The fall of the ‘Evil Empire’

The Cathedral of St. Basil's was built (1555-1560) by Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) as celebration of the victory over the Tartars of Kazan. It was built in the Russo-Byzantine style and has nine domes.
The Cathedral of St. Basil's was built (1555-1560) by Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) as celebration of the victory over the Tartars of Kazan. It was built in the Russo-Byzantine style and has nine domes. | Getty Images

I have been shocked by the almost complete lack of media attention to one of the most significant and extraordinary events of the 20th century — the collapse and fall of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991.

Born in horrific bloodshed in 1917, The Bolshevik Revolution slaughtered tens of millions of people in its bloody march through the heart of the 20th century until its incredible collapse in 1991.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) emerged from the catastrophic destruction of World War II as one of the two world “super powers,” along with the United States.

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As the American foreign policy of “containment,” inspired by George Kennan and the U.S. foreign policy establishment, attempted to contain Soviet aggression and expansionism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by the U.S. and her Western European allies.

The Cold War began in earnest, spawning events like the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. A British general asked me in the early 1970s, “you know why NATO was formed, don’t you?” Not waiting for my reply, he answered his own question, “To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down!”

There were several moments during the 74 years of the Cold War that America and her allies came perilously close to a full-fledged war with the USSR, which would in all probability become nuclear. Perhaps the most dangerous moment in that 74 years of often tense confrontation was the “missiles of October” when the Soviet Union tried to place Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in Cuba in October 1962.

And then, with breathtaking, unprecedented and unanticipated speed, the Soviet Union collapsed. I will personally never forget watching on live television as the blood red Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin while the tricolor of the Russian Federation was raised in its place.

The flag ceremony followed immediately after Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech announcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transferring of the nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation on Christmas Day, 1991.

History had never previously seen such a sudden and swift, and relatively bloodless disintegration of such a powerful empire as the Soviet Union. In the mid-1990s, I had occasion to visit with my old undergraduate Princeton history professor, the then Librarian of Congress, James Billington. I reminded Dr. Billington (a world-renowned expert in Russian history) that when I was his student in 1966-67 he had predicted that the Soviet Union was not sustainable and would eventually come apart from inherent centrifugal forces built into the system’s DNA. He responded that yes, he did believe that, but he never for a moment thought it would happen either that rapidly or that bloodlessly.

And it should be said that Mikhail Gorbachev should be given credit for helping thwart the attempted coup by hardliners in August 1991. Mr. Gorbachev was not willing to use the repressive organizations of the Soviet state to shed the blood of his own people to perpetuate what he had clearly come to understand was a corrupt and failed nation-state and empire.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to have a ringside seat as these events were unfolding. Less than a fortnight before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, in early December 1991, I was privileged to be part of an official delegation of religious liberty advocates sent by Sen. Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Helms had assigned us to advocate for religious freedom for Baptists and other religious groups in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, in particular, and in Russia, in general, and report back to him upon our return.

It was a truly remarkable trip. I was deeply impressed, and humbled, by the strong, vibrant faith of the Georgian Baptists, who seemingly were flourishing in spite of severe discrimination bordering on persecution from the government. I will never forget the visual images of Georgian Baptists standing outside the church in the snow, attending the Sunday worship services and receiving communion, unable to squeeze into the standing-room only crowd in the church sanctuary.

However, the biggest surprise for me and the other members of our delegation, some of whom had visited the Soviet Union previously, was how dilapidated and non-functioning things were both in Georgia and in Moscow. The whole time we were there (7 days) in the USSR, there was little or no toilet paper, sugar, soap or milk (even in the major hotel we stayed at in Moscow).

Additionally, there were large sections of the sidewalks that were blocked off because the facades were falling off buildings both in Tbilisi and Moscow.

Even more shocking was the general sense of nihilism, ennui, and despair evident among the people. It was heartbreaking to see 12- to 15-year-old boys (obviously not in school) chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and vodka at 10 or 11 in the morning.

