The pragmatic leader’s social reforms could have little effect on official policy toward religion.

Author Brian O’Connell coordinates the Peace, Freedom, and Security Studies Program at the National Association of Evangelicals’ Office of Public Affairs. Last fall he visited pastors and lay people in the Soviet Union.

In religion, as in other aspects of life, the Soviet Union is a land of contrasts. Soviet officials point to guarantees of religious freedom in their constitution, but they forbid teaching children about God. The red flags of the Communist party hang outside ornate cathedrals that have been closed by the government.

A new generation of Soviet leaders presents still another contrast. Mikhail Gorbachev, completing his first year as general secretary of the Communist party, possesses qualities never seen in a Soviet leader. The air of uncertainty and paralysis that surrounded Kremlin social policies during the final years of Leonid Brezhnev—and the abbreviated terms of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko—is gone.

Gorbachev, 54, is mastering the art of Western-style politicking. Gone are the brusqueness, lack of sophistication, and absence of poise that characterized other Soviet leaders. Robert Kaiser, a former Washington Post Soviet Union correspondent, calls Gorbachev “a new Soviet man.”

The Soviet leader began consolidating his power by appointing many of his proteges to key governmental and party positions, giving him more direct control over foreign affairs and domestic policy. For example, Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister since 1957, was replaced by the unknown but loyal Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Soviet economy, burdened by shortages of consumer goods, poor or nonexistent telephone service, and a scarcity of ...

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