Thirty years ago this week, the world witnessed an incredible phenomenon with few parallels in human history when the Soviet Union disintegrated in a largely bloodless revolution after several years of uprisings and independence movements. After 70 years, what President Ronald Reagan deemed an “Evil Empire” collapsed not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Democratically elected Union of Soviet Socialist Republics President Boris Yeltsin ascended to the leadership of the new Russian state, former Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev left the Kremlin, and the Soviet Union’s upper chamber simply voted itself out of existence.
A year later, Francis Fukuyama wrote a best-selling book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” suggesting the end of totalitarian regimes and the ascendency of liberal democracy. Yet it was hardly the end. Today, Russia and China are menacing their neighbors and threatening conflict in the world.
It is true that, three decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, there are many bright spots among countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain. Countries once under the sway of the Soviet Union are now members in good standing of the European system and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Poland, and Slovenia, among others, are vibrant, modern, peaceful societies that have mostly implemented the Western democratic model. Even some former Soviet states, including Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, have embraced democracy and market economies. All three are members of NATO and the European Union (EU) and look to the West rather than the former Soviet Union.
However, the situation elsewhere is less rosy. Belarus, which is led by an authoritarian president who calls himself “Europe’s last dictator,” has provoked an international crisis in recent weeks over its western border with Poland and has jailed those who support democracy, free elections, and a free press.
Despite its membership in the EU and NATO, Hungary has adopted some questionable measures with respect to press freedom and some individual rights. There have been challenges elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc that demand close attention. Most troublesome of all, Russia has turned its back on free elections, the rule of law, and a free market after a brief experiment with each during the 1990s.
President Vladimir Putin once called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” It therefore comes as no surprise that Putin now seems to be on the verge of re-invading Ukraine, a former Soviet state continually punished for its Western aspirations by the threat of Russian partition. Putin clearly seeks to maintain Russian influence and control within the former Soviet orbit.
This much is clear: while the Cold War may have ended, the fight for freedom—in Europe, in the former Soviet Union, even here in the United States—is never over. It is a battle for hearts and minds that must be waged year after year, generation after generation. Eternal vigilance is required.
Taking the long view, recent history shows many reasons for optimism, even in the face of headwinds like socialism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. I firmly believe that people do want to elect their own leaders, make their own economic and life choices, and live and trade peacefully with their neighbors.
A Europe that was split for a half-century between freedom and oppression has decisively broken in favor of the Western model. Former Soviet states look to the United States and Europe for leadership rather than to their former Communist Bloc allies. The remaining authoritarian states are mostly without friends.
None of this happened automatically or by destiny, and future progress won’t come without a struggle. To unleash the fundamental human yearning for liberty, we in the United States must regain confidence in our ideals, share them with all who seek freedom, and develop courageous leaders willing to stand up for our deepest convictions.