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The Burden of Being Good

WHEN RONALD REAGAN described the Soviet Union as an evil empire in his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, the empire part was not the sticking point. The United States had often worked with European empires, after all, and Reagan himself had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II—an accolade, among other things, of the British Empire. For Reagan and many other U.S. presidents, empire was more a fact of life than a self-evident example of politics gone awry. It was the Soviet Union’s evil that bothered Reagan. He loathed the Soviet capacity to project that evil through its dominion over others.

And Reagan was right. A thread of evil ran through Soviet history. The Bolsheviks admitted no law higher than their party’s expedience as defined by Lenin and Stalin. They imprisoned and executed and tortured at will. They subordinated whole peoples to the state they were building. Siberia’s gulag and Moscow’s Lubyanka prison were the proof, and they were the tip of the iceberg. Stalin made terror a fulcrum of Soviet society, adding a string of atrocities and secret-police actions in central Europe to his resume.

The Soviet Union moderated after Stalin’s death in 1953, but it was an exceptionally coercive state at the best of times—a tyranny and an empire hidden behind the veil of a benevolent and acutely theoretical Marxism–Leninism. Reagan saw evil in the unfreedom of a command economy that left people poor, their potential unrealized, and their creativity eviscerated.

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Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.