Written by Vladimir Moss



     Jean-Francois Revel wrote in 1985: “The Soviet Union… is undoubtedly sick, very sick. It will die, that’s certain,… because it is in and of itself a society of and for death. But the prime question of our time is which of the two events will take place first: the destruction of democracy by communism or communism’s death of its own sickness? It seems to me that the second process is advancing less rapidly than the first…”

     Indeed, a superficial view of the situation would have confirmed Revel’s judgement that the West would collapse before the Soviet Union. As John Darwin writes, “In the mid-1980s the scope of Soviet ambition seemed greater than ever. From a forward base at Camranh Bay in southern Vietnam, the Soviet navy could make its presence felt across the main sea lanes running through South East Asia and in the Indian Ocean, a ‘British lake’ until the 1950s. By laying down huge new aircraft carriers like the Leonid Brezhnev, Moscow now aimed to rival the Americans’ capacity to intervene around the globe. But then in less than half a decade this vast imperial structure – the ruling power across Northern Eurasia, the tenacious rival in Southern Asia, Africa and the Middle East – simply fell to pieces. By 1991 it was an empire in ruins. There was no ‘silver age’ or phase of decline: just a calamitous fall…”

     However, in the same year of 1985, the Soviets propelled to power in the Kremlin a leader who was prepared to begin a partial democratization of the country with the aim of modernizing and strengthening the Soviet State. For “the KGB, as Norman Stone writes, unlike many of the geriatric leaders of the state, “knew how far things had gone wrong, and, with a view to shaking up the old men, saw that a degree of public criticism and respect for law would be helpful, quite apart from the good impression to be made abroad. The Party and the KGB had had a host-parasite relationship… Now the parasite was given responsibility.” And so the parasite now “came up with the last useful idiot, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, in himself an obviously decent man, whose task was to soft-soap the West…”

     By the Providence of God, however, Gorbachev’s reforming efforts, though designed to strengthen Communism in the long term, led to its downfall and the resurgence of religion… 

     “In his first speech as leader,” writes Bernard Simms, “Gorbachev announced his intention to maintain ‘military-strategic parity with the aggressive NATO’… Gorbachev’s first concern was not economic liberalization, popular standards of living or democratization... What was innovative about his approach, however, was that it did not just conceive of internal change as a means to increasing external power through greater military mobilization. Instead, Gorbachev sought to expose and reform abuses in what he regarded as a basically just system. He also hoped that a more conciliatory attitude towards dissidents would reduce the terrible international battering the Soviet Union had received over human rights since the mid-1970s. Gorbachev now proclaimed a policy of reconstruction (‘Perestroika’) – a ‘revolutionary… acceleration of the socio-economic and cultural development of Soviet society’ – and openness (‘Glasnost’’). Greater freedom of expression, Gorbachev believed, would mobilize the intelligentsia and reduce incompetence and corruption. Dissidents were released, police repression was greatly eased, civil rights groups emerged, there was a revival of the [official] Russian Orthodox Church and a vibrant public sphere moved from the underground into the open…”

     As Vladimir Bukovsky and Pavel Stroilov write: “By the beginning of the 1980s, the Soviet leadership had finally woken up to the fact that their system had entered a period of profound structural crisis. On the one hand, their economic model, unproductive and wasteful by definition, like all socialist models, had brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. On the other, their very ‘success’ in exporting that model to other countries was becoming an unbearable burden to carry on their shoulders. With their troops bogged down in Afghanistan, and with the Polish crisis looming large on their doorstep, the ‘cost of Empire’ had become virtually unsustainable. Simply put, they had suddenly realised that their economic base was too small for their global ambitions. Added to that a new round of the arms race forced on them by Ronald Reagan, falling oil prices and a growing discontent at home, and one could understand their sudden urge for reforms. A final blow came with Reagan’s obsession with the ‘Star Wars’ project. The Americans might have been bluffing, but the Soviets had to follow suit regardless, trying to compete in the very sphere where they were most behind the West – high-tech.” 

     The worship of science in the Soviet Union had always been excessive – although this was a sin it shared with its rival, the United States. Thus the space race was more than simple technological rivalry, but a race to see which system was superior because more “scientific”… However, on May 7, 1984, the Day of the Physicist, it became not just scientific, but idolatrous, even satanic. For on that day a satanic ball was staged by nuclear physicists that was captured in a 1988 documentary film called Zvezda Polyn’ (the star of Chernobyl). The film-maker clearly saw a link between the ball and the terrible catastrophe that had taken place at Chernobyl only two years earlier…

     Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was the Soviets’ backwardness in technology that was the main cause in their country’s collapse: “Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with new technology. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. This partly explains why Khrushchev’s 1956 [“we will bury you!”] never materialised, and why it was the liberal capitalist who eventually buried the Marxists. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.”

