After Stalin--boohiss:
Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the "Old Men,"
Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev, Putin

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Death of Stalin < >

"The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers,
each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them.
Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black,
and who controlled each square mattered to each side's sense of security, well-being and power.
It was a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union
and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa" (Friedman A23).

Stalin died in March, 1953, triggering unrest in the satellites and a power struggle between and among the cadres. A fellow Georgian and crony of Stalin for years, Lavrenty Beria was his most feared henchman. Beria's benign face belies a terrifying sadism. He was "first out of the blocks" in the power struggle and moved quickly to consolidate authority as Stalin's heir. The "comrades" feared the dread head of the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB: he had a base; he knew everything about everyone; he was unscrupulous and vicious. The comrades closed ranks against Beria. He was, according to sources, murdered in the Kremlin basement in July, 1953.

image source < >
death of Stalin < >

"Stalin's last breath...became a wind of change..." that swept through the Soviet Union.
The early leaders, after the fall of Beria, eased constraints on censorship; even before Khrushchev's Secret Speech,
a Party journal condemned Stalin's "cult of the personality." One immediate reform enacted
constraints on the KGB and abolished its "special tribunals." A few of Stalin's victims were
"rehabilitated" (Wesson 191). It seemed as if collective, Party, rule would replace personal, individual
dictatorship. Khrushchev positioned himself as a Party man, even though he had risen through
the ranks as one of Stalin's chief henchmen.

The death of Stalin and the machinations to succeed him created a perceived power vacuum in the Kremlin and triggered uprisings in the bloc. Riots erupted in East Germany (right) in June. Defections from the Soviet Union's "near abroad" were not tolerated. Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of Berlin in 1953, as they would in Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Warsaw in 1970, 1976, 1980 (Byrne).

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East German uprising < >


After the ouster of Beria, it seemed as if Georgy Malenkov would step into Stalin's very large shoes. "Kremlinologists" viewed him as an heir apparent; he was an experienced infighter, survivor, and contributor to the elimination of Beria. He formed an alliance with Stalin's old crony, Molotov, whom you have encountered previously as signatory to the infamous Molotov-Ribbontrop/Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact of August, 1939. Life Magazine seemed to identify Malenkov as Stalin's successor.

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Such, however, was not to be the case. At first, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev shared power with the old Stalinists (Bulganin, Malenkov, Molotov, Voroshilov--after the death of Beria,) but he won the power struggle, achieved domination over Party, state, and nation in 1955. Of interest in 2015, Khrushchev granted Crimea to the Urkrainian SSR in 1954 (Schemann 2). He held on to authority and power until his ouster in 1964. APUSH students will associate his fall with the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962.) A controversial figure in Soviet history, Khrushchev is worth a look, even though he held power for less than a decade. Although Khrushchev was a tough guy, he was no Stalin.

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Khrushchev's peasant image, Ukrainian experience, and inner circle status gave him a leg up in the power struggle. One of his pledges, which played a part in his triumph over Malenkov, was to improve agriculture, always a weak link in the chain of Soviet political and economic policy. His 1954 "virgin lands" project brought thousands of acres in Kazakhstan under cultivation and sent 250,000 young young communist volunteers (komsomol) to work them. Initially successful, the "virgin lands" project was eventually condemned as one of Khrushchev's "hare-brained" schemes.

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although this poster (above) comes from an earlier era, it is typical of the propaganda Khrushchev used to
enlist support for his Virgin Lands initiative

At first Nicolai Bulganin was Tweedledee to Khrushchev's Tweedledum. An early Chekist, Bulganin also had experience in urban construction. Like Kirov, Bulganin was popular. He and Khrushchev allied successfully against Malenkov and Molotov. Bulganin and Khurshchev worked well together and put on quite a different face from that of their Stalinist predecessors, which is not to say that they were not "tough guys." Unlike Stalin, they were globetrotters: in 1955, they visited Nehru in India.

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1956 video of the "B and K" show arriving in England < >

As Khrushchev was the senior partner in the "dyarchy," he took it upon himself to shake things up: he did so in dramatic fashion at the XX Party Congress, 1956, when he denounced and blamed Stalin for Soviet travails, including poor wartime leadership; at the XXII Party Congress, he began "Operation Mausoleum" to remove Stalin's remains from their place of honor beside Lenin.

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documentary evaluating Khrushchev < >
The speech (scroll to about 40 sec) < >
A BBC audio clip describes the transition from Stalin to Khrushchev, including the "secret speech"
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The Cold War continued unabated; nevertheless, Khrushchev presided over a "thaw" that witnessed summit conferences, exchanges at the highest levels, and brought the Khrushchevs to the White House in 1959. Khrushchev wanted to tour the country, visit some farms, see Hollywood. The 1959 USA visit marked a high point in Khrushchev's leadership, and a slight warming in the frosty Cold War relationship.

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While he didn't get to visit Disneyland, but Khrushchev did go to Hollywood and hobnob with the stars
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US journalists covered the Khrushchev visit
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On one occasion, Khrushchev had an intense conversation with Vice President Nixon,
known as the "kitchen debate"

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20th Century Fox invited Khrushchev to visit the set of Can-Can (starring Shirley MacLaine.) He found the movie decadent! Marilyn Monroe was unclear on exactly who the celebrity visitor was, but she dressed the part of sex siren in his honor. Nikita and Nina had their hearts set on a trip to Disneyland, but were unable to make the trip due to "security reasons."

