Modern Russia is not killing hundreds of thousands -- or millions -- of political and religious dissidents and other innocent people as it did in the dark days of the Communist Soviet Union. For that, we are grateful to leaders such as late President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They both rejected the notion -- popular among many Western intellectuals of their day -- of merely trying to limit Soviet expansion.
Rather, they sought to roll back communist tyranny. In particular, Reagan's focus on strengthening the United States' military helped set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of representative government and individual liberty in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Tragically, though, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- a former KGB officer -- has been pushing his country back toward authoritarian ways. In December, his party won parliamentary elections that were rife with fraud. Putin has been in power for more than a decade. And depending on results of an election in March, he could stay in power an additional six years.
So despite subzero temperatures, well over 100,000 frustrated Russians marched in protest through Moscow recently.
"Russia without Putin!" they chanted.
Thousands more marched in other Russian cities.
Putin responded with promises of less government corruption. But since he has been a key cause of the loss of individual liberty and of reduced government transparency in recent years, it is hard to take him at his word.
We do not see evidence that Putin has restored the widespread savagery of the former communist regime -- an "evil empire," Reagan rightly labeled it. In earlier times, the protesters might have been shot on sight, or sent to their deaths in labor camps.
But if the Russian people do not stop Putin, it is likely he will impose progressively harsher control. That is a deplorable possibility.