Reagan and Russia: Illusion and Reality

Ronald Reagan's determination to destroy communism was the cornerstone of his presidency.

Ronald Reagan's determination to destroy communism was the cornerstone of his presidency.  The sudden end of the Cold War marked the astonishing triumph of his policies and seemed to vindicate his uncompromising approach.  His contribution was recognized last weekend by no less than former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said that Reagan, "made a huge, possibly decisive, contribution to creating conditions for ending the Cold War."  Yet while assessing the Reagan presidency it is important to ask whether the surprise end of the Cold War has turned out to be a happy one.

Reagan shook the Soviet Union not only with his tough talk, but with a trillion dollar defense buildup.  Soviet nerves were rattled when arms control talks folded and both nations pointed intermediate-range nuclear missiles at each other across Europe's Iron Curtain.  Even more shocking was Reagan's 1983 announcement of plans to construct a shield against intercontinental missiles involving space-based weapons.  The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed "Star Wars" sacked previous assumptions that international security was best assured by nuclear parity.  When the Soviets tried to keep up they exposed the limitations of their long-stagnant economy.  Gennady Gerasimov, who served as top spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry during the 1980s, characterized SDI as a successful ploy, adding that "Reagan bolstered the U.S. military might to ruin the Soviet economy, and he achieved his goal.''  Reagan will be remembered as the man who pushed the Soviet Union to the edge.

But why did it fall off?  Soviet economic and political structures depended upon ideological illusions that had grown difficult to sustain by the 1980s. Sooner or later, the Soviet Union would have fallen under its own weight.  No end would have come too soon for victims of Soviet oppression.  But many of the Russians that I interviewed in 2000 also recalled the tangible benefits of the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of civil order, social equality, economic development, and international security.  Most of them acknowledged the need for fundamental changes, but many would have preferred a more gradual transition, along the lines of China. 

During the past decade, Russia has suffered the greatest demographic catastrophe in the history of the world.  According to data published last week, less than half of today's 16-year-old Russian males will live to be 60 years old.  From 1992 to 2002, the Russian population was reduced by 8.7 million, and is shrinking by about 700,000 people per year.  About 40 percent of Russian children are born ill.  Most Russians live in deep poverty, many live on less than forty dollars per month and some have continued at their jobs month after month without any paycheck at all.  Needless to say, all of this has come as a surprise to most Russians.

But the fallout from the Cold War's surprise ending is not limited to the desolation of Russian life.  Neither Europe nor the United States has been comfortable with the aftermath of the Soviet Union.  No one has embraced the new Russia as a friend or ally, and there has been widespread apprehension about the consequences of its instability. 

In 1987, when Mr. Reagan memorably challenged Mr. Gorbachev to remove the Berlin wall, he did not foresee that it was resting atop the lid of Pandora's box.  Its opening has overwhelmed the world with a host of new problems, that range from ethnic conflicts to human trafficking and virulent new strains of organized crime to weapon proliferation.

The collapse of Soviet communism was hailed as the end of ideology, marking the final ascendance of Western democracy and free market capitalism.  Yet its passing cleared the world stage for the aggressive ideological agenda of Islamist extremism.  In Russia, the consequent free market enthusiasms proved to be the cloak beneath which the economy was pillaged, and the staggering wealth of the Soviet Union was transferred into the pockets of political insiders.  During those same years, the same market triumphalism paved the way for the bubble economy that looted the wealth of middle class Americans.  The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union also paved the way for other forms of American triumphalism now seen in the unilateralism of the current administration.

The happy ending to Mr. Reagan's anti-communist campaign has proven to be ephemeral, and the centerpiece of Mr. Reagan's anti-Soviet drama was as illusory as a Hollywood set.  Even to the present day, the achievement of his "Star Wars" initiative remains as unrealistic for the United States as it ever was for the Soviet Union.  Unlike the Soviet Union, however, SDI continued to deplete the American treasury and to distract the Bush administration right up to September 11, 2001.

The Soviet Union was sure to end, and most of us are glad that it ended in our lifetimes, but the benefits of its sudden demise no longer seem so clear.  The ending might have been happier if the "evil empire" had fallen of its own weight instead of being pushed. 


Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.