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In the domestic sphere, Khrushchev's tenure was noted for the "Thaw" that permitted the publication of Dr. Zhivago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He authorized the release of thousands (perhaps millions) of prisoners from the Gulag. He tried--ultimately unsuccessfully--to increase agricultural production in his "virgin lands" project. The most dramatic of his internal efforts came at the XX (1956) and XXII (1961) Party Congresses, which marked his efforts at de-Stalinization. In the famous "secret speech" of February, 1956, he shocked the comrades with his catalogue of Stalinist crimes, including the deification of Stalin and the "cult of the personality." In 1961, Stalin's remains were removed from their sacred niche beside Lenin and re-interred in the Kremlin Wall. To his endless credit, Khrushchev dismantled the more grotesque aspects of Stalinism and did not kill off his rivals.

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1970 production < >
TV b/w Chrysler Theater Production, 1963 < >

As of 2015, Lenin's embalmed corpse remains in the Mausoleum just outside the Kremlin walls. Stalin was beside him until Khrushchev's expanded efforts at de-Stalinization after the XXII Party Congress (1961.) Click on link for larger view of the sarcophagus.

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Follow link for video of recent re-opening of the Mausoleum after extensive renovation, 2013
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In international affairs, Khrushchev achieved some stunning successes and equally significant failures, the last of which galvanized the cabal that brought about his downfall in 1964. He ruthlessly crushed budding dissent in the "bloc" (East Germany, Poland, Hungary); on his watch, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite; in 1959, Fidel Castro led Cuba into the Soviet sphere of influence. Khrushchev humiliated the United States with the "Bay of Pigs" incident and added insult to injury by erecting the Berlin Wall in August, 1961. These victories, seen through the lens of the Cold War, would seem to solidify Khrushchev's place in the Soviet Union and in history.

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In 1963, President Kennedy visited West Berlin and told a crowd of thousands,
"Ich bin ein Berliner," < >
Scroll down to see video clip of the speech?
the speech < >

Although President Kennedy did not send troops or challenge Khrushchev in the Soviet "near abroad," he went to Berlin (see clip above); hundreds of thousands of West Berliners came to hear his pledge of support to the beleaguered city and Mayor Willi Brandt.

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However, disappointments and failures marred the record described above: Mao Zedong challenged Khrushchev for leadership in the so-called Third World, signaling the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960. Khrushchev's reforming efforts at decentralization antagonized vested Party interests. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis, autumn, 1962, that formed the backdrop to Khrushchev's fall. President Kennedy (embarassed by the Bay of Pigs and the Berlin Wall) was determined to stand firmly against the deployment (and arming) of Soviet missile bases in Cuba, a scant 90 miles from Florida. Khrushchev seemed equally determined to do so. In the tense, indeed terrifying, standoff of October, 1962, the Soviet fleet sailed towards Cuba, but, at the last minute, turned around. Score a point for Kennedy! It was as close to open warfare that the United States and the Soviet Union came. This "balance of terror" made possible some easing of tensions, thank goodness. It did, as well, have the effect of humiliating Khrushchev. In 1964, the comrades ousted him from power.

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President Kennedy spoke to the nation on the eve of the confrontation
(scroll down to link)
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A Youtube summary and analysis of the Khrushchev era, with comments by Khrushchev's son, Sergei
< > Watch!


In October, 1964, the "comrades" moved collectively against Khrushchev and his "hare-brained schemes." Again, a struggle for power ensued before the new leadership was firmly in place. The winners represented a new generation, which had not participated in the Revolution, NEP, and the bitter post-Lenin rivalry that exiled (and then murdered) Trotsky and the other Old Bosheviks. They lacked the vicious terror gene of Stalin and the populist charisma of Khrushchev--they were bureaucrats; to put it another way, they were team players, who comprised a vested interest, that is, saw no need to alter the status quo. Leonid Brezhnev, like Khrushchev, catapulted himself over his rivals due to his domination of the Party (CPSU.) In a tenure that lasted until his death in 1982, Brezhnev presided over a bureaucratic oligarchy designed to maintain, stabilize, and possibly improve the existing order. As beneficiaries and survivors of Stalin, they began to reverse Khrushchev's de-Stalinization polices of the previous decade.

