How Thatcher Changed Hearts and Minds Behind the Iron Curtain

It wasn't just Margaret Thatcher's steadfast economic and foreign policies that helped to defeat the Evil Empire and to bring down the Iron Curtain. She also changed hearts and minds -- and this PJ Media author, who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, has a personal story to tell.

As many Soviet kids did in the 1970s and 1980s, I occasionally tuned my shortwave radio to Voice of America or the BBC Russian Service, hoping to hear their alternative take on world events and, if I was lucky, get the latest rock-music updates. One of the functions of the Iron Curtain was to keep us, the "builders of communism," blissfully unaware of the outside world. All our news had to be processed by the state-run media filter and approved by the formidable censorship apparatus.

In contrast, foreign Russian-language radio broadcasts, courtesy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, gave us unfiltered news and commentary. These programs were to the Soviets then what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are for many Americans today -- a gasp of fresh air for some, enemy propaganda for others, and an object of demonization for the official state-run media.

Produced mostly by ex-Soviet exiles, these broadcasts never failed to satisfy my curiosity. The problem was that our government was mercilessly jamming their signal. I learned that this radio jamming was more costly than the actual broadcasting, but no expense was spared to maintain our ideological purity, paid for by our own tax rubles. Oh well, at least we knew the Motherland cared.

At times the broadcast quality was almost undecipherable: imagine trying to watch a movie while your neighbor mows his lawn. The noise occasionally trails off to the other end of the property, but mostly it hovers below your window, and you know that the lines you missed had to be the best.

A few times my friends and I tried to tape these programs simultaneously in our homes, so that later we could combine salvageable parts from two or more reels. That resulted in a much clearer compilation. We mostly did this for rock and roll programs, but political commentary would get into the mix as well -- and it was just as fresh and exciting.

If we had ever been caught, we could have been easily expelled from our state-run schools (paid for by our tax rubles) and become marked for life as "politically unreliable." But we were too young and too reckless to think about it.

Whenever tuning to Voice of America or the BBC Russian Service produced nothing but the made-in-the-USSR rattling chatter, I would switch to English broadcasts. These were coming through clearly, mostly because the government couldn't jam every single frequency. They also helped me with my English studies.

Apart from music tapes, radio was my only source of authentic spoken English. The Iron Curtain made sure that even if a real English-speaking person were to visit my Ukrainian city, he or she would be supervised at all times by authorized personnel. Similarly, foreign travel for the "builders of communism" was out of the question: even if we could make it past the border alive, we would have no means to move around, since almost all of our earned income went to the government so it could provide us with our basic needs -- such as, ensuring our ideological purity by jamming radio broadcasts for our own good.

One night -- it had to be late 1982, when Margaret Thatcher was running for her first re-election -- my shortwave radio caught a BBC broadcast of the Iron Lady's campaign speech.

To be sure, all my prior knowledge about Margaret Thatcher was limited to her unflattering portrayal in the official Soviet media. She busted the unions, privatized the economy, and was a sworn enemy of the USSR and socialism in general. In fact, the very moniker -- the Iron Lady -- was  given to her by the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star in 1976, before she even became prime minister. Later I also learned that she readily took it on as her own, telling parliamentary constituents a week later that she was proud to wear a "Red Star" evening gown and to serve as "the Iron Lady of the Western world."

Listening to Thatcher speak confirmed everything the Soviet media was reporting about her, and more. In a deep, powerful voice, she accused her socialist opponents of destroying the British economy through nationalization and presented the proof of how privatizing it again was bringing the economy back to life. The free markets worked as expected, making Britain strong again. The diseased socialist welfare state had to go, to be replaced by a healthy competitive society.

To the average consumer of the Soviet state-run media, that didn't make any sense. When exactly had Britain become a socialist welfare state? That part never passed the Soviet media filter. Our media had made it explicitly clear that all Western nations, especially Britain and the United States, were officially governed by the ideology of anti-communism and unfettered capitalism. Their ruling classes had established the ultimate police states in order to protect the sanctity of private property -- a criminal misconception which allowed the few rich, cigar-smoking, top-hat-wearing fat cats to brutally exploit the powerless masses.

So if everything had always been in private hands, what exactly did Thatcher privatize? And where did the free, cradle-to-grave government services come from?