For Iran, a lesson in hope

TALLINN, Estonia — Mart Nikul is an Estonian who spent 16 years in the Soviet gulag, much of it in solitary confinement in a concentration camp in Siberia. He was released as the Soviet Union was collapsing, but only after then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan personally asked Mikhail Gorbachev to let him go.

I met him last week here in Tallinn, the capital of the free Estonia he and many others like him spent a lifetime fighting and suffering to make a reality. These largely forgotten warriors have stories worth remembering, but what struck me as we talked over lunch was the reason he was first arrested.

Back in the ’50s, the Soviet Union bragged to the world that life behind what Winston Churchill first dubbed the Iron Curtain was pretty darned good. Pictures circulated in the West of healthy, happy Czechs, Poles and, yes, Estonians, who seemed positively giddy over their good fortune to be living under communism and the protection of their Soviet comrades.

Friendly visitors to the Soviet empire were taken on carefully orchestrated tours of what came to be known as “Potemkin” villages filled with prosperous beneficiaries of Soviet-style socialism. No one was allowed to see what life was really like in places like Tallinn, where men, women and children were living in poverty and being ground down by a political and economic system that didn’t work and rulers who simply didn’t care about ordinary people.

As difficult as it may be to believe today, many Westerners were taken in by all this and assumed that Soviet rule of Eastern Europe was both legitimate and popular. The truth took decades to sink in, and decades more for the internal rot that destroyed the Soviet empire to motivate Western leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to confidently predict that the illusion Moscow’s rulers had built would one day be consigned to what Reagan called the “ash heap of history.”

Nikul was one of those who drew back the curtain and revealed the communist system for what it was. As a 23-year-old college graduate in the mid-’50s, he realized that the Soviets who had occupied his country in 1939 as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact were lying to the entire world about what was going on in Estonia and decided to do something about it.

To set the record straight, Nikul began to take pictures not of the Potemkin façade the Soviets were distributing to the world, but of the actual conditions in Estonia at the time. He sent those pictures to the Voice of America and was, as a result, arrested, tried and sentenced to the gulag as an enemy of the people.

The Soviets shipped Nikul and thousands like him off to Siberia because they knew that while they might be able to stand up to Western arms, the truth was an implacable enemy that had to be defeated if they were to triumph or even survive. In the end, of course, the truth proved a far stronger enemy than they realized and their attempt to build a world on lies failed.

We sometimes forget that tyrannical governments always do what they can to make sure their citizens and their friends and adversaries see them and the world as they want them to see it rather than as it is. Sadly, sometimes even democratic governments and politicians dream of doing the same thing.

Today in Iran, a tyrannical state is trying mightily to quash communications among its citizens and to keep the outside world from seeing what is going on there. Nikul had to take pictures, get them developed and sneak them into the mail. His counterparts in today’s Iran can transmit reality to the world in real time, and that may end up making all the difference.

Nikul and thousands like him suffered for decades to convince the world that they were living in what Ronald Reagan came to call an Evil Empire, but one suspects the young men and women of Tehran won’t need nearly so long to deprive their rulers of the false legitimacy they have enjoyed for so long.

The tyrannical regime in Tehran may hold on for a while, but after the events of the last two weeks, its days are numbered as surely as were those of the communists who hung on for dear life after the uprisings that shook their empire in an earlier age and revealed them not as the idealists they wanted us all to see, but as a bunch of thugs whose subjects finally stood up and sent them packing.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at