The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 1, 2022

It’s Thursday, September 1st, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Legacy of the Last in Line of USSR Leaders: The Significance of Mikhail Gorbachev

Sometimes the biggest worldview issues of our day come with a name, and sometimes it comes with a death, or in some cases, the anniversary of a death. It was the death on Tuesday of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, that gives us our main consideration for today. We really are talking in worldview terms about some of the biggest issues of the 20th century continuing into the 21st century when we talk about Mikhail Gorbachev. But the other person we’re going to consider is the late Princess Diana, the late Princess of Wales who died 25 years ago yesterday in a car accident in Paris. Less significant in terms of as worldview issues, but still, as we shall see, significant enough for us to take some time today.

But first we go to Russia and to the death announced on Tuesday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He was the last general secretary of the Communist Party there in the USSR. He was the last of the Cold War leaders of the Soviet Union. He was the last of the line and he ended up being one of the most controversial figures in the history of the 20th century.

Just think about the headlines after his death was announced on Tuesday. Some people, and this would be particularly true in the west, there were many who lionized him, many media sources celebrated him as a great defender of human rights and human dignity. Someone who is basically to be remembered for bringing about the end of the USSR and a new age of freedom for the Russian people, much of Eastern Europe, and with ramifications throughout the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, there were others who say, “Now, wait just a minute. It’s not really fair to credit Mikhail Gorbachev with all of that because basically all those things happened to an extent that was definitely not intended by Mikhail Gorbachev,” whose main intention all along at least till the very end was to perpetuate and preserve the Soviet Union, not to see to its dissolution. And you also have the fact that in Russia right now Mikhail Gorbachev is not a celebrated figure, because in the main, in Russia right now, Mikhail Gorbachev is blamed for the breakup of the Soviet Union and basically the dissolution of a Russian empire. And thus, Vladimir Putin has basically defined himself over against Mikhail Gorbachev over the course of the last more than two decades.

I’ve been interested to look at the news reports concerning Mikhail Gorbachev, because just given my own lifetime, he loomed large as one of the major figures of the era. I have found him like so many others to be absolutely fascinating. I’ve always wanted to know more about the story. And there is indeed far more about the story than what is revealed in most of the adulatory and celebratory articles that you see right now in the Western media. Mikhail Gorbachev was born to parents who were Russian and Ukrainian on the 2nd of March, 1931. Now, what’s crucial to understand there is that Joseph Stalin was the iron dictator of the USSR during that period. He had taken control in the early 1920s, or at least by 1925 he had nearly unquestioned control. And he was one of the most brutal tyrants of all of world history. And he was able to carry out his brutality on a world stage. Gorbachev was born into that era. He was born to very poor parents in a very impoverished region of the USSR.

Now, as William Taubman, who’s the definitive biographer of Mikhail Gorbachev, points out, there’s something interesting even about his name. It was intended not to be a Christian name, but it ended up being a Christian name, even under the atheistic repression of the Soviet Union. The name Mikhail, which in English is Michael. And it of course harkens to the Archangel Michael. Furthermore, even though he was raised in a rather traditional, though incredibly impoverished Soviet home, he was baptized as an infant. Something that was carried out under the direction and by the plan of his mother and his grandmother.

Now, hold on to that because that’s going to turn out to be important. But Mikhail Gorbachev grew up in the Soviet Union and he experienced at least the knowledge of the criminal purges carried out by Joseph Stalin and the murder of so many millions of people. And he also experienced first hand the crushing poverty and the starvation that so many in the Soviet Union experienced and in cycles of starvation and famine. And remember that Joseph Stalin was so evil that he actually strategically used the starvation and famine of his own people in order to consolidate his totalitarian power.

As a young boy, Mikhail Gorbachev rose through the ranks of the basic kind of children’s and especially teenage adolescent Soviet activities. He also appeared to be a leader. And someone who was by the measure of his village and his own background, something of an intellectual, he showed promise. Furthermore, he seemed to be quite energetic. In other words, he caught the attention of some who decided to take him under the wing, and that’s essentially what happened throughout most of Mikhail Gorbachev’s life. He appeared to be bright, he appeared to be committed to the communist Marxist cause and he appeared to be useful to the regime. Therefore, he had many patrons throughout the sequence of his very high rising career in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev as a boy was bright enough that he caught the attention of school officials and local communist officials and he was eventually allowed to seek admission at Moscow State University, that is at the very center of the communist rule and the communist ideology of the Soviet regime. It was there that he met a young woman named Raisa and she became his wife. She actually was ahead of him in terms of academic progression. He would eventually continue through a law degree, something which by the way was not all that admired in the Soviet Union of the time. Just think of it this way, they didn’t really believe in the rule of law, so what was the function of lawyers? But his wife Raisa was far more ideological and she actually earned the equivalent of a research doctorate in sociology.

