This article is based on remarks delivered on March 8, 2023, for a Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation event marking the fortieth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech.
President Reagan’s strenuous fight for human rights for the captive peoples of the Soviet empire did as much as his military policies to win the Cold War. His concern for their rights and freedoms, which is reflected in the term “evil empire”, was both a matter of personal conscience and strategically important. In the late 1980s, I had the honor of briefing President Ronald Reagan, one on one, in the Oval Office. We discussed my recent fact-finding mission on the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime’s human rights abuses. Reagan was visibly disturbed by what I told him. He recognized the hallmarks of Soviet communism, here in the Americas.
The evil of the Evil Empire was not simply the Marxist view that religion is the opiate of the people but rather that the communist values were the inverse of American democratic values, realized in what the American Declaration of Independence calls “unalienable” rights, endowed by our Creator.
Soviet communism prioritized, by contrast, the omnipotent communist party state. To this end, Soviet leadership justified the killing of millions and the “aggressive impulses” for world domination. The core evil of Soviet communism resided in its culture of lies and hatred, as Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, emphasized. As a result, distrust cast a shadow over nearly all human relations. George Weigel, who researched KGB archives, wrote in First Things: Soviet communism was “an undercover war as well as a matter of mass murder: It involved spies and spymasters, moles and agents of influence, propaganda, disinformation, and other ‘active measures,’ just as it did slave labor camps and the bullet in the nape of the neck.”
Reagan insisted on using the term “evil empire” in his speech, against the advice of most of his advisers, his National Security Adviser Bill Clark said in an oral history. He saw the Cold War as a stark struggle between “right and wrong and good and evil,” as he stated in that speech.
Reagan was a religious believer often “driven to his knees,” as he said, quoting Lincoln, though admittedly this praying did not typically occur inside a church. In fact, Douglas Brinkley, the historian who edited Reagan’s diaries, commented, “his strong relationship with God was of paramount importance” in his life. Perhaps nothing shows this more than his diary entry for March 30, 1981, the day he was shot in the lung by John Hinkley outside the Washington Hilton:
“I focused on [the hospital room’s] tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time, I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”
Reagan declared in the speech, “I believe in intercessory prayer.” I recently had the opportunity to tour Reagan’s ranch, which is kept just as he left it. I was surprised to see in it a Russian Orthodox icon of the Mother of God. I imagine when he glanced at it, Reagan would say a prayer for the captive people of the Soviet empire. Nearby, was a photo of Gorbachev at the ranch in a Stetson, a gift from the President. Gorbachev looks clueless — he had put the cowboy hat on backward. Reagan no doubt prayed for him too.
In her recent book Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum describes the Soviet strategy for seizing totalitarian control of Eastern Europe after World War II. The Soviets had four immediate priorities. They created an extensive secret police that used violence against regime opponents. They took control of the mass media, namely radio. They forcibly uprooted ethnic minorities. And they suppressed or put under Communist leadership every institution of civil society, including the churches.
The Soviets envisioned the eventual eradication of all religious organizations, the first government to adopt such a vision. Soviet religious police relied on: Surveillance, coercion, regulation, co-option, and atheistic education. These tools were used to varying degrees from Stalin’s reign of terror, and Kruschev’s crackdown, to the more selective persecution between 1965 and 1985, and straight through to the end of Gorbachev’s glasnost.
Initially, the Russian Orthodox Church bore the brunt of the coercion. Its property was nationalized and many of its schools were closed. Over 50,000 bishops, priests, monks and nuns were slaughtered or imprisoned. The number of laity who perished in Stalin’s terror is incalculable.
After several years of Orthodox Church resistance, the regime launched a “merciless battle against the reactionary clergy,” as Lenin had urged in a 1922 letter. The Russian Orthodox leadership cracked in 1927 and made a “Declaration of Loyalty to the Soviets.” This transformed that church into an “active Soviet ally,” as one historian put it. That church gained favor with the regime and was even allowed to join the World Council of Churches, but it paid a heavy moral price.
