The Lost Lessons of Freedom

The march toward openness and democracy in the Soviet Union began under my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, flowered under Mikhail Gorbachev, and has nearly been erased in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

"Berlin should become a free city," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev repeated in public and at home throughout 1961. It was my great-grandfather’s habit; once taken with an idea, he never let it go.

"Parity" was his ruling diplomatic concept. If one side in the Cold War can do something, so can another, he reasoned. This was the logic he employed in sending rockets to Cuba in 1962: If America, the superpower, can have missiles in Turkey, right on the border of the Soviet Union, he reasoned, then surely the USSR, another superpower, must be able to do the same. Fifty years later, Russia, though a superpower no more and the Cold War long since dead, still adheres to this world-dividing concept. Vladimir Putin, president-turned-prime-minister and the main politician in charge, never fails to point out that his country (with its geography and natural resources just enough to make it great and powerful) should be on equal footing with the world most-industrialized countries — and have the same international influence as the United States.

This line of thinking leads to policies that are dangerous for both the Russian people and global security. But to understand how it emerged, it’s necessary to go back to the height of the Cold War in 1961.

Fifteen years after World War II, Berlin was still considered occupied territory, divided into four spheres of influence — the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Britain. Khrushchev pushed for a peace treaty to give the largely unrecognized communist government of East Germany (GDR) international legitimacy. This was an issue for the Americans, and so Khrushchev threatened to turn Berlin into a free demilitarized zone, giving the GDR full power over the city’s Eastern zone and leaving the Western half under the control of the pro-Western Federal Republic. 

The United States saw this plan as an enormous threat to the West and to capitalism — a ploy to give all of Berlin to the Soviets. Indeed, that may well have been the endgame Khrushchev envisaged. He was big on parity, but was also a cunning politician serving the communist cause.

Meanwhile, fearful of being stuck with communism forever, East Germans were defecting through the city’s porous border checkpoints at a stunning rate. By 1961, the country had lost over 3 million of its citizens. Walter Ulbricht, Secretary of GDR’s Socialist Unity Party, accused the West of the "destructive and undermining actions," blamed Western propaganda for the defections, and believed he could prevent further immigration by separating Berlin into two parts. Yet in the first weeks of August, Ulbricht — who already made mandatory a system of passports and advocated the border closing — was adamant that the final division, the wall, must be a last resort.

Khrushchev was also hesitant about the division, believing that Washington would take it the wrong way, and that interactions with the West could suffer. But the wall seemed to be the only way to stop immigration and keep East Germans from experiencing the higher quality of capitalist life. On Aug. 13, 1961, the wall went up and Berlin began its three decades of division.

Fast forward to 1964. After the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis had passed Khrushchev wanted to establish closer relations with Europe. His son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei, the editor of the newspaper Izvestia, became an unofficial envoy for this mission. But during a July visit with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and West Berlin’s mayor Willy Brandt, Adzhubei went a bit too far. Rather than just testing the waters of possible rapprochement he offered a solution to the division, as recounted in his memoir, Those Ten Years. "When I tell Nikita Sergeevich you are such good folks, he will get rid of the Wall," he promised.

A scandal ensued. Ulbricht couldn’t formally admit he had wanted to divide Berlin, preferring to let Moscow take responsibility for the drastic measure. Khrushchev, on the other hand, couldn’t be officially looking for ways to unite it; even if by 1964, following the crises in Berlin and Cuba over the past two years, he believed more in "peaceful coexistence" than in "parity" as a viable European policy for the Soviet Union. The wall remained standing. And just a few months later, in October 1964, Khrushchev was ousted for "failed and erratic policies" and "voluntarism in politics." For the Kremlin hardliners, the Berlin crisis was on the laundry list of his failures — first he wanted to build the wall, then decided to tear it down. After all, in the always defensive politics of USSR, changing policy to accommodate the other side was seen as nothing less than weakness. It took almost 30 years for another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to try to open up the communist monolith.

