By Nina Khrushcheva
The dramatic events of 1989 hinged on choices taken in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev changed the world when he decided against sending Soviet tanks to Berlin on November 9. A believer in free choice, he followed his conviction that the Soviet Union should no longer keep Eastern Europe under its thumb. He would not follow the precedent of his communist predecessors—Nikita Khrushchev in Hungary in 1956 or Leonid Brezhnev in Czechoslovakia in 1968. At least, Khrushchev—an imperfect reformer of the Thaw and de-Stalinization and a retired Soviet premier after 1964—lamented the brutality of the Prague events, “It has been twelve years since Budapest and we still haven’t learned the better way.”
Indeed, only Gorbachev’s reforms two decades later fully liberated the Soviets from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism. They also released the national aspirations of people from the Baltics to the Bering Sea, those who had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In 1989, countries of Eastern Europe—Bulgaria, Poland, et al.—were free from communism, and two years later the Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation, began to seek the same freedom for themselves.
Bulgaria’s example was particularly important for the Russians as in socialist Bulgaria domestic policies had been closely modeled on the USSR’s example. On every level Bulgaria served as an echo chamber, standing by the Kremlin against the West. It was often called the “sixteenth Soviet republic,” or as the Russian saying went at the time, “Chicken is not a bird, Bulgaria is not abroad.” In fact, in 1963 communist leader Todor Zhivkov proposed to Khrushchev that Bulgaria be incorporated into the USSR. The Soviet premier didn’t take up Zhivkov on his offer: Bulgaria was already fully in the Kremlin orbit. In retrospect, Bulgaria should thank its lucky stars. Instead of being a Russian satellite it is now part of the European Union.
Regrettably, in the two and half decades that have followed, Russia has been largely aloof from the liberalizing tide of history. Russians have never accepted the narrative of being an “empire diminished.” In 2000, the country, once the center of the Soviet-ruled universe, elected as president (prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and now president again) former KGB operative Vladimir Putin. One of Putin’s central promises was to restore the national self-respect that had been shattered by the apparent loss of great-power status. When in 2005 he announced that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy” for the Russian people, Gorbachev—though not mentioned by name—was his target of blame.
A decade later in 2014 attempting to rectify this “tragedy” by reuniting some parts of the Soviet empire Putin took Crimean peninsula away from Ukraine citing the will of the people: “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” This time he was less kind to his other Kremlin predecessor, Khrushchev, who transferred the peninsula’s jurisdiction to Kyiv from Moscow in 1954. In Putin’s words, Russia was not “simply robbed, it was plundered” by the former Soviet premier.
In the last 15 years Putin’s project to safeguard “great national Russian identity” has involved numerous throwback policies from the communist era—such as attempting to pressure Europe into submission by increasing prices or limiting access to Russian oil and gas, and flexing Russia’s military muscle, as in the war with Georgia in 2008 or in developing a new frozen conflict in East Ukraine. The world has been witnessing Russian fighter jets and submarine incursions into European water and air space, as a tactic of intimidation.
It has been a quarter century since the Berlin Wall fell, yet Russia refuses to accept the loss of its imperial power. And unlike other former communist states, Russia’s own 75 years of captivity to Soviet ideals cannot be blamed on the despotic nature of its former Bolshevik leaders. Neither closed borders nor the Berlin Wall, can imprison the Russian mind more than the idea of a Great Russia. As the saying goes, “Every nation deserves its government.”
Russians fully deserve Putin’s illiberal leadership, whose popularity consistently rates at more than 70 percent. It is the reform leaders who have tried to change our imperial mindset, especially Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal ideals, that we have never deserved.
Nina L. Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University in New York. Her latest book is The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.