Putin, Gorbachev and Empire
Two Russian leaders relate very differently to how the Soviet Union fell -- as well as Ukraine
Actions speak louder than words is a helpful maxim to analyze Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Putin's decision not to attend former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's funeral on September 3 reveals a lot about his worldview.
Regarding his absence, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, cited his "work schedule." (Putin opted to lay flowers on Gorbachev's grave, with nobody around but the television cameras rolling.)
But Putin’s absence reveals how differently the two men have related to empire. When Putin was a K.G.B. agent posted abroad in the 1980s, his mission was to defend the Soviet empire, which he has tried to put back together as Russian leader. Gorbachev made it possible for the empire to unravel.
By late summer 1989, the fruits of Gorbachev's nonintervention Eastern Bloc policy dubbed the Sinatra Doctrine -- playing off of the famous song "My Way" -- were clear. Poland had its first non-communist government since World War II. Hungary dismantled its border fence with Austria, allowing for free movement between East and West.
Putin was a K.G.B. agent watching this policy unfold from Dresden, a city deep in East Germany. Despite its poverty relative to West Germany, East Germany was the crown jewel of the Soviet empire -- its capital stock and living standards were above the Soviet Union. Unlike his neighbors or Gorbachev, East German leader Erich Honecker had zero interest in political liberalization. Gorbachev refused the East German government's request to forcibly close the Hungary-Austria border, and scores of East Germans made their way to the West via Hungary. East Germany then closed all of its borders and demanded that Czechoslovakia and Poland deport any remaining East Germans to the West in sealed trains.
In Dresden, Putin had a front-row seat to the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The sealed trains, traveling from Czechoslovakia to West Germany, were scheduled to pass through Dresden on October 5, 1989. Dresden was in the region of East Germany known as Tal der Ahnungslosen, the "valley of the clueless," because West German TV signals did not reach there. Authorities hoped that isolation would lead fewer people to want to emigrate to the West -- but no dice. 10,000 people came to the Dresden train station to try to make an escape to the West, trying to break through a security cordon. There was the possibility of a Tiananmen Square moment, as Soviet tanks were still there. Dresden's mayor at the time, Wolfgang Berghofer, told the BBC in 2015, "Generals said to me clearly: 'If we get the order from Moscow, the tanks will roll.'" That order never came. The East German forces did beat back the protesters with water cannons and clubs; it was the biggest instance of civil disobedience in the country in 36 years.
The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. In February 1990, Putin, shy of 40, left Dresden for his native Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), with a second-hand washing machine and uncertain career prospects. By December 1991, the Soviet Union no longer existed.
While Gorbachev signed away the Soviet Union, Putin, as Russian leader, has tried to recreate it. For the most part, this effort has been successful. With few exceptions, under Putin, all of the former republics of the Soviet Union are dominated by Moscow’s political power. Some of them flirted with joining the Western orbit, like Georgia or even Belarus. (The latter is now wholly dependent on the Russian Federation.)
The exceptions are the Baltic States -- which the U.S.S.R. forcibly annexed during World War II, were never recognized by the United States as a part of the Soviet Union, and are now members of NATO and the European Union -- and Ukraine.
On December 1, 1991, 91 percent of Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union. Even in Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014 to make a part of Russia, 54 percent voted to become part of an independent Ukraine, rather than a Moscow-based empire. Gorbachev respected the outcome and a week later, signed the document that made Ukraine an independent country. Just over 30 years later, Putin started a war to try to get it back — which alarmed Gorbachev. Now, the war isn’t going very well for Putin. No wonder he couldn't make the funeral.
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.