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The BBC describes The Brezhnev Era
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Domestically, Brezhnev revived the police state, though without the Terror of the 1930s; the tightening up of the era produced the emergence of the dissident movement. Courageous individuals risked all to criticize abuses. Samizdat articles circulated in typed (with many carbons--these were they days before computers and/or photocopy machines in the Soviet Union) packets passed from hand to hand. Refuseniks applied for exit visas hoping to emigrate to Western Europe, the United States, or Israel; they immediately lost their jobs, a crime in the USSR! Andrei Sakharov (right) was sent into domestic exile; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (left) was expelled from the country. Jews--again and as usual--were victimized. The nationalities chaffed under the constraints of Russian elites enjoying a virtual monopoly on power. Brezhnev and his team--again though not Stalin--crushed dissent, sent their critics to insane asalums!

image source/Solzhenitsyn < >
image source/Sakharov <>

The Brezhnev team addressed industry and agriculture in their efforts to stimulate a stagnant economy;
without giving up the centralized control of GOSPLAN, they offered some incentives.
The 9th Five Year Plan made concessions to consumers goods, raised pensions, allowed peasants to sell their surplus.
That said, in the 1970s. the Soviet Union was not a workers' paradise!
Alcoholism was rampant; petty crime flourished;
workers showed up late or not at all to their places of employment.
Party elites enjoyed a standard of living far higher than the average worker or peasant.
The Soviet Union's "military-industrial complex"--like its counterpart in the United States
--dominated economic production.
A full 15% of GDP was channeled into "defense" spending, in contrast to 6% here.

In international affairs, the Cold War in its various incarnations, dictated relations between the Soviet Union and the United States (the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan years, more or less coincided with the Brezhnev era.) As early as 1967, subsequent to the 6 Day War, Brezhnev's colleague Alexei Kosygin met with President Johnson in New Jersey at the Glassboro Summit. (see image, right) Later, in a tentative movement towards détente, the two nations entered into SALT (strategic arms limitation treaty) negotiations. President Nixon went to the Soviet Union; Brezhnev came here. President Ford met Brezhnev in Vladivostok in 1975. The Helsinki Accords of that year marked the high point of détente.

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Retrospective on the Glassboro Summit
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Brezhnev continued and expanded Khrushchev's efforts in the Third World. In the "near abroad," he enforced the "Brezhnev Doctrine," which allowed no alteration in a Sovietized Eastern Bloc. Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of Prague in 1968 in the ill-fated "Prague Spring." Alexander Dubcek's efforts at limited reform were met with armed intervention and harsh reprisals.

image source/Prague Spring < >
For more on the Prague Spring, read Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being
or see Daniel Day Lewis in the movie version
Prague Spring shocks communist world < >
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As Brezhnev defended and maintained his "near abroad" (aka the Bloc,) he continued to deal with American presidents. He and Nixon exchanged visits in 1972, 1973, 1974, and worked on the SALT I talks (continued by President Ford after Nixon's resignation in August, 1974.) According to David Remnick, Brezhnev understood the economic fallacies in Marxism-Leninism, "...privately calling Leninist ideology translated as 'crapola'" (31). WOW! Enormous Soviet wealth in oil and a vast stockpile of nuclear weapons sustained its great power image but masked the deep-seated economic and political problems that "the old men"/geezers could not solve.

image source Nixon/Brezhnev < >

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were taken by surprise by
Islamic fundamentalism. The hostage crisis paralyzed President Carter;
Afghanistan emerged as Brezhnev's quagmire

In the twilight of his regime, Brezhnev encountered two challenges, which he bequeathed to his successors, one in Afghanistan and the other (as usual) in Poland. Determined to support a quasi-satellite state in Afghanistan--so close to the 5 Soviet "stans" (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan, Tadjikistan--all susceptible to the Islamic fundamentalism radiating from Iran)--Brezhnev sent troops into a country that had successfully fought off all efforts at conquest, occupation, or colonization . The Mujahideen and later the Taliban, then as now, resisted Soviet efforts to support an unpopular regime and fought one of the most powerful nations in the world with guerrilla tactics (and, oh yes, "a little help from their friends"--President Carter began to send arms to the Taliban.)

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In 1980, President Carter responded to what he defined as Brezhnev's escalation of the Cold War and Soviet expansion beyond its "backyard" (the "near abroad") by boycotting the Moscow Olympics. Following America's lead, and heightening the tensions between the "Free World" and the "Communist World," 60 nations also boycotted the Games. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1980, Mischa the mascot of the Games, was featured at Lenin Stadium and in the souvenir stands in the Summer Games of that year. I was in Moscow in the summer of 1979, carefully shielded by my Intourist guides from all such controversy; I wish I had bought one of the Mischa bears!

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The Opening Ceremony of the 22nd Olympiad
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Also in 1980, Lech Walesa, an unemployed Polish electrician, sparked the Solidarity Movement in Poland's Gdansk Shipyards. In addition, the election of a Polish pope, John Paul II, galvanized the deeply devout Poles to protest their satellite status. The imposition of martial law plus some concessions to the market place did not solve the Polish crisis. The aging Brezhnev team did not have the will to open fire on demonstrators. Nevertheless, détente collapsed and tensions rose in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Poland, the Pope, Walesa, and Solidarity played their roles in the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union!

image source/Lech Walesa/Solidarity
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In addition to traveling throughout Poland to remind Poles of their faith, Pope John Paul II helped Poles remember their national identity in a time of martial law imposed by the Brezhnev Doctrine. John Paul II visited Poland and traveled the world in his "popemobile," reminding Catholics of their duties and responsibilities as Christians. Though theologically conservative, he energized a generation of Catholics. He represented not winds of change, but a hurricane: he absolved Jews from deicide, admitted Church error with regard to Galileo, introduced mass in the vernacular, and called for men and women of faith to work for peace ("Pacem in Terris").

