Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev told the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church at a Kremlin meeting Friday that the Soviet Union had made tragic mistakes in its past treatment of the church and pledged that the state would no longer interfere in the rights of believers to practice their religion.
"Mistakes made with regard to the church and believers in the 1930s and the years that followed are being rectified," Gorbachev told Patriarch Pimen and other members of the church hierarchy, according to the official news agency Tass.Gorbachev also told the churchmen that "a new law on the freedom of conscience, now being drafted, will reflect the interests of religious organizations." He did not specify what the law will encompass, but believers of all faiths here have long hoped that the officially atheistic state would reform its strict laws against religious education outside the family, the collecting of funds for charity and other long banned church functions.
Gorbachev made clear that differences in world view between the church and the Soviet state still exist, but, he said, "the believers are Soviet people, workers, patriots, and they have the full right to express their conviction with dignity. `Perestroika' (Gorbachev's program of restructuring society), democratization concern them as well in full measure and without restriction."
Gorbachev has often condemned the notorious political purges and other episodes of misrule during the regime of Joseph Stalin, but this is the first time he has spoken directly of religious persecution during that era.
The Soviet leader said that after the death of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, the government stopped permitting the church to operate without interference and that "not everything was easy and simple in the sphere of state-church relations." Now, he said, the Soviet Union intends "restoring in full measure the Leninist principles of attitude to religion, church and believers."
Both Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev sent many believers to prison and labor camps and closed thousands of churches, monasteries, mosques and synagogues, a practice the current Soviet leadership has begun to redress in some measure with the recent return to the Orthodox church of some confiscated buildings and property.
Gorbachev, who credited religious believers with contributing to the Bolshevik Revolution and the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, is not known to be a religious believer himself, but biographers have written that he was baptized as a child and that his mother still attends regular church services.
Stalin, on the other hand, was an Orthodox seminarian in his native Georgia, but the violence he later directed against the church is well documented.