It was January of 1992, Russia’s first winter of democracy after the collapse of the Soviet system. I and my photographer, Chuck Musgrove, were walking across the historic stones of Red Square in Moscow.
Having grown up a child of the Cold War, I was thrilled to be in Russia at such a catalytic moment, and I suppose I expected near unanimous joy at the loosing of the shackles that had built the Russia of my mind, one of gulags, KGB surveillance, and lines for everything from bread to gasoline. It was snowing, pretty much a daily occurrence in the Russian capital. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by what I would learn was a weekly pro-communist rally just steps from Lenin’s Tomb. Massive red flags with their signature hammer and sickle snapped in the snowy wind, and a group of mostly middle-aged and older Muscovites stood sternly beneath them.
I carried with me the arrogance of a western upbringing, an unshakeable faith in the concept of freedom, and I probably laughed a little at these poor misguided souls who surely would come around to understand the benefits of the democracy that was trying to poke its head through the snow. But as I spoke with several of them, including one old grizzled gentleman who longed for a return to the era of Stalin, I started to realize that freedom in post-communist Russia meant the freedom to starve to death. With the old system dismantled at the stroke of a clock, millions of Russians had gone from middle-class to dirt poor overnight.
If you were older, the fears were especially acute. Lines still formed all over Moscow, but they weren’t of people waiting to buy things; they were lines of people trying to sell things, desperate for money. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of an older woman who was trying to sell her eyeglasses.
No, not everyone was all that excited about freedom and democracy. But it turns out that you didn’t have to be poor to have doubts about the new Russian order. All of those high-level bureaucrats who had lived large off of the bribes and kickbacks that defined the Soviet government and business dynamics were in no hurry to level the playing field, either. On that first trip, I had a translator and handler named Andrei who was a former KGB officer for whom doors flung open at the flash of his ID card and I remember wondering how long the KGB would remain a feared power. I didn’t know it then, of course, but right about that time, a guy named Vladimir Putin left the KGB to begin a political career. Like Andrei, I assume he moved through Russian society rather smoothly on the grease of that ID card. (I also assume that like Andrei, he could put away bottles of liquor and yet appear not the least bit unsteady.)
Fast forward to my most recent trip to Russia to cover the Olympics in Sochi. I was in Moscow again and had the chance to interview journalist Vladimir Pozner, well known to western audiences for his appearances on television to explain and promote Soviet ideals during the Cold War. More than 20 years after the collapse of communism, he told me that the west was going to have to be extremely patient with Russia because, as he put it, “There are no democrats here.” He meant that the current generation of Russian leaders could only play at democracy, that they were all fully baptized and institutionalized Soviets. Pozner figured it would take another two or three generations of leaders to turn over before something approximating democracy could take hold. Those words have stayed with me powerfully over the last eight years, and I certainly hear them now.
Vladimir Putin is very much like those demonstrators on Red Square so many years ago, longing for a world order that he not only understands but one that keeps him cradled in comfort and power. He once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” All around the Russian borders, Russian control is evaporating. The Baltic states are now part of the European Union. The Balkans keep looking westward, too. It’s no wonder Putin would like to get the band back together.
Which brings us to Ukraine, which was not only a sizeable piece of the Soviet Union in acreage but also in psychic terms; 12 centuries ago, the first Russian state was founded in Kyiv. Ukraine has long been an airbag for both sides, a sturdy dividing line between east and west. Since the dismantling of the USSR, Ukraine has drifted westward tilting more toward Europe than toward its eastern neighbor. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, now counts 30 nations among its members and there are others, Ukraine and Georgia included, eager to join. (The biggest reason is the obvious benefit of membership; NATO countries are bound by the commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all.)
To many on this side of the NATO line, the group has been the bulwark that has helped keep us out of World War III. From the Kremlin, it’s a far less benevolent shadow bringing American influence right up to the Russian border. Here’s Dad wanting his son to take over the family borscht business and instead the son wants to be surfer.
If it was just that, Americans might be forgiven for seeing it as yet another foreign hot spot that has little relevance at home. But the Cold War never worked that way. It never let you feel out of the line of fire. Russia is a massive energy producer, the world’s third largest, and a key supplier for Europe. Russia and Ukraine also produce a lot of wheat. Fuel and food. A war and the likely response of economic sanctions would have (and in fact already are having) massive economic implications around the globe.
The geopolitical concerns are also enormous. If Russia is allowed to march into Ukraine and pull it back into the fold, why wouldn’t Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia be next? Which former Soviet republics wouldn’t be at risk? A dramatic reshuffling and destabilization of the current world order does not feel like a reach.
This matters. It matters a lot.