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Mikhail Gorbachev as a Christian

20 March 2008
Several newspapers have reported that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, is a Christian.What is surprising, however, is not so much the reports themselves as the source: the reports have come from Italy.It will be interesting to see if there are any follow-ups in the media, saying something about how Gorbachev practises his Christian faith back home in Russia. Does he have a parish and a parish priest? Where are they, and what do they have to say?
clipped from

Franciscan friars at Assisi have confirmed that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last
Soviet President, is a Christian after he was seen praying at the tomb of St
Francis.Mr Gorbachev has long acknowledged that he was influenced by his grandmother,
an Orthodox believer and is a a regular participant in peace conferences in
the Umbrian town where St Francis is buried. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB
officer, has also turned to Orthodox Christianity and wears a cross round
his neck.
Mr Gorbachev’s parents reportedly
kept Orthodox icons hidden behind pictures of Stalin and Lenin, as did the
parents of his late wife, Raisa, who were reportedly executed for the
  blog it

According to the reports, Gorbachev’s parents, and his wife’s parents, were Orthodox Christians, but the recent reports imply that Mikhail Gorbachev himself is a Roman Catholic. It would be interesting to know whether he actually is.

Francis of Assisi is not an Orthodox saint. He was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church after its schism from Orthodoxy in the 11th century.

Orthodox Christians hold differing views about him. Some admire him, or at least admire certain aspects of his life and work. Others point to other aspects, such as his stigmatistion, and say that no true saint could be stigmatised: such things are a manifestation of prelest (spiritual delusion).

Francis of Assisi was the first Roman Catholic saint to be stigmatised, and his stigmata were commemorated by the Franciscan Order on 17 September, but not by the RC Church as a whole. The attitude of the Roman Catholic Church to stigmatisation has been cautious, though it has not been as opposed to it as the Orthodox Church. Such things did not appear until the 13th century (well after the Great Schism), and then only in the West. It was perhaps a reflection of the increasing emphasis in the West on the sufferings and death of Christ, rather than on the incarnation or resurrection, that people began to be stigmatised, manifesting in their bodies some kind of replication of the wounds of Christ in hands and feet, and sometimes the side.

At best, Orthodox Christians have a qualified admiration for Francis of Assissi, admiring his devotion to evangelical poverty and service to the poor, and his preaching of the gospel, and don’t pay much attention to such things as his stigmatisation.

The reports in the Western media about Mikhail Gorbachev being a Christian, with their stress on his devotion to Francis of Assisi, will therefore send mixed signals to Orthodox readers, and some may be tempted to “join the dots”? and fill in the gaps of the reports themselves, and jump to perhaps unwarranted conclusions.

In Russia, immediately after the fall of Bolshevism, the Church was the most trusted institution in society. People did not trust politicians, the army, business, and other institutions, and many felt betrayed by them. One result of this was that politicians were always looking for photo-ops with church leaders in the hope that some of the magic pixie dust of public approval would brush off onto them. This does not mean that every politician who professed to be a Christian was insincere, but there was a very clear ulterior motive.

This does not apply to Gorbachev, who retired from politics after the dissolution of the USSR, and no longer had a political axe to grind. But what he does and what happens to him can provide a grindstone for other people with axes to grind. The relationships between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Vatican (journalists, please note, it is Patriarchate, not Patriarchy) are rather sensitive, and most of the reports so far could signal an attitude of Vatican one-upmanship, even if the journalists who wrote them did not intend to do so.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 March 2008 8:12 pm

    I’d like to think he’s a Christian but this seems another example of subpar religion reporting (the kind that slates).

    Given his heritage especially his family’s history I’d think he’d be Orthodox like Putin.

    He may well be and still visit St Francis’ shrine.

    Of course I’m in no position to tell you what Orthodoxy teaches but my understanding is the only limit to recognition of the other side’s post-schism saints is they’re not commemorated liturgically, that is, in church. Entirely fair and in a way humble – the bishops don’t claim the authority to rule either way on phenomena outside their church.

