The Day That Reagan Died

 

90265714_1It was June 5th, 2004. I had been in the Republic of Georgia for less than a month when I heard that Reagan had died. Reagan had meant a lot to me over the years, and I’d followed his political career since I was eight years old. Growing up with the Reagan administration made the 40th president my childhood hero.

What I did not expect was how the Georgian people would react. As I was walking in the bazaar of a small provincial town, a man saw me, quickly crossed the dusty street, took my hand and said, “I am so sorry. Your great man died today. I am so sorry.”

I asked him, “Do you mean President Reagan?”

The man nodded his head vigorously and smiled. “Reagan loved freedom. Great man.”

Other Georgians then noticed me, and soon a small crowd of people formed to tell me how sorry they were that Reagan had died and thank me for what Reagan had done. At the time, I barely spoke any Georgian, so I don’t know if they said more than that.

When I got home, I told this story to the pastor I was staying with. He spoke English, so I asked him, “Why do the Georgians even know about Reagan?”

The pastor told me that Reagan was a great man, and every one knew that. He told me to wait, and that he would tell me tonight why the Georgians thought Reagan was great.

That night, my pastor friend, Levan, gathered together three of his friends, all small business owners, and they put out some wine and dried fish, and we started talking about Reagan.

Gogita immediately brought up Reagan’s speech and the Brandenburg Gate. “When Reagan said, “Tear down that Wall,” it was the moment that I believed that we could be free of the Russians and that communism would not go on forever.” Everyone else nodded around the table.

Tomas said, “I remember when the news carried that Reagan had given speech when he called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ Everyone reported it here like Reagan was crazy, but I knew finally there was an American president that understood the Soviet Union. Finally, I thought someone could see the obvious.”

They continued that way for a while, sharing favorite quotes and speeches with great emphasis on Reagan’s understanding of the Soviet Union. They also spoke with bitterness about how previous American presidents had always played nice with the Soviets and called them a “great people” and a “great nation.” That got under their skin, because the Russians were conquerors and they held other nations hostage. The Soviet Union was never a “nation,” it was an empire, and there was no great “people,” just the oppressor and oppressed.

Then I asked the men a question. “Many in the United States think that Gorbachev really ended the Cold War, and that Reagan got in the way. What do you think of that? Was Gorbachev more responsible for the peaceful end of the Cold War?”

That got all the men around the table to laugh. They responded like this: Gorbachev loved communism and thought it was good. He never would have ended communism without outside pressure. Do you think the people would have risen against the dictatorship if we did not think American would be on our side? They thought it was utterly foolish to think that Reagan did not force Gorbachev to change and therefore accelerated the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putting aside the dried fish, it was one of the most exceptional nights of my life.

Later, I finally decided to head to the regional capital, where I could get on the Internet for a few minutes and download a few decent articles about Reagan. After I did that, I was in a restaurant that served something that, if you squinted right and had poor lighting, could be mistaken for pizza. The taste, alas, could at best remind one of what pizza tasted like, but in eastern Georgia it was the best to be found. In there were some peace corps volunteers. Back then, in the eastern part of Georgia, the only foreigners were me, the missionary, and about a dozen Peace Corps types. These three volunteers were all female and they were hardcore lefties. They had peace symbols on their computers, and “Bush Lied” and other leftist slogans plastered on whatever ever surfaces they could stick them on. They were walking slogan boards of the left.

Well, they were talking about the horror, the horror of being greeted on the street and thanked for the work of Ronald Reagan. They didn’t know how to handle it, if they should just smile and nod to be polite, or if they should recoil, or if they should just offer a witty rejoinder. The rejoinders I remember were these, “He (Reagan) would have nuked you if he could!” “You know, he hated the poor.” “He wanted communism to continue!” And finally, “You didn’t know the real Reagan.” The idea behind “He wanted communism to continue” was that as long as the communists were out there, Reagan could suppress dissent at home.

