Khrushchev Would Be Appalled

Nikita Khrushchev
Former United States President John F. Kennedy (R) meets with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961. Khrushchev would have thought Putin’s Crimea invasion out of line, says the Soviet leader’s great-granddaughter Evelyn Lincoln/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Reuters

My great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, would be turning in his grave.

Khrushchev, the Soviet leader from 1953-1964, is being blamed for creating the current Crimea mess. Russia took over the Crimea peninsula from the Ottoman Empire after the 1750s Crimean War, but in 1954 Khrushchev transferred its jurisdiction from the Russian to the Ukrainian republic of the Soviet Union (USSR).

Writing in 1990, the Russian anti-communist dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, envisioned a post-Soviet Russia that included Ukraine. He thought of their separate status as a "cruel partition… brought on by the communist years."

A great critic of the Soviet Empire in later years, Solzhenitsyn became an equally great supporter of the new Russian Empire. In his 10-year reign, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a fan of Solzhenitsyn, has almost outdone the teachings of his intellectual (and imperial) mentor.

The Russian military now controls the Crimean peninsula under the pretext of national security and in defense of ethnic Russians who make up 60 percent of Crimea's population. Putin's true ambition, though, is to take back Crimea from the Ukraine and permanently restore it to Russian control.

Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin observes military exercises in the Leningrad region, March 3, 2014 Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet dissident. Putin, now Russian president, was a colonel in the Soviet Union's secret police, the KGB. Both, however, share the same characteristics of the Russian psyche, what I call "the Gulag of the Russian mind." They both entertain a vision of a centralized Russian state stretching over the length of Eurasia appeals, an idea that appeals to their commonly held sense of Russian supremacy.

My great-grandfather would not like what is going on right now in Ukraine and the Crimea. First, because he was a supporter of Solzhenitsyn (on Khrushchev's specific orders, Solzhenitsyn's book implicitly criticizing Joseph Stalin, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published in 1962), he believed he was helping unite Ukraine and Russia, not partitioning them.

"A genius like Solzhenitsyn" (Khrushchev often called him a genius) should have understood that the 1950s' Crimea transfer was an effort to bring the two countries together.

It was done as an attempt to de-centralize Stalin's monolithic authoritarian order, but also with the idea that Ukraine and Russia, both parts of the USSR, were indivisible, making Crimea's ownership simply a matter of topography.

With Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev -- a Ukraine aficionado who spent most of his life working there, first as a coal miner, then as a party apparatchik -- thought that Crimea fitted into Ukraine economically and geographically better than it did into Russia.

Khrushchev also felt the awarding of rich farmlands and the luxurious vacation resorts in places like Livadia and Yalta were a reward Ukraine deserved after suffering Stalin's brutal collectivization regime and enduring the great famine—Holodomor—that Ukraine suffered in the early 1930s.

Moreover, after Ukraine succeeded in feeding most of the USSR with its wheat in the years after World War II, Khrushchev felt Ukraine was due the Kremlin's gratitude.

But even if we set aside the communist past, Khrushchev's second concern would have been over the collapse of communism in 1991, an occurrence that was wholly inconceivable to my great-grandfather, who died in 1971 when the Soviets still seemed at their prime.

Khrushchev would have thought that Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union that led to Ukraine and Russia becoming separate states, should have claimed Crimea back.

Would he have cheered Ukraine's self-determination, his favorite nation in the Soviet Union finally coming into its own? I almost hear him saying, "Partnership, not pressure, is the best course of action."

Not that great-grandfather himself always avoided using harsh methods. In 1956, he put down the Hungarian Revolution, ironically inspired by his own liberalizing policies of the "Thaw against Stalinism". Being informed by the KGB that communists were being hanged on trees in Budapest, Khrushchev, with great hesitation, sent in Russian tanks, believing that proletarians of the world needed to unite.

He thought a lot about the wisdom of such policies in his years of retirement after he left office in 1964. In 1968, when Leonid Brezhnev, his hardliner successor, followed his example and sent troops to Czechoslovakia to suppress another anti-communist revolt, the Prague Spring, Khrushchev was crushed. "It has been 12 years and we still haven't learnt a better way," he said privately to his family.

Looking at today's Russia, his third concern would have been that 60 years after Hungary we still haven't learnt a better way. He would have reproached Solzhenitsyn for nationalism—for the writer's belief that Malorossiya ("Small Russia", another name for Ukraine) should belong, subordinately, to "Great Russia".

As for Putin, no doubt, Khrushchev would have objected to his blatant use of force. Expressing a vague threat in their unmarked uniforms, Russian armed forces move freely about the peninsula, blocking ferries, occupying airports and Ukrainian air force and infantry bases.

To critics, this may seem like an oxymoron: isn't Putin following the pages of Khrushchev's own 1956 playbook? He is, but Russia is not the Soviet Union, it is bound up in the world economy and the world's markets. It is part of global institutions, such as BRICS, an organization that brings together developing economies, and the G8, the group of the world's leading industrialized nations.

Khrushchev came right after Stalin, sharing with his brutal predecessor a firm belief that the class struggle and the fight between capitalism and socialism justifies the use of any means, including force. Khrushchev's mission, as he saw it, was to protect communism around the world.

But over half a century later, what is Putin's excuse? His claim that Russian interests in Crimea are endangered, and his insistence on intervention on humanitarian grounds, are nothing more than the neo-imperial ambitions of a self-deluded leader.

In a recent conversation with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin exposed himself as a megalomaniac who sees his mission in life as righting historical wrongs, believing that bumbling fools like Khrushchev and Yeltsin had led to Russia's disintegration, and that he, like a modern day Stalin, is returning the country to its former glory.

I was asked recently whether the Crimean is crisis is the Cuban Missile Crisis of our time. In 1962, Khrushchev claimed that there should be parity between the military forces of the world's two superpowers. If the US could keep troops in Turkey next to the Soviet border, why shouldn't the USSR keep rockets in Cuba on the American doorstep?

Khrushchev's argument quickly collapsed when he realized that the fate of the world itself was at stake. He stood down and World War III avoided.

With Russian troops flooding into Crimea and Russian ultimatums to the Ukrainian military to surrender being issued left and right, it is unlikely Putin will go the Khrushchev route. Although he, too, argues parity.

If America can go after governments for disregarding the people's will, as it did in Libya in 2011, and attack countries for their lack of democracy, as it did in Iraq in 2003, or cite humanitarianism when assisting opposition to Syria's Bashar al Assad, why can't Russia do the same in Ukraine?

Ukraine is closer to Russia than the countries that Americans believe they can bomb with impunity. The two countries have an ethnic and cultural connection. Both came from the cradle of the same civilization, Kievan Russia of the 800s. Most importantly, Putin believes, just as Solzhenitsyn taught him, that Crimea is not Ukrainian, Khrushchev's transfer of ownership notwithstanding.

In some strange way, my great-grandfather, the Soviet despot, was far less imperial than post-Soviet Putin is. But the core to understanding Russian behavior and its unchanging, domineering nature is Solzhenitsyn, whom Khrushchev admired for exposing the inhumanity of Stalin's Gulags, but whom Putin loves for justifying the notion of "Great Russia".

It appears the Russian people, if not the Ukrainians, are with him. As we saw over the weekend, few Russians have taken to the Moscow streets with banners demanding, "Hands off Ukraine." Far more -- many of them liberals and opponents of Putin's domestic politics -- marched to call for Crimea's immediate annexation by Russia. The author of the Gulag Archipelago was a genius indeed.

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University in New York City. She is the author of The Lost Khrushchev: Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.