Five decades later, one can speculate that if Khrushchev had been more forceful in trying to end divisions in Berlin, the Cold War might have been over much sooner. After all, Gorbachev was determined to open up the Soviet Union — and he was indeed successful. But 20 years later, however, whether his success will hold is far from certain.

A hardliner in his own right, the KGB-trained Vladimir Putin has spent last 10 years since the Soviet collapse working to reestablish the centralized power of the Kremlin that Gorbachev had sought to break. The fall of the Berlin Wall had liberated the country from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, yet Putin’s "democracy" is understood only as a chance to walk half-naked during the summer heat waves or broadcast poor imitations of American crime shows, in which the brave KGB officers in opulent palaces battle the corrupt mafia.

Most Russians, ever susceptible to state propaganda, are satisfied with this narrow definition of freedom. They no longer regard their country’s openness as a sign that they are part of Western civilization as they did for a while encouraged by the Gorbachev policies, fearing instead that NATO and the European Union have expanded so much that they are pressing up against Russia’s borders. The United States, too, is seen as an adversary because of its support of democratic revolutions around the world, in Georgia, Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East.

Russia’s borders are now more open than they have ever been, but in some ways, the country’s ruling "sovereign democrats" believe in divisions and enemies even more than their autocratic communist predecessors. In April this year, Putin reasserted this point of view: "In the modern world, if you are weak, there will always be someone who wants to come in or fly in to give you advice as to which direction to take, what policy to conduct, what path to choose for your own development," he said. "And behind such seemingly well meaning … advice, in fact stands a rough diktat and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states."

But while he warns Russia against the cunning outsiders, Putin is entirely unavailable to his own people. His "superman" propaganda antics — kissing animals and children, flying jets and navigating submarines — do not prove superior leadership. His fiery speeches are as divorced from reality as the Soviets blaming the West’s "destructive influence" for their own food shortages.

Fifty years ago, Soviet dissident writer Alexander Galich in his effort to disclose the insularity of the Soviet autocrats took a trip on the Rublevsky expressway to Usovo, 15 miles west of Moscow, traditionally a residential area for the Soviet elite, where my great-grandfather used to live. Galich then famously wrote, "It’s raining in the countryside; There are fences in the countryside; Behind those fences are the leaders," in hiding from their people.

In recent rainy weeks, I went to see what has become of Khrushchev’s dacha. It is now part of the enlarged and updated prime ministerial estate, Novo-Ogarevo. But Khrushchev, the Soviet autocrat, was never as secretive as Russia’s "democrat" Putin — the 20-feet tall wire-mesh impenetrable fence guarding the current leadership is more intimidating than the barriers the bygone communists chose for themselves. Khrushchev’s much humbler wooden fence actually allowed for sneaking in and out of the compound. With Putin’s new estate, you’d need the ability to fly.

Yes, Khrushchev was an imperfect reformer but even he seemed more attuned to the openness to which a civilized nation should aspire than does Putin. Despite my great-grandfather’s tainted past — a trusted lieutenant of Stalin in the purge and wartime years — in 1956, he chose to denounce his former boss’s cult of personality. After his ousting in 1964, he admitted that walling off West Berlin was a mistake: "Superiority should be shown through competition not through restrictions," he said. Gorbachev followed along this line; when the Berlin Wall was about to fall in 1989, he didn’t send Soviet tanks to squash the rebellion. As he once admitted to me in a private conversation, the "essence of Perestroika was that we could no longer dictate to the world how to live. And they didn’t want to live with us."

Sadly, this lesson is completely lost on contemporary Russia. Putin’s effort to restore the national self-respect he sees as being shattered by the bitter loss of superpower status in 1991, has been focused on cowing Europe into submissively accepting Russia’s sphere of "privileged interest" among the post-Soviet nations. By increasing oil and gas prices or limiting supplies in Ukraine and Belarus, by flexing its military muscle in Georgia or sending ships to Cuba and Venezuela to parade Russia’s power on the world stage, Putin is eager to show that Russia is back.

Yet this façade has only achieved exposing Russia as an unreliable partner, and confirming that 50 years after the Berlin Wall and 20 after the coup that brought down the Soviet Union, Russia has yet to learn the lessons of freedom.

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