Accessibility links

East: Reagan Leaves Complex Legacy In Former Soviet Bloc

  • Jeremy Bransten

Ronald Reagan Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's death and state funeral in Washington tomorrow are an opportunity for people across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to reflect on the legacy of the 40th U.S. president, whose greatest accomplishment -- in the eyes of many -- was to hasten the end of the Cold War.

Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Although Ronald Reagan's domestic legacy is still a matter of contention in the United States, many believe that his shining moment on the international stage was as one of the key actors who helped end the Soviet empire.

Reagan left office in January 1989, just before the wave of revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union's dissolution. But few in the region doubt his crucial influence in triggering those events.
"He is a man who made an enormous contribution to creating the conditions for ending the Cold War -- perhaps even the decisive contribution." -- Mikhail Gorbachev


Political scientist and commentator Jiri Pehe fled Czechoslovakia in 1981 -- the year Reagan began his first term -- and settled in the United States. He returned to his native country after the fall of communism, becoming a top adviser to dissident-turned-President Vaclav Havel.

Pehe offers his assessment of the Reagan legacy in ending Soviet communism.

"I think that he deserves a lot of credit, simply because he was the first American president who decided that the Soviet Union needed to be challenged really seriously, and I think he guessed quite correctly that the Soviet Union was a weak superpower, that the Soviet Union at that point was losing a race with the United States and the West in general -- an economic race. And Reagan in general anticipated quite correctly that if his administration increased spending on armaments, on the arms race, that the Soviet Union would not be able to compete," Pehe says.

There is an irony to Reagan's masterful intuition in that even his closest advisers describe him as uninterested in the intricacies of politics. Reagan, they say, was not a "detail man." He was not a sophisticated political analyst or foreign policy intellectual.

Richard Pipes, Reagan's key adviser on Soviet policy in the 1980s, wrote in his memoirs that at his first briefing with Reagan at the White House, Reagan seemed "out of his depth" and "uncomfortable" with complex discussions.

Reagan had a simple philosophy. The Soviet empire was "evil," and everything should be done to loosen communism's grip on the captive nations of Europe. And as Pehe notes, that idea was the key to driving events in the region.

"In certain moments in history, when we deal with regimes that are obviously evil, as Reagan called the Soviet Union, a simple moral stand, a simple moral point of view may be more important than sophisticated arguments and sophisticated policies. And this is, I think, in the end what made Reagan so important and significant, simply because he -- despite the fact that he was not a detail-oriented man, that he wasn't perhaps as sophisticated as Bill Clinton later -- he was a politician who was able to see or distinguish good and bad," Pehe says.

Pehe says this is crucial because the Soviet-imposed system survived in part because of many Westerners' inability to comprehend this basic truth.

"The communist system was able to resist for such a long time partly because there were a lot of people in the West who were willing to give communism the benefit of the doubt -- people who were very educated, very sophisticated, and yet they were not able to see the communist system as basically a corrupt, evil system," Pehe says.

Reagan's single-mindedness offered inspiration for dissidents across the region, such as Havel in Czechoslovakia or Polish unionist Lech Walesa. Lithuanian independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis acknowledged his country's debt to Reagan, in an interview from Vilnius with RFE/RL.

"Ronald Reagan was a great man, a statesman of international and world importance,” Landsbergis says. “He believed in freedom, and he achieved much to bring back freedom for captive nations. He was consistent in supporting our Lithuanian and other nations' rights to be again independent and free. He changed the world, indeed, and we will never forget him."

Former Ukrainian dissident Petro Ruban expresses similar feelings, on a more personal note.

"For a long time, the U.S. Congress was struggling to force the Soviet Union to release me from jail as a prisoner of conscience. But only Ronald Reagan achieved this. I was released in May 1988, just a few days before his visit. I was at the American Embassy in Moscow and sat next to [Secretary of State] George Shultz. Present were [fellow dissidents Vyacheslav] Chornovil [and Mikhailo] Horyn. I remember Reagan for his magnificent internal beauty. For me, he is the president who gave me freedom. And second, I think that in the history of America there was no other similar outstanding political figure, with a bright mind and strong actions, that could ruin the evil empire, the Soviet Union," Ruban says.

Eulogies from farther afield in the former Soviet Union have also been pouring in.

Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan's opposition Democratic Choice Party, says, "Ronald Reagan was a big politician who played a direct role in the process of the Soviet Union's collapse. His smart policy on the arms race put the Soviet Union in a very tough economic situation, which in its turn led to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. His arms projects were very strong, and the Soviet economy could not compete with U.S. potential power in that field. His 'Star Wars' project was a real challenge to the Soviets. I think, in general, Ronald Reagan is one of America's greatest presidents."

Centrist Kyrgyz deputy Zainidin Kurmonov concurs. In assessing Reagan's place in history, he said: "Reagan, as a politician, ranks alongside Deng Xiaoping [of China] and Margaret Thatcher [of Britain]. In the U.S. context, he stands alongside Franklin Roosevelt. His accomplishments are highly regarded not just in America but around the world."

Of course, one key figure of the time has not been mentioned, and yet the dismantling of the "evil empire" could not have begun without him -- Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan witnessed four leadership changes in the Soviet Union while in office. Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko were all onetime Reagan Cold War adversaries who died in office. It was in the fourth Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that Reagan found a partner.

Over time, the two men built a unique personal relationship that allowed both to change the world fundamentally. Gorbachev began to dismantle the Soviet system he had served all his life, and Reagan agreed to arms cuts after presiding over the largest military buildup in U.S. history. The Cold War was about to end.

Gorbachev this week eulogized Reagan with what could be called his highest praise.

"I think that as far as history is concerned --- and he has already gone off into history -- he is a man who made an enormous contribution to creating the conditions for ending the Cold War -- perhaps even the decisive contribution," Gorbachev said.

As Reagan might have put it, as he did in his farewell address: "Not bad. Not bad at all."

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report.)
XS
SM
MD
LG