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The Memory Trap

Why remembrance of past imperial glory holds back Russia today. Part of an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The dramatic events of 1989 hinged on decisions made in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev changed the world when he decided not to send 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. Gorbachev’s reforms not only liberated the Soviets from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, but also released the national aspirations of people from the Baltics to the Bering Sea, who themselves had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In 1989, the peoples of Eastern Europe were free from communism, and two years later the Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation, began to seek the same freedom for themselves.

Yet in the two decades that have followed, Russia has been largely aloof from the liberalizing tide of history. The reason is that Russians have never accepted the narrative of being an empire diminished. In 2000, Russia, once the center of the Soviet empire, elected as president (now prime minister) 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.

Today, Putin’s project to safeguard "great national Russian identity" involves throwback policies from the communist era — such as attempting to pressure Europe into submission by increasing prices and limiting access to Russian oil and gas, and flexing Russia’s military muscle, as in the recent conflict in Georgia and decisions to send military training ships to Cuba and Venezuela, as a tactic of intimidation.

It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, yet Russia still cannot accept the loss of its imperial power. Today it is clear that unlike other communist states, Russia’s own 75 years of captivity to Soviet ideals and leadership cannot be blamed on the despotic nature of its former communist leaders. Neither closed borders, nor the Iron Curtain, 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, and his popularity consistently rates at more than 70 percent. It is Mikhail Gorbachev and his liberal ideals that they have never embraced, or deserved.

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