In his 1972 Lenten letter, Alexander Solzhenitsyn excoriated the Orthodox hierarchy for letting the Church be “ruled dictatorially by atheists—a sight never before seen in two millennia!” He went on:
“By what reasoning is it possible to convince oneself that the planned destruction of the spirit and body of the church under the guidance of atheists is the best way of preserving it? … Preserving it by what means? By Falsehood? But after the falsehood by whose hands are the holy sacraments to be celebrated?”
Those who persisted in resisting were selectively targeted. Orthodox priest Vasili Shipilov, for example, was arrested in 1949 for traveling without permission and was confined to labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for over 36 years. Freed in 1988, the 60-year-old priest said at a news conference that every time he made the sign of the cross in detention, he was viciously beaten. “As a result of one beating, I suffered a fractured skull and recently orderlies broke my leg accusing me of trying to escape from hospital,” the trembling priest said. The Sunday Times of London first reported his release on its front page and it credited Reagan for it. Reagan frequently personally intervened with Gorbachev on behalf of prisoners of conscience and he met with their family members when possible.
During the Soviet mass terror of the 1930s, priests, pastors, rabbis and imams of other religious groups disappeared by the thousand into the labor camps, or gulags, and execution cellars. Places of worship were closed and destroyed. There was a pause with Germany’s invasion in 1941, as Stalin needed popular support against the Nazis, but Nikita Khrushchev launched the next major assault on religion. Between 1959 and 1964, he closed roughly half the legally sanctioned places of worship and the number of Soviet Christians imprisoned averaged 300 a year.
Between 1964-85, Christian prisoners averaged about 100 a year. Even during glasnost, 200 religious believers continued serving sentences for religious reasons. The Ukrainian Catholics, who were forced to merge with the Orthodox in 1946, remained banned, as were the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas. Worship by the legally-recognized religions was prohibited unless its place and congregation were state-approved. Organized religious instruction, Hebrew training for minors, and Bible study groups for adults remained prohibited. Bibles, Torahs, Qurans and other religious literature were scarce. The 1918 Decree on the Separation of Church from the State had already resulted in the confiscation of all church property and liturgical objects though the registered churches could get some loaned back.
The most brutal repression against the Catholic Church occurred in Ukraine. Thousands with the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, including numerous priests and all but two of ten bishops, died in the Gulag. My Center’s 1988 report noted that Gorbachev’s tactics against this Church were unaffected by glasnost and more resembled Stalin’s. In 1987, many of the 150 underground Catholic churches were shut down by the state. From October to December 1987, an underground Ukrainian Catholic priest was punished by being forced to clean up radioactive waste at Chernobyl.
In Lithuania, the Catholic Church was harshly discriminated against and persecuted despite being legally recognized. In 1978, Father Alfonsas Svarinskas helped found the Catholic Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights. In 1983, the priest was sent to a Siberian labor camp until 1988, when he was freed after President Reagan appealed for his release to Gorbachev. Asked at a press briefing to remember the years spent in the camp, Fr. Svarinskas burst into tears and thanked Reagan. “The uniform I was wearing in the labor camp is in the US museum dedicated to Reagan,” he proudly related. Reagan also personally intervened for Jewish refusnik Natan Scharansky, the Pentecostal Vaschenko families, and others.
Unregistered Protestant and evangelical groups were severely repressed, particularly the groups of the Baptist Church, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Reformed, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Between 1959 and 1964, over half of evangelical churches were closed. Between 1974 and 1984 some 471 Soviet Baptist communities were granted registration but hundreds of congregations remained underground. Protestant groups had few educational institutes. The Baptists depended on a correspondence course or on sending students abroad. The Pentecostals and Mennonites had no training institutes. As with other religions, entrants to the Protestant seminaries and schools were screened for party loyalty.
The Iron Curtain country of Albania boasted in 1967 of having the world’s first atheist country. It outlawed religious practice. Every place of public worship –over 2,000 churches, mosques and synagogues – was vandalized, closed, destroyed or converted to more “useful” secular purposes. Clergy were publicly ridiculed and beaten; many were imprisoned, executed or killed by harsh treatment. An elderly Albanian Orthodox bishop was beaten to death for secretly saying Mass. A priest, already in a labor camp, was executed after heeding the pleas of a fellow prisoner to baptize her child. In 1989, a father was still doing hard labor for teaching his children about God, as his son’s classmates reported to their teacher. Albania, home of Mother Theresa, had a history of religious freedom for both its Christians and Muslims. It was among the few nations to take Jews fleeing persecution. Under communism, no religious believer was safe there.
