MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S recent flirtation with the church in the Soviet Union added to the mystery about the man. Some suspect that he secretly believes in God. Others explain his references to the Almighty and to the Bible - and the state's enthusiastic support for this year's commemoration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia - as a cynical attempt to manipulate the religious community in the United States and other foreign countries. A small group among American fundamentalist Christians claims the Soviet leader is the Antichrist, the Devil's agent on earth, who is about to conquer the world.
Yet reasons behind his surprising behavior are more political than personal; their orientation is more domestic than foreign. His ambitious program of reforms simply cannot be accomplished without resurrecting moral and spiritual values and without broad societal support. The church might play an important role in this process.
Such an approach requires a sharp break with past policies. A former friend in Moscow, who had rare access to the archive of Lenin's original documents, told me an interesting story some years ago. During the Civil War the regional Commmunist Party committee in southern Russia sent a cable to Lenin regarding its intention to appoint a certain comrade to a high position. He was chosen, the committee noted, because he did not drink or smoke, and was not a womanizer. Lenin responded: ``The Soviet republic does not need angels. You failed to mention what are this comrade's abilities.''
Soviet leaders after Lenin adhered closely to the first part of the telegram, tolerating no angels in the power elite. There has been even less toleration since Marxism-Leninism divided morals along class lines, between capitalists and communists. Anything serving the interests of the proletariat and the USSR, as defined by its leaders, was moral, and vice versa. But in the end blind loyalty and obedience were rewarded. The same professional abilities that Lenin wanted to promote became the first communist casualty.