Each Russian leader picks a subject he is an expert in and Vladimir Putin's subject is history. "That is why in order to understand Russia, we must understand Russian history," says Professor Nina Khrushcheva of the New School University in New York.
Fallout with Turkey shows that Russia can lose friends as quickly as it makes them
© Sputnik/Scanpix

The following interview is based on a discussion moderated by Finnish journalist Kaius Niemi at the International Press Institute's World Congress in Doha, Qatar, on March 21.

"Russia is a regional power that can influence most of the world and if it wants to, as Russia often does, it can do a lot of damage to the world," says Khrushcheva, whose recent book, “The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind” (Tate, 2014), delves into Russia's recent history in order to explain its present.

"I don’t know much more than most people, but I do know that often a Russian leader picks a subject that he’s an expert in, and Vladimir Putin’s subject is history. That is why in order to understand Russia, we must understand Russian history. If you try to understand the conflict in Ukraine, you have to look at Catherine the Great and her first expansion into Crimea. If you look at Syria, you would also have to look back at Catherine the Great and her ventures, which actually didn’t last very long.

"Of course there’s the military industrial complex, there’s also the matter of economy, which war always helps, either by creating an image or in building the military industrial complex and whatnot. I think that the historical greatness that Putin puts forward as his major agenda is definitely very important.

One thing that I think plays a major factor is oil. Oil is something that really connects Russia and the Middle East. What is Russia’s present day gain in the region, while the oil price is plummeting and the Russian economy is having a hard time?

The price is plummeting, and it could be a great gain in the region, but I don’t think gains are just about economics and being a great power, it’s about much more than that. For Vladimir Putin, it’s also about having a much broader influence. Syria, in particular, is one of the few countries in The Middle East that Putin has influence upon. The relationship between him and President Bashar al-Assad is very important to him, and he is going to stand by it until the very last day.

Of course, other relationships that Mr Putin has been able to foster, like with the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are important too. There are a lot of open doors for Mr Putin, and all these relationships allow him to claim, specifically to the US, that he is much more than a regional power, that he is a player [in the international arena]. For example, claiming that the Syrian ceasefire wouldn’t have happened without Russia’s involvement, that the peace process is about the United States and Russia first and foremost. That’s a great gain, because in the 15-20 years that Putin has been in power, he thought that his job was to bring Russia to the grown-up table, so to speak, and at this point he feels that he achieved this.

What is your prediction about what will happen next in the Middle East? Is the Middle East more important and interesting for Russia than it used to be, and is it because of energy and oil or political reasons?

Anybody who wants to predict anything about Russia is completely doomed, so I’m not even going to venture into that. With the knowledge of the past, you know that you can’t predict any of those things. Mikhail Gorbachev lost power overnight, and no expert predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse so quickly and so ingloriously.

However, I do think that the Middle East is very important to Russia. Putin has proven that he can be a player and he has created a relationship that can be very beneficial economically. One of the objectives of the Syrian crisis was to showcase new military equipment and a modernized Russian military. He did this, and apparently there’s a new deal with Iran in the works, so this is something that can potentially benefit Putin in the future.

On the other hand, we do know from the very quick demise of his relationship with Turkey that a relationship can be demolished overnight. I think what is important to remember is if Putin does stay in power, he is planning to have a bigger say in the matters of the world, much bigger than what he had five or ten years ago.

Do you think that there is a problem where nobody is listening to what Russia and Vladimir Putin is saying?

He has proven [himself], I don’t know if it’s just me that thinks this way. If we talk about the ceasefire, if we talk about the peace process, as fragile as it may be, but he is listened to. I don’t know if you remember the G20 summit in Australia, Putin was out and had to leave because, allegedly, he didn’t have enough sleep. In the next summit in Turkey he was the man of the hour, everybody wanted to speak to him. He is capable of turning a relationship quickly, as well as ruining it quickly. But we can predict that, in the very near future, he will be listened to.

How about the Iranian question? How do you see Russia playing the Iran card?

As I’ve said, there’s apparently a new deal in the works for providing Iran with military equipment. Russia has obviously always had a relationship with Iran and the nuclear deal is happening with Russia’s assistance.

