I first met Mikhail Gorbachev in May 1992 at the Reagan ranch. The Soviet Union had collapsed five months earlier, and he was no longer in power. He had come to the Reagan Ranch as a private citizen—and as my father's friend. Together, these two men had transformed the world.
When Gorbachev arrived at the ranch, Dad gave him a cowboy hat so he would look like the part of a ranch hand. Unfortunately, Gorbachev put the hat on backwards, and that's how he wore it throughout his visit. No one had the heart to tell the former president of the Soviet Union, "Um, Mr. President, you've got your hat on backwards."
The next time I saw Mikhail Gorbachev was in 2005, a year after my father passed away. I took part in a series of town hall meetings with the former Soviet leader. These "Mikhail-and-Michael" events took place in several California cities, and I was privileged to get to know Gorbachev better as we shared memories of my father, both on stage and off.
Dad had long suspected Gorbachev of being a "closet Christian." I was intrigued by the possibility that the former Soviet leader might secretly be a man of faith. So, during our town hall encounters, I questioned Gorbachev about his views on God.
He told me that his late wife's grandparents were killed during the Stalinist purges for having religious icons in their home. He also recalled that his own grandparents kept Christian icons hidden behind pictures of Lenin and Stalin.
Because of Soviet hostility to religion, Mikhail Gorbachev professed to be an atheist in order to rise in the Communist Party. I wondered what kind of tension this created inside Gorbachev—a man raised with a Christian heritage, yet determined to be a good Communist.
At several town hall events, I asked, "Mr. Gorbachev, when my father would meet with you, he would always pray to God for guidance. Who did you look to for guidance during those meetings?"
"I'm an atheist," he'd say. "I'm not a diehard atheist, but I am an atheist."
On one occasion, I said, "Sometime, you've got to explain to me what a 'not-a-diehard-atheist' is."
During a town hall event in San Francisco, I said, "Mr. Gorbachev, you remember that at every summit with my father, you'd close the meeting with the words, 'If it's God's will.' Do you think the events that took place as a result of those summits were God's will?"
"Michael," he replied, "When I met with your father, I would look around the room—and I never saw God in the room." He was about to go on, but the audience—which was apparently dominated by agnostics and atheists—broke into cheers and a standing ovation. The applause just went on and on, to a point where Gorbachev seemed embarrassed.
Unfortunately, the applause prevented him from finishing what he'd started to say. I'm sure he didn't mean to leave the impression that, because he couldn't see God, then God must not exist—that would be a foolish premise. It seemed to bother him that he didn't get to finish his answer.
At our next town hall meeting, I asked him the question I had asked three times before, "Who do you look to for guidance?"
This time, he gave me a different answer than before. "Michael," he said, "my grandmother was a Christian woman. She would go to church every day. Then, after church, she would come visit me and say, 'Mikhail, I went to church today and I prayed for the atheist. I prayed for you.'"
Now, isn't that interesting? Mikhail Gorbachev didn't say, as he had said before, "I'm not a diehard atheist, but I am an atheist." Nor did he say, "I'm a believer." Instead, he told a story about his Christian grandmother. That was his response to the question, "Who do you look to for guidance?" It was an oblique answer—but I think it was the answer.
In March 2008, the London Telegraph reported a story that got surprisingly little coverage at the time. The headline read: "Mikhail Gorbachev Admits He Is a Christian." The story describes Gorbachev's surprise visit to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi in Rome. Gorbachev told reporters that the story of St. Francis had played a pivotal role in his life. "It was through St. Francis that I arrived at the Church," he said, "so it was important that I came to visit his tomb."