Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at The American Spectator.
“Two visions of the world remain locked in dispute,” said President Ronald Reagan in July 1983. “The first believes all men are created equal by a loving God who has blessed us with freedom. Abraham Lincoln spoke for us…. The second vision believes that religion is opium for the masses. It believes that eternal principles like truth, liberty, and democracy have no meaning beyond the whim of the state. And Lenin spoke for them.”
Reagan said that on July 19, 1983, in remarks at an official ceremony marking Captive Nations Week. Captive Nations Week had begun in July 1959 via an official Act of Congress, Public Law 86-90, supported by President Dwight Eisenhower, and resurrected with a vengeance under Reagan in the 1980s, as Reagan sought to re-moralize the Cold War. The law set aside a week every July to designate and honor the unfortunate nations suffocating under the jackboot of Soviet and international communism. Among them was the Ukraine.
I thought of that Reagan statement yesterday, July 19, 2022, nearly four decades later, to the day, as I sat in a packed room at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C. I was there as a lecturer in a national seminar for teachers learning about the tragic history of communism. Fortuitously, my two days at the foundation and museum coincided with a visit from the first lady of the Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, whose husband and countrymen and countrywomen have bravely battled for eternal principles like truth, liberty, and democracy against the calculations of brooding men from Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin.
Zelenska is in Washington this week, speaking at the State Department and to Congress. In between, she visited the Victims of Communism to pay homage to the people of her country and other nations crushed by Soviet communism. Among those peoples, few suffered like her fellow Ukrainians. In the 1930s, Stalin unleashed a famine on the population that killed anywhere from 5-10 million. The horrors of Holodomor are hard to surpass in the history of human rights abuses.
While touring the Victims of Communism Museum, Zelenska paused to accept the organization’s Dissident Human Rights Award, which was presented to her by VOC staff and founders Andrew Bremberg, Ed Feulner, Elizabeth Spalding, and Lee Edwards, the latter of whom has worked tirelessly and nobly in the decades since the end of the Cold War to establish in our nation’s capital this crucial memorial to the estimated 100 million-plus communist victims. (Dr. Edwards is also the author of Freedom’s College, an excellent history of Grove City College.) This week is once again Captive Nations Week, and who better to be on hand to accept that award than the first lady of the Ukraine? Her nation right now, in 2022, is battling to not again become a captive nation to yet another Kremlin thug, former KGB lieutenant colonel and reigning Russian despot for life, Vladimir Putin.
“Communism is just another form of totalitarianism,” noted Zelenska, speaking in her native tongue through a translator. “That is exactly what Ukraine is facing today.” She accepted the award “in the name of every Ukrainian man and woman fighting Russian aggression today,” including their would-be “enslavement” and their denial of basic freedoms and human rights.
Zelenska observed that modern Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shows that “the twentieth century is repeating itself in the worst and ugliest forms.” She told the story of a mayor in a town near Kiev who was shot and killed by Russian troops for the crime of distributing food and medicine to his residents.
It indeed sounds like the twentieth century is repeating itself in the worst and ugliest forms, at least for Russia’s neighbor. That was something that Stalin’s goons would have done as well. No country ever shot dissidents like the USSR.
“In certain places,” said Zelenska, “the darkness has never faded away.” The despots now find more sophisticated weapons to use and ways to exploit social media. Whatever the means, the results continue: the people of Ukraine remain victims of Russia’s brutal rulers.
To this day, in certain places, like the Ukraine, what Ronald Reagan said on July 19, 1983 remains eerily similar to what Olena Zelenska said on July 19, 2022: Two visions of the world remain locked in dispute. The first believes in the blessings of freedom bestowed by a God who creates all men and women equal; the other vision believes that eternal principles like truth, liberty, and democracy have no meaning beyond the whim of the state. Lenin spoke for the latter; Lincoln and Reagan and Olena Zelenska spoke for the former.