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Analysis: Russia Remembers Reagan

  • Julie Corwin

Russian press coverage this week of the 5 June death of the United States' 40th president, Ronald Reagan, was for the most part measured and respectful. Although acknowledging Reagan's humble origins, commentators credited him for his flexibility, pragmatism, directness, and ability to consider points of view at odds with his ideological framework. Aleksandr Yakovlev, former Politburo member and adviser to Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, told "Izvestiya" on 8 June that although Reagan uttered the phrase that "'America won the Cold War,' in fact, in the course of important negotiations he made it clear that he never believed that." According to Yakovlev, Reagan understood that "it was hard to find a winner in cold wars -- it is common sense that wins."

In an essay in "Izvestiya" on 8 June, Aleksandr Arkhangelskii wrote that arguments about the role of personality in history are senseless because they are ultimately irresolvable. But he nonetheless went on to wonder what life would have been like had this "direct, life-loving, and not overly intellectual actor [not] slipped into the White House." Without Reagan, according to Arkhangelskii, "there would have been no talk of an 'evil empire,' which was to the Soviet Union's doddering leaders like a red flag to a bull. Provoked, they made ill-considered decisions that made the Soviet system even more rickety." Without Reagan, there would not have been the "[Strategic Defense Initiative] project, which scared the Soviet authorities enough to search for an adequate response in the process of which they threw out any constructive uses for the money left over from the oil boom." He concluded: "There would not have been a panicked search for new faces and new forces capable of saving the regime and adapting it to the modern world. There would not have been Gorbachev."

Still, it is Gorbachev who is often given the lion's share of the credit for ending the Cold War. In a conversation with RFE/RL, Dartmouth College associate professor William Wohlforth, a specialist on the end of the Cold War, concluded that if forced to assign weight for various individuals' responsibility for ending the Cold War, "Gorbachev has to get most of the credit." However, he said, Reagan "really was key." Wohlforth explained that Reagan was "very hard-line in his early presidency, but he was dealing with fairly unreconstructed, tough Soviet leaders. When Gorbachev came in, Reagan was enough of a pragmatist to see that things are different and made some concessions. For that he deserves a lot of credit."

Reagan's other achievement, according to Wohlforth, was that he "turned the tables on the Soviets, who always claimed that they were representing the future. Reagan and [then-U.S. Secretary of State George] Shultz spelled out a vision of the world and said: 'Look how the world is moving in a way that favors freedom. You can't have a closed society if you want to succeed.' They turned Marxism-Leninism on its head."

While Marxism-Leninism is no longer in vogue, Arkhangelskii noted in his essay that "nostalgia" for the late period of Soviet Communist Party General-Secretary Leonid Brezhnev exists within Russian society today. "Everywhere moans are heard about the lost happiness of the stagnation period," he wrote. "Meanwhile, Reagan has once again appeared on the political scene, and it is necessary to correct once and for all these chronic mistakes [in the perception of history]. The time has come to atone for the stagnation, while the time for calm transformation or a progressive movement has slipped by. A prudent practitioner can no longer help and an inspired surgeon is required."
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