     The technological gap between the superpowers was indeed growing larger all the time. As David Reynolds writes, “Back in the 1970s the United States seemed to be floundering. Industrial growth had stagnated, inflation was out of control and the heavy industries on which the post-war boom had been based, like cars and textiles, were no longer competitive against Asian competition. Parts of urban America seemed like a rustbelt. In the 1980s, however, new service industries, spearheaded by IT and boosted by deregulation, seemed to signal a ‘post-industrial’ society. Meanwhile, however, the Soviet Union remained a ‘heavy metal’ society – locked in the smokestack industries of yesteryear. Behind the Iron Curtain deregulation and the IT revolution were inconceivable. The Soviets had found it hard enough to keep up with mainframe computers; their anaemic consumer economy offered no stimulus to PC development; and the cell-phone explosion was totally impossible in a closed society. Information is power and, under communism, both were tightly controlled.

     “In computers and electronics the Soviet Union lagged behind European clients like Czechoslovakia and East Germany, yet even then their pirated products did not compare with authentic Western versions that were now flooding into eastern Europe. ‘With these computers comes not only technology but also ideology,’ lamented one Czech computer designer. ‘Children might soon begin to believe that Western technology represents the peak and our technology is obsolete and bad.’ In ten years’ time, he warned, ‘it will be too late to change our children. By then they will want to change us.’

     “So the PC and information revolution posed a double challenge to the Soviet bloc – both economic and ideological. Moscow’s Five-Year-Plan of 1985 envisaged 1.3 million PCs in Soviet schoolrooms by 1995, but the Americans already had 3 million in 1985 and in any case the main Soviet PC, the Agat, was an inferior version of the crude and now antiquated Apple II.

     “Gorbachev was keenly aware of these problems…

     “Becoming part of the American-led information age was a major reason why Gorbachev was so anxious to forge a new relationship with the United States. Otherwise the USSR would be consigned to obsolescence. By the 1980s, in fact, the whole Soviet bloc was in ‘a race between computers and collapse’.”


     Gorbachev’s attempts to introduce a limited kind of market economy were not successful. For, as Tony Judt writes, “The reforming instinct was to compromise: to experiment with the creation – from above – of a few favored enterprises freed from bureaucratic encumbrances and assured a reliable supply of raw materials and skilled labor. These, it was reasoned, would serve as successful and even profitable models for other, similar, enterprises: the goal was controlled modernization and progressive adaptation to pricing and production in response to demand. But such an approach was foredoomed by its operating premise – that the authorities could create efficient businesses by administrative fiat.

     “By pumping scarce resources into a few model farms, mills, factories or services the Party was indeed able to forge temporarily viable and even notionally profitable units – but only with heavy subsidies and by starving less-favored operations elsewhere. The result was even more distortion and frustration. Meanwhile farm managers and local directors, uncertain of the way the wind was blowing, hedged their bets against the return of planned norms and stockpiled anything they could lay their hands on lest centralized controls tighten up again.

     “To Gorbachev’s conservative critics this was an old story. Every Soviet reform program since 1921 began the same way and ran out of steam for the same reasons, starting with Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Serious economic reforms implied the relaxation or abandonment of controls. Not only did this initially exacerbate the problems it was designed to solve, it meant just what it said: a loss of control. But Communism depended on control – indeed Communism was control: control of the economy, control of information, control of movement and opinion and people. Everything else was dialectics, and dialectics – as a veteran Communist explained to the young Jorge Semprún in Buchenwald – ‘is the art and technique of always landing on your feet’.

     “It soon became obvious to Gorbachev that to land on his feet as he wrestled with the Soviet economy he must accept that the Soviet economic conundrum could not be addressed in isolation. It was but a symptom of a larger problem. The Soviet Union was run by men who had a vested interest in the political and institutional levers of a command economy: its endemic minor absurdities and quotidian corruption were the very source of their authority and power. In order for the Party to reform the economy it would first have to reform itself.

     “This, too, was hardly a new idea – the periodic purges under Lenin and his successors had typically proclaimed similar objectives. But times had changed. The Soviet Union, however repressive and backward, was no longer a murderous totalitarian tyranny. Thanks to Khrushchev’s monumental housing projects most Soviet families now lived in their own apartments. Ugly and inefficient, these low-rent flats nonetheless afforded ordinary people a degree of privacy and security unknown to other generations: they were no longer so exposed to informers or likely to be betrayed to the authorities by their neighbors or their in-laws. The age of terror was over for most people and, for Gorbachev’s generation at least, a return to the time of mass arrests and party purges was unthinkable.

