Mikhail S. Gorbachev

March 2

Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1931)

It was on this date, March 2, 1931, that former Soviet Union President, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (Михаил Сергеевич Горбачëв) was born in the village of Privolnoye, near Stavropol, in what is now Russia — but what at the time was the USSR. Baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, Gorbachev was reared an atheist, but admits that his entire family were believers. Gorbachev himself said, "Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind."

Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Union on 11 March 1985, the first Communist leader to be born after the Russian Revolution. During his tenure, which ended on 25 December 1991, Gorbachev introduced economic reforms he called perestroika, social freedoms he called glasnost, and took the first tentative steps toward demokratizatsiya or "democratization" of the Soviet state. On his watch, the USSR collapsed and its client states in Eastern Europe broke away.

Much of the credit for the downfall of Soviet Communism is improperly credited to US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a Christian who rarely attended church: indeed, Reagan chided Gorbachev for his Atheism. But it was Atheist Mikhail Gorbachev who brought necessary reforms to the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ronald Reagan, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990.

Gorbachev said on C-SPAN's "Booknotes" program, "I don't know how many years God will be giving me, [or] what his plans are," and elsewhere that "the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the most important gains of perestroika," but these references are probably echoes of sentiments learned in his rural Russian boyhood. Gorbachev remains an Atheist, but in leading the establishment of religious freedom laws in the former Soviet Union he demonstrated respect for all religions. Currently the head of the Gorbachev Foundation — whose aim is "to help assert democratic values and moral, humanistic principles in the life of society," and to promote a "more equitable international order" — Gorbachev serves as its President and Irina Virganskaya, his daughter, as Vice-President.

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Pope Leo XIII

Leo XIII (1810)

It was also on this date, March 2, 1810, that the man who would become Pope Leo XIII was born Gioacchino Pecci in Carpineto, east of Rome, Italy. Ordained in 1837, and created cardinal in 1853, he was an aggressive exponent of the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. This perhaps explains why, becoming pope in 1878, chiefly because he was not expected to live long (he was just shy of age 68), Leo had great difficulty reconciling the Church to the modern world. Leo especially objected to things we take for granted today: free elections, secular public education, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, legal divorce and equality before the law.

As cardinal, he was a disaster in diplomatic missions — this according to his official Catholic biographer.* As pope, Leo lost more Catholic communicants than the Reformation, both by refusing to recognize the French Republic until it was too late, and by repudiating the Italian Government. Known primarily for two encyclicals, in Humanum Genus Leo defied the modern world by intoning, "It is quite unlawful to demand, defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing or worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man," and "Divorce is born of perverted morals and leads to vicious habits."

Leo's other great encyclical, Rerum Novarum, was a tepid endorsement of a living wage for workers, with no specifics, that was repudiated by his successor, Pius XI, who endorsed the Fascist-Corporate State. Leo's embarrassing admonishment of "Americanism," in an 1898 letter to Cardinal James Gibbons ("Testem BenevolentiŠ"), was also disowned by his successors. In sum, the best that can be said for him, aside from his opening of the Vatican secret archives (they were slammed shut after his death), is that by dividing the world into two camps — one for Catholics and one for everyone else, who followed Satan — Leo showed the true medieval pedigree of his Roman Catholic Church.

* Charles, comte de T'Serclaes de Wommersom, The Life and Labors of Pope Leo XIII, Chicago: Rand, McNally & company, 1903.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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