The last leader of the Soviet Union was rumored to be Christian, especially after a visit to St. Francis of Assisi's tomb.
Even before the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, questions swirled about just how much of an unbeliever was its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Soviet leaders were supposed to be atheists ruling over a godless society, but Gorbachev used perestroika to loosen restrictions on religious worship. A year before the Communist state's dissolution, Gorbachev told a party congress: "Spiritual rebirth is as essential to society as oxygen."
Gorbachev's visit to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy this month has rekindled those questions about Gorbachev's faith. Was he denouncing atheism and affirming his faith in God? Was he a closet believer even during Soviet times?
Several European media outlets were quick to size up Gorbachev's half-hour of silence at St. Francis' tomb as proof that the 77-year-old former leader of an atheistic superpower was, in fact, a Christian.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa called his visit a "spiritual perestroika." A story in the London Daily Telegraph's March 19 edition concluded that Gorbachev "has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time."
Since then, speculation has been building about the significance of the visit to the Sacro Convento friary and his religious beliefs. So Gorbachev recently decided to set the record straight.
"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," Gorbachev told the Russian news agency Interfax. "To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist."
Gorbachev, who was baptized Russian Orthodox, said his visit to the tomb was as a tourist, not a pilgrim. He acknowledged the vital role that religion plays in society and said he has eagerly visited Orthodox churches in Russia, Catholic and Protestant churches in the U.S. and Europe, synagogues in Israel and mosques in the Arab world.
"But all these years, it has never occurred to anyone to list me among followers of any faith on that basis," Gorbachev said.
His comments to the Russian press contrasted sharply with what he reportedly said during his visit to St. Francis' tomb. Calling St. Francis "the other Christ," Gorbachev was quoted by the London Daily Telegraph as saying the saint's "story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life."
In Russia, where Gorbachev remains an unsympathetic figure blamed for the demise of Soviet might, his visit to the friary went virtually ignored by the media.
The Russian Orthodox Church seemed just as unimpressed.
"In Italy, he spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith," a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexei II, told the Russian media.
"He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him."