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The Pope (John Paul II) helps to awaken Polish nationalism
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In the late 1970s-early 1980s, the Cold War intensified, exacerbated by martial law in Poland, restiveness in the Bloc, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 444 day hostage crisis that paralyzed the Carter Administration, and the election of staunch anti-communist Ronald Reagan in 1980. The USA and USSR increased their military budgets; Reagan "upped the ante" with his plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative.*

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*why there is no entry for the war years? I do not know;
I couldn't find anything more informative. I wanted a pie chart showing
other slices (welfare, education, benefits, service on the debt, but couldn't find.)

Presidents Carter and Reagan increased the defense budgets. What we need is a breakdown of where the other 92% of GDP was going

image source < lost it, alas >
Brezhnev died in 1982. Illness and old age sapped him of the energy to administer the vast, ramshackle Soviet Empire. His team and potential successors were pretty much in the same boat. In quick succession Andropov (1982-1984) and Chernenko (1984-1985) died in office. Behind the scenes, a coterie of younger men vied to wrest power from the aging, bureaucrats (the geezers.) Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, from his position as General Secretary of the CPSU, outmaneuvered his rivals to assume authority in March 1985. Born in 1931, Gorbachev marked a generational breakthrough: he was too young to have participated in the Revolution, Civil War, Terror, Great Patiotic War; people in the CPSU, Soviet Union, and the world expected no spectacular changes on Gorby's "watch," as he was a good communist who had come up through the ranks; he was as much a part of the system as the Brezhnev team--or so everyone thought. Glasnost! Perestroika! Demokratzia! New Political Thinking! WOW! Only in power from 1985 until 1991, Gorbachev changed the world!

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Reflections on the end of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and the onset of
Gorby, glasnost and perestroika

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President Reagan tells Gorbachev to "Tear Down This Wall!"(1987)
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In the summer of 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria: thousands fled West! The Berlin Wall came down in November, 1989. Things went from "good to better" for the bloc and SSRs and from "bad to worse" for Gorby and the Soviet Union. "Gorbachev had always said that the U.S. had promised that, in exchange for his aquiescence to the reunification of Germany, NATO would not expand to the east" (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 58).

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Start here < >

It is perhaps difficult for you, young adults in 2015, to imagine what it felt like in Berlin, East and West Germany, Europe, and the world when the wall came down. With the Brandenburg Gate in the background, West Berliners headed East and East Berliners headed West. Imagine the traffic jam!!! Families that had been separated since 1961 were able to meet.

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In the summer 1990, Pink Floyd gave their famous "The Wall--Live in Berlin" Concert
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Gorbachev refused to enforce the Brezhnev Doctrine or send the tanks down the streets of Berlin or other Bloc countries. Within a week of November 9, 1989, students and others demonstrated in Wenceslas Square in Prague, launching the "Velvet Revolution," which resulted first in the independence of Czechoslovakia and then its division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Poland and Hungary left the Bloc, more or less peacefully.

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In June, 1990, at the heighth of his popularity in the West, though things were unraveling at home, Gorbachev visited Stanford. Thousands (?) of students (including from Castilleja) and Palo Altans lined Palm Drive to catch a glimpse of him. The t-shirt (right) commemorated the event.

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In the summer of of 1990, the SSRs began to "peel away."
The Baltics were the first to go, led by Lithuania's declaration
of independence in 1990.

The Soviet Union and its satellites collapsed: the bloc broke away; the SSRs followed suit. "There were plenty, in the cities... who rejoiced in the liberating sense of possibility--the open borders, the cultural ferment, the democratic potential--but for many millions of their compatriots..., the collapse launched a decade of humiliation, marked by geopolitical, economic, and cultural disarray" (Remnick, "Letter from Sochi" 31). The Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) were the first to break away. By the1992 Barcelona Olympics, Lithuania, with financial help from the Grateful Dead, put together a basketball team that took the bronze medal.

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Estonians rebelled through song < >
I have The Singing Revolution if you want to borrow

It was a "knife in Russia's heart" when Ukraine demanded independence in the summer of 1991, and secured it later in the year. Ukraine--"breadbasket" of tsarist and Soviet Russia--was a critical loss. Kiev, in its heart, had been Russia's first capital and considered by Russians "the mother of Russian cities." Significantly, Russia retained control of Crimea and the key Black Sea ports there. Putin equates the importance of Ukraine to Russia with Israeli conservatives focus on the Temple Mount.

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animation of Europe's changing borders (keep your eye on Russia)
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Even then (1991,) Ukraine was divided between Western-leaning Ukrainians and Russian-leaning Ukrainians, complicated by the large cohort of ethnic Russians who lived in Eastern Ukraine, the Donbass (Donetsk and Lughansk, shaded yellow,) and who comprised a slight majority in Crimea itself. Consider this reality as you ponder the current Ukrainian-Russian stand-off.

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For all that the West looked on the unfolding events with fascinated delight, praising the economic and political reforms of the Gorbachev era, hard-liners in the CPSU consolidated their opposition to him and his reforms. They, as had their predecessors in 1964 had moved against Khrushchev, condemned Gorbachev's "harebrained" schemes that trashed the values, suffering, and sacrifices of 20th century Soviet citizens. The plotters looked with dismay on the collapse of the Bloc, the defection of the SSRs, and the economic chaos (inflation, unemployment) that descended on the truncated nation.

