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v v CHAPTER 26 Fighting the Soviet Empire A few years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had increased our nation’s defense spending. The Soviet Union responded by building more ships, airplanes, submarines, and weapons of mass destruction. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was not much commitment or loyalty to the Communist Party. The Soviets pulled out of the war in Afghanistan and moved those tanks to Lithuania . Pope John Paul II was from Poland, and he applied pressure because he knew the Soviets would not invade his homeland. The Soviets had endured several years of bad weather, resulting in significant crop failures . They were forced to turn to the United States for grain subsidies. The Russian government rationed food. They were hungry and desperate for change. Our group of congressmen left Estonia for Moscow via Berlin on Aeroflot, the only airline that flew into Moscow. Safety was not a primary concern on Aeroflot Airline. We boarded an old, rickety airplane with no heat. All the passengers were bundled in heavy coats, wearing tall fur hats called ushankas. They carried brown paper bags of canned food and cigarettes that reminded me of the bags of food that we got from the Catholic Church’s food banks in Houston at Christmastime. I could relate to their hunger. All the passengers boarded the airplane and waited for the pilots and one flight attendant. It was snowing, freezing cold, and the wind blew strong around the plane. The two pilots finally walked onto the plane, 274 • The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch entered the cabin, and cranked up the engines. The cabin filled with smoke. They turned off the engines, walked out of the cabin, and exited the plane. Forty-­ five minutes later, they returned and restarted the engines; finally, some heat. After we took off, the flight attendant served small cups of salt water. We all thought we would die on that flight; it was long. We finally landed in the city in the middle of a snowstorm. Officials met us at the airport and drove us to a hotel a few blocks from Red Square. It was very dark, there were very few streetlights and cars on the road, and all the buildings looked old, dark, and gray. There were no advertisements in any store windows or places of business—­ it was like this in the Baltic states as well. And it was so damn cold. The next day we were escorted to the headquarters of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. We sat in a large boardroom for a long time until a tall, gray-­ haired man along with two young, beautiful female interpreters joined us. We shook hands, and he said, “Welcome. My name is Boris Yeltsin.” We told Mr. Yeltsin that we had just visited Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. He asked a lot of questions about the Baltic states. He seemed genuinely committed to dismantling communism and the Soviet Empire. He expressed concern about the Soviet army’s occupation of Lithuania. “The Russian people are hungry,” he said. “They want a free enterprise system. I admire the United States. If the Baltic states can hold out a little longer, the momentum for independence will continue to grow.” He confided that he and other spokesmen against the Soviet Union feared that they would be assassinated. A few months later, the world watched Boris Yeltsin climb atop a Soviet tank as the Cold War came to an end. I met with Yeltsin several times over the next few years. He was a courageous leader. The next day, as we headed back to the airport, we saw very long lines of people in heavy coats, in the freezing weather, standing in front of stores waiting to get food. They were starving. There were only a few small stores open because the people did not have the money to buy much. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, that all changed. When we got to the airport, we waited for more than five hours for our plane to arrive. Finally, we boarded Aeroflot Airlines again. The pilots started the engines, and we had the same experience, all over Fighting the Soviet Empire • 275 again: the cabin filled with smoke and the pilots turned off the engines. The pilots tried starting the engines again, and the smoke in the cabin became so dense that the oxygen masks in the plane dropped. I could not see the person in front of me. The pilots...


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