     `’In order to break the stranglehold of the Party apparat and drive forward his plans for economic restructuring, then, the General Secretary resorted instead to ‘glasnost’ – ‘openness’: official encouragement for public discussion of a carefully restricted range of topics. By making people more aware of impending changes and heightening public expectation, Gorbachev would forge a lever with which he and his supporters might pry loose official opposition to his plans… But for Gorbachev the urgency of the need for official openness was brought home to him by the catastrophic events of April 26th 1986.

     “On that day at 1.23 am, one of the four huge graphic reactors at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl (Ukraine) exploded, releasing into the atmosphere 120 million curies of radioactive materiel – more than one hundred times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The plume of atomic fallout was carried north-west into Western Europe and Scandinavia, reaching as far as Wales and Sweden and exposing an estimated five million people to its effects. In addition to the 30 emergency workers killed on the spot, some 30,000 people have since died from complications caused by exposure to radiation from Chernobyl, including more than 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer among residents in the immediate vicinity.

     “Chernobyl was not the Soviet Union’s first environmental disaster. At Cheliabinsk-40, a secret research site near Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, a nuclear waste tank exploded in 1957, severely polluting an area 8 km wide and 100 km long. 76 million cubic metres of radioactive waste poured into the Urals river system, contaminating it for decades. 10,000 people were eventually evacuated and 23 villages bulldozed. The reactor at Cheliabinsk was from the first generation of Soviet atomic constructions and had been built by slave labor in 1948-51. 

     “Other man-made environmental calamities on a comparable scale included the pollution of Lake Baikal; the destruction of the Aral Sea; the dumping in the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea of hundreds of thousands of tons of defunct atomic naval vessels and their radioactive contents; and the contamination by sulphur dioxide from nickel production of an area the size of Italy around Norilsk in Siberia. These and other ecological disasters were all the direct result of indifference, bad management and the Soviet ‘slash and burn’ approach to natural resources. They were born of a culture of secrecy. The Cheliabinsk-40 explosion was not officially acknowledged for many decades, even though it occurred within a few kilometres of a large city – the same city where, in 1979, several hundred people died of anthrax leaked from a biological weapons plant in the town centre.

     “The problems with the USSR’s nuclear reactors were well known to insiders: two separate KGB reports dated 1982 and 1984 warned of ‘shoddy’ equipment (supplied from Yugoslavia) and serious deficiencies in Chernobyl’s reactors 3 and 4 (it was the latter that exploded in 1986). But just as this information had been kept secret (and no action taken) so the Party leadership’s first, instinctive response to the explosion on April 26th was to keep quiet about it – there were, after all, fourteen Chernobyl-type plants in operation by then all across the country. Moscow’s first acknowledgement that anything untoward had happened came fully four days after the event, and then in a two-sentence official communiqué. 

     “But Chernobyl could not be kept secret: international anxiety and the Soviets’ own inability to contain the damage forced Gorbachev first to make a public statement two weeks later, acknowledging some but not all of what had taken place, and then to call upon foreign aid and expertise. And just as his fellow citizens were then made publicly aware for the first time of the scale of official incompetence and indifference to life and health, so Gorbachev was forced to acknowledge the extent of his country’s problems. The bungling, the mendacity and the cynicism of the men responsible both for the disaster and the attempt to cover it up could not be dismissed as a regrettable perversion of Soviet values: they were Soviet values, as the Soviet leader began to appreciate.

     “Beginning in the autumn of 1986 Gorbachev shifted gears. In December of that year Andrei Sakharov, the world’s best-known dissident, was liberated from house arrest in Gorky (Nizhnij Novgorod), a harbinger of the large-scale release of Soviet political prisoners that began in the following year. Censorship was relaxed – 1987 saw the long-delayed publication of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (twenty-six years after M.S. Suslov, the Party’s ideological commissar, had predicted that it could not be released for ‘two or three centuries’). The police were instructed to cease jamming foreign radio broadcasts. And the Secretary General of the CPSU chose the occasion of his televised speech to the Party Central Committee in January 1987 to make the case for a more inclusive democracy, over the heads of the Party conservatives and directly to the nation at large.

     “By 1987 more than nine out of ten Soviet households possessed a television, and Gorbachev’s tactic was initially a striking success: by creating a de facto public speech for semi-open debate about the country’s woes, and breaking the governing caste’s monopoly of information, he was forcing the Party to follow suit – and making it safe for hitherto silent reformers within the system to speak out and give him their backing. In the course of 1987-88 the General Secretary was, almost despite himself, forging a national constituency for change. 

