History and Historiography

Yes, It Was An ‘Evil Empire’

By Cathy Young, Reason

Nearly every form of Soviet nostalgia gets the facts wrong.

Reason‘s December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

It was the summer of 1983, and I, a Soviet émigré and an American in the making, was chatting with the pleasant middle-aged woman sitting next to me on a bus from Asbury Park, New Jersey, to Cherry Hill. Eventually our conversation got to the fact that I was from the Soviet Union, having arrived in the U.S. with my family three years earlier at age 17. “Oh, really?” said my seatmate. “You must have been pretty offended when our president called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’! Wasn’t that ridiculous?” But her merriment at the supposed absurdity of President Ronald Reagan’s recent speech was cut short when I somewhat sheepishly informed her that I thought he was entirely on point.

In 1983, the 61-year-old empire looked like it would be eternal. My next memorable conversation about the Soviet Union with a fellow passenger, in December 1991, proved otherwise. I was aboard a flight from Moscow to Newark, New Jersey, after a two-week visit, waiting for takeoff. “Do you know that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore?” the man next to me said. I stared. He showed me that day’s International Herald Tribune with a headline about the Belovezha Accords, an agreement by which the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus agreed to dissolve the USSR.

The evil empire was over.

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