“Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian,” read the blockbuster headline in the March 19 London Telegraph. I immediately e-mailed the article to Michael Reagan, who, like his father, Ronald Reagan, and like me, has always been deeply intrigued by the possibility of Gorbachev’s faith.

I asked Michael Reagan if he would like to co-author an op-ed piece on this major development. “Good idea,” he said tersely. I had a piece ready a few days later, and e-mailed it to Michael, only to have him respond by sending a new article about how Gorbachev quashed the speculation he stirred up by kneeling in silence for 30 minutes by St. Francis of Assisi’s tomb.

Our article was suddenly as dead as Gorbachev’s faith. What gives? What does Mikhail Gorbachev really believe — and why is the world so interested?

Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of the Soviet Union, insisted that “there can be nothing more abominable than religion.” He compared Christianity to venereal disease, bragged about the moment as a teen when he “took off [his] cross and threw it in the rubbish bin,” and crassly declared that “all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia.” Speaking before the Party Congress in 1920, Lenin made clear the beliefs of the leaders of the Bolshevik state: “We … do not believe in God.”

Lenin’s successors eagerly preserved that hateful tradition. As Mikhail Gorbachev would later put it, “Atheism took rather savage forms in our country.” Gorbachev’s predecessors pursued what he correctly characterized as a “war on religion.” Stalin sent many Christians to gulags and blew up churches.

It was an accepted fact that the leader of the USSR would be an atheist — had to be an atheist. If, at the height of the Cold War, it had been revealed that the Soviet leader was a Christian — well, let’s just say the news would have been of biblical proportions.

Ronald Reagan, however, suspected precisely that of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. The possibility deeply intrigued Reagan, and he struggled to keep it private, in his excitement.

On a number of occasions when the two leaders met at summits, Gorbachev stunned Reagan by invoking God's name, typically in expressions like “only God knows” or “God help us.” The President was struck by this at the first summit they held together in Geneva in November 1985. In their very first plenary meeting, Gorbachev chimed in, “We have never been at war with each other. Let us pray God that this never happens.” He dropped the G-word in a casual reference during his and Reagan’s fireside chat at Geneva and that evening used a biblical quotation in an impromptu toast at a state dinner.

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In a telling incident, the late Mike Deaver, who had known Reagan since the 1960s, spoke of how the President excitedly called him after his return from Geneva. Deaver perceived a “festive,” “infectious” tone from Reagan, who asked him to come to the White House. Arriving within an hour, Deaver asked the President what he had learned about the Soviet leader. One might guess Reagan would mention something about Gorbachev’s demeanor, charm, or a policy issue. But Reagan responded with two simple, whispered words: “He believes.” A befuddled Deaver, knowing what Reagan meant and knowing that atheists ran the USSR, followed: “Are you saying the general secretary of the Soviet Union believes in God?” Reagan responded: “I don’t know, Mike, but I honestly think he believes in a higher power.”

That was the paramount issue on Ronald Reagan’s mind concerning his historic meeting with the Soviet leader. The idea affected him so much that he even discussed it by letter and phone with former President Richard Nixon.

Reagan and Gorbachev would talk about religion at other summits, going deeper than using colloquial phrases. Gorbachev informed Reagan that while his wife, Raisa, was an atheist and even taught a course on atheism, he had the Bible read to him as a child by his Christian grandmother — though he refused to openly commit as to the precise effect. Reagan, however, was convinced, according to Press Secretary Larry Speakes, that “the childhood exposure … had an influence.”

All of this suggested to Reagan that the leader of the Evil Empire might be a “closet Christian.” He prayed for Gorbachev.

Still, Gorbachev kept his beliefs to himself, even after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — made official by Gorbachev’s resignation on Christmas Day. Gorbachev’s memoirs gave no indication of his being a Christian, nor did his other writings—in clear contrast to Reagan's memoirs, which are rich with a sense of the guiding hand of Providence.

But, Gorbachev’s books made it evident that he had a guiding spirituality, but not much more than that. In On My Country and the World, Gorbachev referred to homo sapiens as “God’s highest creation.” Yet overall the book is extremely humanistic. Immediately after the homo sapiens remark, Gorbachev wrote, “A return to age-old, spiritual, moral, life-affirming values, to a humanist and genuinely optimistic worldview is one of the decisive tasks of our era.” In this work, he makes statements suggesting he believes in God, but infused his views with a lot of New Age-isms and enviro-speak.

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The “green” element is especially notable. In an April 2001 interview with Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Gorbachev said, “We need a new … environmentalization of consciousness.” Such, he said, was “precisely the main task” of his aptly named Green Cross International, his odd environmental adaptation of the Red Cross.