In some subsequent meetings with our delegation and some Russian Evangelical leaders in Moscow, I asked about this prevailing sense of existential despair that seemed to permeate large segments of the population. I will never forget their collective reply. They explained (from the perspective of December 1991) that while the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia) came under communist rule in 1940, and the Eastern European Countries and East Germany came under communist rule between 1946-1948 and Mainland China in 1949, that Russia had been communist since 1917.

Consequently, in all the other countries there were still people alive who could remember what it was like before communism. No one in Russia had such a reference point or memories. In Russia there was no collective memory of life before the communist dictatorship. Russian young people had no understanding or hope of anything other than the stifling atheism of the communist state. It was also why the average age of death for Russian men was trending lower and lower and the leading cause of death was complications related to alcoholism.

In fact, one leading Evangelical pastor explained to us that this long exposure to communism had warped the Russian soul. All the other Russian Christians in the room vigorously agreed. When I asked what they meant, they told me two jokes by way of illustration.

The first joke involved a Jewish man who was studying Hebrew on a park bench in Moscow’s Gorky Park. A KGB man walking by informed him that it was illegal to study Hebrew. The man replied, “I only want to know the language of Heaven.” The KGB agent asked, Well, what if you woke up in Hell?” to which the man replied, “I already know Russian!”

The second joke involved a peasant trying to extract a living from his infertile soil on the windswept Russian steppes. His plow uncovered a genie’s bottle and a genie popped out. The genie informed the peasant, “I can grant you a single wish if you want.”

The peasant replied, “You know how my neighbor’s land is fertile and mine is not? You know how his children are industrious and respectful and mine are lazy louts? You know how his wife is a loving and respectful spouse and mine is a witch?”

The genie, who was increasingly impatient, interrupted, “and you want to be like your neighbor?” The peasant replied, “Oh no. I want my neighbor to be like me!”

All freedom-loving people should celebrate the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the “Evil Empire.” And we should also remember that resolute, wise, and brave national political leadership does make a huge difference in world affairs and that godly and resolute political leadership is a sign of God’s blessings on a nation and its absence is a sign of God’s judgment.

It was not inevitable that the bloated albatross of evil known as the Soviet Union had to collapse when it did. In spite of its internal spiritual decay, it could have tottered on causing untold human misery to those under its control or influence for another 30 years or more.

It was given a hard push onto the “ash heap” of history by President Ronald Reagan, the first American President who was dedicated not to co-existing with the Soviets, but causing their downfall.

President Reagan repeatedly made it clear his goal was to win the Cold War. It is clear from his personal papers housed in the Reagan Library that he intuitively understood the Soviet Union’s fundamental weakness and corruption and that if we increased the pressure on their economy by just marginally increasing our defense spending, the Soviets would implode economically.

The pivotal role played by President Regan in hastening the demise of the Soviet Empire is told in riveting and voluminous fashion in two marvelous books. The first is Derek Leebaert’s The Fifty-Year Wound. How America’s Cold War Victory Shapes Our World (2002), a towering history of the Cold War by the first professional historian to have virtually unfettered access to the formerly classified Soviet archives. This marvelous book is 646 pages long with 56 pages of footnotes and a 17-page bibliography (both in exceedingly small print).

The second book is John O’Sullivan’s The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (2006), which tells the exciting story of how President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher plotted and planned to bring down the corrupt and evil Soviet colossus.

Freedom-loving people around the world should rejoice over the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. We should also draw inspiration and encouragement in order to face an even greater peril to world freedom and American independence — Communist China, which is already a greater economic threat than the Soviet Union ever was, or could hope to be and is just as determined on a course of world domination at the expense of human freedom everywhere.

Let us all remember the crucial role of leadership. The current President and the current Prime Minister could never be confused with President Reagan or Prime Minister Thatcher. It’s up to us to elect leaders capable of doing what Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did. And, of course, Pope Francis is no Pope John Paul, II. Obviously, we do not elect the pope, so we will have to leave that to divine intervention. It’s up to us, as Americans, to elect a similarly consequential president and it’s up to the British to elect a similarly consequential prime minister.  

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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