It’s difficult to explain how much the world has changed in 25 years — and for the better. Those who lived through December 1981 would be well served to pause and give thanks for the differences.
In December 1981, much of the world lived in totalitarian darkness. This was captured at the time by Freedom House, the group begun by Eleanor Roosevelt and today headed by freedom fighter Nina Shea. Freedom House published its map of global freedom, which showed the world’s free nations in white and unfree nations in black. Nearly all the great Eurasian land mass was colored black, from the western border of East Germany, through eastern Europe and the massive spaces of the Soviet Union, and on to the huge terrain of China, and still further down to Vietnam and the South China Sea. The contrast was pointed out by a presidential candidate who hoped to transform the darkness: “If a visitor from another planet were to approach earth,” said Ronald Reagan, “and if this planet showed free nations in light and unfree nations in darkness, the pitifully small beacons of light would make him wonder what was hidden in that terrifying, enormous blackness. We know what is hidden: Gulag. Torture.” Reagan noted that “the very heart of the darkness” was the Soviet Union.
What was that totalitarian darkness like? It sought the persecution and even annihilation of entire classes and groups of hated people. According to the 1999 work by Harvard University Press, The Black Book of Communism, at least 100 million people were killed by Communist governments in the 20th century, a conservative figure that we already know underestimated the total. (We now know, for example, that Mao Tse-Tung alone killed 70 million in China, and Soviets authorities like Alexander Yakovlev maintain that Stalin himself killed 60-70 million in the USSR.) If one combined the total deaths in World War I and World War II and multiplied them by two, they still did not match the deaths by Communism in the 20th century.
These governments robbed individuals of the most basic rights: property, speech, press, assembly, the right to life. Communists had a particular antipathy for religion. Of special attention this time of year — in December — Communist governments went so far as to inspect houses in search of Christmas trees, as they tried to also strip the right to celebrate the birth of Christ.
THIS HATRED OF RELIGION WAS imbedded in Marxism-Leninism. Marx had called religion “the opiate of the masses” and said that “Communism begins where atheism begins.” His chief disciple agreed: “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” wrote Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January 1913. Religion, howled Lenin, was “a necrophilia,” akin to a virulent form of venereal disease. Once he was in power, Lenin resolved to do something about it, ordering “mass terror” against the religious: “The more representatives of the reactionary clergy we manage to shoot, the better,” he decreed.
Lenin especially detested Christmas. On December 25, 1919, he issued an edict directed at all levels of Soviet society: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid — the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”
Fast forward to Christmas 1981, when the Communist world still despised religion. That year in Moscow, “church watchers” retained their regular duties: sitting in the back of chapels taking notes on those “stupid people” (as government propaganda described them) who entered to worship. By 1981, only 46 of the 657 churches operating in Moscow on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution were permitted open, though they held closely monitored and controlled services. In one of the Soviet republics, the Ukraine, the government celebrated the nativity according to Marx and Lenin. Political commissars hijacked traditional Christmas carols and purged them of Christian references. Lyrics such as “believers” were changed to “workers”; the time of the season became October, the month of the glorious revolution; rather than the image of Christ, one song extolled “Lenin’s glory hovering”; the Star of Bethlehem became the Red Star.
In fact, the red star replaced the traditional star atop the occasional Christmas tree erected in the Communist world, where the Christmas tree was renamed the New Year Tree. This was part of the secular Great Winter Festival that replaced the traditional Christmas season, celebrating the mere advent of the New Year. Said Ukrainian Olena Doviskaya, a church watcher and a teacher, who was required to report students who attended Christmas services: “Lenin was Jesus. They wanted you to worship Lenin.”
The prospects for shining light upon that darkness seemed grim in 1981. The Soviets were on the rise, having added 11 satellite or proxy states since 1974.
The new man in Washington, President Ronald Reagan, was sure he could reverse this. He had survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, sure that Providence had intervened to spare him for a larger purpose: to defeat Soviet Communism. Reagan was especially hopeful that the tide could begin in Poland, the most recalcitrant of all the Soviet bloc states, where the Communist war on religion utterly failed.
And just then, on December 13, 1981, the lights were dimmed again. At midnight, as a soft snow fell lightly on Warsaw, a police raid commenced upon the headquarters of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor union. The Polish Communist government, consenting to orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Solidarity’s freedom fighters were shot or imprisoned. The cries of liberty were being snuffed out in this most pivotal of Communist bloc nations. That was what the world faced 25 years ago this month.
BUT THEN CAME A MOMENT of hope forgotten by history.
Ten Days later, on December 23, with Christmas only two days away, Ronald Reagan connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” He made an extraordinary gesture: The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.
This idea was kindled by a private meeting Reagan had with the Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, and his wife, both of whom had defected to the United States the previous day. The ambassador and his wife sat in the Oval Office. His wife was very upset. Vice President George H. W. Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her. The ambassador said, “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?” Immediately, Ronald Reagan rose and walked to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room.
That candle might have brought to mind those special candles lit after Mass by a young Karol Wojtyla, a Pole from Krakow who was now Pope John Paul II. Then and now, they burned bright for Russia’s conversion.
Of course, the atheistic Communist press was not quite so sentimental. It was enraged by Spasowski’s request, calling him a “slanderous, dirty traitor.” The slightest American invocation of God’s side set the Soviets seething. “What honey-tongued speeches are now being made by figures in the American administration concerning God and His servants on earth!” fulminated a correspondent from Moscow’s Novoye Vremya. “What verbal inventiveness they display in flattering the Catholic Church in Poland. Does true piety lie behind this?”
The Soviet press, maybe because it was never driven by religious piety itself, doubted that such could be a sincere Reagan motivation. The next day, on Christmas Eve, propagandist Valentin Zorin dashed before the Soviet TV cameras to question the “rather doubtful Christmas gift” Reagan had just given to Americans.
UNDETERRED BY SOVIET RAGE, Ronald Reagan and a core group of cadres — some of whom passed away this past year, such as Caspar Weinberger and Jeane Kirkpatrick — remained committed to liberating the people of Poland and all of the Soviet empire. Without going into the debate over where and how they succeeded — that’s another article — suffice to say that the world changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and in precisely the way they had hoped.
In 1980, according to Freedom House, there were 56 democracies in the world; by 1990, there were 76. The numbers continued an upward trajectory, hitting 91 in 1991, 99 in 1992, 108 in 1993, and 114 in 1994, a doubling since Reagan had entered the Oval Office. By 1994, 60% of the world’s nations were democracies. By contrast, when Reagan lamented the lack of freedom in the mid 1970s, the number was below 30%. Few presidents got so much of what they wanted.
There has been an explosion in freedom worldwide since the 1980s. This democratic transformation is one of the great stories of modern humanity, and one of the least remarked upon, as high-school texts — among numerous other sources — are completely silent on the subject.
This is a truly global blessing that transpired in the lifetimes of most of us. Unfortunately, many of us Americans are not good at counting our blessings or remembering our history. A look back at 25 years ago this month can help us to be grateful for what we have, especially at Christmas time, when we pause to remember the ultimate source of light that conquers the darkness.
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