Moments when the future of humanity appeared to be at risk are not remembered. Such as the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, in which hardline leaders of the Communist Party, KGB, and military discovered that the old system was defunct and they were no longer in control. Nor the glorious moments when past disappointments turned transcendent. Such as when the December 1981 Polish military crackdown on the Solidarity union transmuted into the first free elections in the communist bloc, in which communist apparatchiks were wiped out in the June 1989 contests for the Sejm and Senate.
Also lost are moments that signaled the end of what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire, which had passed its 70th year. Such as when Hungary began to dismantle its border fence with Austria in May 1989, prompting a rush of East Germans for freedom. When East Germans overwhelmed the West German embassy in Prague in September 1989, leading the Czech and East German governments to allow them passage to West Germany. The indescribable joy when state after state defenestrated corrupt, repressive, retrograde elites who had suppressed not just political expression and economic growth, but the human spirit. The symbolic collapse of an entire murderous system when the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989.
Reagan deserves enormous credit for recognizing the hollowness of communism and challenging its moral bankruptcy. Long before 1989, capitalism had won the contest for producing better toilet paper. But Reagan always insisted that the benefits of liberty reached far beyond the material, that free societies offered manifold human opportunities, social improvements, and spiritual enrichment for those determined to live differently than the way prescribed by the apparatchik state.
Reagan’s necessary partner was Mikhail Gorbachev. They needed each other. Reagan wanted more than détente and was willing to push for radical change. On June 12, 1987, he stood in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and spoke through the assembled crowd to the absent Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.” Reagan’s message was simple: “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.” And open it. Let the German people — and ultimately everyone living under the Evil Empire’s control — go.
Another 29 months passed. Although on the evening of November 9, the German people were the ones streaming through the opened gates and chipping away at the concrete walls, it was Gorbachev who had made the historic moment possible. Khrushchev could have kept the Soviet Army in the barracks in 1956 when Hungarians demanded freedom. Leonid Brezhnev could have allowed the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s experiment in humane communism, to proceed in 1968. Brezhnev also could have permitted Poland to reform politically in 1981. But these Soviet leaders were traditional communists through and through. The Red Army stood as the great barrier to liberty, democracy, reform, and change.
Gorbachev, in contrast, traveled throughout Eastern Europe with a different message. The region’s evolution was up to … the people of Eastern Europe. This was informally known as the Sinatra Doctrine, to do it their way. Gorbachev was a reform communist who never intended the end of communism, and there were serious missteps, such as the brief but violent attempted crackdowns in Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991. Nevertheless, he demonstrated that his vision was humane, with the steady relaxation of repression, highlighted by such dramatic gestures as bringing Andrei Sakharov and the latter’s wife, Yelena Bonner, back to Moscow from internal exile.
Another of those gestures, attempting to bring some closure to the monstrous criminality of Joseph Stalin and his many enablers, was Gorbachev’s signing of the decree “On the rehabilitation of all victims of political repressions in the 1920–50s” on August 13, 1990. In it he admitted that the “abuse of people’s dignity and very life” had occurred for decades.
The exact numbers of imprisoned, tortured, and murdered were unknowable but enormous. The Bolsheviks began systemic repression under Lenin after seizing power in what amounted to a coup and fighting an always bitter and often horrific civil war against the Whites. On September 2, 1918, the government officially announced the Red Terror, during which perhaps 10,000 people were executed in little more than a month. In the following years, at least 30,000 were executed annually.
However, this toll paled compared to the casualty lists after Stalin took control in the latter 1920s. Millions of Ukrainians died in devastating famine, or Holodomor. Then came the Great Purge, when Stalin declared war on the Communist Party. Yet many who were detained retained their faith in the party, believing that their imprisonment was merely an unfortunate error. A million or more may have died in the seemingly endless terror.
Experts argue about the overall number of victims. Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of the Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions, cited estimates that “about 32 million people became victims of political repressions,” including 13 million during the Russian civil war.
Some of those targeted actively opposed communist or Stalinist rule. But many of the victims were chosen more as a result of happenstance, bad luck, or family loyalty. Some simply ended up within easy reach of desperate secret police operatives tasked with demonstrating their vigilant defense of the motherland.
Reported social scientist R. J. Rummel: