Last month, Konstantin Chernenko became the third Kremlin leader in as many years to die in office. And for the first time in more than two decades, the successor to power is younger than 60.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, has been described in the Western press as more “pragmatic” and “realistic” than his colleagues in the Kremlin. However, considering the Soviet Union’s political system and its recent history, conditions for Soviet religious believers are not likely to improve under the new general secretary of the Communist party.

There is reason to expect the Soviet government to continue its campaign against religious believers regardless of who leads the country. In principle and in practice, the Soviet regime always has been opposed to active religious faith. Times of “thaw” in the Communists’ war on religion have been infrequent and short-lived. It has been 20 years since the last such temporary relaxation of repression.

Gorbachev, in his first speech as general secretary of the Communist party, offered no hope for the restoration of religious rights under his administration. In fact, he promised to serve “the great Leninist cause” and to adhere strictly to “the strategic line, worked out at the 26th Congress” of the Communist party—a line endorsed by Yuri Andropov and Chernenko, and one adverse to the free practice of religion.

News Analysis

Any notions that Gorbachev might liberalize the restrictions placed on believers were dashed by his call for “a further strengthening of the party and a rise in its organizing and guiding role.”

Most ominous of all, he warned that “resolute measures will be continued further to set things in order, to remove from our life all alien phenomena.” Christianity and Christians are regarded as “alien phenomena” by leaders in the atheistic Soviet state.

Like Chernenko, Gorbachev was born into a Russian peasant family. He joined the Communist party in 1952 at the age of 21, one year before Joseph Stalin died. He worked his way up the ladder with uncommon speed, becoming a full member of the central committee in 1971 and of the Politburo in 1980. At 54 he is the youngest man since Stalin to become general secretary of the Communist party, the position of ultimate authority in the Soviet Union.

In 1977, during the latter part of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, some 150 Christians were known to be in prison in the USSR. Today, that figure is nearly 400. During the 1960s the Soviet Union became the first nation in history to make an official policy of incarcerating and torturing dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. At least 250 men and women, including many Christians, are locked away in such hospitals for the “crime” of disagreeing with the authorities. Noted Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov estimates that there are more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience in his country.

Article continues below

That coercion has been accompanied by an increasing number of arrests, searches, and beatings, and also by more subtle methods of tormenting Christians, such as denying them employment or access to higher education. The repressive trend, quite noticeable in Brezhnev’s senescence, became even more pronounced under his successors, Andropov and Chernenko. Such entrenched policies are not prone to change—least of all to immediate change.

More important, there are no reformers—as Americans think of them—in the Politburo, the handful of top Soviet decision makers. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security adviser, noted when Andropov gained power: “It’s wrong to divide these people into conservatives or liberals, … Stalinists or non-Stalinists. The point is that they’re all tough and brutal.”

Arkady Shevchenko, the only Soviet defector with inside knowledge of the Politburo, says of the apparent differences among the Soviet leaders: “These are merely differences over means. Soviet leaders are all aggressive, all hawks with respect to the final goals of their policy. From Lenin through Chernenko, and whoever may succeed him, they are all cut from the same cloth.”

Gorbachev, too, is cut from that cloth. If he proves to be a reformer, it is likely to be in economic matters, not in the area of human rights. And even economic reform could be potentially dangerous for Soviet Christians.

Serge Schmemann, the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow, issues this warning: “One lesson of Soviet history is that any real change is likely to be accompanied by increased repression. Change has always made Russians and their leaders nervous, and at such times the authorities have invariably become more authoritarian, less tolerant of debate or dissent. It was so under Andropov, and Gorbachev would not be likely to act any differently. Nothing he has said or done suggests any greater degree of tolerance for unorthodox thinking than any of his colleagues.”

Article continues below


Luchs edits NewsWire, a publication of the Slavic Gospel Association that carries news of religious persecution in the Soviet bloc.


The number of unevangelized persons in the world has dropped by 4 percent since 1980, according to Anglican statistician David Barrett. In the international Bulletin of Missionary Research, Barrett writes that the number of unevangelized persons has dropped by 45.3 million (to 1.3 billion), equal to 27.9 percent of the world’s population. Not all who are evangelized, however, become Christians. Barrett reports that in the last five years the portion of the world’s population that is made up of Christians has declined by ½ of 1 percent.

A church leader from the African nation of Swaziland says television evangelists there are doing more harm than good. During a recent trip to the United States, Eunice Sowazi, secretary general of the Council of Swaziland Churches, said television evangelists “are taking advantage of our underdevelopment and our ignorance.” She said guarantees for physical and financial healing have caused many to abandon the work ethic and to mistrust conventional medicine.

Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Egypt’s largest Christian body, is free after nearly four years of internal exile. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has ordered that the Coptic Christian leader be allowed to leave the desert monastery to which he had been banned. Pope Shenouda had been deprived of official recognition by the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who accused him of causing unrest.

Nine persons, including a Catholic bishop, were freed unharmed just three days after being kidnaped in the Philippines. Bishop Federico Escaler was among those taken by an armed band of ten men thought to be a breakaway faction of a Muslim separatist group. For 13 years, Muslim separatists have fought to gain self-rule of the southern region of the Philippines. Authorities said they were puzzled over the motive for the kidnaping, saying they were unaware of any ransom demands.

South Africa’s largest white Dutch Reformed body has suspended its membership in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES), an international alliance of Reformed churches. The Dutch Reformed Church’s suspension of its membership was widely regarded as a reaction to a resolution passed last August by the RES. The alliance declared theological justification of apartheid (the South African doctrine of racial separatism) to be a heresy.

Article continues below

An editorial in the Vatican’s official newspaper has deemed Christianity and Freemasonry “essentially incompatible.” The Vatican has long prohibited Catholics from joining Masonic orders, societies that practice secret rituals. In an unrelated development, the Church of England is investigating Freemasonry.

A leading opponent of South Africa’s policy of racial segregation has been suspended from his church duties. Allan Boesak, a South African clergyman and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, was suspended pending an investigation into his dealings with Dianne Scott, a church worker. Boesak has admitted having had a “relationship” with Scott. Church officials say they are concerned about the possibility of moral misconduct.


Glenn O’Neal, 66, senior professor of practical theology and former dean of the Talbot Theological Seminary and School of Theology in La Mirada, California; February 18, in Anaheim, California, of cancer.

Randolph E. Haugan, 82, for 41 years the general manager of Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis, for 50 years the editor of Christmas, a manual of Christmas literature and art that he founded in 1931; February 18, in Minneapolis, after an extended illness.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.