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.


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.”

Related Content

  • Art Herttua


  • Cambridge Forecast


    I propose to introduce a “distant mirror” through which to catch Putin’s reflection, that of the
    Slavophile versus Westernization conflict within Russia and within Putin. This is
    epitomized by the lifelong conflict and loathing between Turgenev and
    Dostoyevsky. This adds a historical dimension to the ROS discussion which
    mentions contemporary persons and places such as Sobchak, Berezhovsky and the
    Valdai Club. A crisis means that the poast is now not behind you as you assumed but suddenly ahead of you and all the old issues and cleavages resurface.

    Here’s a very good summary of this Slavophile versus Westermization conflict. Ironically the German and Russian versions are being compared:
    “‘In the Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man’, Thomas Mann stressing the similarities between Russia and Germany asked, “Don’t we also have our Slavophiles and our Westernizers (‘zapadniki’)?”

    “He alluded to the fact that during the nineteenth century two trends of thought vied in influencing Russia’s development. One trend wished to integrate Russia as closely as possible with the West and make it part and parcel of the European development. The other
    trend insisted, for the sake of Russia and of world civilization, if not of world salvation, on the need of preserving Russia’s distinctiveness from Europe, her original Slav character
    and traditions, which were regarded as superior to those of the West. These Slavophiles felt that
    capitalism and rationalism doomed the West and they opposed to the rotting West
    the alleged social justice and love of peace characteristic of Russia. The West was torn by party conflict and social struggle whereas Russia formed a true community. The Slavophiles were convinced that the approaching struggle between Russia and the West would, for reasons of her moral and social superiority, end with Russia’s victory. Though this Slavophile thought was strongly influenced by German Romanticism, the Slavophiles regarded Germany as forming part of the hostile and doomed West.” (“The Mind of Germany”, Hans Kohn, Harper Torchbook,
    paperback, 1965 edition, page 262, Chapter 11)

    Putin should be seen as a Russian nationalist with this conflict at his back and as an “engine” of his actions in Ukraine (Russia began as Kievan Rus in the Ukraine) and
    beyond. This is an example of a “long fuse” from history.
    That “long fuse’ has a Napoleon 1812 and Germany WWII “Operation Barbarossa” ultra-lesson for Russian nationalists: utilize Western technology to create a buffer around Russia’s borders
    to safeguard a Slavophile civilization.

    Lastly: Ukraine as a member of the EU and NATO is a complete trauma for Putinism. The neocons are pushing Ukrainian leaders as hard as they can to steer Ukraine precisely in that direction in order to continue their program of “mayhemization” which they see as good for Israel. The leader of Ukraine’s “Right Sector” ultranationalists is close to the neocons like Robert Kagan and his wife and this further inflames the Ukraine/Russia situation.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Vladimir Putin: Tom Stoppard’s Play “Coast
    of Utopia” and the Question of “Whither Russia?”

    I want to see whether one can shine an unexpected light on Putin and Putinism now by contemplating Tom Stoppard’s twelve-hour play, “The Coast of Utopia” which is a kind of marathon seminar and confrontation between Herzen, Belinsky, Marx, Bakunin over the tacit question, “whither Russia”?

    In a piece called “Stoppard’s Russians Come Home,” one commentator expresses the triad of Russia/Putin/”The Coast of Utopia” as follows:

    “To begin with, the play’s main characters — the socialist Alexander Herzen, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky — are familiar to any Russian who grew up in the Soviet era, when they were canonized in history textbooks. One can even say Mr.
    Stoppard’s characters are part of the landscape: In the metro station next to
    the Russian Academic Youth Theater, commuters still hurry past a large marble
    portrait of Karl Marx, who makes several appearances in the play.

    But the more vivid link to the present is the fact that the play’s central debate — whether Russia should mimic the liberal West or pursue its own path — is still hotly disputed in the age of Vladimir Putin, who has retreated from the democratic reforms of the 1990s and moved
    Russia back onto a path of confrontation with the West.”

    “[The play] certainly has relevance, more so now than four years ago when we started to translate it, when it was much more historical,” said Arkady Ostrovsky, the Moscow bureau chief of The Economist, who rendered “The Coast of Utopia” into Russian together with his brother


    If one agrees with Faulkner’s dictum that the “past is not dead. It is not even past,” one sees Russia’s past in the present and future in a surprising way, through Stoppard’s suggestive

    At one point in the Stoppard play, Herzen exclaims, “History has no Libretto” and this tells you that human history is sort of a “surpise machine” always stamped by the past and its reinterpretations and this is a way to enrich the excellent ROS discussion on Putin’s Russia.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    “Proceed to Smolensk! There’s a hole in the iron curtain!” ( Mickey Katz).

