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Gorbachev Remembers Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II greets Gorbachev in November 2000 RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina speaks with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev about the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

RFE/RL: There was one Soviet leader who met with Pope John Paul II, who sought out and received an audience -- Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union. The audience took place in 1989. Mikhail Sergeevich, you were the first Soviet leader to meet with Pope John Paul II. Why did you decide at that time to request an audience?

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union: Well, I think the situation was like this. Much had happened that had not taken place in the preceding decades. I think that this is connected with the fact that by 1989 we had already made a lot of progress ourselves and, incidentally, the perestroika-era leadership had already given its support to plans for the commemoration of the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Russia [in 1988], which was attended by a large Vatican delegation headed by Cardinal Casaroli. In general, things were happening within the country that had an effect on external matters, including our relations with the Vatican. At that time, Cardinal Casaroli brought a long letter from the pope, which can be considered the beginnings of my audience. Moreover, you already know that it was an initiative of our leadership at that time to work out the law on freedom of religion. I invited the leaders of all the faiths to sit down with the Politburo, and we had in the Soviet Union, essentially, all the world's religions. All this is just to outline the context that we were living in at that time.

So it happened that during an ordinary visit to Italy, this audience was included in the program. It went off, I would say, very interestingly, in a beautiful atmosphere, with respect and considerable interest. Initially, in order to show to what an extent the Holy Father was a Slav and how he respected the new Soviet Union, he proposed that we spend the first 10 minutes alone together and he spoke in Russian. "I have expanded my knowledge for the occasion," he said. And there was a simple conversation like that. And later we had very substantive discussion.

RFE/RL: Mikhail Sergeevich, you said that the pope sent you a long letter. What did it say?

Gorbachev: Essentially -- I can only speak in general terms, since one would need to go through the archive. There was a meeting with Cardinal Casaroli and he conveyed to me the warmest greetings of the pope and conveyed to me the pope's sympathies for our reforms, for the democratic transformations that were going on in our country. By the way, when I met with the pope, he repeated all this himself and said: "I criticized communism but, I want you to know, that I also criticized all the vices of capitalism. It is necessary to reach a freedom, a democracy, a society that respects human beings as the supreme value. It is necessary to give people the ability to choose, including the ability to choose their religion." And in this regard, we had taken some steps, which he supported. And he supported them in his letter. Later in the conversation the subject of Europe came up, that it was very important that under the influence of perestroika there were changes in the positions of the Soviet leadership and that these changes were very positive for Central and Eastern Europe, which was very important. And then I heard a phrase that was later quite often heard. He said that "in the future, Europe will be able to breathe with both lungs," meaning that when such changes were happening in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, then there is the possibility of rapprochement, of overcoming schisms, which is very important for our continent.
"I think that there has never been such an outstanding defender of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden in various cases and in various situations, either historically speaking or in terms of ongoing conflicts."

Generally speaking, you know, this was the sense of the situation: the approval of our perestroika reforms and an explanation of his views on communism and on capitalism. By the way, fairly recently he suddenly said that he is concerned that, having been given the chance to rebuild their countries, their governments, many countries of Central Europe have again run up against materialism, but a different sort -- market-oriented. And the spiritual essence was being put on the back burner and continues to languish there.

RFE/RL: Mikhail Sergeevich, let's go a little bit deeper into history. When Pope John Paul II supported Solidarnost and in fact began to undermine the position in Poland of [Polish Communist Party leader General Wojciech] Jaruzelski, how did the Soviet leadership react to the Catholic Church and to the pope himself?

Gorbachev: Now we will say that the pope was simply an extraordinary man. And one of the most extraordinary qualities of the pope was that he was a devoted servant of the Church of Christ. And, finally, as the head of state of the Vatican, he did a lot, using his opportunities along these lines, he did a lot to prepare for the end of the Cold War, for the coming together of peoples. He did a lot to remove people from the danger of a nuclear conflict. He was a man who used his high position -- I'll speak bluntly -- in the best possible way. He was [a man] who did not put political calculation at the center, but who made his judgments about the world, about situations, about nature, about the environment, based on the right to life, to a worthy life for people and on the responsibility of those people for what is gong on in the world. I think that there has never been such an outstanding defender of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden in various cases and in various situations, either historically speaking or in terms of ongoing conflicts. He was a humanist. Really. A Humanist with a capital H, maybe the first humanist in world history.

I had the opportunity to communicate with him after 1989; in fact our contacts continued practically right up to the very end. Quite recently there was a short exchange of messages about several topics. Last summer I wrote a letter to him and to [U.S. President] George Bush saying that what is happening in Iraq after the declared end of the war there could turn into a general religious conflict. After all, one side is an Islamic people and the other side is a coalition of mainly Christian countries. And this is very bad, very dangerous, and it might not only destabilize the situation in the region -- it might create a reaction around the world and that this needs to be taken into consideration. The pope, by the way, responded to this and I was told that the next time President Bush met with him, he very firmly and decisively demanded the immediate withdrawal of forces from Iraq and that the Iraqis be allowed to arrange their own affairs.

Of course, he wanted, speaking honestly, to move forward during his lifetime along the path of mutual understanding and better cooperation and dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, but this was not to be. I think that he worried about this for nothing. Such a thing cannot happen quickly. The problems have been 700 years in the making -- can it be possible in the space of weeks, months, or even years to resolve them all? No. Moreover, the Orthodox Church finds itself in a difficult situation, emerging from an era of persecution, pressure, destruction, which is what the Soviet era was. It was being reborn and experienced a lot of difficulties, problems. But by their standards, nothing terrible happened. For 700 years, they quarreled and they are still quarreling. In 100 years, everything will be worked out.

(Interview conducted on 3 April)