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The Jamestown Foundation
Volume 1, Issue 124
November 10, 2004
By Pavel K. Baev

Thousands-strong columns marched through all major Russian cities on November 7, celebrating the Great Socialist Revolution of 1917, perhaps for the last time. The State Duma is due to approve legislation that would cancel this holiday and introduce another one on November 4, marking the liberation of Moscow from Poles in 1612 and the end of the Time of Troubles. The patriotic significance of that questionable historic date is lost on the majority of Russians (Grani.ru, November 5); opinion polls show that up to 77% of respondents oppose the change of holidays (Izvestiya, November 9; Kommersant, November 8; Gazeta.ru, November 9). In the heat of debates on this identity-centered issue, few Russian media leaders have seen any point in reflecting upon a date that signifies the collapse of Soviet control over Eastern Europe: the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Grani.ru, November 9).

During the evening of November 9, 1989, after an ambivalent statement by Guenter Shabovsky about the intention to open the GDR's western borders, tens of thousands of East Berliners rushed to the ugly concrete structure in the heart of their city and made openness an irreversible fact. Millions of Russians saw in that breakthrough the beginning of the end of the system that had appeared indestructible only one year earlier. The authorities tried to reassert their control, experimenting with the use of military force, such as in Vilnius in January 1991, but it was too obvious that they had no clue where and how to plug their leaking dams. In less than two years, every institutional pillar of the communist ideology across the vast Soviet space was in shambles.

From the August 1991 coup, to the October 1993 parliamentary crisis, to the Beslan tragedy of September 2004, many political catastrophes and violent endings have overshadowed the drama of the Wall's collapse in the eyes of the Russians. One person who probably still has vivid memories of that evening is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was stationed in Dresden in the late 1980s and was certainly engaged in preparing the "holiday trip" of KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov in 1987, who sought to size up the local party boss, Hans Modrow, as a possible successor to the ailing Erich Honecker (Novaya gazeta, November 4). Too insignificant a figure in 1989, Putin was probably not informed about the high-level intrigue around Gorbachev's "kiss-of-death" visit to the GDR in October 1989, but he observed the storm of public protest that swept away all those plans -- and terminated the perfectly regulated German state he had grown so fond of. His 1999 memoirs betray a profound "Wall Syndrome," a fear of showing a momentary weakness and instantly losing control over a self-propelled crisis, and there are few reasons to believe that he has found a cure for blocking this fear (Ekho Moskvy, October 7).

Putin consistently acts on the conviction that there is no such a thing as too much control. He refuses to acknowledge that the tightly managed election of a totally compliant parliament has eliminated an important forum of public dialogue and pushed the process of political bargaining underground (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 27). He does not want to see that promoting his trusted cadre from the special services leads to the diminishing efficiency of management and the proliferation of blatant corruption (Novaya gazeta, August 30; Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal, September 20). He dismisses both the dry statistics and emotional expert opinions that establish beyond a doubt that the mounting pressure on big business and the destruction of Yukos combine to produce a sharp decline in investment activities, leading to economic stagnation amid the oil boom (Moskovskie novosti, November 5). This pattern of denial resembles too closely the "Socialism-will-triumph" mentality of the GDR leadership, concerned only about the corrupting influence of Gorbachev's perestroika. But each time a disaster unexpectedly strikes -- such as the sunken Kursk submarine, or the Nord-Ost theater seize, or the captive children in Beslan -- the Kremlin appears frozen in a panic that this event would trigger an avalanche of discontent (Polit.ru, October 25).

Putin is feeling seriously uncomfortable in the post-Wall Europe, and his recent decision to postpone the Russia-EU summit, where too many unpleasant truths are certain to surface, is a direct consequence of this incompatibility (Kommersant, November 9). He feels much more confident in the slightly modernized geopolitical game where the "great powers" (including, certainly, Russia) compete on the edges of their "spheres of interest" but cooperate in the struggle against terrorism. Hence his sincere joy about President Bush's re-election (Gazeta.ru, November 9).

However, besides the security-driven world of 9/11, there is a far deeper and wider 11/9 world of freedom from tyranny and freedom of choice. The Berlin Wall was breached by the people for whom "freedom" became a meaningful word; sooner rather than later, Putin's "vertical of power" will follow suit.