It seems as if statues of Ronald Reagan are going up everywhere, on this American Independence Day in the 20th year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And by everywhere, I mean Budapest and London (but then there’s also the street being named after him in Prague).

I’m not a big fan of Reagan, but I understand why people in Eastern Europe are. I suppose what I admire most about him was his moderation (which might just look like moderation because his party has swung so far to the right). That trait found expression in his hard work to dismantle the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. No one can take that away from him. Likewise, his stirring demand that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.

He is, of course, widely credited with pushing along the Soviet Union’s demise, harrying the Soviets in Afghanistan and bamboozling them with a still-theoretical missile defense shield. An essential part of that effort, though, was Reagan’s recognition of Gorbachev’s sincerity about changing (although, admittedly, not killing) the Soviet Union and his willingness to work with his Soviet counterpart.

You might never again see me quoting Margaret Thatcher approvingly, but something she said at Reagan’s funeral gets to what is bothering me about the statues.

Yes, he did not shrink from denouncing Moscow’s ‘evil empire.’ But he realized that a man of good will might nonetheless emerge from within its dark corridors.

And when a man of good will did emerge from the ruins, President Reagan stepped forward to shake his hand and to offer sincere cooperation.

So what of that man of good will, who recognized the need for his country to adapt and who made the first efforts, ever, to offer his people long-denied dignity and freedoms? In a March poll of Russians conducted by the respected and independent Levada Center, 47 percent of respondents expressed indifference to Gorbachev. That was the largest-single group. Those professing admiration, respect, gratitude, even sympathy, all registered in the single digits. The only other reaction to get a double-digit response was dislike, with 10 percent.

That isn’t too surprising. After all, if you accept the idea that Reagan won the Cold War, then Gorbachev lost it. And who remembers a loser fondly? Certainly not Vladimir Putin, who sees the Soviet Union’s collapse as a tragedy.

It’s the indifference to Gorbachev around Eastern Europe that rankles. Self-interestedly or not, he loosened the reins on those countries and made it possible for people to take sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall. I think his image has fallen victim to the region’s continuing distrust of Russia (surely a warmer relationship would have resulted in one or two memorials to Gorbachev by now?) and Russia’s own unwillingness to promote the man’s legacy, in stark contrast to how the United States memorializes his American counterpart.

I don’t necessarily want the statues of Reagan to come down, but I wouldn’t mind if statues of Gorbachev went up alongside them.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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