Christmas 1981: A Candle That Burned Bright for Freedom 25 Years Ago

It’s difficult to explain how much the world has changed in 25 years. Those who lived through December 1981 would be well-served to pause this Christmas season and give thanks for the differences.

In December 1981, much of the world lived in totalitarian darkness. This was captured at the time by Freedom House with its map of global freedom, which showed the world’s free nations in white and unfree nations in black. Nearly all the great Eurasian land mass was colored black, from the western border of East Germany, through eastern Europe and the massive spaces of the Soviet Union, and on to the huge terrain of China, and still further down to Vietnam. These communist governments, according to the The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press), killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century—twice the total deaths from World War I and World War II combined.

These governments robbed individuals of basic rights, with a particular antipathy for religious freedom. Marx had called religion “the opiate of the masses,” and said that, “Communism begins where atheism begins.” His chief disciple agreed: “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” wrote Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, in a January 1913 letter. Lenin called religion “a necrophilia” and, once in power, ordered “mass terror” against the religious: “The more representatives of the reactionary clergy we manage to shoot, the better.”

Lenin was especially miserable at Christmas time. On December 25, 1919, he issued an edict directed at all levels of Soviet society: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid—the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”

Fast forward to Christmas 1981. That year in Moscow, “church watchers” were on duty: sitting in chapels taking notes on the “stupid people” who entered to worship. By 1981, only 46 of the 657 churches operating in Moscow on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution remained open, holding closely monitored services. In the Ukraine, political commissars hijacked traditional Christmas carols. Lyrics such as “believers” were changed to “workers;” the time of the season became October, the month of the glorious revolution; rather than the image of Christ, one song extolled “Lenin’s glory hovering;” the Star of Bethlehem became the Red Star. Said Ukrainian Olena Doviskaya, a church watcher and a teacher, who was required to report students who attended Christmas services: “Lenin was Jesus. They wanted you to worship Lenin.”

The prospects for shining light upon that darkness seemed bleak in 1981. The Soviets were on the rise, having added 11 proxy states as allies since 1974.

The new man in Washington, President Ronald Reagan, was sure he could reverse this tide, beginning in Poland, the most recalcitrant of all the Soviet bloc states.

And just then, on December 13, 1981, the lights were dimmed again. At midnight, a police raid commenced upon the headquarters of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor union. The Polish Communist government, consenting to orders from Moscow, declared martial law. Solidarity’s freedom fighters were imprisoned, and the cries of liberty were snuffed out. But then came a moment of hope forgotten by history:

Ten Days later, on December 23, Ronald Reagan connected the spirit of the season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people.” He then made an extraordinary gesture: The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.

Ronald Reagan and a core group of cadres—some of whom passed away this past year, such as Cap Weinberger and Jeane Kirkpatrick—were committed to liberating Poland and all the Soviet empire. Without going into where and how they succeeded, suffice to say that the world changed dramatically.

In 1980, according to Freedom House, there were 56 democracies in the world; by 1990, there were 76. The numbers continued an upward trajectory, hitting 114 by 1994, a doubling since Reagan entered the Oval Office. By 1994, 60% of the world’s nations were democracies, compared to less than 30% in the mid 1970s.

This very recent explosion of freedom is one of the great stories of modern humanity, and one of the least remarked upon—a truly global blessing. A look back at 25 years ago this month can help us to be grateful, especially during Christmas, when we pause to remember the ultimate source of light that conquers the darkness.