With two exceptions, Peace Corps types and I don’t get along very well. We have major culture clashes about Georgia, my role as a missionary, and what they’re working on here. So normally, I never would have said anything to the three women, but I decided I could not let this pass. I walked up and said, “I could not help but overhear you. I know you do not like Reagan, but perhaps you should listen to some Georgians about why they liked Reagan and listen to them. It is very possible they know more about it than you. Maybe you should listen to them first, and then condemn them.”

The three women acted like I had tried a crude pickup line in a bar and showed me utter contempt. They got up to leave, and when I told them to have a nice day, one of them looked at me with real hate (at least to my perception). She said, “Reagan didn’t deserved to be praised! No matter what the Georgians think.” Then she left.

I thought the difference between the left and the right in America was very much on display there, and it was a perfect coda for Reagan. No matter how much good you do in the world, the left will always hate you.

There are 26 comments.

  1. Pleated Pants Forever Inactive

    What I did not expect was how the Georgian people would react. Walking in the bazaar of a small provincial town 

    I don’t think Ricochet members from the Peach State are going to like your characterization of Atlanta as a small provincial town. Kidding, of course. Thanks for sharing this story

    • #1
    • June 18, 2015, at 4:44 AM PDT
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  2. Instugator Thatcher

    The Peace Corps folks were lucky you didn’t out them as pro-communist and point out the Peace symbol to the Georgians as proof for the future.

    The only good Peace symbol is this one.

    PTOFW

    • #2
    • June 18, 2015, at 4:44 AM PDT
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  3. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Beautifully written and moving.

    • #3
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:22 AM PDT
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  4. Merina Smith Inactive

    Great story Brian. Sometimes we need another perspective to really appreciate our own heros. My two daughters were PC volunteers in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, but I think if you had met them, you would have gotten along. They were the token conservatives in their groups. And you will not be surprised to learn that Rachel especially loved mixing it up with the lefties!

    • #4
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:29 AM PDT
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  5. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Merina Smith:

    Great story Brian. Sometimes we need another perspective to really appreciate our own heros. My two daughters were PC volunteers in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, but I think if you had met them, you would have gotten along. They were the token conservatives in their groups. And you will not be surprised to learn that Rachel especially loved mixing it up with the lefties!

    I got along with one Christian Peace Corp volunteer very well. She was bit liberal in her politics, but only a bit, but a sincere believer. We had a wonderful relationship her joke was there had to be at least 4 but no more Christians in every new class of the Peace Corps. Kind of funny. I also got along well with one man who desired to be a reporter. He was a lefty but had a truly open and inquiring mind and was very interested in my experience as a missionary. So there are good ones out there but they are few. I am sure I would have loved to have known your daughters. One of them was quite close to me. I can be on the Azerbaijan border in about an hour and half.

    • #5
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:39 AM PDT
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  6. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:Beautifully written and moving.

    Thank you very much Claire.

    • #6
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:39 AM PDT
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  7. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Pleated Pants Forever:I don’t think Ricochet members from the Peach State are going to like your characterization of Atlanta as a small provincial town. Kidding, of course. Thanks for sharing this story

    My Georgian father in law was at a Baptist World Conference in Korea and they were doing a roll call. They got to Georgia and the American delegation stood up along with the Georgians because the Americans happened to be from Georgia. Everyone had a good laugh and the moderator, according to my father in law, would always call the American delegation, in good fun, the “Delegation from Atlanta” and he called the Georgian Delegation “the Real Georgia”. He said everyone got a laugh out of that.

    • #7
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:42 AM PDT
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  8. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    Just because of the name, I have always had a special place in my heart for the Nation.

    I love the “tear down this wall” comment. Great words from a great man that insisted they be left in the speech. And a great speech written by a great writer. I know he won’t agree, but Peter, you helped change history.

    • #8
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:13 AM PDT
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  9. Goldwater's Revenge Member

    Still bothers me how the press vilified this great man the entire time he was in office. What more could he have accomplished had the press been his lapdog as they have been for Carter, Johnson, Clinton and Obama?

