National Geographic News
Photo of Nikita Kruschev and colleagues.

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

Photograph by Dieter Steiner, Bettmann/Corbis

Cathy Newman

National Geographic

Published March 3, 2014

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.

22 comments
Mka Weerasinghe
Mka Weerasinghe

If Putin hope to reassembling the Soviet system again, the world super power will be balanced again. What wrong with that??

Abraham Gold
Abraham Gold

Just have in mind that for good conclusion, you need complete information, these are some i collected for just 5 minutes. And i quote:

"American geopolitical analyst Eric Draitser takes the comment more seriously, in view of the financial aid the US and EU have been promising the new Ukrainian government.

“The money that we can’t use to feed the poor and the hungry in the United Stat
es and in Europe – that money is going to support Nazis in Ukraine with nuclear ambitions, who are looking to destabilize the region, and whose sole goal is the destruction of Russia,” Draitser told RT."

“There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition,” Paet said during the conversation. 

“I think we do want to investigate. I mean, I didn't pick that up, that’s interesting. Gosh,” Ashton answered.


I found much more, and it wasn't hard at all. Only question is do we really want to know? Or we just want to blindly believe that our governments are doing the right thing, like Germans did under Nazi party? I fear that all that "we" did in the middle east and Balkans, what "we" are doing now in Ukraine, some future generations will not see different than how we see now what Nazis did to my people in camps.

Elena Zabolotskaya
Elena Zabolotskaya

The most essential thing she said was that her father wouldn't even think the collapse of the USSR possible--it was just a gesture! Some things she says ring true and give away a Russian in her, but it doesn't make a person look good to make such uncomplimentary comments about her native folk.

Andrew Hatton
Andrew Hatton

I am a concerned but not well informed English man.

What is done is done and going back will be politically almost impossible for any of the participants.

I have little doubt that the previous Ukrainian Government was seriously corrupt from the vast riches apparently controlled by them, however I am not certain that the folk who have overthrown the elected government really do command a majority of electors support.

Is it not possible to have some sort of a truce - with UN oversight - a referendum in Crimea about where the majority want to be - I presume independence is not viable for them?

Also there needs to be a General Election in Ukraine, and maybe also a referendum whether or not they want  Crimea to be part of Ukraine - then with that knowledge proper negotiations can take place - obviously taking account of facilities that are primarily one country or another's that are in the 'wrong' location.

We have had partial independence in the UK now for Scotland and less so for Wales and this year will be holding a referendum in Scotland to test the will of the Scottish people whether they want total independence. Once that vote has been held, in September, I anticipate further negotiations and perhaps even eventually maybe England becoming semi independent from the rest of the UK countries as well - but probably not in my lifetime (I am 65 years old)

Andre V.
Andre V.

I am half Western Ukrainian and grew up with endless stories of Russian repression, imperialism and domination.  As Nina rightly (and sadly) says, there is nothing new here. And yes, the Russians are trapped in a "glorious" past they revere with an emotional, irrational depth no Westerner can understand unless they've traveled there and experienced it firsthand.  


The Crimean situation is yet another example of politicians shuffling borders around for their own benefit, with no respect to existing cultures and ethnicities.  This was a very popular practice in the 20th Century.  It was also done with Eastern Europe after WW1, again with Tito's Yugoslavia, yet again with Palestine.  Invariably, the result is a mess, leading only to more conflict.


As for negotiating with Putin?  Fugget aboutit!  Total Western naivete.  (Sorry, Margaret M. and Edwin Lee)  He is the latest in a long string of 19th Century imperialist thugs who has total contempt for anything resembling human rights or what we consider civilized behavior.  He respects only the ruble and the gun, power and control.  This is a man who lives in a world of "realpolitik", Machiavelli, and Sun Tzu...

Edwin Lee
Edwin Lee

Kruschev gave the Crimea to Ukraine.  The Ukraine should sell it back to Russia for an appropriate amount of Natural Gas over the next hundred years. 

It is not good for the Ukraine to have Russia depend on Ukraine's good will for land access to Russian strategic naval assets.

Ukraine can get more freedom from Russia without the Crimea.

Whichever country or group of countries can help Ukraine get a good price.

Nobody has to get hurt.

Margaret M.
Margaret M.

