MOSCOW — MOSCOW - During his eight years as leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan evolved from a fierce Cold Warrior who called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" to "a man you could do business with," as former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would later describe him.
He was both hated and feared by Communist hard-liners. But today, as people around the world mourn his death, Russia's overarching assessment of America's 40th president is largely one of respect and admiration. Many credit his peace-through-strength policies for hastening the downfall of the Soviet empire and curtailing the nuclear arms race. Former dissidents revere him as a hero.
"I think President Reagan was undoubtedly the democratic leader of the modern world," says Sergei Grigoryants, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons and credits the U.S. president for pressuring the Kremlin into releasing him and scores of other Soviet-era dissidents.
Reagan, who took office in January 1981, guided America's Soviet policy through a turbulent decade that stretched from the final years of Leonid Brezhnev through subsequent Kremlin leaders Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Gorbachev.
Along the way, suspicions between the two superpowers were exacerbated by flash fires such as the 1983 Soviet downing of a Korean airliner; spy scandals; and regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Central America, Angola and the Middle East.
Reagan's watch ended in January 1989, less than three years before the collapse of the Soviet empire he once vilified, but like the rest of the world he had no way to predict its imminent downfall.
Initially, Reagan defined a tough stance, issuing his "evil empire" declaration in a 1983 speech and launching a military buildup that Soviet leaders regarded as a display of U.S. aggression. One of his most provocative initiatives was a proposed space-based missile defense shield, dubbed "star wars" by the news media.
The relationship thawed after Gorbachev took office in 1985, resulting in five U.S.-Soviet summits, which led to sharp nuclear arms reductions and other accords.
The talks, though punctuated by harsh rhetoric and hard bargaining, produced a genuine friendship that continued after both men left office.
In 1992, Reagan was Gorbachev's host in California, describing him as a "great man" and "a friend" as he bestowed a golden "Freedom Award" on the former Soviet leader in a ceremony at the Reagan presidential library. At Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara, they donned Stetsons and sped across the rustic landscape in a Jeep.
"When he announced he had Alzheimer's disease, I wrote a letter to him," Gorbachev said in a 1998 interview with the Boston Herald. "The fact that he had announced it publicly showed the quality of the man, his scale, his courage."
As more Russians began to taste Western-style freedoms, the American president became a symbol of hope as he pressed Gorbachev on human rights and helped secure the release of dissidents such as Grigoryants.
Although Reagan believed the Soviet regime would crumble, he never envisioned that the end would come so quickly.
"I think President Reagan thought it was going to be a long struggle," former Reagan aide Kenneth deGraffenreid said. "The policies he put in place turned out to be more effective than anyone thought."