    • #9
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:16 AM PDT
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  10. Front Seat Cat Member

    Loved that story – being on the liberal side most of my younger years, I didn’t like Reagan either – but I also didn’t know that much about him – since reading his battles with communism, I have learned a lot. Also, recently read Claire Berlinski’s book on Thatcher, I learned how close Thatcher and “Gorby” became (the only communist she ever liked) – they were straight with each other about their policies, but I think she was instrumental in working with Gorbachev as well as Reagan in standing up to the communist regime. Imagine the world had they not. Those in Eastern Europe (and here) need a Reagan now, as we see it rearing its ugly head again. Thank you for sharing that.

    • #10
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:17 AM PDT
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  11. Fricosis Guy Listener

    My dad may be an old-fashioned liberal, but he hated the Peace Corps. Caused more trouble than they were often worth. At least one evac per tour for medical or scandal reasons (sometimes one brought on the other).

    • #11
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:38 AM PDT
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  12. MarciN Member

    I read a startling essay years ago by, of all people, Richard Nixon. He had stepped out of house arrest long enough to write this piece.

    The essay was an in-our-view piece on the last page of Time magazine. I was getting an oil change for my car, which is the only reason I picked up the magazine. (I don’t read Time magazine unless it is the last piece of paper among the choices around me.)

    At the time, the press was going nuts with happy glee over Gorby and glasnost.

    I wish I could find the essay, which in the context of that moment was somehow surreal. In this essay, Nixon was saying, “Do not trust Gorbachev.”

    There was something convincing, commanding, and completely credible about Nixon’s words. Clearly based on firsthand knowledge.

    I haven’t felt too comfortable with Gorby ever since.

    • #12
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:49 AM PDT
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  13. Blake Anderton Member

    Great story. Brings to mind one of Dennis Prager’s witicisms, “The right fights evil, the left fights the right.”

    • #13
    • June 18, 2015, at 7:13 AM PDT
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  14. George Savage Contributor

    I was in school in Boston through most of the Reagan years. Reagan was loathed by the editors of The Boston Globe, university faculty and most students, but the average cab driver loved him. Most cabbies I spoke with would complain about this or that policy but would come around in the end to an expression of respect and admiration. I think Reagan’s moral clarity is what tipped the balance, causing even union members to vote for the man, if not the policies.

    • #14
    • June 18, 2015, at 8:48 AM PDT
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  15. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Great post.

    I fully understand why the Left adopts its view of Reagan. His triumph over the Communist tyranny is a triply devastating blow to the Leftist’s entire world view. The American conservatives were right; the Left’s dearly-beloved USSR was finally revealed to be the evil empire that it was; and the Left opposed Reagan’s every move as he brought down the vile edifice of world Communism.

    What is appalling is the journalistic and academic dishonesty that allows the Left’s inaccurate and perverted view of Reagan, and the fall of Communism, to persist.

    • #15
    • June 18, 2015, at 10:09 AM PDT
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  16. Umbra Fractus Inactive

    I was born in 1978, so even though I technically lived through the Carter administration, I have no memory of it, and my memories of the Reagan years are limited to having it burned in my mind that Lebanon, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were bad places, and learning that the Russians wanted to kill us before I even knew what a Russian was. And, of course, my parents always spoke of “Russians” and never “Soviets,” which I think the Georgians might not take offense to.

    Those three Peace Corpistas need to be reminded of one thing; it’s not just the Georgians. It’s also the Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Armenians, Ukrainians, Estonians… No one is more anti-communist than one who’s been liberated from Marx’s tentacles.

    I’ll bet those girls still think the USSR wasn’t “real communism,” and it’d work fine if we just gave it one more chance.

    • #16
    • June 18, 2015, at 10:26 AM PDT
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  17. Oblomov Member

    Great post, Brian, and a great story. I came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union as a child in the late 70s, and among the many things I am thankful for is that I got to grow up in the Reagan era. It breaks my heart that my kids will grow up in a completely different country.