Putin is now certainly going to step into every single opening that is available, because another thing to consider is Putin’s personality. If he sees an opening, he goes in. People are very puzzled, how does it happen? His favourite sport is judo, and that’s what you do in judo, you find a weakness in your opponent and you go in. I think with Iran, and many other countries, we’ve been witnessing the same thing, when they suddenly start mattering to Russia. Putin is going to continue this kind of policy.

Coming back to the oil question, it’s not as easy as it used to be when it comes to shaking up the prices, and obviously Russia is interested in trying to get the oil price up. Do you think the price of oil is crucial for getting the Russian economy running?

It is crucial, but the question is not how much it can influence the oil price, but how many options Russia has. If you read Russian press, you would know that the diminishing oil prices are, in fact, an American conspiracy. That’s what we have to fight first, and everything else second. Yes, it absolutely does matter.
Unless Putin, Saudi Arabia and other countries make some sort of a secret pact, I’m not sure he can influence that. Some ways, such as war and trying to reduce the economic sanctions over Crimea and Russia’s actions in Ukraine, are good ways to better the economy.

How long will the Russian society sustain the pain which is made deeper by the economic sanctions?

That’s a great question, but I don’t have a great answer. It [the sanctions] can last a really long time, depending on Russia’s decision on how long they can withstand the inconvenience of hardships. Russians are known to withstand inconveniences for a very long time. On the other hand, Russians could surprise us and act very sporadically. Putin does have a rather high popularity rating. I think he does need some of the sanctions removed.

There’s plenty of conflicting information. For example, one of the former finance ministers said that they’re expecting the sanctions to be lifted by this fall, in September. At the same time, some countries have just imposed or prolonged their sanctions. I honestly don’t know what to expect. Perhaps, a resolution is coming tomorrow, and perhaps the sanctions are going to last for another 10 years. But, knowing Putin, I could imagine that he is going to try and stay in power for as long as he can. He will try not to step away from his oppressive politics, in a sense that every single matter of the Russian people is under control of the Kremlin. I don’t think that is going to change.

On the other hand, there could be a power shift tomorrow, and he would be gone in a jiffy.

What role does the rising middle class play in all of this?

The rising middle class played a huge role in 2010 and 2012. There have been a lot of demonstrations and opposition. But, to give a recent example, long-range truck drivers were imposed taxes and had to use technology that they couldn’t afford. This segment of the population has been pacified, and that’s another thing that Putin does very well. He shows up and he pacifies those restless and protesting. He goes to a remote village and says: “I’m with you, we’re going to punish all of the chenovniki, the bureaucrats and I am the father of the nation.” Russians were very susceptible to this kind of attention from the tsar.

The middle class is rising, but at the same time Putin does have a popularity of, say, 70%, and out of those 70%, at least 60% are going to be willing to withstand the hardships just to support that man in the Kremlin. The Russian saying goes: “Who is better than the great Putin?”

A couple of years ago, the Hungarian president listed Russia, China and Turkey as successful nations. In his words, Europe doesn’t really matter. How much do you think Putin’s government is taking example from other authoritarian leaders and how much has he been imitated by others?

I think Putin was a great example to all of these people. The reason for this is because he came to power in 2000, when everybody else was still in their diapers. He has now been in power for almost 17 years. Another year, and he will catch up with Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who seemed to be involved with the Soviet Union for endless years.

Putin is a great example of that, and Orban was primarily referring to Putin. Putin has once said that he takes his cues from Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States from 2001 to 2009. Mr. Cheney was heard saying: “If you don’t need to be democratic, then I don’t need to be democratic.”

But all jokes aside, it is a very dangerous trend, because you no longer need to be a totalitarian leader, you no longer need to be Bashar Al-Assad, you can just be Erdogan or Putin. Or even the Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who hates Putin, but at the same time seems to be doing very similar things in order to create a non-democratic government that acts as a democracy. This is what you should pay attention to in the next big journalistic story or investigation.

From the European perspective, what should be done in order to become a power that Putin would take seriously? It seems that he is building bilateral connections in Europe and the European common foreign policies seem to be pretty much neutered, especially after the Crimean takeover and the Ukraine war.

I think the European Union has, unfortunately, missed its opportunity. Yes, the sanctions were imposed by the European Union, but by no means was it Europe speaking in one voice, even though they were saying that they were. Putin was meeting with the Finnish president, the Austrian president and the Italian prime minister. He knows that the EU is fractured.