     “Informal organizations sprang up: notably ‘Club Perestroika’, formed in Moscow’s Mathematical Institute in 1987, which in turn gave birth to ‘Memorial’, whose members devoted themselves to ‘keeping alive the memory of the victims’ of the Stalinist past. Initially taken aback at their own very existence – the Soviet Union, after all, was still a one-party dictatorship – they soon flourished and multiplied. By 1988 Gorbachev’s support came increasingly from outside the Party, from the country’s newly emerging public opinion.

     “What had happened was that the logic of Gorbachev’s reformist goal, and his decision, in practice, to appeal to the nation against his conservative critics within the apparatus, had transformed the dynamic of perestroika. Having begun as a reformer within the ruling Party, its General Secretary was now increasingly working against it, or at least trying to circumvent the Party’s opposition to change. In October 1987 Gorbachev spoke publicly of Stalinist crimes for the first time and warned that if the Party did not champion reform it would lose its leading role in society. 

     “In the Party conference of June 1988 he reiterated his commitment to reform and to the relaxation of censorship, and called for the preparation of open (i.e. contested) elections to a Congress of People’s Deputies for the following year. In October 1988 he demoted some of his leading opponents – notably Yegor Ligachev, a longstanding critics – and had himself elected President of the Supreme Soviet (i.e. head of state), displacing Andrei Gromyko, last of the dinosaurs. Within the Party he still faced strong rearguard opposition; but in the country at large his popularity was at its peak, which was why he was able to press forward – and indeed had little option but to do so.

     “The elections of May/June 1989 were the first more or less free vote in the Soviet Union since 1918. They were not multi-party elections – that would not happen until 1993, by which time the Soviet Union itself was long gone – and the outcome was largely pre-determined by restricting many seats to Party candidates and forbidding internal Party competition for them; but the Congress they elected included many independent and critical voices. Its proceedings were broadcast to an audience of some 100 million spectators, and demands by Sakharov and others for further change – notably the dethroning of the increasingly discredited Party from its privileged position – could not be swept aside, even by an initially reluctant Gorbachev. The Communists’ monopoly of power was slipping away, and with Gorbachev’s encouragement the Congress would duly vote the following February to remove from the Soviet constitution the key clause – Article Six – assigning the Communist Party a ‘leading role’.

     “The course of Soviet domestic upheaval from 1985 to 1989 was facilitated by a major shift in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev and his new Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze. From the outset Gorbachev made clear his determination to unburden the USSR at the very least of its more onerous military encumbrances. Within a month of coming to power he had halted Soviet missile deployments and gone on to offer unconditional negotiations on nuclear forces, starting with a proposal that both superpowers halve their strategic arsenals. By May 1986, after a surprisingly successful ‘summit’ meeting with Reagan in Geneva (the first of an unprecedented five such encounters), Gorbachev agreed to allow US ‘forward-based systems’ to be excluded from strategic arms talks, if that would help get these under way.

     “There followed a second, Rejkjavik summit in October 1986 where Reagan and Gorbachev, while failing to reach agreement on nuclear disarmament, nonetheless laid the basis for future success. By late 1987 Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State George Schultz had drafted an Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed and ratified the following year. This Treaty, by endorsing Ronald Reagan’s earlier ‘zero option’ proposal, constituted Soviet acceptance that a nuclear war in Europe was un-winnable – and served as the prologue to an even more important treaty, signed in 1990, strictly limiting the presence and operation of conventional forces on the European continent.

     “Seen from Washington, Gorbachev’s concessions on arms naturally appeared as a victory for Reagan – and thus, in the zero-sum calculus of Cold War strategists, a defeat for Moscow. But for Gorbachev, whose priorities were domestic, securing a more stable international environment was a victory in itself. It bought him time and support for his reforms at home. The true significance of this sequence of meetings and accords lay in the Soviet recognition that military confrontation abroad was not only expensive but also dysfunctional: as Gorbachev expressed it in October 1986 in the course of a visit to France, ‘ideology’ was not an appropriate basis for foreign policy.

     “These views reflected the advice he was beginning to get from a new generation of Soviet foreign affairs experts, notably his colleague Aleksandr Yakovlev, to whom it had become clear that the USSR could exercise more control over its foreign relations by well-calculated concessions than by fruitless confrontation. In contrast to the intractable problems he faced at home, foreign policy was an arena in which Gorbachev exercised direct control and could thus hope to effect immediate improvements. Moreover the strictly Great-Power dimension of Soviet foreign policy relations should not be exaggerated: Gorbachev placed at least as much importance on his relations with western Europe as on his dealings with the US – he made frequent visits there and established good relations with González, Kohl and Thatcher (who famously regarded him as a man with whom she ‘could do business’).

