Gorbachev’s funeral and the unfinished Russia

The opening to religious freedom was not part of the initial program of reforms. The events after the Chernobyl disaster forced the secretary-president to change his attitude, added to the harmony that he established with John Paul II. But the Russians reproach him for the end of the USSR as a renunciation of his role as a world power.

The funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union who disappeared in 1991, the year that also marked the political death of its leader, will be held today in Moscow. In the last 31 years Gorbachev has not existed in Russia: his foundation, very active in the field of charity, had no political or cultural influence, neither during the troubled decade of Yeltsin nor during the increasingly resounding twenty years of Putin. .

Putin himself went to pay his respects to the body, laid flowers and rushed to Kaliningrad and other cities to preside over the final stages of the “Talks about Important Things” youth competitions, propaganda events aimed at explaining the reasons for the operation. special military in Ukraine and to reinterpret all of Russian history in a heroic key. The burial will take place with “some elements of an official funeral,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained, such as an honor guard and the presence of high-ranking state officials. The president, who recognized Gorbachev’s “great role in universal history,” will not attend, more to honor Russia and its power than to praise the figure of the failed reformer.

Gorbachev was not spared praise outside his homeland, with passionate recollections from Macron, Scholz, Biden, Johnson, Walesa, Guterres, Draghi, von der Leyden and many others. The second Soviet leader – along with Khruščev – who completed his term in his lifetime was undoubtedly much more popular abroad than in Russia. The reasons are well known: on the ideological level, the Russians reproach him for the end of the USSR as a renunciation of the role of world power, as well as the excessive indulgence of interested favors from Westerners, of whom he is considered the main “foreign agent” in history (the term that is in vogue today to designate traitors).

The population, more sensitive to the material aspects of social life, remembers with chills that damned five-year period between 1986 and 1991, when economic planning was suspended without being able to establish any other system, about which there was no concrete conception in the declaimed perestroika. In fact, that turning point led to an unprecedented crisis: the huge supermarkets, where there were few but certain products in Brezhnev’s twenties, were tragically empty, and to buy meat and vegetables one had to resort to the Caucasian markets with prices astronomical ones or to the stores for foreigners those who were lucky enough to have talony, special purchase vouchers reserved for a few. And what infuriates most Russians most is the memory of the 1987 “dry law” (sukhoj zakon) that limited the production of alcoholic beverages. In Gorbachev’s day, people drank perfumes and concoctions, including brake fluid, or queued for a whole day to get a bottle of vodka.

The official condemnation of Gorbachevism was pronounced by Putin in the 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 with the reconquest of former Soviet lands, starting with the Ukraine. The “collapse” is blamed on the ineptitude of the then president, although in reality he was sanctioned on December 8, 1991 by the Belovežka agreement between Yeltsyn, Kravčuk and Shushkevic, the presidents of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which they became independent states without any involvement from Gorbachev, already sidelined after the August coup.

However Gorbachev had also tried to prevent the disintegration of the empire, with tragic results such as the “night of the shovels” in Tbilisi in 1989, a bloody repression of peaceful anti-Soviet demonstrations, the “black January” of 1990 in Baku and, above all, all, the military takeover of the Vilnius television channel in 1991 that triggered the uprising in Lithuania, the first state to break away from the USSR. These events only managed to increase the hatred and rejection of a figure that everyone already considered unfortunate, marked indelibly since 1986 by the explosion of the Chernobyl plant that forced perestroika to be replaced by glasnost, freedom of information, opening the ‘USSR to that “invasion of the West” that today both Putin and Patriarch Kirill despise.

The patriarch is an emblematic character of the succession of stages in the transition between the USSR and neo-imperial Russia. As a young Brezhnevian bishop, Kirill defended Soviet policy tooth and nail in all international ecumenical assemblies, but he was one of the first leaders of the Orthodox Church to support the reforms after Gorbachev’s election in 1985, participating actively in 1988 in the great celebrations of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ that marked the beginning of the “religious revival” after seventy years of state atheism. In 1990 he managed to impose the election as patriarch of Aleksij (Ridiger), the metropolitan of Leningrad whom he could control, avoiding with the help of Soviet officials the victory of the candidate from kyiv, Filaret (Denisenko) -who is now 95 years old-, inspiring the Ukrainian uprising against Russia and against Kirill himself, whom Filaret had ordained a bishop in 1976. During the Yeltsyn years, as a foreign metropolitan of the patriarchate, Kirill earned a reputation as an “ecclesiastical oligarch” to later become the main ideologue of the Putinian restoration of the State Church of Great Russia. It is precisely in the religious field where the contradictions of Gorbachevism are most evident, which finally led to the new “symphony of powers”.

In reality, an opening to religious freedom was not part of Gorbachev’s initial reform program. The new general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, elected in March 1985, and his team belonged to the generation of the sixties. They were people whose formation had been decisively influenced by the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956) and the anti-religious campaign of 1958-1964. Like most of them, Gorbachev was “deaf” to religious questions. The fact that the “drivers of perestroika”, as Gorbachev’s collaborators were called, did not intend to change anything in relations with the Church is confirmed by several recently published documents. As the former collaborator in charge of the propaganda sector of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, Valerij Alekseev, wrote, “Gorbachev and Likhačev arranged for the drafting and approval for the years 1985-1990 of a package of secret decisions regarding the need to strengthen the struggle against the activation of religious sectarianism, the reactionary influence of the Islamic clergy, the limitation of the influence of Catholicism in the population, the measures to counteract the Orthodox influence, etc.” Fidelity to Marxist dogmas on religion is reflected in the writing of the new Program of the CPSU, approved in 1986 at the XXVII Party Congress.

Even the Rus’ Millennium celebrations, scheduled since 1983, were to be held only inside churches, with the indication “not to draw attention to this particular event”. External events after Chernobyl forced the secretary-president to change his attitude, especially after the first contacts with Reagan and other Western leaders who praised the novelty of an elegant and talkative Soviet secretary, who traveled the world with his charming wife Raissa and perhaps he was also willing to grant openings to freedom of expression and religious profession. Then Gorbachev discovered the world of spirituality and struck a chord with the world’s most successful leader, Pope John Paul II, who terrified Soviet bureaucrats with his “new evangelization” messages. The new president of the reformed USSR met the Pope in Rome on December 1, 1989, inaugurating diplomatic relations with the Holy See and agreeing with the vision of a Christian Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals.”

Gorbachev’s religious turn not only panicked state officials but also the hierarchs of the Ordotox Church, who did not know how to govern a religious revival totally outside Russian confessional traditions. The harmony between Gorbachev and John Paul II is perhaps the most serious sin that the Russians impute to the leader, who today will be buried in the Novodevichi monastery along with many other historical figures of Russian politics and culture such as the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who he wanted the union of the Orthodox with the Catholics to build together a universal Church. Today, instead, Kirill and Putin defend the ideal of a Holy Russia that extends “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, an imperial and mystical dream destined to be unfulfilled, like all the great images of ancient and modern Russia, including the one that only Mikhail Gorbachev dreamed.

Gorbachev’s funeral and the unfinished Russia