Former President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday Feb. 6, 2011, is reviving replays of his most famous quotes, such as “evil empire” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Because the fortieth president was known for loud bold rhetoric against communist aggression, it’s easy to miss one of his most successful strategies with the Soviets: quiet diplomacy. America’s leaders today can learn a lot from the Great Communicator’s style, but they can also learn a lot from his secret legacy.
“I just don’t happen to think that it’s wise to always stand up and put quotation marks in front of the world what your foreign policy is,” Reagan wrote a friend in 1981. “I am a believer in quiet diplomacy and so far we’ve had several quite triumphant experiences by using that method. The problem is, you can’t talk about it afterward or then you can’t do it again.”
No one today understands Reagan’s behind-the-scenes human rights diplomacy better than Liuba Vashchenko Luton, a high school teacher in Spokane, Washington. Years earlier Liuba arrived in America as a Russian dissident and sudden celebrity.
“Today I am the captive of correspondents, but soon I will rest,” the 30-year-old joked of her new found freedom to reporters on July 18, 1983, at a U.S. Capitol press conference.
In 1983 Americans were used to seeing sequined celebrities, such as Krystal Carrington of the era’s hit show Dynasty on TV. Liuba’s simple floral print blouse and hand-sewn skirt was a refreshing contrast. At her first press conference she reflected pioneering strength and faith, more akin to Caroline Ingalls of TV’s "Little House on the Prairie."
“It is difficult to understand the [Soviet] government or why they do things,” she explained.
Liuba didn’t know why the Russians had suddenly granted what her father Pyotr had tried but failed to achieve for 20 years: visas for his 15-member Pentecostal family to leave Russia and freely practice Christianity elsewhere. The estimated 500,000 Russian Pentecostals risked either worshipping illegally or registering with the Soviet government and being watched.
Five years earlier Liuba, two of her sisters, her parents and two others took the biggest risk of their lives by rushing past startled KGB guards and bursting into the U.S. embassy in Moscow June 27, 1978. There these dissidents firmly planted their feet on U.S. soil.
They slept on the embassy’s yellow leather couches and depended on embassy staff and others for food. By day they studied English and read the Bible. At night they sang and prayed for exit visas. Many journalists interviewed them while American ministers and U.S. congressmen visited frequently. The U.S. Senate even passed a bill giving them permanent residency status.
But nothing made the Soviet government budge. They insisted these religious dissidents could only apply for visas from their Siberian hometown, which didn’t have protection from a U.S. embassy. The sit-in dragged on for years.
“If it would last till the end of my life I would sit there,” Liuba reflected.
After a hunger strike in 1982, Liuba’s sister Lydia needed hospital care. The Soviets allowed her to return to Siberia and recover. In the spring of 1983 Soviet officials suddenly summoned Lydia and suggested she might be able to leave Russia if she completed the proper paperwork. Once Lydia was safely in Israel, an American minister, who had frequently visited the Siberians at the embassy, suggested that Lydia’s release was a sign the Soviets might not arrest them if they left the embassy. Maybe they could return to Siberia and apply for exit visas.
Rushing the embassy in 1978 had been the biggest risk of their lives, but leaving the embassy in 1983 with no guarantees of safety was an even bigger risk. When Pyotr Vaschenko gave up a shorter sit-in in 1968, the Soviets put him in a labor camp and took three of his children into an orphanage for six years. What if they arrested them anyway? Such possibilities chilled their minds worse than a Siberian snowstorm.
Yet, Lydia’s departure seemed like Noah’s dove and gave them rainbow hope for freedom. They safely left the embassy on April 12, 1983, and returned to Siberia. After several weeks, the entire family received exit visas. Liuba came to America.
“I think all problems have an end, and this one just ended,” she explained to the journalists at that July 1983 press conference. Though she didn’t know why the Soviets had changed their mind, she saw it as a miracle.
Some journalists speculated the dissidents’ release was tied to an international human rights conference taking place at the same time. Others reporters knew the U.S. embassy in Moscow was planning to move to another facility, making it impossible to transfer the captives without inciting the KGB. Perhaps embassy staff bartered with Soviet officials and got lucky when they weren’t double-crossed.
What no one knew at the time was the truth. President Reagan was directly involved in the Pentecostals’ release. In March 1983 while Reagan was speaking boldly against Soviet aggression in his “evil empire” speech and outlining his Strategic Defense Initiative, he was also quietly lobbying the Soviet ambassador for their release.
After longtime Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin sent Secretary of State George Shultz a message proposing their countries begin discussions at all levels. Shultz pitched the idea; Reagan agreed to a secret meeting.
“Ronald Reagan is the master of the personal encounter, and he impressively engaged Dobrynin on all the issues and argued our positions effectively on START, on INF, and on Afghanistan and Poland. He spoke with genuine feeling and eloquence on the subject of human rights, divided families, Soviet Jewry, and refuseniks,” Shultz reflected in his autobiography, Turmoil and Triumph.
“If you can do something about the Pentecostals or another human rights issue,” Reagan said intensely to Dobrynin. “We will simply be delighted and will not embarrass you by undue publicity, by claims of credit for ourselves or by ‘crowing.’”
A quiet but vague back and forth led first to Lydia’s release. Shultz kept Reagan informed along the way.
“The president was as good as his word: he did not crow. Ronald Reagan’s personal initiative had succeeded. In the span of a few months, Washington and Moscow had resolved a sensitive issue that had dragged on for almost 5 years! The president’s own role in it had been crucial,” Shultz recorded.
The release of the dissidents was a trust-building moment, Reagan’s first major but hush-hush accomplishment with the Soviets. In his autobiography An American Life Reagan wrote that “it was a hope-giving development, the first time the Soviets had responded to us with a deed instead of words.”
A year after her release, Reagan wrote Liuba at her new address in Caldwell, Idaho.
“Dear Ms. Vashchenko. Thank you very much for your kind letter. I can’t tell you how happy I was when you were all released from our embassy and allowed to come to our country. I have refrained from commenting on the matter because we may have to employ the same means on others’ behalf. We practiced a little quiet diplomacy and it succeeded. I hope our paths will cross one day and I’m happy you are enjoying life here in our country.”
Determined to put the past behind her Liuba attended college and received a political science and pre-law degree.
“President Reagan loved America. He was a Christian, a real American and a man with a great sense of humor. He brought significance, respect, grace and dignity to the office of the president of the United States,” Liuba reflects on his 100th birthday.
Today Liuba Vashchenko is Liuba Luton. A high school teacher, she lives with her husband Ken Luton in Spokane, Washington. Through an English development program, she helps students from different countries develop successful math skills for high school. She also teaches Russian language classes at a community college.
“He represented his country and his people on the world stage very well. President Reagan had the ability and the wisdom to be the leader of the free country. I admire him for that and always will be grateful to him for his help.”
A Chinese dissident won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. America’s leaders today can learn from Reagan’s example of bold rhetoric and quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, whether dealing with Egypt, China or other nations today. America needs leaders who are willing to fight for human rights behind the scenes while speaking out for religious freedom and against human rights abuses. Like Reagan, they need to have the guts to put aside crowing and not care who gets credit for any victories that may come.
Six-time author and former White House webmaster, Jane Hampton Cook is the author of a new book on presidents and technology called, "What Does the President Look Like?" and "Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War." For more information visit www.janecook.com.