The Magazine

The View from the Gulag

From the June 21, 2004 issue: An interview with Natan Sharansky: He describes the "beautiful moment" when the news of the Evil Empire speech reached Siberia.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39
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The first time I met President Reagan I told him this story. I felt free to tell him everything. I told him of the brilliant day when we learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. When I said that our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration and that the world was about to change, well, then the president, this great tall man, just lit up like a schoolboy. His face lit up and beamed. He jumped out of his seat like a shot and started waving his arms wildly and calling for everyone to come in to hear "this man's" story. It was really only then that I started to appreciate that it wasn't just in the Soviet Union that President Reagan must have suffered terrible abuse for this great speech, but that he must have been hurt at home too. It seemed as though our moment of joy was the moment of his own vindication. That the great punishment he had endured for this speech was worth it.

Can it really be said that Ronald Reagan was actually responsible for an event as great as the collapse of the Soviet Union?


One man in one office?

Yes. Absolutely. But not one man alone. If I would be permitted to widen the credit a little more, I would say the collapse of the Soviet Union is attributable to three men. Andrei Sakharov, Scoop Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. These were the people who brought moral clarity to the conflict and started the chain of events which led to the end of Soviet communism. Sakharov to the Russian people, Senator Jackson to the American government, and Ronald Reagan on behalf of the American people to the world and thus back to the Soviet Union. They created the policy of linkage: That international relations and human rights must be linked. That how a government treats its own people cannot be separated from how that government could be expected to treat other countries. That how governments honor commitments they make at home will show the world how they will honor their commitments abroad.

His constant, unalloyed trumpeting of freedom's call, his uncompromising opposition to tyranny and bold optimism--where do you think this came from?

I don't think Hollywood. It came from him. From inside Ronald Reagan. He had two things all of us need but few of us seem to have. Ronald Reagan had both moral clarity and courage. He had the moral clarity to understand the truth, and the courage both to speak the truth and to do what needed to be done to support it. There was more to Reagan than rhetoric. His biggest single contribution was that he stopped allowing the Soviet Union to use the United States to strengthen itself at America's expense. The Soviet Union had learned--been taught, actually--that the United States and Europe were there to provide the very source of energy and support the Soviet system needed to survive. Ronald Reagan instinctively understood this when no one else did. This is the most important paradox of all. Freedom's greatest threat was in many ways the product of this freedom. Soviet tyranny was completely dependent upon the West for its very survival. Reagan knew this. The Soviet Union, a nation of 200 million slaves, could not possibly keep pace with the technological, economic, or scientific developments taking place in the West. The moment Reagan took that support away from the Soviet Union, it started to fall apart.

How is it that truths about freedom and totalitarianism which appear today so evident and obvious can be completely missed for so long and by so many people?

Appeasement is not the exception for democracies. It is the rule for democracies. Appeasement is a powerful side effect of democracy. The West's appeasement policy toward the Soviet Union began almost the moment its appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany ended. It didn't end until Ronald Reagan. Democratic leaders need peace to survive. Because democracies have to reflect the will of their people, democratic leaders choose appeasement because anything is preferable to war. Free peoples go to war only when they have no other choice. By the way, this is democracy's great strength as well as its great weakness. Democracies are both so free, so stable, and so prosperous because their people don't want war. Therefore, Western leaders were only continuing in this tradition by believing that the Soviet Union needed to be transformed from a deadly rival into a partner for cooperation. Even President Carter, who understood human rights better than any president before him, always chose to appease the Soviet Union rather than to force it to compete with the West.

Since we can't reproduce Ronald Reagan himself, what practical lessons from him can we apply today to achieve a similar effect?