Back in the U.S.S.R.

The Berlin Wall came down twenty five years ago this week — kicking off the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War chapter of world history (or so it seemed), and breaking the heart of Vladimir Putin, then an eager young spy working to extend Russian interests in the KGB’s East German bureau.

Putin

Two decades and several pivots after, after tanks in Red Square, after the 1991 putsch that gave the world Boris Yeltsin and sent Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost Communism packing, that same Vladimir Putin — after the dirtiest kind of backroom dealing —  has become the indispensable man at the top of Russian government.

In a big policy speech last week, Putin said America has run amok in the world, and that the world needs the Russian bear for bipolar balance. It’s worth reading, either as something serious the New York Times doesn’t want you to know about, or as a declaration of a new Cold War:

Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries. The unipolar world turned out too uncomfortable, heavy and unmanageable a burden even for the self-proclaimed leader. Comments along this line were made here just before and I fully agree with this. This is why we see attempts at this new historic stage to recreate a semblance of a quasi-bipolar world as a convenient model for perpetuating American leadership.

It does not matter who takes the place of the centre of evil in American propaganda, the USSR’s old place as the main adversary. It could be Iran, as a country seeking to acquire nuclear technology, China, as the world’s biggest economy, or Russia, as a nuclear superpower. 

So for nostalgists, Putin has volunteered: he’ll play the podium-thumping, unpredictable Khrushchev staring down the United States.  Masha Gessen has him as “the man without a face”: a wolfish spy in the service of the Russian bear, and a frightening thug of the old Soviet variety — and not to be trusted. So: how do you solve a problem like Vladimir? Or do we need him around?

Guest List
David Filipov
journalist, editor, and former Moscow bureau chief at the Boston Globe
Anna Arutunyan
Russian-American journalist, formerly of the Moscow News, and author of The Putin Mystique.
Mary Elise Sarotte

a visiting professor at Harvard, and dean's professor of history and professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, and author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of The Berlin Wall and 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.

 
Reading List
"How The Fall of the Berlin Wall Radicalized Putin"
Masha Gessen, The Daily Beast
An excerpt from Gessen's biography of Putin:
Putin told his biographers that he had been in the crowd and watched people storm the Stasi building in Dresden... [He] generally found the protesters’ rage excessive and bewildering. It was his friends and neighbors under attack, the very people with whom he had lived and socialized—exclusively—for the last four years, and he could not imagine any of them were as evil as the crowd claimed: they were just ordinary paper-pushers, like Putin himself. When they grew riotous again, Putin claimed, he himself stepped outside. “I asked them what they wanted. I explained that this was a Soviet organization. And someone in the crowd asks, ‘Why do you have cars with German license plates? What are you doing here, anyway?’ Like they knew exactly what we were doing there. I said that our contract allowed us to use German license plates. ‘And who are you? Your German is too good,’  they started screaming. I told them I was an interpreter. These people were very aggressive. I phoned our military representatives and told them what was going on. And they said, ‘We cannot do anything until we have orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent.’ A few hours later, our military did come and the crowd dispersed. But I remembered that: ‘Moscow is silent.’ I realized that the Soviet Union was ill. It was a fatal illness called paralysis. A paralysis of power.”
"The Frightening World of Vladimir Putin"
Alexander Golts, The Moscow Times
One interpretation of Putin's big speech at the Valdai Discussion Club, from the critical columnist Alexander Golts:
Putin claimed “that the collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed a certain system of ‘checks and balances’ that existed during the Cold War”... The fact is, it was not a system of ‘checks’ and balances that influenced Western governments, but the feat that they felt before unpredictable Kremlin leaders… It is specifically the violently unpredictable nature of the Soviet Kremlin that [Putin] misses most.”
"The New York Times doesn’t want you to understand this Vladimir Putin speech"
Patrick White, Salon
A second interpretation of the Valdai speech — one that sees it as an urgent piece of rhetoric that the West can't fail to hear:
In essence — the speech is long, carefully phrased and difficult to summarize — Putin argues that the New World Order the Bush I administration declared as the Soviet Union collapsed was a fundamental misreading of the moment. It is now a 20-odd-year failure hacks such as Tom Friedman compulsively term the successful spread of neoliberalism in the face of abundant evidence otherwise. “A unilateral diktat and imposing one’s own models produces the opposite result,” Putin asserted. “Instead of settling conflicts it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.” Such is Putin’s take on how we got here. His view of where we have to go now is yet more compelling. Our systems of global security are more or less destroyed — “weakened, fragmented, and deformed,” in Putin’s words. In the face of this reality, multipolar cooperation in the service of substantial reconstruction agreements, in which the interests of all sides are honored, is mandatory.
"Does Putin's Russia Have a Future?"
Leonid Bershidsky, for Bloomberg View
The author shines the light on a bleak prediction game Russian businessmen are playing on Twitter. They're asking themselves, without blinkers, how long Putin's Russia can carry on:
Commentators such as Movchan and Inozemtsev know full well it's impossible to make accurate predictions even for the next year or two: Russia's strategic direction depends too much on the will of one man. As with most people in Russia, however, they see Putin's power as unshakable and project his increasingly nostalgic vision of Russia's role in the world into the future. It is, indeed, hard to see what force could topple Putin in the immediate future or change his mind about breaking with the West and making a doomed bid for self-sufficiency. Therefore the scenarios of economic gloom and political sclerosis.  
"Russia's Currency Is Plummeting and Putin's Billionaires Are Cannibalizing Each Other"
Julia Ioffe, The New Republic
Some of the grimness about Putin comes from the very bad economic news of hyperinflation. The ruble, worth about 3 cents at the start of this year, is now worth a little more than 2 cents. That's a drop in value of 30%, with the sharpest losses happening over a matter of six or eight weeks. Russians (rich and poor) are panicking:
The ruble crashing won’t change anything today or tomorrow, but this is just the system starting to eat itself, this is just the system starting to crack. As I've written before, historically, economic crisis triggers political crisis in Russia. No one knows when one of those cracks brings the whole thing down, but there’s a growing sense in Moscow that it will happen sooner than we all think. Putin seems intent on it.
"Putin's belligerence today has its roots in the fall of the Berlin Wall"
Mary Sarotte, The Los Angeles Times
Once-secret historical evidence shows that President George H.W. Bush, working closely with the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, left Moscow on the political periphery of post-Cold War Europe by design. Repeated calls by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to include Moscow in European security institutions after the wall fell — or even for the Soviet Union to join NATO — were quickly and definitively rebuffed. The evidence now available shows that the decisive negotiations played out largely behind closed doors in 1989 and 1990. Publicly, U.S. officials spoke of a “new world order” and maintained that their actions were guided by a regard for the dignity of the Soviet Union. Privately, however, Bush spoke plainly to Kohl. Discussing the idea of Moscow having a say in unified Germany's future relationship with NATO, presidential library documents and memoirs show that Bush was blunt: “To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn't. We can't let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

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