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The conspirators--shown above are Pugo, Yanayev, and Baklanov--included
cadres from the department of the Interior, Defense, KGB. In August, 1991,
they declared a state of emergency, announced the resignation of Gorbache--,
due to reasons of ill health--and the restoration of the "honor and dignity" of the Soviet Union.

Twenty-four years ago (August, 1991,) those hardliners from the Party and the KGB (Kryuchkov, Pugo, Yazov, et al.) staged an unsuccessful coup d'état to oust Gorbachev and undo his tentative efforts at reform. Gorbachev is much reviled in Russia today because of the economic chaos that engulfed the Soviet Union, as well as its collapse and disintegration into its component parts. That said, it was on his watch that the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down (November, 1989.) Time named Gorbachev, not Reagan, "man of the decade."

image source/Gorbachev Man of the Decade

Even if you don't understand Russian, the last parade of the Soviet Army in 1990 is impressive
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The failed coup, etc. <>

From Gorbachev to Yeltsin:Collapse of the Soviet Union
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Gorbachev sings a love song to Raisa
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On a more humorous note, Gorbachev does a commercial for Pizza Hut
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In 2011, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Gorbachev reflected
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While the hardliners attempted a restoration of the old order in the failed coup of August, 1991, Muscovites poured into the streets in protest, replicating earlier events in Berlin and Prague. Boris Yeltsin--former protege of Gorbachev--President of Russia, rallied a tank battalion, arrested the plotters, and leveraged his actions into an assumption of authority and power in Russia. The USSR was gone in December, 1991. (Russian Parliament Building, "The White House," in the background.)

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Riding a tank down the streets of Moscow to overthrow the coup and, ostensibly, to save Gorbachev's revolution, Boris Yeltsin astutely played his cards to replace his erstwhile colleague and boss. In this as in other successful or failed revolutions, the army played a key role. In this case, armored troops refused to open fire on the the Muscovites who had poured into the streets. The political and economic chaos of the Gorbachev years ("too much too soon?" or "too little too late?") had discredited him; when the army threw its support behind Yeltsin, it was he who announced the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and proclaimed the full sovereignty and independence of Russia, of which he was the president. On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned all of his offices and became a private citizen. Yeltsin moved quickly to outlaw the CPSU, seize its assets, and restore the pre-Bolshevik Russian flag.

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The failed coup and Yeltin's "tank ride," August, 1991," as reported by BBC
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Yeltsin and the tank, August, 1991 <>
Resignation of Gorbachev: Christmas Day, 1991
The Yeltsin Years Documentary
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Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin rose through the ranks of the Soviet system, joining the CPSU in 1961 at the age of 30;
one can only assume that he proceeded through the Little Octobrists, Pioneers, Komsomol,
to membership in the Party and a seat on the Central Committee.
As Gorbachev's high hopes for democratic political and market economic reforms brought
only disintegration of the bloc and the Soviet Union itself, Yeltsin hopped on the bandwagon of criticism:
he attacked the vested interests and called for more, speedier change.

With help from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and with advice from Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin sped up the pace of economic reform. American economist Geoffrey Sachs urged him to move forward with "shock therapy." Where Gorbachev tinkered with subsidies, Yeltsin slashed them, only retaining price supports for bread, vodka, and the subway. He hoped that his "shock therapy" would only temporarily and momentarily disrupt the economy. What resulted was economic collapse, hyperinflation, devaluation of the ruble, and such hardship across the population that some lamented the fall of the Soviet Union and yearned romantically for the order and stability of Communism. Chart/graph (right) takes stats to 2012.

image source/Russian economy
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BBC explains "Yeltsin's Legacy"
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"Black October, 1993": Yeltsin shows willingness to use force to keep his power and authority
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According to Victor Sebestyen, Yeltsin "did little to to develop civil society, the rule of law,
the emergence of viable political parties, or a modernized economy....
[His] corrupt cronyism encouraged a gangster capitalism from which Russia is still suffering..."

The economic and social outcomes of "shock therapy" during the so-called "Wild East" persisted throughout the 1990s: while the oligarchs supported by their mafiyah thugs garnered millions of rubles, dachas, cars, jewels, etc., 37% of Russians lived in a poverty more desperate than during the Soviet era. Life expectancy for Russian males fell from 69 to 58 (McKay, et al. 1049). And old women sold their possessions on the streets of Moscow.

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image source Russian Women (McKay, et al. 1049)

By 1996, economic chaos and other factors led to a backlash and nostalgia for the Soviet era. Yeltsin no longer advocated for democracy; instead he pursued a brutal policy against Chechnyan rebels and "empowered, under the banner of privatization, a small circle of billionaire oligarchs to soak up Russia's resources..." (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 55). His increasingly bizarre behavior and rumors of chronic alcoholism caused his approval ratings to plummet--they hovered around 1.7%! Dysfunctional though Yeltsin was, the US feared the communist resurgence of Gennady Zyuganov more.