I think Europe does need to speak in one voice, but what happens when they cannot? When you have almost 30 countries in the Union, can they really speak in the same interest? People like Kaczynski really undermine the message of the European Union altogether.

You mentioned that you follow the online newspaper Meduza religiously. What other news outlets do you use when you need news about Russia? Are you worried about media freedom in Russia, and how severe is the issue?

Everybody worries about freedom of press issues, and people have been worrying for over a decade. Major TV networks like NTV were taken over by the state. Just yesterday there were conversations about journalistic self-censorship, which is pervasive in Russia. You know that you have to write certain things, otherwise you’re going to lose your job.

There are few outlets, and Putin is a very clever man. I always preface this by saying that I am not equating Stalin and Putin directly, but there is a tendency to compare them, and I think that the comparisons are valid because they both wanted to run Russia autocratically and unilaterally at all times. Stalin was trying to oppression everything, so ultimately it blew up. What Putin has been doing for 16 years is that he didn’t close some segments completely, he leaves something open.

You have an impression that Ren TV is where you can speak freely, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) is where you get another version of the story, that the New Times is something that provides you with criticism. And this is all true, but these outlets are few and they are always under surveillance, where if you step out of line, something may happen. And they don’t cover all of Russia, there’s always 60-70% of people who get their news from official Kremlin channels, and the internet is now being monitored as well. If Putin does stay in power, and the Constitution permits him to stay until 2024, you can imagine what could happen in those eight years.

What do you think about Putin instilling propaganda in Germany?

I think that is very likely. Not to be trivial about it, but it is a fact that Putin is a former KGB agent. That’s how they achieve results, by providing deceitful information and planting stories. To some degree, I think he feels good about being able to split some parts of Europe against other parts of Europe. In fact, some people even predicted cleverly that one of the aims for the Crimea annexation and actions in Ukraine was to not only break relationships within Europe, but also break the relationship between Europe and the United States. Of course the United States was adamant about the sanctions, and Europe was less so.

Propaganda is certainly there in Europe. I’m sure that everybody watches Russia Today, or at least knows about that great propaganda outlet that the Kremlin put together quite successfully. One thing to note is that when I have debates with my colleagues in the US, they always say that we have to discredit Putin’s propaganda. It’s not possible, because you can’t discredit so much propaganda, you would have to spend 24/7 on every single outlet only talking about this. I think you have to just tell a story, like reports from warzones. That is how, not only in Russia, but also outside of Russia, the truth could be heard.

Putin seems to be enjoying the role of the “bad guy” of the world. Do you see him as a loser or as a winner?

He is a very adventurous political gambler. He enjoys shocking the world, I think he is a great exhibitionist. You should also note that he does Judo, so the question is always “What is his endgame?”

The endgame is simple. He needs to stay in power, because if he loses power, that loss of power is not going to be nice and peaceful, because he did help create a system of government that treats its enemies very violently. So if he becomes an enemy of that system, you can only imagine what will happen to him. He needs to stay in power, and his endgame is to bring Russia to the table of great powers.

There is a great debate whether or not he is a good strategist. I think, strategically, he is a loser, period. Because what Russia has to show today is a failing economy, collapsing infrastructure. Its relationship with the world is based on fear, which is not a relationship with which you can build a future.

Tactically, I think he is a brilliant tactician. He figured out that doing judo acts, figuring out the weaknesses and striking them is a good way to go. He only needs to stay in power for another 10-20 years. After that, it seems that the great tragedy of Russia will be that it will have to pick itself up again and rebuild anew.

One of the things that we know from history is that all of Russia’s grandiose achievements, even Stalin’s industrialization, are not based on systemic values or infrastructural achievements that can work into the future. They all become obsolete, even Stalin’s industrialization had become obsolete in 30 years. It will be worse with Putin.

My last question would be, who can be next after Putin? Can that person be even worse?

It’s true that the next person could be unfit, because a lot of them don’t have the status, a lot of them are imperialists, because Russia continues to be an imperial power. On the other hand, historically, Russia always had these pendulum swings. When Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev was the last person that anybody thought could replace him. Stalin would’ve considered it the biggest joke in the world. When Gorbachev came to power, he came in as a KGB candidate, who was supposed to continue the KGB formula, so you really never know.

With all the modern reforms that we’re seeing today, we could see the next person to at least entertain the idea of Russia as a part of the world community.

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