    You get to the nitty gritty at the end. When the USSR collapsed I wondered why we needed NATO. Now I know why. I completely sympathize with those little countries in Eastern Europe that are anxious about “little green men” showing up to ostensibly protect Russian populations especially after Putin’s quote about the Soviet Union collapse

    “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

    My reading of history does not show that Ukraine was always Russian. But in any case there are legitimate ways of resolving such issues, and then there are other ways. So to read via Patrick Smith’s Salon article about Putin’s criticism’s and prescriptions in the Valdai speech and also to read from a year ago in the NYTimes and Op-ed piece, “What Putin Has to Say to Americans”, may ring very true, but I can’t get past the messenger. I am not that good. Putin talks about speaking “directly and frankly”. But as to how smart Putin is, I don’t know. He does not seem so smart. Rather he seems to be shooting himself in the foot and takingRussia with him, playing a dangerous game. But he says he wants respect and acceptance, less adversarial relations.

    Putin: “We must clearly identify where unilateral actions end and we need to apply multilateral mechanisms.” Huh?

    Okay repress Russian freedom; if Russians like it that way fine, not our problem or business. His own aggression and unilateral behavior is“not germane” though?

    As the Serge Schmemann (in his opinion piece in the NYTimes that the Salon article links to criticize) says

    In Mr. Putin’s version of the Ukrainian crisis, for example, the United States was the instigator of the protests in Kiev that led to a “coup” against President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent fighting. One American participant told Mr. Putin she was hard put to recognize her country as the one he was describing.

    Patrick Smith Salon tells the story from his POV in one line indicting the US :

    There was a coup, there were neo-fascists among its leaders, the State Department backed it, and the evidence of all this is indisputable.

    Read the whole story

    From Schmemann NYTimes article:

    What Mr. Putin clearly did believe, and what seemed most strongly to feed his rage, was that the United States refused to show him the respect he saw as his due as the leader of Russia, and Russia’s due by virtue of its might, expanse and history. On Ukraine, on Syria, and on other crises, he insisted, Russia’s sole interest was that “our position would also be taken into account, that we be treated with respect.” Several times more the word “uvazhenie,” respect, came up…… Projecting Russia’s sins onto the United States is an effective way of reassuring Russians that Western sanctions and accusations are hypocrisy, that Russia is not the pariah it is made out to be, and that the man in charge will not allow Russia to be trampled. [thus his popularity]……How long it can work is another question….Bashing Washington can only go so far.

    So who Putin is, his actions, his lies are germaine for me. That is not to say that the sentiments he expresses, the criticisms should not be heard or read and maybe analyzed too.

  • Kyiv: Sorry, Ron Paul has some good ideas among his unworkable obsessions- I like his anti-spying/NSA rants, but A. US (+ the detestable neocons) didn’t stage manage the Ukr Revolution, that was a result of long agonized patience with Yanu’s criminal theft and abuse (how long would Obama last if he stole $650 billion and put McCain in jail), B. no election could be held with most pro-Ukrs fleeing, or threatened by gun wielding killers at polls, even having an Ukr flag on anything could be a death sentence, and the Seps were robbing cars, aptmts, stores right + left; C. there is a mountain of video, photographic evidence (see only a liar or Kremlin troll would deny it. Good God, from June 1 when 30 of the Vostok Bat. defenders of the Donetsk airport were repatriated to RUSSIA, there was no question (VOSTOK means EAST and they were based in Lugansk, East of Lugansk is only RUSSIA!), D. 10 more things that I don’t have time cause it’s 6:40am. The notion that neocons control everything in the world is as provincial and twisted as the “Commie under every bed” witchhunts of the 50’s.

    I hate them too, but I was here, on Maidan for 5 months, questioned most leaders + ministers of this new country, and had 12 friends+ acquaintances die in events. There were NO NAZIS, NO FASCISTS in Ukr and every DS that says so is an imbecile who has never been to Ukraine or a Putin pimp (I know there’s a coterie of Leftie writers that have been pumping that view, Oliver Stone is supposedly going to make a movie promoting it- great shame of a guy who I thought was great). On the contrary, the very notion is ludicrous to people who know these people- they are passive, sheep to the Russians wolves and have been killed, tortured, and genocided for 350 years: in Crimea they NEVER FIRED A SHOT against the invaders!