Is Putin Reassembling Soviet Union? Q&A With Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita Khrushchev's Granddaughter

Khrushcheva explains what lies behind the turmoil in Crimea and speculates about its future.

Nikita Khrushchev (foreground) gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, when he was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

As Russia tightens its grip on Crimea in what Britain's foreign minister called the "biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century," National Geographic staff writer Cathy Newman spoke with Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. (Related: "Inside Crimea: A Jewel in Two Crowns.")

Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City and author of the book The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

Several years ago when I was in Sevastopol, the resentment toward your grandfather was palpable. I asked one Russian woman what Khrushchev was thinking when he gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Her response: "He wasn't. Khrushchev had cockroaches in his head."

Well, resentment is understandable but remarkably unfair. It didn't mean much at the time. At the time it was just topography: where you put this or that lot. Crimea seemed to fit better in the Ukrainian model, which was more farming, richer soil. Actually Khrushchev thought he was doing a great thing for Ukraine. It was logical reasoning. There were no cockroaches.

He had a soft spot for Ukraine.

He wasn't Ukrainian, but his wife, Nina, was from western Ukraine. But he got to Donetsk and worked in the mines when he was 16; there is this amazing camaraderie among miners and the place where they work, so that connection to the Ukrainian soil was created then. He was also rewarding Ukraine, because it had unjustly suffered from Stalin because of the holodomor. [The famine in Ukraine created by Stalin in the early 1930s, when millions died.]

What would he think about Putin moving Russian tanks into Crimea?

I think he would be disappointed. Of course, he knew about tanks himself when he sent them into Hungary in 1956. However, in 1968, when he was retired and when he learned about the tanks going into Czechoslovakia [during the Prague Spring uprisings], he was upset and said: "It's been 12 years and we haven't learned a better way." Well, now it's been 60 years, and we haven't learned a better way. (Related: "After Ukraine Crisis, Why Crimea Matters.")

So he would have been disapproving of Putin?

He would agree with Putin on defending Russian nationals, but then I don't think he could have ever imagined the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But given that, he would have been more upset with Yeltsin, who in 1991 just let it go [during the breakup]. He would have expected Yeltsin to reclaim Crimea. (Related: "Photos: With Ukraine in Disarray, Crimea Heats Up.")

So what is Putin thinking?

Some may argue, and not incorrectly, that in sending tanks, Putin does take a page from the Khrushchev playbook in 1956. Putin believes he is righting historical wrongs. Gorbachev collapsed the Soviet Union, and Putin is painstakingly putting it back together to have a greater country.

There is such persistence of the past in all of this. Didn't Chekhov say that Russians adore the past, detest the present, fear the future?

Russia doesn't learn. It doesn't repent. It doesn't apologize. It doesn't move forward because all of it is wrapped up in the past. We walk in circles. We only have the past. We almost don't have the present.

You told Reuters before the Russians actually moved into Crimea that when Russians talk tanks, the tanks are soon to follow. Can I ask you to predict the next move?

Well, it wasn't a prediction. It was a scenario. I am wary of predictions. But my thinking is that Putin is going to choke on Ukraine. He is swallowing more than he can handle. The ruble has already plunged. If the Russian economy starts collapsing, if the U.S. and Europe actually act on their threats, and visas get tougher to get and Russians can't travel and bank accounts are threatened, Putin is finished. I think Putin got drunk on Sochi. He thought Crimea is the cherry on top of Sochi. (Related: "What You Don't Know About Sochi.")

There is nothing like a bad economy to get people's attention, [plus] the threat of being denied entry to the United States and perhaps elsewhere in Europe.

Yes, there is nothing like a falling ruble, not getting a visa, and not getting on a plane. In the past 25 years Russians got used to the fact that it is a relatively open country. On the other hand, I just want to say you should never underestimate Russian complacency.