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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

If not for Reagan, my life might be quite different

Mike Sigov, a Blade staff writer and columnist, was born in Moscow, where he worked for the Soviet media during President Reagan's presidency. We asked Mr. Sigov to reflect on Soviet life. He emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1993.

They say life is for the living. But President Reagan's death yesterday had my mind drifting back to Moscow and the Cold War of the 1980s.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Reagan bellowed when speaking in West Berlin in 1987, back when there was a West and an East Berlin.

Two years later, the wall did fall, torn down by the German people and Mr. Gorbachev agreeing not to interfere. Two years later, the Communist Party gave up its chokehold on the Soviet Union, and the country fell apart into 15 independent states.

People have since argued whether Mr. Reagan should be credited with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

All I know is that Mr. Reagan's emphasis on the arms race with the Soviets - and his relentless criticism of Soviet human rights violations - did speed the demise of the country he once called the "evil empire."

When Mr. Reagan challenged his Soviet counterpart to tear down the wall, I was a writer for the North American Department of the Russian Information Agency Novosti. Officially a public news agency, it was a propaganda tool of the Communist Party Central Committee, of which President Gorbachev was the general secretary.

We wrote positive stories for the U.S. media about economic developments and the implementation of Mr. Gorbachev's liberalization policies. But as far as the state of the economy, we were blissfully unaware of its disastrous condition because statistics were state secrets.

That all changed after Mr. Gorbachev's personal interpreter visited our offices in the late 1980s. The man, who had become Mr. Gorbachev's voice for the English-speaking audiences abroad, talked vaguely about how Mr. Gorbachev was warming to the West. My impression was that the country was a financial wreck and Mr. Gorbachev knew that his party was going under and he would need help from the West.

A few days later, a fellow writer came to work flustered. He told us that he had attended a briefing by a party economic expert who left no doubt that the current level of Soviet military expenditures would bankrupt the country in a year or two.

President Gorbachev later said in a documentary film that he was fully aware that the economy was disintegrating but that the military and party establishment was too rigid to do anything about it.

He had a point. The Russian military and party had no wish to downsize. The U.S. commitment to the arms race, coupled with Mr. Reagan's reference to the Soviet Union as "the evil empire," gave the military all the excuses it needed to keep spending cash the country didn't have.

When I met Mr. Gorbachev years later, I did not have a chance to ask him about Mr. Reagan's role in the Soviet Union's demise. But I know this: If it were not for Mr. Reagan, and the breakup of the Soviet Union, I might still be there.



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