- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I had heard the stories through the years. Now an attractive, animated, woman was sitting opposite me in a tony Upper East Side New York restaurant — pouring out her story and her heart. In fact, her account, passionately told, brought tears to her eyes. And according to her, her story and her life are all wrapped up in President Ronald Reagan. She gave me permission to talk about it publicly.

Sofia was born into poverty near Minsk, an industrial city of 2.5 million people, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Her father, a colonel in the Soviet Armed Forces and a trained physicist, with a degree from Moscow University, had been sentenced to and served at hard labor in the Gulag for 10 years starting in 1950 because of his opposition to the Stalinist regime.

Through the letter-writing efforts of his wife and his community protesting his incarceration, he was finally released in 1959 and Sofia was born shortly thereafter. Though the family was very poor and were never sure their food supply would hold out through the month, Sofia said she was a happy child. With one dress to wear and her extended family all sharing a small apartment, she made dolls and busied herself with little projects and her studies.

She kept her most cherished possession, though, hidden beneath her thin little mattress. It was a magazine that told about America — about the freedom there and the opportunities it afforded anyone. She nurtured that tattered periodical for years — pulling it out to remind herself of the contrast between what she saw as a dim future for herself and her family and what life might be like in this place called America.

Sofia said she believed America was heaven. I asked her what she meant by that. To her, she explained, if she ever came to America it would literally be like being sent to heaven — a wholly different type of world. But during the height of the Cold War, that appeared totally out of the question, given the repressive Soviet regime and its strict immigration policies — especially toward Jews. But that beat-up old magazine and the image of freedom it conveyed provided Sofia with a thread of hope.

Sofia proved herself an exceptional student, and she progressed quickly through undergraduate and graduate degrees at Moscow University majoring in mathematics. By this time, her dreams of living in America grew larger and more persistent.

On the other side of the Wall, Ronald Reagan was having his own dream of freedom for the oppressed people of the Soviet system and Eastern Europe. He was pursuing that vision through an expansion of U.S. defensive and offensive military capabilities and of publicly outing these regimes — telling the story of oppression wherever and whenever he could. His critics thought it intrusive or inappropriate to publicly cite and expose the “evil” in these regimes or to challenge Soviet leadership to “tear down this wall.”

But Sofia wouldn’t agree with them. Her future depended on Mr. Reagan not giving in to those critics. And here is where they finally met — the American president and this poor but hopeful Russian woman. They met at the point where her drive for freedom and his campaign for liberation converged — at the place where freedom takes over — something the world then almost could not imagine.

As Mr. Reagan’s policies began to resound in the Soviet Bloc and liberalization began, Sofia assertively sought immigration papers for her entire family. After some struggle, Sofia’s family secured their visas and got out of Russia as political refugees. They finally landed in New York in 1988 with $35 in their pockets and have never stopped thanking Ronald Reagan.

Without him and his policies and their effect on an oppressive regime, she never would have been able to live one of Mr. Reagan’s favorite quotes, from Thomas Paine: “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” Now Sofia has literally begun her life over again, and she and her family have become financially secure and every day breathe the American dream.

Sofia’s life mattered to Ronald Reagan — Sofia and the thousands of others who are now living in a world that was begun over again. Sofia calls herself Ronald Reagan’s other woman, although she never even met this American president, or any American president for that matter. For she knows he changed the course of her life and countless others like her because of his love of freedom, his knowledge that all people inherently desire to live free, and his courage to do something about it, to speak the truth loudly, simply, repeatedly to anyone who would hear.

Now we know from the other side of the Wall through the well-documented stories of Sofia and others that this message was heard and resulted in a move toward freedom for so many.

In many ways, the present politically ambivalent global environment presents greater and more complicated challenges than Mr. Reagan stared down. Alliances have changed. Historical analysis and its import are disregarded. Religious and cultural wars are being fought in the place of geopolitical ones. Mr. Reagan proved that creating a platform for and giving voice to a potent message at a moment of opportunity can result in epochal change.

It’s not as easy to pull off today. There is no Ronald Reagan on the field reminding America of its “best days to come” or of its role as a “shinning city on a hill.” But these things are still true, and tales like Sophia’s can remind us of it.

James Rosebush was deputy assistant to President Reagan and chief of staff to Nancy Reagan.


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