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On Yeltsin's "watch," the oligarchs amassed enormous wealth while pensioners could scarcely live on their diminished stipends; civil servants, teachers, and the military went unpaid; a vicious, criminal "mafiya" brought violence to the streets. Yeltsin tried vainly to rule by decree. Where once he saved "the white house" (as the site of Parliament was known) in 1991, he called out the troops to prorogue it by force in 1993. In 1998, the Russian economy was in free fall; on "Black Monday" (August 17, 1998,) Yeltsin devalued the ruble by 50% and defaulted on Russia's debts. That year, he appointed a virtual unknown, Vladimir Putin, a KGB operative, as Prime Minister; in December, 1999, Yeltsin resigned his presidency, designating Putin as his successor.

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If you want to know more about the oligarchs, follow link
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Alas, poor Boris
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Putin was a Leningrader born in 1952, too young to be tainted by a Stalinist past or to be part of the "old boy" networks that so benefited his predecessors' accession to power. He joined the Party and the KGB, serving both loyally. He proved himself to be a pragmatic, able, efficient administrator; he caught the eye of the Russian President. Yeltsin brought him to Moscow in 1996. By this time, as you know, the Bloc, the Soviet Union, and the CPSU had collapsed. In 1998, Yeltsin appointed Putin to head the FSB (Federal Security Bureau that succeeded the KGB.) As Acting President after Yeltsin's resignation in 1999, Putin won the presidential elections of 2000.

image source/Yeltsin-Putin
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Putin had his hands full: the economy was in shambles; Chechnyan violence reached into Moscow. The new President identified his goals: restore law and order; restore Russian strength, power, and national pride; create a decent life for Russians. His strategy was to consolidate power into his own hands, muzzle the media, silence critics, discipline the Duma, curtail the autonomy of the provinces, discipline the oligarchs. He called his increasingly autocratic exercise of authority a "dictatorship of the law." Putin gave the army back its red star, encouraged military drills in school and boys to serve their country in the military. He re-established Glinka's national anthem. Petrodollars and government regulation of some of the glaring abuses by the oligarchs (arrest/imprisonment/exile of Borozovsky and Khordokovsky) contributed to his popularity despite growing coldness in his relations with the West, especially the United States. Putin took a dim view of American efforts to bring Georgia into NATO and to establish missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland (the old "near abroad.") According to Kremlinologist and Russian expert David Remnick, Putin "made his priority the establishment of a strong state" (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 57); venerable American "Cold Warriors" were not pleased. That said, Putin was not overtly anti-American; he sent condolences to President Bush after 9/11 and worked to integrate his Russia into the global political and economic community.

image source/Putin < >

In short, Putin: seized control of regional governorships;
cracked down on political opposition;
took over the legislature, the courts, state television
(Remnick, "Letter from Sochi" 31). So much for
glasnost and demokratzia!

Image essay on Putin (maybe Putin on Putin) < >
Atlantic article on Putin (Sept., 2013)
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2005 Atlantic article on Putin "The Accidental Autocrat"
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After his re-election to the presidency in 2008, Putin promised "Power to the People"
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Who is Mr. Putin? < >

In 2009, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin commented
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The Putin System ("The Passionate Eye" documentary)
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Russian National Anthem
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Putin surrounded himself with cronies from the FSB (alumni of the KGB)
and built a tripod of power depressingly like that of his Soviet predecessors--
Dictatorial Authority-Military-Department of Interior-Police/FSB.
Laws regulating
election procedures assured political domination of his Unity Party.

The suspicious deaths of outspoken critics and journalists stirred criticism from human rights groups, but at the end of his 2nd term as president in 2008, Putin's approval ratings remained high as petro-dollars supported economic recovery. Putin retained popular support by "paying salaries and pensions, eliminating budget deficits, and creating a growing urban middle class" (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 58).

image source < >

Putin sings "Blueberry Hill"
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In 2007, 60 Minutes interviewed international chess champion Khasparov,
who dared to criticize then President Vladimir Putin

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In December, 2010, Larry King interviewed Prime Minister Putin on Larry King Live
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Order-Peace-Unity (o-p-u) and a degree of prosperity did come to Russia and Russians on Putin's "watch," and continued under Medvedev. The standard of living rose; the state paid the pensioners; market mechanisms in agriculture and consumer production increased supply and brought down prices. Putin's popularity soared.

image source < >

Putin also proved his "tough guy"/"don't mess with me" bona fides in breakaway Chechnya in 2004. Islamic militants seized a school in Beslan, Chechnya, in September, 2004, holding more than 1000 students and teachers hostage for 3 days. The Chechnyan separatists demanded recognition of their independence from the Russian federation. Putin would have none of it and sent in the security forces with their explosives and heavy weaponry. 385 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Putin's response was, according to some interpretations, a reason to censor the media and further strengthen the central authority.

image source < >
in image above, girls in Beslan look at a gallery of their lost classmates

In 2007, pundits and kremlinologists speculated whether Putin would violate the constitution and run for a 3rd term; he did not. Rather, he designated his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who won the election and quickly appointed Putin Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Medvedev visited the United States in 2010 (enjoying burgers and fries with President Obama); in the summer of 2011, he visited North Korea for talks with its "Dear Leader" Kim Jung Il.

image source/Medvedev in North Korea
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Obama and Medvedev at Ray's Hell Burgers
(apparently a vertically challenged Medvedev was reluctant to be photographed with Obama

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In 2011, President Medvedev dedicated the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, scheduled to open officially in 2014. While Yeltsin has his admirers, many look less fondly upon the era of "the wild East," as evidenced in the recent vandalizing of the Yeltsin monument.

image source and video clip: pros/cons of Yeltsin < >

NYT correspondent Stephen Myers commented, "Whether Russians are ready to re-evaluate
the Yeltsin legacy remains to be seen.... [A] statue of Mr. Yeltsin in white marble...
was defaced with blue paint...the lettering smashed to bits" (A10).

