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.

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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 ...

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