And here’s what’s really interesting. At least what is known about her doctoral dissertation is that it focused on efforts undertaken by the communist party and the Soviet Union to socialize peasants and other workers into an ideological form of communism. It’s reported that one of the things she noted in her dissertation is that the presence of grandparents greatly increased the likelihood that a child would fail at atheism. Now, that’s really, really interesting. In other words, the influence of grandparents at this point in the history of the Soviet Union was an obstacle to children holding to a uniform atheism.

Now, remember what I said earlier, according to Taubman’s biography and other records, Mikhail Gorbachev was baptized as an infant in a time when that was basically seen as an act, which if not criminal, was subversive of Marxist doctrine and of the Soviet Union. And that was by the design of his mother and his grandmother. Mikhail Gorbachev began to gain the attention of communist leaders and he was eventually to rise through the ranks office by office, bureaucracy by bureaucracy, assignment by assignment. And he always had some kind of patron assisting him as he moved up the ladder. And oftentimes, he would later become alienated from those patrons, a pattern that continued all the way to the end of his leadership of the USSR.

Now in worldview analysis, there’s so much for us to consider as we just named the Soviet Union. We are talking about the Bolshevik Revolution. We’re talking about Marxism. We’re talking about Karl Marx. We’re talking about Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. We are talking about materialism, atheism as official state ideology. We’re talking about totalitarianism. We’re talking about one of the most evil ideologies ever inflicted upon humanity. And yet one of the things we need to note is that worldviews have consequences. Ideas have consequences. The Soviet Union was based upon a horrible lie and it was based upon a horrifying ideology. It also attracted a great deal of loyalty. We need to recognize that at least a part of the loyalty was the fact that the Soviet Union had such a crushing experience, although eventually ending up on the winning side of World War II.

Now, remember that Mikhail Gorbachev was born in 1931. Joseph Stalin is already the totalitarian and murderous dictator of the Soviet Union. He knows how crushing that dictatorship was. But here’s what we need to remember, Mikhail Gorbachev grew up a doctrinaire Marxist. And even as he began to understand some of the horror of Stalin, he never lost his basic commitment to the Bolshevik Revolution to classical ideological Marxism and to his personal loyalty, to the memory of Lenin.

The way Mikhail Gorbachev, at least as a younger man, looked at the world is that there was a contest between the west and communism. Communism was the superior ideology and he held that communism in the Soviet Union had basically fallen victim to Joseph Stalin’s autocracy. But that story basically is of a good beginning under Lenin, a fall under Stalin. And the big question is what would come next? Now, of course the who came next eventually was Nikita Khrushchev. What came next was the totality of the Cold War between the west and the Soviet Union.

But one of the things we need to notice is that under the terms of the Soviet Union in the last half of the 20th century, two things happened. They both counted against the rise of leadership. The first thing that happened was that Joseph Stalin basically eliminated anyone who might be a competitor. Well, that eliminated a lot of the potential leadership class. And the other thing is that communism and Marxist ideology eventually produced the most bland, banal and incompetent figures virtually ever to appear on the scene of government history.

That totalitarian one party rule also leads to an ossification and you also end up with very elderly leaders. And that means that we need to fast forward to the period when Mikhail Gorbachev becomes a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, and eventually becomes the eighth and final chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Those who lived through world history in the early 1980s understand that vast change was taking place in the USSR, but mostly in terms of the leader of the communist party and thus of the Supreme Soviet. What we were looking at was a succession of elderly leaders. One of the things I’ve often pointed out about Mikhail Gorbachev is that Western leaders were impressed with him when he became and was seen as soon to become the leader of the Soviet Union is the fact that he had a pulse.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, just consider this. Leonid Brezhnev, who was the fifth totalitarian leader of the communist party there in the Soviet Union, he ended up in such physical and mental decline that he clearly didn’t recognize the people with whom he was meeting. But they would dress him up in all of his uniforms and his medals. He didn’t die until 1982. And when he died in 1982, he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who had been the head of the KGB. That is the much dreaded and now infamous former intelligence agency of the USSR. But Andropov only lived until 1984. In other words, he died just two years after the former Soviet leader. Andropov was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko in 1984, but he died in 1985. George H. W. Bush, at that time vice president of the United States under president Ronald Reagan, said that a good deal of his time was actually just taken up in the planning of, and attending of, funerals of Soviet leaders.

Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, said that one of his goals was to meet a Soviet leader but they kept dying on him.