     “Indeed, in important respects Gorbachev thought of himself above all as a European statesman with European priorities. His focus upon ending the arms race and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons was closely tied to a new approach to the Soviet Union’s role as a distinctively European power. ‘Armaments,’ he declared in 1987, ‘should be reduced to a level necessary for strictly defensive purposes. It is time for the two military alliances to amend their strategic concepts to gear them more to the aims of defense. Every apartment in the ‘European home’ has the right to protect itself against burglars, but it must do so without destroying its neighbors’ property.’

     “In a similar spirit and for the same reasons, the Soviet leader understood from the outset the urgent need to extract the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the ‘bleeding wound’ as he described it to a Party Congress in February 1986. Five months later he announced the withdrawal of some 6,000 Soviet troops, a redeployment completed in November of the same year. In May 1988, following an accord reached at Geneva with Afghanistan and Pakistan and guaranteed by both great powers, Soviet troops began to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan: the last remaining soldiers of the Red Army departed on February 15th 1989.

     “Far from addressing the Soviet nationalities question, the Afghan adventure had, as was by now all too clear, exacerbated it. If the USSR faced an intractable set of national minorities, this was in part a problem of its own making: it was Lenin and his successors, after all, who had invented the various subject ‘nations’ to whom they duly assigned regions and republics. In an echo of imperial practices elsewhere, Moscow had encouraged the emergence – in places where nationality and nationhood were unheard of fifty years earlier – of institutions and intelligentsias grouped around a national urban center of ‘capital’. Communist Party First Secretaries in the Caucasus, or the central Asian republics, were typically chosen from the dominant local ethnic group. To secure their fiefdom these men were understandably drawn to identify with their ‘own’ people, particularly once fissures began to appear in the central apparatus. The Party was starting to fracture under the centrifugal pull of anxious local administrators protecting their own interests.

     “Gorbachev seems not to have fully understood this process. ‘Comrades,’ he informed the Party in 1987, ‘we can truly say that for our country the nationalities issue has been resolved.’ Perhaps he did not altogether believe his own claims; but he certainly thought that some loosening of central control and addressing of long-standing grievances would suffice (in 1989 the Crimean Tatars, for example, were finally allowed to return home after many decades of Asian exile). In a continental empire of over one hundred ethnic groups from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotsk, most of whom had long-standing grievances that glasnost now encouraged them to air, this was to prove a serious miscalculation. The idea that it was the Leninist project itself that might be at fault remained alien to the Soviet leader until very late – only in 1990 did he finally permit the domestic publication of overtly anti-Leninist writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

     “The spirit of Gorbachev’s early goals is exemplified in the inimitable tone of the new-found toleration for pop music, as expressed by Pravda in October 1986: ‘Rock and roll has a right to exist but only if it is melodious, meaningful and well-performed,’ That is precisely what Mikhail Gorbachev wanted: a melodious, meaningful and well-performed Communism. Necessary reforms would be undertaken and appropriate freedoms granted, but there was to be no unregulated licence – as late as February 1988 the government was still clamping down fiercely on independent publishing houses and printers.

     “It is one of the curiosities of Communist reformers that they always set out with the quixotic goal of reforming some aspects of their system while keeping others unaffected – introducing market-oriented incentives while maintaining central planning controls, or allowing greater freedom of expression while retaining the Party’s monopoly of truth. But partial reform or reform of one sector in isolation from others was inherently contradictory. ‘Managed pluralism’ or a ‘socialist market’ was doomed from the start. As for the idea that the ‘leading role’ of the Communist Party could be sustained while the Party itself shed merely the pathological excrescences of seven decades of absolute power, this suggests a certain political naiveté on Gorbachev’s part. In an authoritarian [despotic] system power is indivisible – relinquish it in part and you must eventually lose it all. Nearly four centuries earlier, the Stuart monarch James I understood these things much better – as he put it in a succinct rebuff to Scottish Presbyterians protesting at the power vested in his bishops: ‘No Bishop, no King’.”

     “The inadequacy of Gorbachev’s response to demands for autonomy at the Soviet empire’s far-flung margins should not come as a surprise. Gorbachev was from the outset, as we have seen, a ‘reform Communist’, albeit a very unusual one: sympathetic to the need for change and renewal but reluctant to assault the core tenets of the system under which he had grown up. Like many in his generation in the Soviet Union and elsewhere he genuinely believed that the only path to improvement lay through a return to Leninist ‘principles’.”   