In the Putin-Medvedev era, petro dollars continued to fuel the Russian economy, consolidating Europe's dependence on Russia for oil and natural gas. It is worth remembering this reality as the Crimea/Ukraine crisis unfolded in 2013-2014.

image source < >

Putin re-won the presidency in 2012. In his second presidential incarnation, Putin reacted harshly to growing criticism of his "undemocratic" and "authoritarian" consolidation of power ("Vladimir Putin"). In a "darkening mood" he went "on the offensive against any sign of foreign interference.... A raw and resentful anti-Americanism, unknown since the seventies, suffused Kremlin airwaves... (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 52). Since 2012, it is more obvious that Putin surrounded himslf with cronies from the FSB and Leningrad; his regime, according to David Remnick, is characterized by "an almost unimaginably corrupt set of arrangements...known as 'Kremlin, Inc.'" ("Watching the Eclipse" 58). Incidentally, a constitutional amendment lengthened the presidential term to six years.

image source < >

It perhaps worthwhile to look at Putin's Russia from a Putinesque perspective. He is not Stalin. He is, however, a product of the Cold War and decades of tension between USA and USSR. According to David Remnick, Putin feels that American leaders bullied and pushed Russia around after 1991 by expanding NATO (the Baltics, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Slovenia,) effectively encircling Russia. Internally, he reached out to the Orthodox Church, worked to strengthen traditional values; he is avowedly anti-gay and detests Pussy Riot. He yearns for the re-establishment of Russian greatness. These were the Yeltsin years of the Wild East, when
Russia essentially had no foreign policy. Note: Finland is a NATO associate, not a full member.

image source < >


In 2013-4, demonstrations, notably the "pussy riots," gave evidence of a growing discontent with Putin's consolidation of authority and power, as well as his intolerance for opposition of any kind.. "Pussy Riot" is a "feminist punk rock group based in Moscow" ("Pussy Riot"). After a performance at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, three of its members were arrested, convicted on charges of "hooliganism" ("Pussy Riot") and two of them sentenced to terms in labor camps or prison. While these sentences seemed shockingly harsh in the West, old folks in Russia were unsympathetic to Pussy Riot's sacreligious antics. Putin certainly was.

image source < >
arrest of Pussy Riot < >

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was built in the 19th century, demolished under Stalin, and reconstructed in the 1990s. Many Russians felt that the Pussy Riot performance was unacceptable and obscene, performed as it was at the altar of the basilica.

image source < >

Thank you, Anne Li, for following up on Pussy Riot
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In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Putin "put on a happy face" (pardon the pun.) He allowed Khordokovsky to leave both prison and Russia; he granted amnesty to Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolonnikova of Pussy Riot. They retaliated by hotfooting it down to Sochi and performing one of their punk rock routines, to the chagrin of the local police. In the winter of 2014-2015, Pussy Riot seems to have fallen off the radar. The Ukrainian-Crimean crisis took over the airwaves.

video of Pussy Riot
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Putin's July 2012 speech on global instability < >
Documentary on "The Putin System" < >
Christiane Amanpour "Czar Putin" < >

The Ukraininan crisis unfolded in 2013-2014, marked by the uprising in Kiev that ousted Putin surrogate Yanukovich; Russia annexed Crimea; relations between Russia and the West deteriorated as renewed acrimony seemed to re-ignite the Cold War. Although Putin has denied it repeatedly, it seems as if Russian-supported troops are aiding the separatist "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Lughansk in the Donbass, where the dominant ethnicity tends to be Russian.

image source < >

According to Gail Lapidus, Vladimir Putin is a nationalist and determined to preserve
and expand Russian influence in areas of former Soviet domination (the so-called
"near abroad") and prevent the expansion of NATO. He knows and accepts that the Baltics
are gone. Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus are a different story. Indeed, he has "ratcheted up"
Russian patriotic fervor, partially as an antidote to his harsh treatment of critics and voices of opposition.
Lapidus commented that neither the West (USA, NATO) nor Putin wants war, despite their posturing.

