Gorbačev's funeral and an unfinished Russia
Opening up to religious freedom was not part of the initial reform programme. It was the events following the Černobyl disaster that forced the secretary-president to change his attitude to the point of reaching the harmony he established with John Paul II. But the Russians blamed him for the end of the USSR and renunciation of its role as a world power.
Today, in Moscow the funeral is being held of Mikhail Gorbačev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, who passed away in 1991, the year that also marked the political death of its leader. Gorbačev has not existed in Russia for the past 31 years: his foundation, which was very active in the field of charity, had no political or cultural influence either during the troubled Yeltsin decade nor during the increasingly bombastic Putin decades.
Putin himself hastily paid his respects to the mortal remains, depositing flowers and hurrying off to Kaliningrad, and then to other locations, to preside over the final stages of the Youth Olympics of the 'Dialogue on Important Things', propagandistic events aimed at explaining the reasons for the special military operation in Ukraine, and at reinterpreting the whole of Russian history in a heroic sense.
The funeral will take place with "some elements of the official funeral", as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained, with a guard of honour and the presence of high state representatives. The president, who recognised Gorbačev's "great role in universal history", will not be there, more to honour Russia and its power than to extol the figure of the failed reformer.
By contrast, praise for Gorbačev was not spared outside the homeland, with passionate remembrances from Macron, Scholz, Biden, Johnson, Walesa, Guterres, Draghi, von der Leyden and many others. The second Soviet leader, together with Khruščev, to finish his term in office while still alive, he was certainly much more popular abroad than in Russia.
The reasons are well known: on an ideological level, the Russians blamed him for the end of the USSR as a renunciation of its role as a world power, and for being over-indulgent to the interested favours of the West, of which he was considered the main historical 'foreign agent', the term in vogue today for traitors.
The population, more sensitive to the material aspects of social life, remembers with shivers that cursed five-year period between 1986 and 1991, when economic planning was halted without actually succeeding in establishing any other system, of which there was no positive conception in the proclaimed perestroika.
As a matter of fact, the turnaround led to an unprecedented crisis: the huge supermarkets, in which there were few but safe products during the Brezhnev years, appeared tragically empty, and to buy meat and vegetables one had to go to the Caucasian markets at astronomical prices, or to shops for foreigners for those lucky enough to possess talony, the special purchasing vouchers reserved for the few.
Above all, what infuriates most Russians is the memory of the 'dry law' (sukhoj zakon) of 1987 that restricted the production of alcoholic beverages: in the days of Gorbačev people drank perfumes and mixtures, including brake fluid, or stood in line a whole day for a bottle of vodka.
The official condemnation of Gorbachevism was pronounced by Putin in his message to the Federal Assembly in 2004, when he stated that 'the collapse of the Soviet Union was the main geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century', a disaster that is now being remedied by the reconquest of former Soviet lands, starting with Ukraine.
The 'collapse' is blamed on the ineptitude of the then president, even though it was in fact sanctioned on 8 December 1991 by the Belovežka agreement between Yeltsyn, Kravčuk and Šuškevic, the presidents of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which became independent states, without any involvement of Gorbačev, by then marginalised after the August coup.
He had in fact also tried to prevent the disintegration of the empire, with tragic results such as the 'night of the engineers' paddles' in Tbilisi in 1989, a bloody repression of peaceful anti-Soviet demonstrations, the 1990 'Black January' in Baku, and above all the military takeover of the Vilnius TV centre in 1991, which sparked the uprising in Lithuania, the first state to separate from the USSR.
These events only added to the hatred and contempt towards a figure already considered by all to be unhappy, indelibly marked since 1986, with the explosion of the Černobyl power station that forced the replacement of perestroika with glasnost, freedom of information, opening the USSR to that 'invasion of the West' so deprecated today by Putin and Patriarch Kirill.
The patriarch is an emblematic character of the succession of phases in the transition between the USSR and neo-imperial Russia. As a young Brezhnevian bishop, Kirill defended Soviet policy to the hilt in all international ecumenical assemblies, but he was among the first hierarchs of the Orthodox Church to ride on the coattails of the reforms after Gorbačev's election in 1985, taking an active part in the great Millennium celebrations of the Baptism of Rus' in 1988 that marked the beginning of the "religious renaissance" after seventy years of state atheism.
In 1990 he succeeded in pushing for the election as patriarch of Aleksij (Ridiger), the metropolitan of Leningrad whom he could control, preventing with the help of Soviet officials the victory of the Kiev candidate Filaret (Denisenko), now 95 years old inspirer of the Ukrainian revolt against Russia and against Kirill himself, whom Filaret had ordained bishop in 1976.
During the Yeltsyn years, as foreign metropolitan of the patriarchate, Kirill earned the reputation of 'ecclesiastical oligarch', and then became the main ideologue of the Putinist restoration of the State Church of Great Russia. It is precisely in the religious field that the contradictions of Gorbachevism are evident, which eventually led to the new 'symphony of powers'.
Opening up to religious freedom was actually not part of Gorbačev's initial reform programme. The new General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee, elected in March 1985, and his team belonged to the 1960s generation. They were people on whose formation the 20th Congress of the CCP (1956) and the anti-religious campaign of 1958-1964 had had a decisive influence.
Like the majority of them, Gorbačëv was 'deaf' to religious issues. To the fact that the 'leaders of perestroika', as Gorbačëv's collaborators called them, did not intend to change anything in relations with the Church, several recently published documents testify. As the former collaborator in charge of the propaganda sector of the Central Committee of the Komsomol', Valerij Alekseev, wrote, "Gorbačëv and Likhačev arranged for the drafting and approval for the years 1985-1990 of a package of secret decisions on strengthening the fight against the activism of religious sectarianism, the reactionary influence of the Islamic clergy, limiting the influence of Catholicism on the population, measures to counteract the orthodox influence, etc.". Loyalty to Marxist dogmas on religion was confirmed in the new wording of the Programme of the CCP, approved at the XXVIIth Party Congress in 1986.
Even the celebrations of the Millennium of Rus', planned since 1983, were to be held only inside the churches, with the instruction "not to draw attention to this particular event". The external events after Černobyl forced the secretary-president to change his attitude, especially after the first contacts with Reagan and other Western leaders, who extolled the novelty of an elegant and dialoguing Soviet secretary, who travelled the world with his charming wife Raissa, and was perhaps even willing to grant openings to freedom of expression and religious profession.
Then Gorbačev discovered the world of spirituality, tuning in to the most successful world leader, Pope John Paul II, who terrorised Soviet bureaucrats with his 'new evangelisation' messages. The newly reformed USSR president met the pope in Rome on 1 December 1989, opening diplomatic relations with the Holy See and agreeing on a vision of Christian Europe 'from the Atlantic to the Urals'.
Gorbačev's religious turn threw not only the state officials into panic, but also the Orthodox church hierarchs, who did not know how to govern a religious revival totally outside Russian confessional traditions. The harmony between Gorbačev and John Paul II is perhaps the most serious sin imputed by the Russians to the leader who is buried today at the Novodeviči Monastery, alongside so many other historical figures in Russian politics and culture, including the philosopher Vladimir Solov'ev, who wanted the Orthodox to unite with the Catholics to build a universal Church together.
Today, instead, Kirill and Putin support the ideal of a holy Russia stretching "from Lisbon to Vladivostok", an imperial and mystical dream destined to remain unfulfilled as well, like all the great images of ancient and modern Russia, even the one only dreamt of by Mikhail Gorbačev.