The final President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, has left a lasting legacy. One part of that was to lead to our change of name from Christian Mission to the Communist World to Release International. With the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev’s crucial refusal to intervene to prevent it, the Cold War (Part 1) came to an end. Andrew Boyd looks back on the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev on the long history of persecution…
He was the driving power who pushed for an end to the Cold War, who turned the arms race around and potentially averted a nuclear Armageddon. It was Gorbachev who prised open the iron grip of the Communist Party with his pursuit of glasnost and perestroika - openness and restructuring.
But far from those reforms leading to a new golden new age for Russia, they led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Samson, Gorbachev tore the pillars down and brought the entire edifice down around him.
Taste of persecution
What shaped the man who changed our world?
The son of peasant farmers, the young Mikhail Gorbachev had his first taste of Russian persecution when his grandfathers were arrested for failing to throw their weight behind the forced collectivisation of Soviet farming.
This herding together of farmers robbed individuals of initiative and reward and rubbed against the grain of traditional farming. To say it didn’t work would be an understatement. It led to mass starvation.
Gorbachev’s paternal grandfather was hauled away for refusing to plant his seeds. His protest that he had no seeds to plant fell on deaf ears. Then Gorbachev’s maternal grandfather was arrested as a counter revolutionary and charged with sabotaging the collective endeavour.
Gorbachev later recalled: ‘They took him away in the middle of the night.’ Grandpa’s arrest, he said, was his ‘first real trauma’.
The Second World War also left its mark, as did Stalin’s purges. But it was only after many years that the young Gorbachev awoke to the realisation that Stalin himself was behind much of the bloodletting. It was a major blow to his political faith. He said: ‘I was shocked, bewildered and lost.’
Even so, he pursued a post-war career in the Communist Party, joining the youth division, the Komsomol, as deputy head of agitation and propaganda. He was now being paid to perpetuate the communist myth and was building his reputation upon it. Yet his own faith in that myth was already failing.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev speaks with dismay about the dead hand of bureaucracy, the inefficiency, the sheer pressure to conform. And the dreadful risk of speaking your mind.
1968 was the year Czechoslovakia spoke its mind, the year of the Prague Spring, when Czech hopefuls sought to break free from Soviet control, only to find their hopes crushed by Russian tanks.
1968 was also the year that Christians in the West took inspiration from a Rumanian pastor called Richard Wurmbrand.
Wurmbrand had confronted the communist party over its persecution of the church and was brutalised relentlessly for his faith. He went on to write Tortured for Christ and other books that rallied Christians in the West to stand with the persecuted.
1968 was the year Christian Mission to the Communist World was born in the UK.
The following year Gorbachev went to Czechoslovakia and professed himself shocked by the hostility of the Czechs towards their Russian ‘liberators’.
And when he visited the West, he found a freedom and prosperity that was in vivid contrast to the bleak conformity of life at home.
By 1985, Gorbachev had risen to become General Secretary of the Communist Party. The horror of Chernobyl the following year, and abject failure in the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989 were other landmarks on his journey away from hard-line communist faith.
For Gorbachev, that journey had taken him towards glasnost and away from the Brezhnev Doctrine that the Soviet Union would stand squarely with other socialist countries in times of trouble. It was now each to his own.
His decision to stay the Soviet hand persisted when the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, just nine months after his army’s humiliating retreat from Kabul. It was Gorbachev who refused to sanction military intervention in the DDR that would be both impractical and lead inevitably to bloodshed.
And after the complete collapse of the Soviet Union in the dying days of 1991 it was Gorbachev, like Samson, who found himself buried beneath the rubble.
The last President of the Soviet Union had broken the iron grip of communist certainty and control. And rocked by insecurity, the Russian people punished him severely. Gorbachev survived an attempted coup by hardliners that year but lost his own grip on power forever.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2011, Mikhail Gorbachev lamented that Putin’s Russia had become a sham democracy. ‘We have everything,’ he said. ‘A parliament, courts, president, prime minister - but it’s… an imitation.’
Today, even as Putin attempts to goad the Russian bear back to its feet, the communist star has shifted Eastwards to China.
Christian persecution continues. By any measure it has got worse, whether in the hands of communists, Islamists, radicals, or rogue states.
Power and control
At the level of human governance, persecution is all about power. Nothing can be allowed to challenge the almighty power of the state. Persecution is about conformity, coercion and control.
Under Soviet control, turbulent priests were sent to mental institutions and injected with drugs to try to rid them of their religious delusions. Churches were regulated, controlled and restricted, and treated as rivals for power and potential enemies of the state.
Militant Islam now arguably poses a greater threat to Christians than communism. But as the epicentre of communism has shifted to China, churches there are coming under ever tighter control as the state attempts to compel them to conform to Xi Jinping’s doctrine of Sinicization.
In all conscience, not every Christian can bow the knee to state control, especially when the state sets itself in opposition to God. When Christians talk about rendering unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar and rendering unto God what is due unto God, dictatorships the world over bristle. And those that take note of history, should also tremble.
Search for identity
In uncertain times, people seek out their old certainties in the search for stability and an elusive sense of identity. Mother Russia and Mother Church are cornerstones of that.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has regained some of its old religious dominance. The Church has become both a touchstone and justification for Vladimir Putin. The bare-chested president draws deeply upon those ancient fears, hopes and longings for virility and identity for Russia and the Russian people.
With its restoration to religious pre-eminence, the Russian Orthodox Church has again become an instrument of cultural conformity. Under Putin, it is being used as a tool of state coercion and control. It has become an instrument of persecution.
Beyond Russia, with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet states returned to older notions of tribe and tongue and land and faith to regain their identity. Those states broke away in pursuit of national sovereignty.
And in many of those former Soviet republics, where an assertive Islam is fused with that cultural identity, we are seeing an inevitable surge in persecution against the church.
Release International’s partners in Central Asia continue to document persecution by these post-communist states, and continue, as ever, to serve the persecuted Church there.
Today, Gorbachev is dead, and Putin’s Russia is waging a war in Europe against an imagined enemy. Dictators over generations have rallied support and bolstered their powerbases to do battle with enemies without and enemies within.
In Russia, the enemy within was always anyone who in all conscience could not yield to the pressure to conform or submit to state coercion and control.
Today, we see an authoritarian Russian Orthodox Church condemning its own priests for opposing the war in Ukraine. The church, supporting and supported by the state, has become an instrument of conformity, coercion, and control. And that has always been fertile ground for persecution.
In Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, Russian troops are again persecuting non-conformist churches. And leaders who cannot or will not yield to their control are intimidated and their churches shut down.
Jesus was, and is, the servant king; the King of kings and the only king in history who willingly and gladly gave away his own power. Mikhail Gorbachev, to some degree, whether by accident or design, did the same.
In 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Christian Mission to the Communist World changed its name to Release International. But its focus has remained the same, to follow in the footsteps of Richard Wurmbrand to support persecuted Christians prayerfully, practically and pastorally, not only in communist countries, but around the world.
Principal source, with thanks: The Washington Post
Watch Andrew Boyd’s interview on the legacy of Mikhael Gorbachev with Trans World Radio here :