The Western media have consistently portrayed Putin as the villain and thug of the Ukrainian imbroglio. Lev Golinkin offers another perspective. He comments that Poroshenko's harsh sanctions against Donetsk and Lughansk, i.e. "cutting off funding for schools and hospitals" in the eastern provinces, has driven them closer to Russia (A27).

image source < >

As well, Golinkin identified neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic elements in Poroshenko's Kiev-sponsored militia known as the Azov Battalion (A27) operating against the separatists in Mariupol. Golinkin defines them as "an ultranationalist paramilitary group of around 400 men that uses Nazi salutes and insignia" (A27).

image source < >
While Putin's popularity remained high after the Sochi Olympics, his annexation of Crimea, and his support for the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, he (late 2014) faces economic and political problems at home. Sanctions on his cronies and Russian exports, compounded by declining oil and natural gas prices threaten Russia with recession. A simmering and unresolved insurgency in Chechnya also re-surfaced in December, 2014.

image source < >

According to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Putin continues to consolidate power. He has worked to emphasize the positive achievements of Stalin (e.g. the Great Patriotic War,) even to suggesting the restoration of the name Stalingrad. He likes to remind people how chaotic things were in Yeltsin's "Wild East." While Putin brooks no political opposition, he leaves people's personal lives pretty much alone. Unless authority and/or power were concerned, "The state was indifferent to the way people lived" (Remnick, "Watching the Eclipse" 58).

image source < >

Neil MacFarquhar quoted Russian spokesman, Vladimir Ryzhkov ,"'If [Putin] prolongs the policy of greatness, of confrontation with the West, he will be popular and supported by the people despite any economic crisis'" ( A10). According to Forbes' Russian commentator, Mark Adomanis, even though Putin provoked the Ukrainian/Crimean crisis, which has hit the Russian economy and ruble hard, his approval ratings remain high. As recently as September, 2014, they stood at 86% (Obama's approval rating in December, 2014, hovered at 47%.)

image source < >

That said, as noted above, recession threatens the Russian economy and the ruble is in free-fall as oil prices continue to drop. American pundits and commentators are starting to change their tune with regard to Putin. A year ago (winter 2013-2014,) many admired Putin's macho stance and criticized President Obama's apparent wimpiness. Tom Friedman quoted Representative Mike Rogers, "'Well, I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we're playing marbles...'" (Friedman, "Who's Playing" 1). Friedman obseved that as Russia's problems mount, it looks as if Putin "has lost his marbles" (9,) describing Putin as a failed leader who has led his nation to economic ruin (1).

image source < >
for full interview with Mike Rogers, visit
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for full Friedman editorial, visit
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Putin on Frontline January, 2015 < >

The pundits are still trying to define Putin as he has moved aggressively in the old Soviet "near abroad." In his 2015 biography, Putinism, Walter Laqueur argues that even though Putin does not want to re-establish communism, he fits the authoritarian model: he "...took over independent television, punished defiant business tycoons, turned Parliament into a rubber stamp and eliminated the elections of governors" (Baker C4). Laqueur suggests that Putin--and many Russians agree--resents Russia's "loss of superpower status" and wants to "restore his country's greatness" (Laqueur quoted in Baker, C4).

image source < >




To examine the historical context and latest developments of the
2013-2015 Crimea/Ukraine/Russia imbroglio
[ Crimea/Ukraine/Russia 2014 ]




Adomanis, Mark. "Vladimir Putin's Approval Rate Is Still Near An All-Time High."
Forbes. Online available.
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Ascher, Abraham. Russia: A Short History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2011.

Baker, Peter. "Books of the Times: Russia's Shifting Absolutist." The New York Times. 21 July 2015.

Baker, Peter and Susan Glasser. Kremlin Rising. New York: Scribner/A Lisa Drew Book, 2005.

Byrne, Malcolm. "Uprising in East Germany, 1953." National Security Archives: George Washington University.
Online available. < >

Friedman, Thomas. "Don't Just Do Something. Sit There." The New York Times. February 26, 2014.

Friedman, Thomas. "Who's Playing Marbles Now?" Sunday Review: The New York Times.
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Gladstone, Rick. "Russia Blocks U.N. Effort for Prosecutions in Downing of Jetliner in Ukraine."
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McKay, John, et al. A History of Western Society, 6th ed. Boston and NewYork:
Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1999.

McKee, Peggy. "After Stalin." Palo Alto: Castilleja Faculty Work Room. 2000-2014.

McKee, Peggy. "The Old Men Rule." Palo Alto: Castilleja Work Room. 2000-2014.

Myers, Stephen. "Yekaterinburg Journal: Where Some May Say No Thanks for Memories." The
New York Times
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Nazaryan, Alexander. "Punk, Skirts, Balaclavas: A Russian Revolution." The New York Times. January 10, 2014.

Remnick, David. "Letter from Sochi: Patriot Games." The New Yorker, March 3, 2014.

Remnick, David. "Watching the Eclipse." The New Yorker, August 11 & 18, 2014.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas and Mark Steinberg. A History of Russia, 7th edition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Schemann, Serge. "Tussling over Ukraine..." Sunday Review: The New York Times. March 2, 2014.

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Smale, Alison and Michael Shear. "Russia is Ousted from Group of 8 by U.S. and Allies."
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Wesson, Robert. Lenin's Legacy: The Story of the CPSU. Stanford: Hoover Institution, 1978.

Wikipedia contributors. "Boris Yeltsin." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
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Wikipedia contributors. "Khrushchev Thaw." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
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Wikipedia contributors. "Lavrentiy Beria." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
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Wikipedia contributors. "Leonid Brezhnev." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.

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Wikipedia contributors. "Pussy Riot" Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
Online available. < >

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Online available. < >

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