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Opinion: Our world's chilling return to authoritarianism

Ukrainian citizens hold posters and national flags during a demonstration in support of Ukraine outside the Russian Embassy in Lima, Peru, on Friday.
Ernesto Benavides
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian citizens hold posters and national flags during a demonstration in support of Ukraine outside the Russian Embassy in Lima, Peru, on Friday.

I doubt any of us who lived through the Cold War want those times to return.

Schoolchildren scrunched below desks in fear of a nuclear attack. Riches were spent on weapons, instead of people. "Every rocket fired," said President Dwight Eisenhower, "signifies ... a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

A cold concrete wall divided Berlin, and more than 100 people died trying to scale it — always, by the way, from the communist East, into the freedom of the West.

There were proxy wars, missile rattling and nightmares about mushroom clouds and global devastation in which, as President John F. Kennedy phrased it, "the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth."

I remember the Captive Nations Day Parade each summer in Chicago. Bands, floats and dancers in national costumes celebrated Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and other countries caught by Russian tanks behind what Winston Churchill had called "an Iron Curtain ... descended across the continent."

The parade was always stirring, with signs and slogans that cried out for freedom — wolnosc in Polish, svoboda in Ukrainian.

But as years went by, it became harder to believe the people of those nations would ever break free.

Yet they persisted — and prevailed. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, in a hail of cheers. That burst of freedom seemed to blow down the hard, cruel walls of the old Soviet Union and its sphere within two years. Dozens of nations were reborn.

Wars, crimes, terrorism and genocides would still follow, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Iraq and elsewhere. I would cover many of those events. Yet when the walls came down with the fall of Soviet communism, it seemed as if history had turned a corner; the world looked brighter.

But today, according to Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, more than a third of the people in the world still live under authoritarian regimes, including Russia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Venezuela and, once more, Afghanistan.

Twenty percent of the people in the world still live under one-party communist rule, according to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, including China, North Korea, Laos and Cuba.

Authoritarian regimes have proliferated all around the globe, and human rights crimes abound. Just a generation after so many walls were brought down, it is hard not to feel that the world has plunged back into darkness.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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