    I got out of college right after the USSR collapsed, and got this fantastic job where we would go to Moscow and interview former Soviet military and defense-industrial leaders about the Cold War. We wanted to know what they were thinking, what their war planning had been, how they thought about the arms race, etc. Our subjects were stunned by the loss of their empire, but they were proud of what they had accomplished over the years, so many of them were quite open and willing to talk frankly to us. One of them, a very important defense-industrial leader, said that he knew the game was up in 1969 when he saw the first Boeing 747. He said he knew then there was no way they could win.

    I think it is still an open question exactly what roles Reagan and Gobachev played in the end. My own view is that, although the Soviets could not compete with us in the long run, there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of their empire. As North Korea shows, you can keep an insane, desperately poor totalitarian state going indefinitely if you have enough ruthlessness and willpower. The Russians just couldn’t muster enough of either.

    • #17
    • June 18, 2015, at 11:11 AM PDT
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  18. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Front Seat Cat:Loved that story – being on the liberal side most of my younger years, I didn’t like Reagan either – but I also didn’t know that much about him – since reading his battles with communism, I have learned a lot. Also, recently read Claire Berlinski’s book on Thatcher, I learned how close Thatcher and “Gorby” became (the only communist she ever liked) – they were straight with each other about their policies, but I think she was instrumental in working with Gorbachev as well as Reagan in standing up to the communist regime. Imagine the world had they not. Those in Eastern Europe (and here) need a Reagan now, as we see it rearing its ugly head again. Thank you for sharing that.

    You are quite welcome. I thought that everyone here would like to know the story from the perspective of at least some here on the ground in the USSR during Reagan’s time.

    • #18
    • June 18, 2015, at 11:56 AM PDT
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  19. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Fricosis Guy:My dad may be an old-fashioned liberal, but he hated the Peace Corps. Caused more trouble than they were often worth. At least one evac per tour for medical or scandal reasons (sometimes one brought on the other).

    Yep that is true here too. There have been sex scandals and many problems with medical leave or volunteers bugging out early.

    Some of them do good work and many of they try hard but they most of them think cosmetic changes in schools or government leads to real cultural change and it does not.

    • #19
    • June 18, 2015, at 11:59 AM PDT
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  20. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Umbra Fractus:I was born in 1978, so even though I technically lived through the Carter administration, I have no memory of it, and my memories of the Reagan years are limited to having it burned in my mind that Lebanon, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were bad places, and learning that the Russians wanted to kill us before I even knew what a Russian was. And, of course, my parents always spoke of “Russians” and never “Soviets,” which I think the Georgians might not take offense to.

    Those three Peace Corpistas need to be reminded of one thing; it’s not just the Georgians. It’s also the Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Armenians, Ukrainians, Estonians… No one is more anti-communist than one who’s been liberated from Marx’s tentacles.

    I’ll bet those girls still think the USSR wasn’t “real communism,” and it’d work fine if we just gave it one more chance.

    Yes exactly. They could not comprehend that something that Reagan disliked so much, the USSR, could really be so bad. Several of the Peace Corps members I met have said that understand fully the people that miss the USSR but have a harder time understanding the people that hated it. They can’t understand that the USSR existed as a military dictatorship as soon as it tried to be something else it collapsed.

    • #20
    • June 18, 2015, at 12:26 PM PDT
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  21. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Oblomov:Great post, Brian, and a great story.I came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union as a child in the late 70s, and among the many things I am thankful

    I think it is still an open question exactly what roles Reagan and Gobachev played in the end. My own view is that, although the Soviets could not compete with us in the long run, there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of their empire. As North Korea shows, you can keep an insane, desperately poor totalitarian state going indefinitely if you have enough ruthlessness and willpower. The Russians just couldn’t muster enough of either.

