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.

 

 

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31 responses to “The Day I Met Gorbachev”

  1. Vicki says:

    My husband was born in East Germany in 1983.
    He said that even though he was that young, he “noch wusste, was es heißt, nicht frei zu sein.” “Still knew what it meant to not be free.

  2. Karen Fitts says:

    Thanks for sharing this happening in your life. It is amazing what God has done and can do. I especially appreciated this post, because the morning I received it I had just texted my daughter a photo of her at 13 with a child who was 10 and had come to stay with us for two weeks with her maternal grandmother. They were part of an arts school group from Tblisi in what became the republic of Georgia. Our daughter had visited their school the year before the Wall fell with a singing group called the Backyard Gang. My daughter asked me what the child’s last name was.
    I told her it was Shevadnarze. Her first name was Sophia. My daughter researched and found what the child is doing today in her 40’s. Amazing. The Backyard Gang performed a musical teaching how God can help with alcohol and drug addiction.
    It will be amazing what God will do with your book. God is able to do more…

  3. Manette Kay says:

    Thank you, Phillip, for sharing this fascinating bit of history.

  4. Clive Rotheram says:

    Rereading my earlier comment, I sound rather self-righteous and judgemental. I am certainly not setting myself up as an exemplar of spiritual and moral guidance. Apologies if I offended anyone.

  5. Clive Rotheram says:

    A great read, as always, Philip. I find the idea of current American evangelicals, most of whom apparently support Trump, offering spiritual and moral guidance to another country a bit unlikely. Perhaps it was different then.

  6. Kam Congleton says:

    Thank you! PLEASE continue sharing all you know and have experienced , Philip. You have lived your life in unusual places and seen much others have not… it is now that you are surely called to share… ” for such a time as this.
    And thank you for your book on Prayer– also timely in a new way ❤

  7. Name_five says:

    Hi Philip!

    Two thumbs-up for the part of the article where you shared about Gorbachevs desire to seek help from foreign christians to bring peace into USSR.

    However, when you mention the supposed number of 60 million lives killed by the regime – as to be fair, why don’t you also mention the millions of lives killed by the US led wars and invasions. I am sure you are aware of what the US has done around the world in the second half of the 20th century!

    Yes, USSR/Russia had and had many problems inside. But at least Russia does not invade and bomb countries indiscriminately (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Lybia, Yemen) and leaving millions dead and even more displaced and their lives ruined. The US does that, do they not?

    Philip, shouldn’t your own country (assume it’s USA) remove the log from its own eye before removing a peck from someone else’s eye?

  8. A rare a valuable perspective. Thank you!

  9. Carol Benson says:

    Philip, you never disappoint! What an amazing experience seeing a Russian leader wanting the hope of the gospel and what could have ensued if Satan hadn’t reared his ugly head.

  10. Ofelia Claudio says:

    Praise God for this amazing post on your meeting with Mr. Gorbachev! Why did you wait so long to post this? Although headed for bed, I just had to read it through! Gosh! “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?” Wow! I believe (hope) we’ll see Mr. Gorbachev in heaven. By the way, I cherish meeting YOU in person, Mr. Philip, at St. Andrew’s Church in Newport Beach shortly before the pandemic! Too bad, I didn’t take selfie with you! 🙂

  11. What an opportunity you were given! Thank you for sharing your insights and the conversations from that historic meeting. It is sad to see what has happened under Putin when there was such potential.

  12. Glen A Weber says:

    What a wonderful opportunity that sadly did not bring long lasting results. Thank you so much for sharing such an amazing experience!

  13. John Grant says:

    I see what Putin is doing as akin to what we did when other countries sent supplies and money to Cuba to turn them against us. Remember the Cuban crisis, I sure do? We sure didn’t want another country, especially one being fed and led by another bigger country near our shores so we were ready to go to war and told them so. After that, the bigger countries stopped coming and turned around and left. I don’t think Putin wants that either and is actually following our example that worked.
    History does repeat itself!
    Semper Fi

  14. Bruce Cooper says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Philip. I knew nothing about this aspect of their openness to God. God’s grace, peace and blessing on you and yours.

