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Christian History Home > By Topic > Social Issues & Politics > Ronald Reagan's Mission Trip to Moscow

Ronald Reagan's Mission Trip to Moscow
At the close of the Cold War, the American president embarked on a personal crusade to promote religious liberty in the U.S.S.R.
Paul Kengor | posted 10/16/2008 10:01AM

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Ronald Reagan's Mission Trip to Moscow

If you did a poll asking when the Cold War ended, you would get a variety of answers. It is difficult to agree on a decisive moment, but a good candidate for Christians might be the events of summer 1988, and specifically the Moscow Summit—maybe the most unappreciated of the summits between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The Moscow Summit revealed that the Cold War was in its final days. It was also an unheralded milestone for believers of all stripes.

This was the summit during which Ronald Reagan put his arm around Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square—quite a change from five years earlier when he declared the U.S.S.R. an "Evil Empire." But the forgotten story of the Moscow Summit and the history of the Cold War is Reagan's actions on behalf of human rights, and particularly religious freedom. There were two components to this story: One was Reagan's striking religious statements at the summit, which got virtually no attention from the American secular media; the other was Gorbachev's remarkable changes concerning religious liberty.

God bless the U.S.S.R.

It began on May 29, 1988. After disembarking the plane, Ronald and Nancy Reagan shuffled to the Kremlin's majestic St. George's Hall. As they strode in from one end, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev entered from the other. They exchanged pleasantries and then offered official statements.

Appropriately, it was Sunday. Reagan's self-ascribed role of religious emissary started in that initial ceremony. As he finished his conventional opening remarks, he stunned those gathered by pausing to deliver this direct salutation to the general secretary and his comrades: "Thank you and God bless you."

While such a closing is hardly unusual to American ears, it was unheard of in the Soviet Union, an officially atheist country where religious content was prohibited from television and radio—facts Reagan knew well. As Reagan's words were translated for all Russians to hear, the hardened Kremlin atheists visibly blanched. Gorbachev's translator, Igor Korchilov, braced himself and recorded that these words rang like blasphemy to the Soviet officials: "The heretofore impregnable edifice of Communist atheism was being assaulted before their very eyes."

Reagan and Gorbachev held their first one-on-one that day; it lasted an hour and 11 minutes. The off-camera conversation went back and forth, with Gorbachev going first. When it was Reagan's turn, he immediately spoke on religion in Russia, defending the rights of Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Ukrainian Catholics and insisting that all had a right to attend their chosen place of worship. If Gorbachev improved religious liberty, Reagan told him, he would greatly enhance his image worldwide and be viewed as a "hero."

Gorbachev responded by claiming there was no serious problem with religion in Russia, though he acknowledged earlier "excesses." Reagan was not convinced, and a debate ensued. The discussion of religious faith went on for so long that it comprised a quarter of the official notes (recently declassified) by the American note-taker. It was illustrative of the direction the summit would follow.

Restored worship

One of the most memorable moments came the next day, when Reagan met religious leaders at the restored Danilov Monastery, an oasis of Orthodox Christianity in a spiritual desert. It had been founded in 1282 and recently restored, a glorious possibility under Gorbachev that did not exist under his predecessors.

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