When Ronald Reagan, in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida in 1983, referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," it seemed like just more of Reagan's hyperbole. Reagan, after all, was full of political bluster and calculation; the assignation of a phrase from a popular science fiction movie to America's Cold War enemy bordered on the puerile, and many took it as such.
Very few people on the Left at the time harbored any illusions about the lack of political, personal, and artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, or any of the Eastern Bloc countries. But it was impossible at the time, at least for the American Left, to applaud Reagan for his anti-USSR stridency. There was something to be mistrusted in his hubris and it was already clear by 1983 that, in the name of anti-Communism, Reagan was willing to unleash the most undemocratic forces and countenance unthinkable atrocities carried out by US allies like El Salvador and Guatemala. There was something distinctly unpalatable about a man willing to engage in such high level moral posturing while egregious human rights abuses were being carried out in Central America with his Administration's complicity.
However, now, with the clarity of hindsight and buttressed by contemporary scholarship, we can say that Reagan was certainly right in his characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." At the same time, condemning the means that Reagan employed to combat said evil empire (by waging proxy wars in Central America, for example) remains as valid today as it was then. The East/West battlegrounds in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Grenada still do not fit neatly into the Cold War paradigm; each country's internecine struggles must be analyzed independently, taking into account the particulars of each country and each country's regrettable histories of colonial genocide, capitalist exploitation, and entrenched poverty. To categorize the struggles in those countries as a global Communist conspiracy emanating from and directed by Moscow, as Reagan did time and again, even today does not hold up to honest scrutiny.
Yet still. The Soviet Union was an evil empire and two recent works of scholarship document, with unsparing detail and exhaustive research, just how evil it was.
Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 thoroughly documents the Soviet-led subjugation of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. She pays particular attention to the fates of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany and uses extensive recently available archival evidence to document the extent of the terror employed in enslaving these countries. The book is grim and compelling, enraging and depressing, but it manages to do what I imagine an historian always hopes for her book to do - it enhances understanding and greatly expands the knowledge of its subject.
If possible, Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is grimmer and even more shocking than Applebaum's work. In Bloodlands, Snyder sets out to document how "[I]n the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people." Where this mass slaughter occurred "extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States," what Snyder names the "Bloodlands." In a feat of commendable journalistic skill, Snyder manages not only to situate the scope and scale of these mass killings in the historical record but personalizes the atrocities as well. Snyder, too, uses much archival evidence that has come to light since the fall of Soviet Communism and includes many personal stories and individual experiences of the indescribably heinous, yes Evil, acts perpetrated on such a massive scale by the USSR.
Snyder's book, as its title suggests, focuses on both the Nazis and the Soviets and those two towering pillars of Sadism, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Though Hitler is often held up as the exemplar of Pure Evil, after just a few chapters of Snyder's book one could be forgiven for coming to believe that Stalin was very much Hitler's equal, that he was in fact perhaps the worse of the two. Stalin, for example, surpassed Hitler in the sheer numbers of people murdered and was equally obsessed with destroying entire populations. Though perhaps longevity accounts for Stalin's "success" (he ruled far longer than Hitler), still it takes a special kind of evil to put in place policies that, for example, in the Ukraine in the 1930s, deliberately induced famine that resulted in upwards of a million deaths by starvation.
Both these valuable books narrate crimes against humanity committed on a scale that, but for the documentary evidence, are unimaginable. Yet they occurred. And while it is irrelevant who was worse, Stalin or Hitler, what both authors make perfectly clear is that the Soviet Union truly was "an evil empire."