Accessibility links

Putin Relitigates His Midlife Crisis

  • Brian Whitmore

Hey, it's cooler than a tattoo or a sports car!

Hey, it's cooler than a tattoo or a sports car!

For Vladimir Putin, 1989-91 must have really sucked.

He had to face down a crowd of angry anticommunist demonstrators outside KGB headquarters in Dresden after the Berlin Wall fell. He had to frantically burn intelligence files. And then he had to drive back to the Soviet Union and watch it implode as well.

And on top of it all, he was pushing 40.

It must have been the mother of all midlife crises. And now, Putin and his allies apparently want to use their control over Russia's political and law enforcement institutions to try and relitigate it all.

A series of moves by legislators, prosecutors, and top officials aim to reimagine and reinterpret the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and in some cases act as if these things never really happened at all.

All of these moves are pretty bizarre. Most are just plain silly. And some are pretty menacing.

The Draft Dodgers Of Lithuania

Russia's attempts to prosecute Lithuanians who avoided serving in the Soviet military is all three at once.

After Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, but before the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved in December 1991, the republic's leaders called on draft-age men not to serve in the Red Army. Some 1,500 heeded the call and went into hiding. Dozens were jailed or forcefully drafted.

After the Soviet collapse, Moscow dropped the criminal charges against the men. But late last year, Russian prosecutors reopened them -- and, remarkably, asked Lithuanian law enforcement for assistance. The request, of course, was denied.

Bizarre? Yes. Silly? Check. But for these men, this is no joke.

A 45-year-old Lithuanian chauffeur was so spooked by it all that he only agreed to be interviewed by The Economist under the pseudonym Tomas.He told the British weekly that Lithuania's Defense Ministry called to warn him about Moscow's intentions -- and advised that he not travel outside of EU or NATO countries, lest he be extradited.

Smash The State Council

Another item from the bizarre, silly, and menacing department: Two lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party have asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to assess the legality of the U.S.S.R. State Council and its actions.

Wait. Assess the legality of what? And why?

Ok. Here's the thing. The U.S.S.R. State Council was established by Mikhail Gorbachev on September 5, 1991, following the failed hard-line coup against him the previous month. It existed for less than four months as the country's main governing authority, and basically midwifed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of that year.

One of the council's most significant decisions, made just two days after it was established, was recognizing the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

And according to State Duma Deputies Yevgeny Federov and Anton Romanov, this led to the Soviet Union losing "strategically important territory and sea ports" as well as"causing enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, and defense of the country and caused the dismemberment of a unified state."

Given Russia's menacing moves toward the Baltics, this is ominous.

For the past year, we have witnessed bellicose rhetoric, provocative military exercises, menacing overflights, violations of sea- and airspace, border incursions, and at least one abduction.

And now we have a challenge to the very legality -- in Moscow's eyes at least -- of the Baltic states' independence.

The 'Annexation' Of East Germany

It is hard to consider speaker Sergei Naryshkin's call for the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee to condemn West Germany's "annexation" of East Germany in 1990 as menacing.

In fact, since it has no practical repercussions, it's hard to consider it anything other than just bizarre and silly.The idea originated with a proposal by Communist Party lawmaker Nikolai Ivanov, and in saner times it would have ended there as well.

But not only did Naryshkin take it seriously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov actually amplified it -- in Germany! -- at this year's Munich Security Conference. Lavrov told the conference that unlike Crimea, "Germany was united without a referendum" -- drawing derisive laughter from the assembled dignitaries.

Head-scratch inducing to be sure. But it sort of makes sense when one considers the trauma Putin claims he experienced as East Germany overthrew its Moscow-backed communist rulers.

Maybe he should have just gotten himself a sports car.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


Show comments