     In 1989 Zbigniew Brzezinski made a similar point in his book The Grand Failure – by which, of course, he meant the failure of Communism. A reviewer of the book writes: “As a practical matter, [Brzezinski] concludes, global communism has foundered, not prospered. In the USSR, the author notes, Gorbachev's renewal efforts have produced unintended consequences, including divisive debates over the Communist Party's stewardship and de facto subversion of the system's ideological foundations. Communism's ‘fatal dilemma’ in the Soviet Union, he asserts, is that ‘its economic success can only be purchased at the cost of political stability, while its political stability can only be sustained at the cost of economic failure.’ As a practical matter, he concludes, global communism has foundered, not prospered. In the USSR, the author notes, Gorbachev's renewal efforts have produced unintended consequences, including divisive debates over the Communist Party's stewardship and de facto subversion of the system's ideological foundations. Communism's ‘fatal dilemma’ in the Soviet Union, he asserts, is that ‘its economic success can only be purchased at the cost of political stability, while its political stability can only be sustained at the cost of economic failure.’” 


     The real question in 1988, as the Soviet system began to disintegrate, was: could a “melodious” transition, or restoration, be effected from the Communist despotism to an Orthodox autocracy, or “symphony of powers”? But the answer to this question depended on a second: could the official Orthodox Church in Russia be converted from being a pawn of Communist power to a fully autonomous religious institution subject only to God? And this in turn depended on a third question: could the Russian people as a whole convert from the Communist world-view to that of genuine Orthodox Christianity?

     Of course, Gorbachev’s aim in his reforms was simply to modernize the existing system, not make a transition to real democracy, let alone Orthodox autocracy. Communism would borrow from the West, but only in order to overthrow the West. In his book The Perestroika Deception, the former KGB agent and defector to the West Anatoly Golitsyn outlined a plan that the KGB had conceived for deceiving the West about its basic intentions. Several later defectors, planted by the KGB, tried to persuade the West that this plan was fictitious. But the development of events in the perestroika years, 1985-91, showed that almost all his predictions had been accurate…

     And so, at the beginning of perestroika there was no sign of the religious liberalization that was to come. Thus in November, 1986, Gorbachev told party officials in Tashkent that religious faith and party membership were incompatible (this was probably aimed at Muslim communists): “There must be no let-up in the war against religion because as long as religion exists Communism cannot prevail. We must intensify the obliteration of all religions wherever they are being practised or taught.” 

     Again, in November, 1987 Gorbachev said to the Politburo: “Perestroika is no retreat from communism but rather a step toward the final realization of Marxist-Leninist utopia: a continuation of Lenin’s ideas. Those who expect us to give up communism will be disappointed. In October, 1917 we parted from the Old World, rejecting it once and for all. We are moving toward a new world, the world of communism. We shall never turn off that road. Perestroika is a continuation of the October revolution…

     “Comrades, do not be concerned about all you hear about glasnost’ and democracy. These are primarily for outward consumption. There will be no serious internal change in the USSR other than for cosmetic purposes. Our purpose is to disarm America and let them fall asleep. We want to accomplish three things: (1) the Americans to withdraw conventional forces from Europe, (2) the Americans to withdraw nuclear forces from Europe, and (3) the Americans to stop proceeding with SDI [the Star Wars Defence System].” 

     Again, in 1987 Gorbachev’s chief ideologist, Alexander Yakovlev, said concerning the millenium of the Baptism of Rus’ in 1988: “To God what is God’s, to the Church what is the Church’s, but to us, the Marxists, belongs the fullness of truth. And on the basis of these positions any attempts to represent Christianity as the ‘mother’ of Russian culture must be decisively rejected. And if the Russian Middle Ages merit the attention of historians, such cannot be said of the 1000-year date of Orthodoxy.” 

     1988 did indeed prove to be a turning-point. For it was precisely at this time that Gorbachev’s need to pass from what Sir Geoffrey Hosking called “Mark 1” to “Mark 2” perestroika, dictated a change in policy towards the Church, too. For the success of perestroika required sincere believers in the new order from members of the Church, not just party hacks. And so in March, 1988 Constantine Mikhailovich Kharchev, the head of the Council for Religious Affairs, told representatives of the higher party school in Moscow: “We attained our greatest success in controlling religion and suppressing its initiative amidst the priests and bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. At first this gave us joy, but now it threatens to bring unforeseen consequences in its train… Now a priest often has no connection with his parish, but he is born somewhere else, and is often even of a different nationality. He comes once a week to the parish in a car, serves the liturgy… and wants to know nothing more. Many even like this, after all they are not responsible for anything: neither for their flock, nor for the money, nor for the repair of the church. The official in giving him his licence warns him: take your 350 roubles, and don’t poke your nose into anything…

     “We, the party, have fallen into a trap of our own anti-ecclesiastical politics of bans and limitations, we have cut the pope off from the believers, but the believers have not begun as a result to trust the local organs more, while the party and the state is increasingly losing control over the believers. And in addition, as a consequence, we witness the appearance of unspiritual believers, that is, those who carry out the ritual side [of Church life] and are indifferent to everything. And the main thing – are indifferent to communism… It is easier for the party to make a sincere believer into a believer also in communism. The task before us is: the education of a new type of priest; the selection and placing of a priest is the party’s business.”