    Private devotion, however, is free: at home you can venerate anybody from post-schism Western Catholic saints to your deceased non-Orthodox relatives.

    The OCA has a monastery and convent in New York state, New Skete (I don’t remember the convent’s name), that began as Franciscan (rather complicated that: they were RCs who’d become Greek Catholic Franciscans – there are such – but left to do this experiment in monasticism so they were under the local RC bishop not the Greek Catholic one until they became Orthodox 25 years ago). They support themselves by and are famous for breeding Alsatian dogs and writing books on dog training. Anyway my point is they still venerate SS. Francis and Clare (the nuns are former Poor Clares). They’re stavropegial so I assume they do this with the metropolitan’s blessing.

    Of course there are no organised Orthodox pilgrimages to Lourdes for example but I understand Russians go there.

    So it could be with Mr Gorbachev and Il Poverello.

    AFAIK it’s true the stigmata – being a living icon of Christ? – are uniquely mediæval and modern Western.

    I see it as like when the elements at Communion turn to flesh and blood, which happens in both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches. The rubrics of the Russian Church tell the priest what to do if it happens! (Answer: start the Liturgy over with bread and wine.)

    • 22 April 2009 1:18 am

      I’m a huge fan of Mikhails!!! He is what inspires me at life and to do my best!!! I thank Mr. Gorbachev!!!!

  2. 20 March 2008 11:40 pm


    Trouble is, I’m seeing more and more of these “don’t get”/”out to get” religion pieces. If it’s not the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sharia, its “recycle or go to hell”, and now this.

  3. 21 March 2008 5:03 pm

    And the rubbish from the Times claiming the Pope was going to ‘rehabilitate’ Luther – ‘oops, we were wrong all along; he wasn’t a heretic’ (what you’re supposed to think: ‘stupid church – can’t trust them on anything’).

    The truth: he’s having an academic conference on the man, sympathetic Catholic views on him are nothing new, the Pope can’t change his church’s teaching on Luther’s errors – he’s only the Pope – and the church on earth has no authority over the dead so Luther’s excommunication no longer means anything anyway.

    (BTW excommunication is not a ticket to hell.)

    But that doesn’t sell.

  4. 22 March 2008 12:54 pm

    There is apparently a document in which Gorbachev confirms that he is an atheist, but speaks highly of religion.

    The existence of the document can be ascertained by searching, but the document itself cannot be seen.

  5. asimplesinner permalink
    22 March 2008 3:58 pm

    I am at a loss to understand exactly what weight we are to give this document in light of the fact that – at least by reports – Mr. Gorbachev went to the tomb of a saint to pray.

    Actions speak somewhat louder.

  6. 23 March 2008 5:34 am


    I tried to respond to your comments on A conservative blog for peace, and got the message:

    An internal server error occurred. Please try again later.

    so I’m responding here.

    I’m not clear about what you were saying over there, or what you thought I was saying here.

    But one thing I am clear about is that the media reports of Gorbachev’s visit to Assisi have raised questions in the minds of Christians that have not been answered.

    Some of these questions are:

    1) Is Gorbachev a Christian, and if so how long has he been one?

    2) If he is a Christian, is he Orthodox, RC, or something else?

    The only answer I have found is the bald statement that he is still an atheist, but respects religion.

  7. 23 March 2008 3:48 pm

    Comment from lesolub on my other blog:

    If you can read russian, here is his latest interview (march 21, 08), where he gave answers to some questions concerning his statements in
    Assisi: He claimed, that he didn’t pray in Assisi, “it’s just fantasy of the media”, he went there as a tourist, he is not a “secret” catholic and that he is still an atheist and for those, who’s imagination went wild, he can give traditional russian advise – “when you start imagining things cross yourself”.

  8. Greg permalink
    24 April 2008 10:13 pm

    I am doing family tree research and recently found a branch of my Russian Jewish family that migrated to South Africa. One of the relatives by marriage has the maiden name Gorbachev. Maybe there are some Jewish routes there as well!

  9. 16 September 2013 8:37 pm

    He’s a human being and that’s good enough!

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