Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Speaking of Russia: Mikhail Gorbachev's Assisi Experience

Has the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embraced the Christian faith? A flurry of excitement and speculation in the international media attended his recent surprise visit to Assisi on March 19. According to the UK Telegraph reporter Malcom Moore, Mr. Gorbachev was accompanied by his daughter Irina and passed unnoticed through crowds of pilgrims at the Basilica of St. Francis. He is said to have spent a half-hour on his knees in silence at the tomb of St. Francis. (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/ news/2008/03/19/wgorbachev119.xml - 50k),

Christian or not, Mr. Gorbachev was frank in his admiration for "Il Poverello," the "little poor man of Assisi" as Francis was referred to affectionately during his own lifetime. "It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb," Mr Gorbachev remarked at the time, “I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity.” Gorbachev is also reported to have requested literature about St. Francis to familiarize himself further with the saint’s life and ministry. Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, a Lithuanian friar at the Basilica of St Francis, helped guide the former Soviet leader through the site. Now 77 years old, Mr. Gorbachev served as General Secretary of the CPSU, from 1985 until the collapse of the Soviet Union and his subsequent resignation in 1991. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Apparently, this is the first time Mr. Gorbachev has made any kind of public statement about his personal connection to the faith, although he has been called a "crypto Christian" in the past for expressing views sympathetic to Christian values. Both his parents as well as those of his late wife Raisa were believers. The parents of Raisa are reputed to have been killed during the Stalinist era for possessing religious icons. Gorbachev himself was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a youth, though through much of his career, he espoused the official atheist Party line. During the "glasnost" era, however, he once referred to himself as a kind of ‘pantheist’. “Nature is my god,” he once responded to a journalist when asked about his spiritual beliefs. In contrast, the current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, openly professes the Orthodox faith.

Following his Assisi sojourn, however, Gorbachev apparently squelched any speculation that he might have embraced Christianity at this point in his life.. Returning from Italy, he told the Russian news agency Interfax that "over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, [...] To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Gorbachev)

In response to Gorbachev’s denials, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II subsequently told the Russian media: "In Italy, he (Gorbachev) spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith. He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him."

Wherever he may be on his personal faith journey, it is clear that Mr. Gorbachev, like so many people of good will throughout the centuries and across cultures, has been touched by the inspiring example of "Il Poverello."

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