     “For 70 years,” he said, “we have struggled with the Church. In particular, we have been concerned that the most amoral and corrupt people should be appointed to the most significant posts. And now, look, we want these people arrange a spiritual regeneration for us…”

     The critical point came in April, 1988, when Gorbachev met church leaders and worked out a new Church-State concordat reminiscent of the Stalin-Sergius compact of 1943. This concordat, combined with the underlying growth in religious feeling that had now been going on for several years, and the recovery of courage made easier by glasnost’ and the release of most of the religious and political prisoners, made the millenial celebrations in June a truly pivotal event. Moreover, the very wide publicity given to the celebrations in the media gave a powerful further impulse to the movement of religious regeneration.

     The fruits were soon evident for all to see. Religious and political prisoners were freed; permission was given for the reopening of hundreds of churches (1,830 in the first nine months of 1990); and religious societies and cooperatives of almost all denominations sprang up all over the country. Programmes on Orthodox art and architecture, and sermons by bearded clergy in cassocks, became commonplace on television; and commentators from right across the political spectrum began to praise the contribution of the Orthodox Church to Russian history and culture. There was openness, too, on the terrible cost to Russia of Leninism and Stalinism – one estimate, by the scientist D.I. Mendeleev, calculated that there were 125 million innocent victims of the communist yoke. 


     There were negative aspects to this process. The True Orthodox Church remained outlawed; resistance to the opening of churches by local officials continued in the provinces; and religious activists objected to the adulterous mixing of religion and nationalism, and religion and humanist culture. Moreover, the suspicion continued to exist that the party’s new-found respect for religion was simply a tactical ploy, a case of reculer pour mieux sauter.

     Such scepticism had some basis in reality. After all, no leading communist had announced his conversion to Christianity. Moreover, in April, 1988, the month in which Gorbachev met the patriarch, an unsigned article in Kommunist hinted that the real aim of Gorbachev’s rapprochement with the Church was to communize the Church rather than Christianize the party. And yet, if that was the party’s aim, it backfired. For unlike the concordat of 1943, which did indeed have the effect of communising the official Church, the concordat of 1988 seems to have helped to free Orthodox Christians from bondage to Communist ideology and coercion. For if the Church hierarchs continued to pay lip-service to “Leninist norms”, this was emphatically not the case with many priests and laity, of whom Fr. Gleb Yakunin (liberated in 1987) was probably the most influential and best known.                   

     This became strikingly evident in March, 1990, when the elections returned 300 clerics of various faiths as deputies. These included 190 Russian Orthodox, while the Communist Party candidates in the major cities were routed. In April, the Christian Democratic Movement, led by RSFSR deputies Fr. Gleb Yakunin, Fr. Vyacheslav Polosin and Victor Aksyuchits, held its founding congress. 

     Then, on May 19, the birthday of Tsar Nicholas II, the Orthodox Monarchist Order met in Moscow, and called for the restoration of Grand-Duke Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov to the throne of all the Russias. Grand-Duke Vladimir was a member of ROCOR, so his recognition by the monarchists inside Russia would have meant an enormous increase in prestige for ROCOR at the expense of the patriarchate. However, the Grand-Duke spared the patriarchate this embarrassment by apostasizing to it and then dying in November, 1991.

     Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many, the MP remained devoted to the Soviet ideology to the last minute. And yet even it began to show signs of change under the influence of glasnost’. The first sign was at the church council in June, 1988, when the 1961 statute making priests subordinate to their parish councils was repealed. Then came the canonization of Patriarch Tikhon in October, 1989. And then, on April 3, 1990 the Synod issued a declaration in which it (i) declared its neutrality with regard to different political systems and ideologies, (ii) admitted the existence of persecutions and pressures on the Church in the past, and (iii) tacitly admitted the justice of some of the criticism directed against it by the dissidents. Finally, in May, Metropolitan Vladimir of Rostov, the head of a commission formed to gather material on priests and believers who had been persecuted, said that “up to now, the details of the repression of the Russian Orthodox Church have been ignored or falsified by official, state and even numerous Church figures in order to meet the accepted ideological stereotypes.” The climax to this process was reached in June, when the polls revealed that the Church had now passed the Party, the Army and the KGB in popularity. People wondered: could this be the beginning of the end of sergianism? Was this the moment when the MP, freed at last from the yoke of communism, and under no obligation to pursue the communist-imposed policy of ecumenism, would finally repent of its past and return to the True Church?…

November 24 / December 7, 2017.

