The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan by James Mann, says Reagan began a conversation at the summit by asking Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, to ensure that religious freedom became “part of the people’s rights” in the Soviet Union.
Reagan then talked about belief in God, and told the Soviet leader about a letter he had seen from the widow of a young Russian soldier killed in the Second World War, who, though brought up an atheist, had prayed that “God would accept him” as he faced death in a shell hole.
Mann’s account of the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting draws on notes taken by two presidential aides during the informal talks, and which the Reagan Library in California recently declassified.
The notes say the then 57-year-old Gorbachev avoided the question of religious tolerance, and insisted that religion was not a “serious problem” in the Soviet Union.
Reflecting what the Soviet leader had said at the meeting, the notes read, “He himself had been baptized but was not now a believer.”
Mann’s biography says Reagan wondered whether Gorbachev’s use of the words, “God bless,” indicated religious belief. The U.S. president told the Soviet leader that he had wanted to prepare his atheist son, Ron, “the perfect gourmet dinner, to have him enjoy the meal, and then ask him if he believed there was a cook.”
Gorbachev, who launched reformist policies after becoming general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, reopened dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988, and was later credited with helping restore religious freedom.
He resigned as president when the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991.
The former communist leader gave part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize award to build a church at his birthplace near Stavropol, and donated his parents’ house to the local Orthodox parish.
Still, he rejected media reports in April 2008 that he had prayed before the tomb of St Francis during a visit to Assisi in Italy.
“I was and remain an atheist,” Gorbachev was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency. “I think religion is important for society, and I have willingly visited churches, synagogues and mosques during my travels but it cannot be said I have done so as someone who believes.”