Friday, March 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: 30 Years On, Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ Speech Still Relevant, Russians Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 8 – Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan introduced the term, “evil empire,” to describe the nature of the USSR, a term that helped change the way people around the world saw that entity, contributed to its demise, but despite all these changes remains relevant to this day, according to Russian commentators.

            On March 8, President Reagan delivered a speech to an Orlando, Florida, meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in which he described the Soviet Union as an “empire of evil” and said the West’s struggle with it was a moral one rather than simply a military competition and that a country committed to the defeat of evil must continue.

            In his memoirs, Reagan said that “for too long, our leaders were incapable of describing exactly what the Soviet Union was.  People involved in our foreign policy, in other words, liberal experts, the State Department and various columnists, considered [my] speech illiberal and a provocation. But I always believed that it is important to point out distinctions because in life and history it is necessary to make a choice and take decisions.”

            Reporting on this anniversary, three Voice of American Russian Service journalists Aleks Grigoryev, Anna Plotnikova and Anastasia Laukannen, point out that Reagan’s term “evil empire” remains very much alive. A search on Russia’s Yandex found more than two million references to it, and one on Google found more than 27 million (

But more important than these numbers are the comments they received from Russian experts and activists about the continuing relevance of this speech. Maksim Bratersky, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, noted that Reagan’s phrase “really left its mark in history.”

It had both “positive” and “negative” consequences, he continued, “but this formula remained, and many people will appeal to it … [because in clear and accessible language] for the first time some so clearly put a certain idea and a certain idealism at the foundation of the foreign policy of such a major state.”

Rafail Ganelin, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that Reagan’s words were a response to the anti-American propaganda that dominated Soviet ideology from the very earliest years.  The Soviet leadership, he noted, was accustomed “to explain all [its] difficulties and failures” by the actions of “the enemy.”
Viktor Kremenyuk, the deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of the USA and Canada, observed that the USSR “really conducted itself” like “an ‘empire of evil.’” It was a system based “injustice and force,” and Americans, especially those who did not pay constant attention to foreign affairs, found it easy and appropriate to see it as a conflict like that in the movie “Star Wars.”

Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, agreed. In his view, “the phrase of Reagan will remain in the memory of people just as people will continue to view ‘Star Wars.’” His words are “beautifully formulated” and allow people to invest them with whatever meaning they want.

Ivan Tsvetkov, an instructor at St. Petersburg State University, says that Reagan’s term helped the US president in his talks with Mikhail Gorbachev: “Reagan taught us a very important lesson” because he showed the power of “the moral aspect” in international relation, something that many of its practitioners downplay or ignore.

Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Moscow Institute of the Problems of Globalization, was more critical. He suggested that “the West will consider Russia its enemy regardless of what historical form it takes. Therefore, as long as Russia exists, the West will consider it ‘an evil empire.’”

Ganelin, the VOA journalists note, has another explanation for the continuing vitality of the term. He notes that the recent back and forth between Moscow and Washington over the Magnitsky case and Russian orphans showed that the Russian authorities are still behaving like their Soviet predecessors when they say “But the Americans are killing Russian children!”

At the end of December, the Voice of America story continues, Yury Melnichuk, an activist of the RPR Parnas Party, demonstrated in support of the US Magnitsky law by appearing outside the US consulate general in St. Petersburg and holding up a sign: “’Mr. Reagan, Come Back! The Evil Empire has been reborn!!!”

Three weeks later, in an action that provided evidence of that, Melnichuk asked for political asylum in Austria.  He told VOA that he didn’t know much about Reagan’s domestic policies, but “his foreign policy was in [his] view absolutely adequate to the situation. With a monster such as the USSR was, it was possible to speak only from a position of force.”

Unfortunately, he added, “Russia continues a policy of the Soviet model,” but “the reaction of certain civilized countries of the West to what is happening with us in Russia does not entirely correspond to the real situation.  This reaction is too soft and uncertain. Just as the Soviet Union was an ‘evil empire,’ so [today] Rsusain represents a threat to democracy and civilization in the entire world.”

Melnichu called on the West to remember Reagan’s words and take steps lie boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympiad in Sochi, “because ‘the evil empire’ is returning, and it is necessary to take certain steps in order to restrain it.”

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