I have always wanted to grill Gorbachev on these questions, but getting an interview with him is not only nearly impossible but, from what I have been told, extremely expensive. The former Marxist, who (inexplicably) still speaks glowingly of Vladimir Lenin, charges big bucks for an interview. I did not have enough cash to pay to play.

Michael Reagan did get this opportunity, and questioned Gorbachev about these matters. Gorbachev, relays Reagan, said only that he was not a “doubter or atheist.” When Michael told him that Ronald Reagan, before summit meetings, turned to God for guidance, and then asked, “Who did you turn to?” Gorbachev opened the window a crack, replying: “I don’t know who I turned to, but I had a grandmother [who] was a Christian and my grandmother used to go to church everyday and would come to the Kremlin and visit me and say, ‘Mikhail I prayed for the atheists today. I prayed for you.’”

I figured that Mikhail Gorbachev would take this mystery to the grave. Then came Telegraph’s blockbuster headline.

The Telegraph reported that Gorbachev, for the first time, acknowledged having a Christian faith during a surprise mid-March visit to pray at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, where, accompanied by his daughter, Irina, the former leader of the USSR spent half an hour on his knees in silent prayer, unrecognized by other worshipers. Gorbachev expressed his fondness for Francis, the 12th-century figure canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. “It was through Francis that I arrived at the Church,” explained Gorbachev, “so it was important that I came to visit the tomb.”

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I found the Francis connection ironic and quite moving: Bill Clark, the closest aide and spiritual intimate of Ronald Reagan, built a chapel in California that includes a ceramic tile plaque at the entrance inscribed with the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” — a prayer that Clark and Ronald Reagan prayed together more than once: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace … . Where there is doubt, [let me sow] faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light.”

Reagan and Clark recited that prayer for those who ran the Soviet Union. Peace prevailed on both sides, perhaps through several instruments. Think about the implications of a Gorbachev conversion — for both the faithful and for historians: major Cold War figures like Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II felt a divine calling in that epic struggle, seeking to do God’s will in their grand attempts to defuse and end the Cold War. My sense is that Reagan and Pope John Paul II may have also suspected (or at least hoped) that Gorbachev was part of what Reagan and Bill Clark privately called the “DP” — the “Divine Plan.” For the faithful, the idea that God may have been working not only through the leader of the United States and the Catholic Church but also the USSR is a bracing, inspiring thought. For the historian, even the secular one, it would be a notable development in the Cold War narrative, a significant motivation for the figures involved, one not to be casually brushed aside.

So, if Mikhail Gorbachev were revealed to be a Christian, another dot would be connected in the fascinating story of the close of the Cold War — a profound, truly timeless one.

But the Telegraph’s near-revelation didn’t amount to much. It took the former leader of the Evil Empire little time to deny Christ. The Russian news agency Interfax reported two days later that Gorbachev had dispelled the speculation that he had converted. “Over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies — I can’t use any other word — about my secret Catholicism, citing my visit to the Sacro Convento friary, where the remains of St. Francis of Assisi lie,” said Gorbachev. “To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist.”

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Gorbachev’s clarification caused me to reproach myself for having not been incredulous. I had placed too much personal faith in the headline and the deduction of the Telegraph. Hope springs eternal.

There were clues that it was a false hope: I had indeed noticed the lack of an outright admission in the Telegraph piece. Quite the contrary, the Telegraph carried some confusing statements from Gorbachev, including some explicitly un-Christian ones, such as, “St. Francis is, for me, the alter Christus, the other Christ.” Well, there is no other Christ.

Hope and charity, I suppose, allowed me to give Gorbachev a pass on that one. After all, he had been raised in Soviet schools, which included false instruction on the Christian faith as a standard part of the curriculum. A 70-plus-year assault on religion was bound to generate some backward theology in Soviet citizens; Gorbachev would understandably need some work on doctrine.

Another clue from the Telegraph piece: “I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity,” remarked Gorbachev. I wasn’t sure how to read that one either. “All humanity,” after all, includes non-believers.

I suspect that Gorbachev was attracted to Francis because of their mutual connection to nature and the environment. That seems to be the draw — one oddly capable of dropping the man to his knees in prayerful silence for 30 minutes. Francis himself would have been perplexed.

For now, Mikhail Gorbachev appears, still, to be seeking and preaching a kind of green humanism. A pessimist would call him deeply confused; an optimist would say he is still on a journey. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church sides with the latter, saying, “In Italy he spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith. He is still on his way to Christianity.” I will hope — and pray — that he gets there.

Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.

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Christianity Today reviewed God and Ronald Reagan and interviewed Kengor about Reagan's faith. Books & Culture also reviewed the book.