hall built by the tsars. Security guards with two-way radios directed us to leave our overcoats—to my surprise, we went through no metal detectors or body frisks—and 30 seconds later we were escorted in, breathing heavily, to meet Gorbachev.
He shook hands with each member of the delegation, motioned us to our seats, and began precisely at 11:00 a.m., as scheduled.
“Mostly I get letters from people who are worried,” he said. “‘What is going to happen? Our country is in a difficult time,’ they say. I share those worries. We are in a crisis, including a spiritual crisis, as the country undergoes so many changes so quickly. Civil strife and division are springing up everywhere. In the past, change in my country has come with a circle of blood; now we are trying to bring about change democratically. If we succeed, it will be good for all of us. But for the democratic process to work here, we will need a profound and systemic reform. Getting to that point is a very difficult challenge.”
Gorbachev seemed vigorous and healthy. His skin looked tanned, thanks to the makeup he wore as a concession to the omnipresent cameras. He was fully in command, and maintained excellent eye contact as he spoke.
“Let me be honest with you—I am an atheist,” the President added, setting to rest all rumors about his being a closet believer. “I believe that man is at the center and must solve his own problems. That is my faith. Even so, I have profound respect for your beliefs. This time, more than ever before, we need support from our partners, and I value solidarity with religion. As you know, we have many important decisions to make, and this is a very busy day. But I felt it necessary to carve out this time with you. Raisa [his wife] told me it was important!”
At this point the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet broke in. “But,” he said with a wink, “if the President finds betrayal repugnant, shows compassion for his fellow man, encourages freedom, respects the decency and rights of individuals, and has the goal of moving toward the good, then perhaps words don’t matter so much. Perhaps by deeds he is a believer, if not by words.”
Gorbachev laughed. “I do not object. I must say that for a long time I have drawn comfort from the Bible. Ignoring religious experience has meant great losses for society. And I must acknowledge that Christians are doing much better than our political leaders on the important questions facing us. We welcome your help, especially when it is accompanied by deeds. ‘Faith without deeds is dead,’ right?”
As the meeting proceeded, Gorbachev grew more and more relaxed. He departed from his prepared notes, and seemed to welcome a more casual discussion. Our Russian organizer, Mikhail Morgulis, taking note of this change, ventured, “Mr. President, perhaps this meeting itself is one of the best proofs of the existence of God. Christians have not always been so welcome in this room, and for more than a year I have been praying for this meeting to take place!” Gorbachev laughed and nodded approval. “Yes, yes, well, it has taken a long time, but it’s important to have patience.”
Gorbachev had promised us 15 minutes and gave us almost 40. He stood respectfully as Morgulis led a brief prayer, posed for a few official photos, shook hands with us again, and hurried off to a luncheon.
On my return from Russia in late 1991, I canceled all other writing projects and wrote a short “instant book” book titled Praying with the KGB: A Startling Report from a Shattered Empire. Recently, I’ve been revisiting it, working on a new book with the tentative title What Went Wrong: Russia’s Lost Opportunity and the Path to Ukraine. I hope to put that 1991 trip into historical context, in view of what has happened in Russia in the past three decades. Reading over my previous account now, I would have a hard time believing it—except that I witnessed those scenes in person.
Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from all public offices on Christmas Day, 1991, less than two months after our visit. Russia lurched through more economic and other crises under Boris Yeltsin, who served for eight tumultuous years. His successor, Vladimir Putin, subsequently made a dramatic U-turn in Russian policies.
Gorbachev had gambled on freedom. He allowed a free press to flourish and refused to quash dissent, whereas Putin has taken control of all major media in Russia and arrested thousands of dissenters. The “softer, gentler” KGB, with the new acronym FSB, soon returned to its old ways, poisoning Putin’s opponents, tossing others out of windows to their death, and making a showcase prisoner of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Gorbachev established religious freedom, and welcomed representatives of all faiths, while Putin expelled thousands of foreign religious workers and made exclusive ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
More ominously, Putin reversed Gorbachev’s bold decision to let nations choose their own future. Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This year, after months of lying about his intentions, he launched a brutal war against Ukraine. He rails against NATO aggression, even though the only invasions in Eastern Europe have come from Russia: Hungary in 1954, Czechoslovakia in 1969, and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Three days after Gorbachev’s funeral (which he shunned), Putin released a new foreign policy goal: “to protect, safeguard and advance the traditions and ideals of the Russian World.” In every way—economically, politically, spiritually—Russia has turned away from the West, which it now views as a hostile threat.
In future years, historians will pick over the various reasons for the nation’s recent shift. As I listen to the alarming news reports from Russia now—assassinations, mass arrests, war crimes, nuclear threats—I keep replaying the gripping scenes I witnessed in 1991: dazed Pravda editors grasping for truth, the Supreme Soviet begging for Bibles, and even KGB agents issuing a public apology. It seemed as if an entire ideology was melting around me. Instead, it went underground, only to reappear in a sinister form.
We miss you, Mikhail Gorbachev.