I think one of the most important comments in this piece is "...and we haven't learned a better way". There does not seem to be any consideration, or even a thought given, to talking/diplomatic strategies among political actors in the modern world. Immediately aggression and offensive tactics are latched on to. A former CIA analyst speaking on Democracy Now the other day said that it was quite possible to get the stakeholders involved in this conflict to sit down with each other and talk it out, but nobody even bothered to try and follow that path. I think there has been a certain amount of social conditioning with regards to these kinds of conflicts and a diplomatic solution; everyone thinks its utopian, impossible etc. as if going in with tanks and murdering or severely injuring civilians is a completely rational way of doing things. 'There's no other way possible', 'this is the only method that will show results' are not good enough excuses, and are quite selfish considering the danger such standpoints and their subsequent actions have on the people directly involved.


I understand the world and its inhabitants is a complex place, and saying 'let's all sit down and talk' is easier than getting that to happen in reality, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't even be considered as an option. My biggest concern is for the welfare of the Ukrainian people, and as I have loved ones there, my thoughts go out to those people. May they be happy, May they be safe, May they face their current crisis with courage and dignity. Let us hope this situation does not drag on longer than necessary, and that the Ukrainian people get a positive solution to their political crisis.

Robert Hutton
Robert Hutton

Russians adore the past, unless you're talking about... wait for it... the Mongols!

Sergey Mitroshin
Sergey Mitroshin

Neither Khrushchev was a good leader of the country, nor his granddaughter is a good political analyst.


> Patton was right about the Russians.  We should have let Patton had his way in 1945.

Jacob, why don't you want to leave in peace with Russians? Because we are a threat for world domination of the USA? The United States send its army to the good half of the world, do you really believe it's for "democracy"?

Jacob Logan
Jacob Logan

I was a child during the Krushchev reign in the Soviet Union. I remember news accounts of Krushchev banging his show on a desk in protest at the United Nations, and giving a speech telling my parent's generation that their children would grow up under communism.  "We will bury you!", Krushchev bellowed.  Then there was the Cuban missile crisis and Krushchev placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.  President Kennedy's strategic maneuvering backed the Russians down.  What perilous times, and certainly not caused by U.S. aggression. Finally there was the Berlin wall.  I remember President Kennedy's speech in Berlin. He must have been welcomed by the whole city, at least those in West Berlin.  Patton was right about the Russians.  We should have let Patton had his way in 1945.  He would have saved us a lot of trouble.

Tatyana Pishnyak
Tatyana Pishnyak

@Abraham Gold  

Responding to the debate why US worries so much about Ukraine, Russia breached the Budapest Memorandum, and US is a guarantor under this agreement. US had to take an action. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budapest_Memorandum_on_Security_Assurances. Under the Budapest Memorandum, in exchange for Ukraine to give up nuclear weapon, Russia assured territorial and political independence of Ukraine. What is the point of having international agreements, if they can be so easily disregarded? These days, we are trying to convince some countries to give up on nuclear weapon. Will they do so after they see that such agreements have zero value?

Also, I would ask you to be very careful with words “Nazis in Ukraine”. Nazi is a very strong allegation, and please, do not use these worlds easily, without any proof. The public opinion cultivated by Putin is that those who love Russia are patriots, but those who love Ukraine are Nazis. Ukraine is one of countries that have a highest death level in World War II. This is no family in Ukraine that did not lose somebody in WW2. Talking about fascism, I would recommend this article. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/mar/20/fascism-russia-and-ukraine/?pagination=false

The reason why Russian troops are in Crimea is to “protect Russian speaking population”. Being a Russian Speaking Ukrainian, I do not need any protection from Russia. 

 

Marius L
Marius L

@Jacob Logan  Kennedy had long been dead at that time. It is president Reagan you are referring to.

Abraham Gold
Abraham Gold

@Tatyana Pishnyak @Abraham Gold  

I am sorry if you feel offended by my post, but I think you misunderstood me. Geopolitical analyst Eric Draitser used the word Nazi for Ukranian "Svoboda" party, and I quoted him. In other part of post I said that history can judge us, "the west" as Nazis. My intention here was not to either approve or disapprove Putin, it was to stress importance of thinking with "own head" and not jumping to conclusions. As reference to "the Nazis", used in my post, and you were upset with, to quote:


 "Also, I would ask you to be very careful with words “Nazis in Ukraine”. Nazi is a very strong allegation, and please, do not use these worlds easily, without any proof"


 I will share this link, where I found some information:

http://www.globalresearch.ca/ukraine-neo-nazi-party-threatens-russia-with-nuclear-weapons-well-regain-our-nuclear-status/5371524 

"Svoboda" are openly Nazi, and they got a good share of votes on elections. Link to support that claim:

http://www.globalresearch.ca/democratization-and-anti-semitism-in-ukraine-neo-nazi-symbols-become-the-new-normal/5371919


 Thank you for the discussion, and I sincerely apologize if I was not clear enough. 


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