  15. margaret L Kuhl says:

    Thank you, Phillip, for sharing the details of this window into Gorbachev’s brief reign. Had we only known how brief it would be! I pray that the seeds that were planted during your visit and the contribution of Bibles and Christian literature to the spiritually starving Russians will continue to bear fruit long after Putin’s thumb-squashing reign.
    I’ve avidly followed Bill Browder’s account of Russian finances and the uprising of the oligarchy during this same period, and it all fits together. However, God is greater, and even in Russia I’m sure the light, no matter how big the barrel over it, is still shining.

  16. Andreas says:

    Thanks for this great article. Where can i get these two books. Delivery to Germany

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Best to wait until “What Went Wrong” comes out late this year or early next year, because that also includes the earlier one.

  17. Tom Fishburn says:

    Philip, I was thrilled and amazed when I read years ago about your visit to Russia. But I’ve been wondering what went wrong and how Putin got in to power. I’ve been hoping you would write about it, knowing Russia must have been on your mind for years, well before current events. So, I appreciate this and look forward to hearing more from you. Indeed, missing Mikhail Gorbachev.

  18. Awesome text, as ever!
    Thanks Mr. Philip, the world is a little bit better because of the extraordinary way that you play the role that God gives to you.

  19. Bruce says:

    The Pravda editors asked “What made the difference?” Now there is the blog topic I would like to read about. How is it that the Socialist ideals led to horrid outcomes? What is your analysis?

  20. I lived in Moscow from 1992 -1996. I was in charge of the largest distribution of Christian literature in the history of the FSU. 4,000 ton – about 50,000,000 books, Bibles and New Testaments. So I guess I was part of the answer to getting Bibles into Russian hands. I was with Cru. It was an amazing time. I think the Christian church stepped up and did a pretty good job of getting the Gospel into Russia. I am sad abut this war. I pray it ends soon. This message can be posted. Many people gave funds to distribute Bible and helped get it done.

  21. Ralph says:

    I need to get that book you did in ‘91. I can’t remember if my dad has a copy, but then again, I may just wait for the new one you have coming out. ☺️

  22. Barbara Mommen says:

    What an extraordinary story! And the work of God continues despite the horrors of Putin’s autocracy.

  23. David Pepper says:

    As usual, you bring out the honest truth with great insight. I look forward to reading this new book. The Lord has blessed you with a true gift to reach others, which has included myself over the past 30 years.

  24. Regina says:

    Why is it so hard to learn from the past?

  25. Terri Frazier says:

    As I read this, I am struck by how American Christians, starting in the 90s and continuing even now, wasted the best evangelical opportunity God ever presented to them. We allowed our faith to ultimately become nothing more than a greedy power and money grab as we were finally allowed access to Communist Europe. Reading this article I am in awe of just how open and ripe Russia was for true transformation-indeed that nation was starving for spiritual guidance. Now over these three decades we have corrupted that God-given mission so that it is no wonder Putin and other atheists in power have chosen to return to their brutal regimes and societal dominance.

    Russia did not waste this opportunity to find faith. We as Western Christians undermine the Spirit’s work and robbed them of the fruitful spiritual harvest they longed for.

  26. Catherine Johnson says:

    Thankyou Philip, for such a wonderful account of what transpired back then…I too was in Russia at the same time you were…traveling with my Finnish friend for only a short time; but I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes!! Praise the Lord that many people were able to hear the gospel for the first time when all those Bibles were distributed amongst the Russian military and citizens! You have always been one of my favorite authors; whose books have answered my troubling questions and thirst for knowledge… I Thankyou so much!

  27. Nicola says:

    Thankyou for igniting my hope. I had given into fear. May peace enter the heart of Vladimir Putin, and again into Russia. And may redemption, restitution, forgiveness and reconciliation be the gift of God to Ukraine.

  28. Renee Rodriguez says:

    What a valuable history account. God certainly “enlarged your tent”. Your writing has been a long and important part of my life Since getting my Campus Life magazine in the 70s!! I look forward to reading this new book. God bless and keep shining his face on you

  29. Bob Fryling says:

    Thanks for the fascinating story and your relevant reflections on it.

  30. Dan Huff says:

    Great commentary and insight, Philllip

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