It’s official, Crimea is Russian. In the words of Vladimir Putin, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” Indeed Russia said that in Sunday’s referendum 97% of its participants, mostly ethnic Russians, insisted that to belong to the Great Russia versus Small Russia (Malorossiya, another name for Ukraine) had been their dream for 60 years since the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, transferred the peninsula’s jurisdiction to Kiev.
In his address to Parliament on March 18 announcing the annexation, Putin said that by this Khrushchev action Russia was not “simply robbed, it was plundered.” There are many reasons for transfer that Putin could have outlined: administrative, economic, desire to overcome Joseph Stalin’s legacy of central control. Yet he chose to say my great-grandfather was atoning for “the mass repressions of the 1930s in Ukraine.”
Well, Khrushchev became the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party in 1938, when most of the repressions — namely Holodomor, the Great Famine, brought in part by Stalin’s heavy industrialization — were over. It is rich of the Russian President to accuse Khrushchev of repressions. What about Stalin, the true tyrant? Putin is not Stalin, of course, not yet, but he sees himself walking in the dictator’s shoes: he adds lands to the great Russia, while other sorry leaders like Khrushchev only squandered it away.
Not that Khrushchev, a Soviet autocrat, shied away from brutality, indeed participating in repressions and purges — that was the style of the times. Nonetheless, after Stalin’s death in 1953 his goal was to decentralize the Communist monolith, hence the Crimea transfer. No stranger to propaganda — Communism excelled in arguing Soviet superiority over ethnic national pride, Ukrainian or any other, as well as over decadent and dying capitalism — Khrushchev still would have cringed at Putin’s distortions.
“Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other,” the president said, implying that given this closeness Russia must have control over the Malorossian territory. Khrushchev too thought that Ukraine and Russia were almost one — after all a symbolic reason for the 1954 transfer was the 300th anniversary of the Ukrainian-Russian unification. But he would think of them as equal nations, assigning the original primacy to the 9th century Kiev, not to Moscow, which until the 1100s was just an obscure place in the woods.
Khrushchev, who valued diversity (as much as the Soviet despot could) would have condemned the Putin Doctrine — development of the military industrial complex based on the Kremlin-centric heavy industry and export of raw materials. In Soviet times that complex was a staple of the economy, as the main slogan of the Kremlin was the class struggle against global imperialism. And even if my great-grandfather used that argument in Budapest, sending tanks to suppress the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a popular uprising against hardline communism, he lamented similar tactics in 1968 when his successor Leonid Brezhnev squashed the Prague Spring.
Under Brezhnev this kind of incursions into neighboring territories became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. It declared that forces hostile to socialism should not be tolerated, and to cement this argument in 1979 the USSR send troops to Afghanistan to provide security to its recently formed Democratic Republic. Khrushchev died in 1971 and didn’t see what harm the Afghan war did to his country — thousands of lives lost and the economy strained by the time it withdrew with defeat exactly a quarter of a century ago — but he, who in retirement spoke candidly of his and Communism’s mistakes, would have been horrified by the stanchness of the Kremlin’s patterns.
Today Putin would undoubtedly suggest that Crimea is not different from Afghanistan. Speaking to the veterans about the Afghan invasion in February 2004, he explained there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border. Now citing security of nations within Moscow’s sphere of influence he has justified the Ukraine territorial takeover.
What’s more, in the Brezhnev era the expansionist policies of the military industrial complex were a result of the oil prosperity. After the 1973 oil crisis its prices reached 41 dollars a barrel by 1981. They provided some material comforts to the Soviets, fueled their belief in the USSR’s stability and strength. Similarly, with oil at around $100 a barrel in recent decades, the GDP growth under Putin — up 8% until just a few years ago — allowed Russians to live well like never before, also cultivating a sense of superiority. The success of the Sochi Olympics last month has only made it greater.
In fact the Crimeans’ desire to join Russia is partially based on their trust that Putin will turn them into another Sochi, with posh hotels and pristine beaches. But the cost of upgrading or rebuilding the peninsula’s economic and social infrastructure will range from $10 billion (300 billion rubles) to $85 billion (3 trillion rubles). Can Russia really foot that bill?
A bitter lesson from the Brezhnev USSR is that the state, driven by an undiversified and oil-based economy, runs out of funds to support its extra territories because nationalistic emotions take over economic calculations. Russian inflexible financial system was suffering even before the Ukrainian crisis began. Last year’s forecasts suggest that in the next 15 years Russia’s growth rate would fall from 4.3% to 2.5% if it keeps its raw material focus.
Now with the United States, Europe and Japan hitting the Kremlin with sanctions — account freezes and visa bans for the high level Putin government officials — further economic downturn is inevitable.
The Brezhnev Doctrine — defense of socialism through expansion and the military industrial complex — had led to the inglorious Soviet collapse. The doomsday of the Putin Doctrine must be approaching fast.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York. Her latest book is The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. The views expressed in this commentary are entirely her own.