The recent upheavals in the Ukraine have shown a new squirt of Russian imperialism at work in Eastern Europe. History has revealed a number of Russian expansions and subsequent contractions of its territory and spheres of influence. The most recent of these, of course, is the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
During the period of the Brezhnev ascendancy and just prior to the USSR collapse and just afterward, I went on three separate trips behind the Iron Curtain. All three visits – in 1977, 1989 and 1992 – traversed this 20th century period of Russia’s traditional patterns.
When in the late 1977’s, I toured with my wife and youngest daughter Danielle, then five years old, through the Soviet Empire, we did a circuit of the mostly non-Russian parts of that gigantic entity. My secret intent was to see what was happening in the countries that the Russians had forcibly incorporated into Stalin’s behemoth of a Communist state. So in addition to the core Russian component, we spent time in the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia and Latvia. It should be understood that all of these and other “Republics” were run from Moscow by puppet governments, totally subservient to the Kremlin. In addition, former independent countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria, had also been brought in under the Russian thumb.
Apropos the current Ukrainian situation, the Russian control of its non-Russian Republics was always secured by having a native high-ranking Communist act as First Secretary of the subdued country’s Party apparatus, seemingly in charge, but in every case dominated by the Second Secretary, who was normally a Russian or if not – and this is important – a Ukrainian. That now liberated independent country of some 40 million people on Russia’s doorstep is – and this seems to have escaped our media – is basically two separate nations: the Western portion, with its eyes and allegiance turned toward Europe, and the Eastern section, heavily pro-Russian.
The current Ukrainian President – Victor Yanukovich – has his base of support among the eastward-looking citizens who, by and large pro-Russian, applaud his choice in the current crisis of selling his soul to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, a large majority of his nation’s inhabitants look westward and his rejection of a pact with the European Union has incited mass protests in the streets and demands he resign. By accepting Putin’s deal of carrots and sticks – alleged prosperity if they join Russia’s trading block and his offered $50 billion in cash, or dire threats if the Ukraine goes with Europe, Yanukovitch has stirred up a political hornet’s nest..
Moving backward chronologically, perhaps my hairiest time in Russia came right on the heels of the overthrow of the Soviet Union and the Russians’ reversion to the symbols of pre-1917, changing Leningrad back to Saint Petersburg and their red flag back to a banner of horizontal white, blue and red bars and even the name of the country back to what it formerly was. When told it was like our “Wild West” in Russia at that juncture, I found out people weren’t kidding. On a night train ride from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, train robbers entered.
I was traveling with a group of doctors and health care policy folks from Canada, the U.S., Australia and Great Britain on a people-to-people exchange looking at the post-Soviet medical system. Since the lock on door of a compartment I shared with Dr. Peter Hollingsworth, an Englishman who practiced in Australia, was broken, Peter and I had rigged up a booby trap to fall onto the heads of anyone who tried to break in. At 3 A.M., a blood-curling female scream in the compartment next to ours issued from the wife of our group leader when the bad guys tried to enter and whose ungodly yell scared off the miscreants. They escaped to another section of the train and then jumped off it while it was moving (although at a Russians railroad speed that was barely faster than walking). Our Russian guide later told us we were lucky not to have been shot to death first and robbed afterward, which was frequently the case.
On another leg of this trip, our group headed to a small city outside of Moscow that under the Soviets had been called Zagorsk after a Communist hero. With the fall of the Reds’ one party rule, it had reverted to its Czarist era name of Sergiev-Possad. One reason for going there was to see a magnificent cluster of traditional monasteries and churches and the other to meet with city officials to discuss health care. Thus in the flesh we came face to face with the three factions then fighting for control of Russia: the moderate liberals, the church and the ex-Communist Party apparatchiks.
At the religious complex, now filled with worshippers, some women with us were initially barred from entering . Their skirts were too short, a monk told them, although the hems came to their knees. Only after they agreed to wear even longer skirts the priests offered them were they admitted. Clearly, power had come back to the Orthodox Hierarchy and their clergy were exercising it stringently…At the city council meeting, there were some moderate- liberals who’d gotten elected during the current swing in their direction under Gorbachev, but they were still a minority among the ex-Communists around the table, once members of the nomenklatura Party establishment. One of our number, an Australian woman doctor named Mendelsohn whispered to me when she passed by the back of my chair, “Get up and walk behind the Mayor and peek at what he’s doodling.” So I did. The well-dressed man at the head of the table had a certain artistic talent. I saw that he was sketching a perfectly executed hammer and sickle.
A final incident in Saint Petersburg unveiled the corruption that was soon to become epidemic (and remains entrenched to this day) I had met a Russian naval captain who had been to Maine, spoke good English and agreed to show me the sights of that beautiful city built by Peter the Great. Suddenly we were stopped for no reason by a policeman who, my host explained, was interested in shaking us down for a bribe. Luckily, in this instance, justice prevailed. My companion behind the wheel, dressed in civilian clothes, handed him his credentials, which showed him to be a high-ranking military officer. The cop was intimidated and gruffly he waved us on.
My previous trip in 1989 was another people-to-people exchange, this time of elected legislators and other State officials on a bi-partisan basis from all over the U.S. What a contrast I found to the Soviet Union of 12 years earlier, although the monolithic Party was still legally in effect. Fear of the KGB no longer seemed evident. At the Smolny Institute in the then still named Leningrad, we were shown the holy-holy of the Communist era – Lenin’s office in 1917 preserved intact – but were advised the present was “a very bad time to be a Communist in Russia.” In Bukhara in Uzbekistan, I was up early one morning taking a short walk from our hotel. A set of billboards bearing the rather identical flags of the different Soviet Republics, whose lettering I deciphered with my pocket dictionary, essentially proclaimed: “If we don’t hold together, it (the Communist system) will all fall apart.” And so it did, much faster than any one could have anticipated.
On my first trip in 1977 when the monolithic Party still held sway, propaganda billboards, banners, etc. were everywhere. One afternoon when my wife and I and daughter Danielle were in our hotel room in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, the door abruptly burst open and a gang of workmen burst in carrying a huge blood red banner with golden lettering that they proceeded to affix to the balcony of our suite facing the main city square. Such signs praising the “glorious Party” were everywhere throughout the USSR, as opposed to the lone plaintive billboards in Bukhara 12 years later. Another change in 1989 was the openness of the black market.
In the Brezhnev era it existed, but always clandestine and dangerous. But in 1989, the money exchangers operated in full view out on the streets. Perhaps the ultimate motive behind the USSR’s collapse could be seen in the ineptitude of the system we encountered in 1977 – how nothing worked, how nets had to be strung under city roofs to catch falling tiles from crashing down on pedestrians below, or that getting into an elevator meant taking your life in your hands. How often in our hotels did we hear poor wretches trapped inside banging frantically on the doors. Our first airplane ride on Aeroflot, the national airline, landed us in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and the first sight as we approached the runway was of a plane that had crashed and whose wreckage had been swept aside and left uncleaned up.
So now we come back to Vladimir Putin and his ploy to absorb the Ukraine again. On the trade scene he has already made a deal with Kazahkstan, another former subservient Republic and he is pressing hard to force the Ukrainians to join this budding bloc. In trying to win international approval of his handling of the upcoming Olympic Games at Sochi in the Crimea from which he hopes to gain worldwide prestige for Russia and himself, he has pardoned certain political prisoners in a charm offensive to help soften his dictatorial image.
The history cited here is my own personal perception of this enigmatic but powerful country’s current zigs and zags toward modernity. Look for more trouble in the Eastern European sphere as Putin continues to feel his oats and embarks on a new form of Russian revival.