[1] Revel, How Democracies Perish, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985, p. 85.

[2] Darwin. After Tamerlane. The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, London: Penguin, 2007, p. 477.

[3] Stone, The Atlantic and its Enemies, London: Penguin, 2010, pp. 541, 536.

[4]Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, London: Allen Lane, 2013, pp. 479-480.

[5] Bukovsky and Stroilov, EUSSR: The Soviet Roots of European Integration, Worcester Park: Sovereignty Publications, 2004, p. 4.


[7] Harari, Homo Deus, London: Vintage, 2017, p. 319.

[8] Reynolds, America. Empire of Liberty, London: Penguin, 2010, pp. 525, 526.

[9] The present writer was a member of a group of Surrey University students in Russia at the time. The first they heard of the disaster was not from the Soviet authorities, but from parents phoning up from England. The authorities at first denied the news. (V.M.)

[10] At Rejkjavik, writes Serhii Plokhy, “Reagan and Gorbachev all but agreed – to the horror of their advisers – to liquidate nuclear arms entirely. What stood in the way of the deal was Reagan’s insistence on continuing to develop his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense program. Gorbachev believed that SDI, if ever implemented by the Americans, would put the Soviets at a disadvantage. The summit ended in a deadlock, and the world seemed to be returning to the darkest days of the Cold War. But the dialogue was eventually resumed. Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and a prominent political dissident, helped convince Gorbachev that SDI was little more than a figment of Reagan’s imagination” (The Last Empire, London: Oneworld publications, 2015, p. 13). See also David Reynolds, “US-Soviet arms-control talks collapse in Iceland”, BBC World Histories, April/May, 2017, pp. 66-71. (V.M.)

[11] Judt, op. cit., pp. 596-603.

[12] Kirkus review, 8 March, 1989.


[14] Gorbachev, in Dr. Olga Ackerly, “High Treason in ROCOR: The Rapprochment with Moscow”,, pp. 13, 14.

[15] Yakovlev, Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR (Herald of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR), 1987, 6, p. 6.

[16]Hosking, The Awakening of the Soviet Union, London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1991, p. 120.

[17] Kharchev, Russkaia Mysl’ (Russian Thought), May 20, 1988, 3725. See also Bishop Valentine of Suzdal, “Put’ nechestivykh pogibnet” (The Way of the Impious Will Perish), Suzdal’skij Palomnik (Suzdal Pilgrim), №№ 18-20, 1994, pp. 96-97.

[18] Mendeleev, in I.F. Okhotin, “Velichie i blagodenstvie Rossii v Tsarstvovanie Imperatora Nikolaia II podtverzhdennoe v tsifrakh i faktakh” (The Greatness and Prosperity of Russia in the Reign of Emperor Nicholas II Confirmed in Figures and Facts), Imperskij Vestnik (Imperial Herald), October, 1989, 8, p. 12.

[19] Gleb Anishchenko, "Vrata ada" (The Gates of Hell), Posev (Sowing), 3 (1395), May-June, 1990, p. 135.

[20]  Archbishop Anthony of Los Angeles, "Velikij Knyaz' Vladimir Kirillovich i ego poseschenie SSSR" (Great Prince Vladimir Kirillovich and his Visit to the USSR), Pravoslavnij Vestnik  (Orthodox Herald), №№ 60-61, January-February, 1993. There are sharp differences of opinion on whether Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich was the true heir to the Russian throne. For the argument in favour, see Archpriest Lev Lebedev, “Kogo i chego nam nuzhno berech’sa?” (Who and what must we care for?), Dal’nevostochnij Monarkhicheskij Vestnik (Far-Eastern Monarchist Gazette), 18, 2006, pp. 1-3. And for the argument against, see Mikhail Nazarov, Kto Naslednik Rossijskogo Prestola?  (Who is the Heir of the Russian Throne?), Moscow, 1996.

[21] Moskovskij Tserkovnij Vestnik (Moscow Ecclesiastical Herald), 9 (27), April, 1990, pp. 1, 3.

[22] Oxana Antic, "The Russian Orthodox Church moves towards coming to terms with its past", Report on the USSR, March 8, 1991.

[23]Moscow News, June 3-10, 10-17, 1990.

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