My grandmother’s retirement after a long career teaching high school must have made a lasting impression on the barely fiveyear- old me. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching television with her, then a recent retiree. I recall seeing a white-haired man on the TV and thinking that he must be someone important. Curious whether he was above retirement age, I asked my grandmother about it. “He has a job one does not retire from,” she said matter-of-factly.
The man on TV was Konstantin Chernenko, the Soviet head of state.
Indeed, he never retired. Chernenko led the Soviet Union for 13 months before passing away at the age of 74 in March 1985. His death opened the way for Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War.
Over the recent week, reality has come to resemble that pre-Gorbachev era too closely for my taste.
On February 27, armed men without insignia took over the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The “little green men,” so dubbed because of their uniforms’ color, were soon acknowledged by Russia to belong to its armed forces. Since then, events have developed in a dramatic whirlwind that never seemed to spiral out of Moscow’s control. The Crimean local parliament, apparently without quorum, declared a referendum from a building overrun by Russian soldiers; the government in Kiev protested; the aircraft carrier USS George Bush and its fleet of support vessels made their way to the Black Sea.
The Russian media machine played down the military effort and put all its might behind the referendum. The questions were formulated so as not to give much choice to those who wanted to keep Crimea Ukrainian. The only two options were voting to join Russia immediately or to support a broad autonomy that merely delayed the same outcome.
The US and Europe vaguely discussed sanctions, and official Russia took it personally. On March 17 the CEO of “Russia Today,” Kremlin’s main propaganda mouthpiece, appeared against a giant nuclear mushroom-cloud background and said that Russia was the only country in the world that was “capable of turning [the] USA to nuclear ash.”
The referendum took place on March 16. There were no observers, large groups of Crimeans are known to have abstained, and the referendum was both widely expected to be rigged and to produce a result that would overwhelmingly support an immediate union with Russia. Which it did. 95.5 percent of those who voted wanted to join the big neighbor to the east.
On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed both houses of parliament in a special ceremony held at the Kremlin, and I watched the address in disbelief. The ceremony was perfectly orchestrated to inspire awe.
The president’s speech was every now and then interrupted by strong applause that at times turned into standing ovation.
Many people in the audience wore St. George’s ribbons on their lapels, a black-and-orange symbol of military valor most closely associated with Soviet victory in WWII. In addition to MPs, dignitaries present included priests of various Christian denominations, Muslim clergy and a permanent fixture at Kremlin events, the Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar. All of them produced enthusiastic applause.
Too bad I missed whether they joined in when the audience chanted “long live Putin” in a deafening chorus. The ceremony ended with signing the formal agreement that finalized Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
I texted an older family member in Moscow that the way the event was staged freaked me out. He texted back: “nothing we do not already know.”
Indeed, the masters of ceremonies at the Kremlin have not invented anything new. They merely revived the art of staging party congresses and stage appearances, perfected for the likes of Brezhnev and Chernenko.
Certainly not everyone in Russia believes it is kosher to satisfy imperial ambitions at neighbors’ expense. An anti-war, pro-Ukrainian demonstration took place in Moscow last weekend.
According to official Russian sources, it drew a mere three thousand people, yet independent observers believe that there were between 40,000 to 50,000 people marching with Ukrainian flags in the center of the Russian capital. A friend who witnessed the decline of the Soviet Union and has since built a new life for himself and his family told me, “Last week I thought all was lost, but today, after I saw tens of thousands of normal people at the protest, I felt better.”
The real question is whether Putin, just like Chernenko 30 years prior, feels that he has a job one does not retire from. If he decides retirement is a luxury he cannot afford, there will be even less reason for those of us who care about Russia’s future to feel better.
The author has traveled extensively in Ukraine on business since 1999. She served on Binyamin Netanyahu’s staff, and holds a BA in political science from Moscow State University and a MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.