While President Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech horrified many critics – and even some of his staff – as a “provocation,” dissidents in at least one Soviet prison were “ecstatic.”

Natan Sharansky

Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, who at the time was confined to an eight-by-10-foot prison cell on the border of Siberia, said his jailers gave him the special privilege of reading the communist newspaper Pravda.

Splashed across the party organ’s pages after Reagan’s March 8, 1983, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals was condemnation of the president for having the gall to label the Soviet Union in such terms.

But a far different take on the speech quickly began to echo among the dissidents, who spread the story by tapping on walls and talking through toilets.

“We dissidents were ecstatic,” Sharansky wrote in a column for the Jerusalem Post.

“Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us,” said Sharansky, a Russian Jew.

In the speech, delivered in Orlando, Fla., Reagan urged the evangelical leaders to “speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.”

The president said, “[I]n your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

Sharansky recalled, at the time, he could not have imagined he would be in the White House three years later telling his story to the president.

The Israeli leader said he was aware there had been much criticism of Reagan’s decision to cast the struggle between the superpowers as a battle between good and evil.

“Well, Reagan was right and his critics were wrong,” Sharansky said.

Those same critics, Sharansky noted, “used to love calling Reagan a simpleton who saw the world through a primitive ideological prism and who would convey his ideas through jokes and anecdotes.”

Sharansky conceded that Reagan sometimes mixed up names, including one occasion in which the Israeli and his wife, Avital, were called “Mr. and Mrs. Shevardnadze,” the name of the Soviet foreign minister.

But Sharansky comments: “Reagan may have confused names and dates, but his moral compass was always good.”

“Today’s leaders, in contrast,” he says, “may know their facts and figures, but are often woefully confused about what should be the simplest distinctions between freedom and tyranny, democrats and terrorists.”

He concludes:

“The legacy of President Reagan will surely endure. Armed with moral clarity, a deep faith in freedom, and the courage to follow his convictions, he was instrumental in helping the West win the Cold War and hundreds of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain win their freedom.

“As one of those people, I can only express my deepest gratitude to this great leader. Believe me, I will take moral clarity and Shevardnadze any day.”

Sharansky was arrested in 1977 for protesting the Soviet Union’s refusal to allow Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel. He was accused, however, of spying for the United States and spent eight years in a prison camp in Siberia.

After public protest in the West, led by his wife, he was released in 1986 in a spy exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union. He founded a Russian immigrant party in Israel in 1996 and became Israeli minister of industry and trade. Sharansky has held various cabinet posts since then, including deputy prime minister, and currently is minister of Jerusalem affairs.

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