UNTIL the Prime Minister visited Soviet Russia this week, no other world leader had ever asked to see and be shown how people actually live in Moscow. She not only met hundreds of ordinary citizens, but she also made a point of worshipping alongside those who still go to church in the Soviet Union. Of these there are more than one normally realises.
Her visit to the ancient monastery of the Holy Trinity at Zagorsk was, perhaps, particularly significant. Next year will see the celebration of the 1000th year of Christianity in Russia and the importance of the Thatcher visit to Zagorsk was evidently not lost on the large crowds who had waited for many hours to catch a glimpse of her.
As we wrote in an editorial some weeks ago, it can now be claimed that Mrs Thatcher has a right to speak for the West. Whatever may be the true interpretation of Mr Kinnock's meeting last week with the US President, it was painfully obvious that Mr Reagan neither grasped the main issues being discussed nor even the identity of those to whom he was speaking.
While it is far too early to assess the long-term effects of the political set speeches in Moscow, it is important to remember that they were set speeches almost certainly prepared before the long, private and secret talks between the Prime Minister and the Soviet leader earlier in the day.
And though it would be exaggerated to call the Thatcher visit a "pilgrimage" to the people of Russia rather than a primarily political state visit to the Soviet Union, the pilgrimage aspect of her trip was that which stood out most dramatically. In going to the monastery at Zagorsk, she evoked 600 years of Russian religious history in a way which would have been impossible by any other gesture in any other place.
Holy Trinity, Zagorsk, was founded in the 14th century by the great St Sergius of Radonezh. After a rebellious childhood he became a new man under the influence of a monastic tutor and retired to the forest of Radonezh.
Shortly afterwards he founded there a chapel in honour of the Trinity which, in 1354, at the request of the patriarch of Constantinople, became an important monastic centre known as Troitskaya Laura.
The founder's illustrious character, sanctity and even political status soon made it a model for Russian monastic life. In the early 17th century the monastery waged a courageous fight against a Polish siege, and this further enhanced its patriotic status.
It contained more than 400 monks after the first World War, but soon thereafter was nationalised. This, however, was not the end of Zagorsk's by now legendary, Troitskaya Laura. In the wake of Stalin's rapprochement, however tentative, with the Orthodox Church after World War II, and in gratitude for the patriotic solidarity of church leaders, the Troitskaya Laura was given back some of its churches and other buildings and became again a religious centre for the faithful.
It has, all through its crowded history, been a leading place of pilgrimage in Russia and the latest pilgrim, of course, has been our Prime Minister. No visit to any other place could have contained so much deep significance and historic hope. In her own words: "For a few short minutes I have paused to reflect with you. I have lit my candle — one among so many — representing the hopes, fears, the anxieties of thousands of anonymous but important individuals."
"Today's small flame," she added, "the candle I have lit, is for the future in the hope that my visit to the Soviet Union will carry forward the cause of peace with freedom and justice. I pray that it will."
We can surely take vast encouragement from this, the very first, encounter by a major Western leader with Russian people at their own level and in their most treasured and historical, not political, but religious setting. It was almost as if Mr Gorbachev had paid a visit, even without lighting a candle, to Canterbury. Engels, after all, did not exclude the necessary influence of religion in the course of his long series of letters to Karl Marx. It can even be argued that he implicitly foresaw the return of free religion at the next big turn of history when a new set of exproriators took over from the old.
The Thatcher-Gorbachev hard-hitting public exchanges are thus to be seen against signs of undoubted person-toperson rapport, and the background of the Prime Minister's unpredecented spontaneous encounter with the real Russia and its possibly enormous religious potential.
The visit, then, to the famous monastery of St Sergius was a specific gesture of solidarity with Russian Christians. Its profound significance was obviously not lost on Mr Gorbachev himself who, in a somewhat clumsy effort to play it down, said she may have lit "a candle for peace," but that people should not go looking for the heart of Moscow with a candle in broad daylight.
Was this a Freudian reaction, or a tacit admission that moves already made by the Russian leader will, despite his (politically) necessary strong words in public, quietly lead to further developments in his understandably cautious and probing moves to a better world behind the Iron Curtain, following on the visit of the "Iron Lady"?
It is quite obviously in his own interests, as well as those of the rest of the world, that this should happen.