The Vatican initially rejected communism, including with a Holy Office decree in 1949 banning Catholic participation in communist parties under pain of excommunication. Because of this and Vatican influence in Eastern Europe, Catholic leaders in Eastern Europe were targeted for persecution. Resistance heroes included Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Hungarian Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty and Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac — the latter two were subjected to show trials and years in prison.
By 1959, the Vatican feared that the Church would eventually “succumb to a natural death,” as it was being “suffocated by the coils of a hostile power,” as Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican’s principal diplomat, put it. It then adopted the policy of diplomatic engagement, called Ostpolitik. This opened the Church to communist infiltration and manipulation. Communist moles penetrated the Vatican itself – Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovak secret services all reported “significant agent positions” there — so that Pope John Paul II kept his Soviet files in the papal apartments, not trusting curial offices, Weigel noted. He described the Hungary example:
“Most bishops nominated under the 1964 Vatican-Hungarian agreement cooperated with Hungary’s internal security and foreign intelligence services; by 1969, the Hungarian bishops’ conference was in large measure controlled by the Hungarian state. So was the Pontifical Hungarian Institute in Rome, all of whose rectors in the late 1960s and half of whose students were trained agents of Hungarian secret intelligence.”
The “Slavic” Pope aimed to liberate the Eastern bloc Church and embarked on a historic visit to his native Poland in 1979 that ignited a revolution of conscience. In Krakow, he preached spiritual renewal and the transforming power of Christ’s love. In response, the thousands there spontaneously chanted, “We want God.” The visit empowered Solidarity, and in 1980, the regime legalized it, making it the Soviet bloc’s only independent trade union.
Citizen Reagan was closely watching these events on television. At the time, he commented to a friend, “I have had a feeling, particularly in the pope’s visit to Poland, that religion may turn out to be the Soviets’ Achilles’ heel!” Clark related in his oral history that Reagan believed “if Poland started to unravel, the whole Soviet Empire would come down.”
Once president, Reagan’s early priority was to meet with the Pope. His Feb. 6, 1981, diary entry expresses frustration that his nominee for ambassador to the Vatican hadn’t yet been confirmed, as the pope was to make a stop-over in Alaska and Reagan was impatient to establish contact. Clark said that he and CIA director Bill Casey began frequent meetings with the Vatican’s ambassador to Washington, using as code to signal urgency, “Could we stop in for cappuccino?” They would discuss Central America, the Soviets and the Poles.
But Reagan’s papal meeting would have to wait. Six weeks after Reagan was shot, the pope was shot in the chest in St. Peter’s Square, by a Turkish assassin hired by the Bulgarian communist secret police at the orders of the KGB.
On Dec. 15, 1981, Reagan had lunch with Cardinal Casaroli at the White House, about which his diary records, “most of the talk was on Poland.” His entry for Dec. 21, 1981, stated, “Most important was NSC meeting re Poland. I took a stand that this may be the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet Empire’s colonial policy regarding Eastern Europe. We should take a stand & tell them unless & until martial law is lifted in Poland, the prisoners released and negotiations resumed between Walesa (Solidarity) & the Polish govt. We would quarantine the Soviets & Poland with no trade, or communications across their borders. Also, tell our NATO allies & others to join us in such sanctions or risk engagement from us.”
Reagan finally connected with the Pope in mid-1982. They met alone in the Vatican for 50 minutes and took no notes. Among his remarks immediately afterward, Reagan addressed Poland, calling it the “martyred nation” and delivered the speech he had sketched out in his diary on Dec. 21, the year before.
The President and the Pope, Clark relates, also joked at their meeting that their near assassinations were God’s “wake-up call” to work faster and that they were only “half joking.” They met twice more during the decade.
Reagan pursued peace through strength, while relentlessly championing freedom and human rights for the people of the Soviet empire. In West Berlin, in 1987, he exhorted Gorbachev, “tear down this wall.” The rest is history. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet empire was no more.
With God’s help, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II shared a friendship and a mission that were pivotal to the defeat of an empire that was as evil in concept as it was in execution.