In 1983, I was confined to an 8-by-10-foot prison cell on the border of Siberia. My Soviet jailers gave me the privilege of reading the latest copy of Pravda. Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of President Ronald Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” By tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.
At the time, I never imagined that three years later, I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. When he summoned some of his staff to hear what I had said, I understood that there had been much criticism of Reagan’s decision to cast the struggle between the superpowers as a battle between good and evil. Well, Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.
Those same critics used to love calling Reagan a simpleton who saw the world through a primitive ideological prism and who would convey his ideas through jokes and anecdotes. In our first meeting, he told me that Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, his second-in-command, were discussing whether they should allow freedom of emigration. “Look, America’s really pressuring us,” Brezhnev said. “Maybe we should just open up the gates. The problem is, we might be the only two people who wouldn’t leave.” To which Kosygin replied, “Speak for yourself.”
What his critics didn’t seem to understand was that the jokes and anecdotes that so endeared Reagan to people were merely his way of expressing fundamental truths in a way that everyone could understand.
Reagan’s tendency to confuse names and dates, something I, too, experienced firsthand, also made him the target of ridicule. In September 1987, a few months before a summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, I met with Reagan to ask him what he thought about the idea of holding a massive rally of hundreds of thousands of people on behalf of Soviet Jewry during the summit. Some Jewish leaders had expressed reservations about such a frontal challenge to the Soviet premier, concerned that if the rally were held Jews would be accused of undermining a renewed hope for peace between the superpowers.
Seeing me for the first time together with my wife, Avital, who had fought for many years for my release, Reagan greeted us like a proud grandparent, knowing he had played an important role in securing my freedom. He told us about his commitment to Soviet Jewry. “My dear Mr. and Mrs. Shevardnadze,” he said, “I just spoke with Soviet Foreign Minister Sharansky, and I said you better let those Jews go.”
Not wanting to embarrass the president over his mistake, I quickly asked him about the rally, outlining the concerns raised by some of my colleagues. His response was immediate: “Do you think I am interested in a friendship with the Soviets if they continue to keep their people in prison? You do what you believe is right.”
Reagan may have confused names and dates, but his moral compass was always good. Today’s leaders, in contrast, may know their facts and figures, but are often woefully confused about what should be the simplest distinctions between freedom and tyranny, democrats and terrorists.
The legacy of Reagan will surely endure. Armed with moral clarity, a deep faith in freedom, and the courage to follow his convictions, he was instrumental in helping the West win the Cold War and hundreds of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain win their freedom.
As one of those people, I can only express my deepest gratitude to this great leader. Believe me, I will take moral clarity and Shevardnadze any day.
Natan Sharansky, a prisoner of Zion for nine years, is Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. This column previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
RONALD REAGAN (1911-2004):