    Yes, my Georgian friends and a lot of reading that I have done backs up their opinion. The only person in the USSR that really believed that communism was a good system was Gorbachev. He thought if he modernized and reformed it the system would continue. The people he wanted to get rid of were all the leaders that knew that in the end the Communist only survived as long as the people were scared of them. Reagan’s pressure was so intense that Gorbachev felt he had to reform and reform now, as soon as he did the how system unraveled. If he had focused on repression he could have held the USSR together but it would have lost status in the world and become a lot weaker.

    The Soviet leaders had mortgaged the future of the USSR on building a massive military advantage over the US up until the early 80s it looked like that might pay off. But as new technology came on line and Reagan’s military build up took hold the Soviet military edge slipped away and they had nothing to show for the effort. That was always going to be hard to recover from and Gorbachev’s gamble on reform didn’t pay off. Praise God.

    • #21
    • June 18, 2015, at 12:32 PM PDT
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  22. DubyaC Member

    Many thanks for this post. It must have been tremendously moving to be an American in any of the Eastern European countries you mention and receive such expressions of appreciation for what America under President Reagan accomplished.

    And you were much kinder to the Peace Corps types than I would have had the patience to be.

    • #22
    • June 18, 2015, at 5:55 PM PDT
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  23. Underground Conservative Coolidge

    Great post. Thanks. Those who think Gorbachev was the hero are the most complete of fools. Gorbachev was a decent, naive man who was wrong about everything. He still is today.

    • #23
    • June 18, 2015, at 6:35 PM PDT
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  24. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Underground Conservative:Great post. Thanks. Those who think Gorbachev was the hero are the most complete of fools. Gorbachev was a decent, naive man who was wrong about everything. He still is today.

    You are welcome. It is weird but Gorbachev seemed to really think that Soviet power was based on the general consent of the governed. It annoyed him to no end when Reagan brought up stories of Soviet citizens feeling oppressed. When Gobachev found out that Soviet tyranny was truly unpopular he was truly, truly shocked. That is the main reason that the Soviet Union did not end in violence though.

    If the Soviets had focused on internal suppression and clamped down hard on dissidents and let some of the Eastern European countries go they may have survived for decades longer than they did.

    • #24
    • June 19, 2015, at 2:15 AM PDT
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  25. Umbra Fractus Inactive

    Oblomov: I think it is still an open question exactly what roles Reagan and Gobachev played in the end. My own view is that, although the Soviets could not compete with us in the long run, there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of their empire. As North Korea shows, you can keep an insane, desperately poor totalitarian state going indefinitely if you have enough ruthlessness and willpower. The Russians just couldn’t muster enough of either.

    Gorbachev is (or should be) a lesson to those who still insist communism can work if we just do it right. Gorbachev tried to improve Soviet governance; he thought the system would not only survive his reforms, but become stronger.

    He was wrong. Communism could not survive transparent government. As soon as Gorbachev started to allow even a bit of liberalization, the whole thing came crashing down.

    So, in a way, I guess you can credit Gorbachev with bringing down the Soviet Union, just not in the way the Reagan haters think.

    • #25
    • June 19, 2015, at 10:30 AM PDT
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  26. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf Post author

    Umbra Fractus:

    Oblomov: I think it is still an open question exactly what roles Reagan and Gobachev played in the end. My own view is that, although the Soviets could not compete with us in the long run, there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of their empire. As North Korea shows, you can keep an insane, desperately poor totalitarian state going indefinitely if you have enough ruthlessness and willpower. The Russians just couldn’t muster enough of either.

    Gorbachev is (or should be) a lesson to those who still insist communism can work if we just do it right. Gorbachev tried to improve Soviet governance; he thought the system would not only survive his reforms, but become stronger.

    He was wrong. Communism could not survive transparent government. As soon as Gorbachev started to allow even a bit of liberalization, the whole thing came crashing down.

    So, in a way, I guess you can credit Gorbachev with bringing down the Soviet Union, just not in the way the Reagan haters think.

    Yes nearly exactly right. There was no group of people that really believed in Communism and even the leaders of the party didn’t believe in it any more. They only believed in power.

    • #26
    • June 19, 2015, at 10:34 AM PDT
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