Part II

The Collapse of the USSR and the Loss of Russian Glory: The Mixed Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

But again, Mikhail Gorbachev was much younger. He was of the next generation. He had a pulse. He also had at least some intuition about leadership that the previous Soviet leaders had not had. He understood more of a media age and he understood that Russia needed change. But here’s the most important thing. Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the communist party end of the Soviet Union in 1985. And there’s absolutely no evidence that he meant to bring about the end of communist rule, that he meant to bring about the end of a totalitarian one party state. And certainly, there’s no evidence that he meant to bring about the end of the USSR.

He did quickly begin talking about themes that were summarized in two Russian words. The most important of the two words was Glasnost, which was directed inward and was to signal a new openness that was to characterize the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s era, a new generation of new Soviet leaders who would allow new ideas. And that meant engaging with some of the ideas in the west, but it did not mean bringing about the end of the Soviet Union and the end of communist ideology. It meant an updating. Perestroika, as some of you may remember, was the other word, and that was really directed externally. It meant that Russia was going to seek a more constructive engagement with others around the world. In any event, Glasnost and Perestroika are the two words most lastingly identified with Mikhail Gorbachev. And they appeared to be nearly breathtakingly new to Western leaders who were accustomed to, as I say, leaders such as Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko.

There was no doubt that Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to be something new. The question is, how new? Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Great Britain, met Gorbachev when he appeared likely to move into leadership in the Soviet Union. And she would later say to the American President Ronald Reagan that Gorbachev was a man with whom they could deal, with whom they could do business.

Now, just keep in mind that Gorbachev was only in office as general secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. And now looking in retrospect, we understand that it would’ve been virtually impossible to have held the USSR together. It was failing. It became almost the definition of a failed state, much less of a failed empire. It was failing in terms of the ability to feed its own people. It was failing badly in terms of keeping up economically and culturally with the west. It was failing in terms of the ability to contain its own people. But of course, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great and prophetic Russian writer understood, it was because the Soviet Union, as a Marxist one party state, was based upon a deadly lie.

Now on the American side, the two most important leaders were successive presidents, Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 and George Herbert Walker Bush, George H. W. Bush elected in 1988. Now, just to remember a couple things here. Number one, Ronald Reagan became most famous in terms of his understanding of how to engage the Soviet Union by declaring that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. By identifying the Soviet Union as an evil empire, he made very clear he actually had the aim. And he declared it as basically a national aim to bring about the end of the Soviet Union. By the way, what’s often not noted is that Ronald Reagan gave that speech in which he identified the Soviet Union as the evil empire as he was addressing the National Association of Evangelicals.

Something else to notice is that Ronald Reagan was succeeded by his vice president George H. W. Bush in 1988. And not by coincidence, in the background resume of George H. W. Bush was a stent as director of the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. If you put those two presidencies together, Ronald Reagan for two terms, George H. W. Bush for one term, you’re looking at 12 years that saw the transformation of the world and the end of the Soviet Empire, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and eventually the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. There are many debates about who deserves the credit, or in many Russian eyes, the blame for the end of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire that basically the Soviet Union represented in a newer guys in the 20th century.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the chief victors over the Soviet Union included two political leaders and one Pope. The Pope was Pope John Paul II, who as Archbishop of Kraków in Poland, had witnessed the sterility, the atheism, the repression, and the evil of Marxism and of communism firsthand, and he spoke in terms of human dignity and human liberation. The two political leaders were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the American president, most importantly of all, Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan with a new assertiveness who understood what many others prior to him in office had not. And frankly, many following him in office evidently have not. And that is that the west must be triumphant not only militarily, not only economically, but politically, ideologically and indeed spiritually.

The Liberal Academy doesn’t want to credit president Reagan to a legitimate extent in understanding the role he played. Many in the west simply prefer to point to Mikhail Gorbachev and say, “Look, he brought about the end of the Cold War. He lowered the iron curtain.” Now, let’s just say that some of that is at least true in the sense that Mikhail Gorbachev should be considered in history one of the most important figures, but not for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.

Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t seek to bring about the end of the Soviet Union, though he did basically manage it. Step by step, he was forced by events into a situation in which he was doing everything he could basically to reform and eventually to save, but in desperation, to ease the fall of the Soviet Union. There is no evidence that he remained anything other than a convinced Marxist to the end of his life. But Gorbachev does deserve credit for what he didn’t do. And just in worldview analysis, it’s important for us to recognize that sometimes importance in world history comes down not so much to what you did, but what you didn’t do.

