That question comes up in conversations about the current crisis in Ukraine.
Young readers may need an explanation. In March 1983, in a speech to evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan talked about American values, stating that it would be a mistake to remove ourselves “from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” In that context, he mentioned “an evil empire,” revealing no names, but it was obvious that he was talking about the Soviet Union. It made history. As one might expect, critics were as vocal as supporters.
Was Reagan right calling the Soviet system evil?
The Reagan speech happened about three months after martial law was established in my native Poland, then in the Soviet Bloc. We saw a connection. Our memories of nine coal miners killed in Katowice, near where I lived, were still fresh; 10,000 people were detained, the curfew was still on, travel was restricted, and the use of phones was limited. We were under evil forces. Like most people I knew, I had my share of that national suffering. For us, Reagan’s speech was uplifting. We felt he understood our situation. And we rejoiced in those gloomy days seeing the Soviets upset.
In his Medium article “Western Blame For Escalating Tensions in The Ukraine,” Erik Engheim, who is Norwegian, writes: “When I grew up in the 1980s, I did not get presented with the USSR as the Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan characterized it.” (For the record, in 2014, Time magazine acknowledged that using “the” in Ukraine’s name “denies their independence, denies their sovereignty.”) From Erik’s LinkedIn profile, one can conclude that Eric was at kindergarten age during Reagan’s speech. I suspect that whatever he might have heard about the Soviet Union as a child was not rooted in a knowledge of the Soviet system but a dislike of Reagan’s guts and the United States in general.
Erik inherited that dislike of capitalism and the United States as its leading force. At the opening, Erik assures us of his objectivity by writing: “Putin is an oppressive autocrat.” But Eric is concerned that the Russian perspective is not heard in the Western media. He is wrong. American right-wing pundits and politicians honk their grasp of the Russian position. Erik found himself aligning with intellectuals like Tucker Carlson from Fox News.
I suspect that if the Biden administration took a softer, more pro-Russian approach, the same right-wing extreme would stand for Ukraine. Reagan is dead, so are politics guided by “right and wrong and good and evil.” Today, adversaries are always wrong. Politicians and pundits who stand for Russia and against Ukraine show no moral spine; they only care about weakening their opponents.
Should Russia disassociate itself from the Soviet tradition?
In his article, Erik does not differentiate between the Soviet Union and Russia. In his defense, when I lived in Poland, we saw the Soviet Union as a vehicle for Russian imperial expansion. But the official line was that the Soviet Union was a blessing for humankind. It just happened that Russia, as the largest member of the Union, took a leadership position.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, that distinction gained a novel validity. With its new borders, Russia abandoned the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union and claimed intentions of becoming a respectful partner in the community of nations.
It did not last long. A few years after becoming the Russian president in 1999, on multiple occasions, Vladimir Putin lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He called it the “demise of ‘historical Russia.’” Those sentiments were a red flag for countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet Bloc. Ukraine, with its checkered history, became Putin’s obsession.
Like most Westerners, Erik does not know Russia
Trying to explain the Russian point of view, Erik mentions some unessential historical events. He misses the critical one. It is 240 years of the Tatar Yoke, the ruthless totalitarian regime. In my previous article, “Why do most Westerners misunderstand Russia?” I explain how that history manifests itself in the present Russian political concepts.
Erik senses that Russians have some issues, but he could not pinpoint the problem. He calls Russia a “misguided neighbor.” So, how misguided is it? As misguided as those three guys from Georgia who know that slavery was bad and black people are equal but have difficulty comprehending that a young black man could jog in their neighborhood unchecked. Like these three men from Georgia, traditional Russian nationalists agree that nations should have the right to be independent. Still, they have problems accepting that Ukraine could run its economic affairs without Russian guidance.
It is about freedom
In his reasoning, Erik cites evil deeds by the United States and says that nobody is perfect. Why should we pick up on Russia? Regardless of where we came from, our past is not great. Atrocities happened everywhere, so did the good things. The world we live in today is much better than ever before. We face the same choices Reagan talked about way back, between right and wrong and good and evil. Those are choices between ideas that made the world more just and prosperous and those that hold us back.
The current political order in the West is based on the moral concept that all men are equal. That system is imperfect because humans are imperfect. We see as immoral the system that is rooted in the medieval Golden Horde traditions that a superior man has a right to impose his rule on others. We disagree with those Russians who directly or implicitly demand superiority over their neighbor nations.
It boils down to freedom. For most Westerners, like Erik, their personal liberty and the freedom of their communities and nations are there. Generations back, some people fought for it. No one questions them now; there is nothing to talk about.
Like most Westerners, Erik cannot put himself in the shoes of people like me who had their freedom brutally restricted. He cannot understand Ukrainians who want the freedom to prosper.
Answering the question posed in the title of this article, I say it is not our call to decide. It is for Russians to choose.