Published September 8, 2022
Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope St John Paul II respected and admired each other, but their relationship symbolised an irresolvable clash between two ways of seeing human nature and human history.
The day after Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and thus de facto ruler of the prison house of nations that was the USSR in 1985 – I asked James Billington, a distinguished historian of both Russian culture and contemporary revolutionary movements, what difference the new man would make. “You remember that cold, reptilian look in the eyes of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko [Gorbachev’s three immediate predecessors]?” he asked. “They had seen their best friends shot in the back of the head during Stalin’s purges. That’s why they looked that way. Gorbachev didn’t have that experience. That’s why he’ll be different.”
Billington was right: Mikhail Gorbachev was different. But the difference was considerably less than the post-mortem hagiographers have claimed. It is simply not true, as so many have claimed, that Gorbachev “liberated Eastern Europe”. The Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern Europe liberated themselves, not least because of a revolution of conscience, led by bold human- rights activists, that changed the politics of the region in the 1980s and provided the key to resolving the Cold War in favour of the forces of freedom, and without mass violence.
It is true that Gorbachev did not roll in the tanks to maintain the Soviet Union’s external empire, as his reptilian predecessors had done in 1953 and 1968. It is also true that, within a year of his accession to supreme power in the USSR, Gorbachev had told the sclerotic leaders of the Warsaw Pact in a secret meeting that, should they get into trouble maintaining their authority, the USSR wasn’t coming to their aid this time. (The failure to winkle out this epic change of Soviet policy was one of the great failures of Western intelligence in the end game of the Cold War.) But why didn’t Gorbachev roll in the tanks?
It was not because he was some sort of crypto-democrat. I was in Moscow for a week in September 1990, 11 months before the USSR imploded, discussing the social and cultural prerequisites for a decent post- Communist society and polity with Russian pro-democracy activists, none of whom thought that Gorbachev was a democrat of any sort. They thought, correctly, that he was a reform Communist, and that reform Communism was a chimera: a mythological wish projection that was impossible to instantiate. And, to the end of the USSR, in August 1991, Gorbachev remained a reform Communist, whose goal was to reform the Russo-centric Soviet empire, not liberate its colonies (or its Russian core).
Gorbachev didn’t roll in the tanks during the Revolution of 1989 because he couldn’t. He realised, on taking power, that the Soviet economic system could not compete with the digitalising West; he also understood that the Soviet economy was being ground down by the pressures to compete militarily created by the US Strategic Defence Initiative. Western analysts may have derided SDI as “Star Wars”; Gorbachev, a not-unintelligent man, knew that it had completely backfooted the USSR as a superpower, and that some accommodation had to be reached with the West if the USSR were to be saved. That is why Gorbachev insisted on America abandoning SDI at his Reykjavik summit conference with Ronald Reagan; and that is why Reagan, always far shrewder than his critics allowed and a man genuinely committed to nuclear disarmament, didn’t take the bait.
The colossal Soviet bureaucratic failures displayed by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster also made it unmistakably clear to Gorbachev that his priority had to be internal, not maintaining the Warsaw Pact external Soviet empire. He imagined that he could reform the Soviet system and maintain the USSR through glasnost and perestroika, “openness” and “restructuring”. But a fundamentally flawed system could not be fixed or reformed; it could only be replaced. And that brings us to the question of Gorbachev’s rela- tionship with John Paul II.
Their two meetings were epic, to be sure; but while the magnanimous John Paul would not have thought of them in this way, they were, in fact, a kind of surrender ceremony. Marxism-Leninism had been brutal, lethal and relentless in its efforts to destroy Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. That fierce persecution created a host of new martyrs and martyr-confessors; but it had failed, comprehensively. In that respect, for Gorbachev to come calling on the Pope in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace was an act of surrender.
John Paul II respected Gorbachev as a man of principle and moral conviction who would not betray principle in order to hold on to power – which was John Paul’s basic test for any politician. John Paul also had a Pole’s respect for, and gratitude to, the Russian who had agreed to Poland’s auto-liberation in 1989. For his part, Gorbachev, at their first meeting in Rome, introduced John Paul to his wife Raisa as “the greatest moral authority on earth” – and then added, smiling, “and he’s a Slav, like us!” Raisa, who had just been making some catty, deprecating comparisons between Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and the art in the Kremlin, seemed unpersuaded. But I think it’s true that Gorbachev, by his own lights, believed that of the Polish Pope. And, as with other world leaders, John Paul certainly tried to be of some pastoral service to Gorbachev.
Nonetheless, the two men had two completely different views of why Communism failed. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II dedicated an entire chapter to a close examination of the roots of “the Year 1989”, making the argument that Communism’s fundamental failure was anthropological. By reading God out of the human condition, Communism had distorted our humanity, and no just society, polity or economy could be built on the foundation of a false conception of human origins, human nature, human history and human destiny.
Communism because it could not satisfy the deepest, theotropic longings of the human heart. It proposed false gods, taught a false soteriology, proclaimed a false eschatology (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) and a distorted morality (most poignantly analysed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon), in which an Old Bolshevik about to be executed in one of Stalin’s purges muses to himself that it might have been a mistake to “cut the old ties … to disengage the brakes of ‘thou shalt not’”. And because of those built-in flaws, Communism created untold human misery, with the death count in the tens of millions.
For his part, Gorbachev remained, to the end, a great admirer of Lenin. He seemed unable to think beyond the possibility, which was really an impossibility, of fixing, structurally and technologically, the system that Lenin created. He tried, and the effort simply accelerated the system’s disintegration, because the system was rotten to the core, and thus irredeemable.
Gorbachev was, in truth, a more humane leader of that system, a man with a conscience (and impressively in love with his wife until her death). But when he met John Paul II, he was in the role of the somewhat shabby high priest of a false and destructive religion, while John Paul II was the embodiment of truths of Christian faith – and the “greatest moral authority on earth”.
He had been clandestinely baptised by his mother as an infant, and the family kept surreptitious icons in their home, Gorbachev once admitted. So he was, in his own fashion, a member of the communion of saints. I like to think that the canonised Polish pontiff he admired gave him a hand as he completed what John Paul once described as everyone’s “Passover”. It would have been entirely in character for John Paul II to have done so, and perhaps in character for Gorbachev to accept the offer of help. We must pray that Gorbachev has been cleansed of his delusions, and now knows the full truth of the faith that animated the man to whom he symbolically surrendered.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.