What did Mikhail Gorbachev not do? He did not unleash the vast and deadly military forces of the USSR. He did not use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against the west even as it became very clear that the idea of the Soviet Union was dying, and very quickly the Soviet Union would die itself. When the Berlin Wall fell, when the iron curtain fell that had held so many Eastern European nations into captivity to the Soviet Union, it’s not true that Mikhail Gorbachev took down the wall or took down the curtain, but it is true that he didn’t call out or deploy Soviet troops to defend it. And that marked a distinct difference between the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR under virtually all of his predecessors in that office.

Gorbachev’s wife Raisa died in 1999, but Mikhail Gorbachev lived all the way until Tuesday of this week. He lived long enough to be repudiated by the people of his own nation and certainly by the leadership such as current Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was, we should note when the iron curtain came down, a KGB agent there in east Germany who considered the fall of the iron curtain and the dissolution of the USSR to be a fatal loss of Russian glory that must be avenged. He sees himself as the avenger.

It’s also important for us to recognize that the worldview clash that was so clear between the Marxism, the communism of the Soviet Union and the constitutional liberty and the commitment to representative democracy that we see in the west, that worldview clash has not just gone away because Russia is now ruled by a new form of totalitarianism, which Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly sees is his way of emulating the building of the Russian empire in centuries past.

So far as Vladimir Putin and many Russians are concerned today, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who lost the glory, and it is Vladimir Putin and others who are seeking to regain it. And as the people of Ukraine can tell you, at murderous cost.

Part III

Tragic Moral Parable and Symbol of the Media Age: The Life and Legacy of Princess Diana 25 Years After Her Death

But we should also note another death, and that would be the death 25 years ago of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in Paris in a car accident as the car was being hounded by the paparazzi. The issue to consider here is that Diana, Princess of Wales, is something new on the world scene. It required cable television in the modern celebrity industry to produce the Cinderella story of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, marrying the 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer and establishing what many Americans, as well as people in Britain around the world, but maybe it was peculiar to Americans, saw this as the ultimate fairytale, a Cinderella story.

It was always more complicated than that. For one thing, Diana Spencer was no Cinderella. She was from one of the most famous noble families in the British aristocracy and one that has historical priority over the House of Windsor. But nonetheless, the world was captivated as the much older Prince of Wales, 12 years older, married Lady Diana Spencer in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Their wedding in 1981 was watched by untold hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, around the world. That was a new kind of media event, and Princess Diana became a new kind of media celebrity. But here again, we know the story behind the scenes was very dark. It was a very dark marriage. It, if not loveless, was an incredibly troubled marriage. Prince Charles was unfaithful in the marriage. Famously, the Princess of Wales would say that there were three people in her marriage, which made it a bit crowded. But it’s also true that Princess Diana violated her wedding vows and committed adultery. It was an exceedingly dark and salacious story, and the world was extremely hungry for it.

The royal couple of course eventually had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. Prince William is now in the line of succession behind his father. But what we’re looking at here is the rise of modern celebrity in a whole new guise. Princess Diana, by the way, understood that kind of televisual celebrity in a way that almost no one else in the world seem to understood. Certainly no one else in the royal family. She sparkled on the television screen. She knew it. And she used it for her own purposes. She became well known as a humanitarian, but we should note for very progressivist causes.

We don’t have to question the fact that she intended to do good, but the fact is, she ends up in her own light becoming a moral parable and tragically dying at a very young age after her divorce from the Prince of Wales as she was acting as a celebrity and was attracting all the celebrity photographers and all the rest, the driver who was carrying her and others, we should note, away from a social event, got into a horrifying accident. And eventually it was clear that Princess Diana would die.

Her death led to an outpouring of emotion on the world scene, particularly in Britain but also in the United States and elsewhere around the world. But one of the things that became very evident was the fact that this emotion was being directed as if people believed that they knew Princess Diana, when most assuredly they did not. The story of Princess Diana is virtually at every turn a tragic story. But in terms of what it means for our culture and worldview analysis, it demonstrates that Princess Diana’s life and death became symbolic events in the history of the Western turn from reality to emotionalism. In the media age then, and just imagine how much more so now, it didn’t really matter if you knew someone, just if you felt you knew them.

The saddest thing about her death was that she left her two sons, who she clearly loved, without a mother and with a very distant father. And for those boys, if, for no one else, you understand the grave difficulty not only of getting through such tragedies, but of getting through such tragedies with the entire world watching.

And so finally, just think about this. You’re talking about two human beings. You’re talking about nearly endless headlines. And as we know, we’ve only scratched the surface. That’s the way it is with human beings. And you don’t have to be a celebrity or a former head of the Communist Party for that to be true. It’s true about every single human being.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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