Mikhail Gorbachev, last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, died on August 30 – 31 years after he resigned, ending communism’s inhumane reign over 300 million people, 128 ethnicities, for 74 years. Ronald Reagan appreciated Gorbachev’s draw to spirituality, drew him out, and helped make that happen.
Critics of Reagan and Gorbachev, one, the other or both, will cock their heads or guffaw at that bold statement. They should not. I worked for Reagan and twice saw evidence – in person – of Gorbachev’s inner conflict, resolved on the world stage in favor of humanity, if not Christianity.
For short stretches in 1981, 1982, and 1983, by the kind offices of Harvard Professor Roger Porter, I worked in the Reagan White House, again in the Bush 41 White House, 1991 and 1992. In April 1997, those experiences put me, by chance, at a 1997 conference on these presidencies.
At that time, Gorbachev was six years out of power, Reagan nine years beyond the White House, George H.W. Bush five years out. At the conference were many people, including Porter, Bush, and Gorbachev. In open session, after a brief presentation, Gorbachev took questions.
Before doing so, he offered thoughts on the Malta summit of 1989, where he declared an end to the Cold War. That summit came after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which Reagan had urged Gorbachev to “tear down.”
In 2019, much as in 1997, Gorbachev described what happened. He and Bush had hoped to meet in a civilian setting, but a great storm raged near Malta. Navy vessels looked the only option. Suddenly, the storm ebbed – allowing them to meet in a civilian venue, history made there.
Said Gorbachev: “That was symbolic…It seemed that someone high above – perhaps God – was dictating a peaceful setting for this meeting.” What followed was the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Back in 1997, after Gorbachev offered similar words, I posed a question, a fact forgotten until Roger Porter recently reminded me. I poked my hand up, asked Gorbachev if he believed in God.
The answer, from a former leader of the atheist, communist, unremittingly immoral Soviet Union was stunning, although indirect. Gorbachev explained to those present that his grandmother, with whom he lived young, was a devout Orthodox Christian. His grandfather was an unapologetic communist. As a result, in his childhood home, an icon of Christ stood beside a picture of Lenin.
While Gorbachev became the ultimate Communist, he could not forget his grandmother’s faith, which surely worked an undefined, enigmatic, forever inscrutable influence in his life. Reading letters between Reagan and Gorbachev, hearing them speak, one cannot help thinking Reagan saw in Gorbachev a sliver of light, a chance to enlarge that light, chase out the darkness.
Photos of the two men, taken over eight years, show something else, something very curious. In the early years, they are just two adversaries, statesmen at odds, brows furrowed, lips tight. By the end, as the Soviet Union is coming apart, sound of the falls growing louder, Gorbachev looks at Reagan differently, almost admiringly, as if recognizing in him a cheerful purveyor of truth.
But the final indication for me, was the second meeting, again by chance. When Ronald Reagan died, his body was conveyed to Washington, June 9, 2004. From the 8th floor of the State Department, a friend and I watched his horse-drawn caisson pass along Constitution Avenue, rider-less horse behind him, a missing man formation flown by F-15s above him.
On June 10, his body lay in State at the Capitol, in the rotunda. Invited by a friend on that day, I prepared to enter the rotunda from a small, marble side stairwell, to pay my respects. Suddenly, Capitol police appeared, quietly motioning me back and a little man passed into the rotunda.
He hovered over the casket of the great man who helped bring the Soviet Union to a peaceful end, his unlikely friend, head bowed. After perhaps three minutes, he retreated, no photos, no media, no fanfare, no need to be seen there, gone. The little man, of course, was Gorbachev.
Now, Gorbachev has taken his leave, both men having performed leading roles in the long arc of history, unusually important roles, bound by uncommon understanding of one another, and openness to diplomacy that turned unexpectedly personal, a turn that chased to its death the communist wraith, and may – in the quiet of nights – have turned as much on faith.