Another Brick in the Wall?

The Wall, West Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, 1972. Photo: © picture-alliance/dpa

Autor: Ryan Gresham. If the West were to put it to a vote today, Vladimir Putin would rank high on a list of world leaders we love to hate. Russia’s oily neo-tsar seems bent on being deceitful and a bully as a matter of course now, and he still does his stomping and preening unchecked and with impunity. But we could lodge the same complaints against half the world’s leaders. What makes Putin special is the muscle at his command – T-90 tanks, Tu-95 strategic bombers, and Cossack militias come to mind – and his longing for the glory of bygone eras.

Alarm bells chimed when Putin, in a 2008 parliamentary speech, lamented the demise of the Soviet Union. When he annexed Crimea and resurrected the term “Novorossiya” – a nod to the Russian Empire that means “New Russia” – those same bells shrieked. And now here we are, 25 years after the end of the Berlin Wall, wondering where Russia’s head of state is headed – and what’s going on in his head.

What does Putin really think, one wonders, about Stalin’s Great Purge? Or of Bolshevik spin-offs like Mao and Pol Pot popping up in Stalin’s wake? What does he honestly make of Soviet-damning literature like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”, or Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”? How does he feel, even, about the metaphysical musings in Dostoyevsky’s work? Answers to such questions might be helpful in forecasting Putin’s next moves – and useful in gleaning the mindset of his presumably hand-picked successor.

When I think of the Soviets I often think of my friends from eastern Germany. One friend’s father used to tell me, over a bottle of brandy on many occasions, about the old DDR days. He liked to tell one story in particular, about his friend and neighbor who disappeared one afternoon after being snatched by the Stasi – “einfach verschwunden!” my friend’s father would shout in amazement – only to reappear months later, petrified to tell anyone what had happened. I also sometimes think about another friend’s father – a leader in Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring – who was tortured by the Soviets for his opposition to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. What would Putin, an ex-KGB colonel, say to both of them?

When I first came to Hamburg many years ago you’d still see the occasional “Ami Go Home!” poster plastered on walls and lampposts in the left-leaning Schanzenviertel. (The snarky sign, big in the east, was inspired by a 1950s Ernst Busch song calling for American troops still in the country to beat it, in case you’re not familiar with it.) Whenever I spotted one, I would wonder if the wisdom of such a sentiment had really been adequately considered and recorded for posterity. After all, those American military personnel who hung around Germany right after World War 2 not only had the good sense to call out a Soviet ideology going haywire, but also the chutzpah to build their own wall – of defensive tanks and troops – to back that sentiment up. But this all prompts another question: Does Putin still believe that western European and American Cold War policy was entirely misguided – as he professed to do when he was a cold warrior on the other side of the Wall?

Much in the world today that was brick and mortar is now made of bits and bytes. And it’s conceivable that future large-scale barriers to people’s freedoms might be virtual rather than physical. Do such things interest Vladimir Putin? Is Putin our comrade, or is he intent on placing new bricks in entirely new kinds of walls?