Primary Sources

Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union


By the summer of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies glasnost' (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) had begun to change the political landscape of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and Soviet Union had made considerable progress in limiting arms build-up through a series of negotiations. However, when President Ronald Reagan visited Moscow in the summer of 1988 for a political summit, the U. S. expected further reforms to follow. One area in the Soviet Union where few, if any, changes had been made was for religious freedoms, with the Soviet Union trailing behind other Communist countries (especially when compared to the role of the Catholic Church in Poland). In this private exchange between the Reagan and Gorbachev, the U.S. President hopes to pressure Gorbachev into allowing greater religious freedoms, but without public pressure as the larger concerns of arms control outweighed this private matter between the two leaders.


Ronald Reagan, conversation with General Secretary Gorbachev, 29 May 1988, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

The President [Reagan] continued that he wished to take up another topic that had been a kind of personal dream of his &hellip If word got out that this was even being discussed, the President would deny he had said anything about it.

The President went on that he was suggesting this because they were friends, and Gorbachev could do something of benefit not only to him but [also] to the image of his country worldwide. The Soviet Union had a church—in a recent speech Gorbachev had liberalized some of its rules—the Orthodox Church. The President asked Gorbachev what if he ruled that religious freedom was part of the people's rights, that people of any religion—whether Islam with its mosque, the Jewish faith, Protestants or the Ukrainian church—could go to the church of their choice.

The President said that in the United States, under our Constitution, there was complete separation of church and state from each other. People had endured a long sea voyage to a primitive land to worship as they pleased &hellip .

Gorbachev said that as the Soviets judged it the problem of religion in the Soviet Union was not a serious one. There were not big problems with freedom of worship. He himself had been baptized, but was not now a believer and that reflected a certain evolution of Soviet society. There was a difference of approach to that problem. The Soviets said that all were free to believe or not to believe in God. That was a person's freedom. The U.S. side was active for freedom, but why did it then happen that non-believers in the U.S. sometimes felt suppressed, in a way, Be asked why non-believers did not have the same rights as believers. The President said they did. He had son who was an atheist, though he called himself an agnostic.

How to Cite this Source

President Ronald Reagan, "Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union," Making the History of 1989, Item #157, (accessed October 19 2021, 10:48 pm).

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