In this week’s heated debate over the end of the Cold War, here is an item you may have missed. This Tuesday, Rabbi Velvel Tsikman, head of a flourishing Russian Jewish community in West Hollywood, surveyed the crowd of Russian émigrés assembled at the Chabad Russian Jewish Community Center, and paid tribute to the man he credits with winning their freedom: Ronald Reagan. “[Reagan’s] doctrine, what he did, was very helpful to destroy the monster that was there in Europe,” he told the Associated Press.
The moving story, called “Immigrants From Former Soviet Union Mourn Reagan,” goes on to report that similar feelings were expressed in Russian and Eastern European immigrant communities throughout southern California, where folks turned out to offer, in English of varying fluency, a shared message: Thank you, Ronald Reagan.
That there was no mention of Mikhail Gorbachev should not be surprising. Those who led lives of muzzled desperation behind the Iron Curtain reposed little faith in the perennial frauds who, like Gorbachev, were skimmed from the fetid surface of the Communist Party to do its bidding.
Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I have that on reasonably good authority. My family was among the many Soviet Jews who in 1989 took advantage of Russia’s newly relaxed immigration laws to split the swiftly crumbling country. We weren’t waiting around for the regime, a vipers’ pit of drunkards, dunces, and anti-Semites, and more commonly a combination of all three, to change its mind; which shortly thereafter, it did. Nostalgia, needless to say, is not a family affair.
Optimism is another matter. And I can think of no one in recent history who was in surer possession of what the late historian Daniel J. Boorstin once described as “the ability to imagine that things could be very different from what they were,” than Ronald Reagan. There is, for instance, the way Reagan imagined, when few could, that the Berlin landscape could look very different from what it was. Now 23, I confess to sniffling regression every time I watch Reagan deliver that 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall: The unshakable conviction stamped across Reagan’s gentle face; the deafening roar of the crowd. It’s all too much. But that’s what Ronald Reagan could do.
In passing, Reagan has left an indelible impression on those who escaped Soviet terror. Yet it is rarely mentioned today that his memory is preserved with the same fondness among those who endured that terror to the end. Though it has gotten astonishingly little coverage in the mainstream media, currently scrambling to support its Anybody-But-Reagan account of the “evil empire’s” collapse, leaders from the once-shackled nations of the former Eastern Bloc spent this week celebrating the man whose simple, powerful dream — of “a renewed strength of the democratic movement, complemented by a global campaign for freedom” — accomplished the impossible: it lifted their spirits.
“He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe,” noted Lech Walesa, Poland’s post-communist president and the onetime leader of the trade union Solidarity, whose cause Reagan ardently championed. “When he saw injustice, he wanted to do away with it,” Walesa said. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga reminded us that the Reagan Revolution was not confined to the continental United States. “President Ronald Reagan will be remembered in the hearts of all Latvians as a fighter for freedom, liberty and justice worldwide,” he said.
Talk to Soviet dissidents and you will hear some variant of the same theme. Some will recall the time Reagan, at his first meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, pressed him to open up Jewish emigration, making it expressly clear that the Soviet refusal to do so endangered the entire U.S.-Soviet relationship. When many had opted to abandon Soviet Jewry, Reagan would not. Others will remember the personal letters Reagan wrote to European heads of state, asking that they send embassy officials to join American observers outside the Moscow synagogue every Friday evening, to rebuff KGB agents on the hunt for those Jews who defied the law by openly practicing their faith.
Like Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, they will rightly credit Reagan’s daring defense spending for necessitating the grudging market reforms that eventually toppled the bankrupted Soviet economy — and with it, the Soviet Union. Like Natan Sharansky, they will recall the joy of hearing the president describe Russia as an “evil empire”. Finally, here was a man who saw it for what it was. A man who insisted, in a time of great pessimism, that “optimism was in order,” and who promised, in a time where few wanted to talk about history, that the hideous experiment of Marxism-Leninism was destined for its “ash-heap.” But ask these Soviet dissidents Gorbachev and you’ll meet with silence. Gorbachev? They knew Gorbachev. And he was no Ronald Reagan.
Which reminds me of a story, as a late great president might have said. On the morning of April 20, 1989, the day my family leaving Moscow, a knock came on my parents’ door. It was our next-door neighbor. Ours being one of the Soviet Union’s cramped, communal apartments, I mean that quite literally. Waving a bottle of vodka, he insisted my father drink a toast. He wanted to celebrate our new freedom, which also meant his: By leaving him our half of the apartment, we were bypassing Soviet restrictions on the sale of state property.
Agreeing, my father suggested they toast to Gorbachev. After all, our neighbor was a common day laborer, unlikely to be up on the complex realities of international politics; and more than likely to have imbibed his fair share of politburo propaganda, which Gorbachev, in his hick Caucasus accent, spouted daily. Our neighbor only laughed. “Gorbachev? You think Gorbachev gave me this apartment? We’ll drink to Reagan. Reagan gave me this apartment.”
In many ways, it’s true: Reagan did give him that apartment. But to those of us who found a home in America, an America whose appeal was personified by men like Ronald Reagan, he was far more generous.