Nina Khrushcheva on Putin’s Poisonous Nationalism and a New “New Russia”

Nina Khrushcheva is a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School, in New York. She is also the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet leader famous for denouncing Stalin, enacting liberal reforms, and pursuing a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. Khrushcheva has written several books about Russians and Russian history, including ones on her family, the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and travelling across Russia. I recently spoke by phone with Khrushcheva to hear her thoughts about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, where her great-grandfather worked extensively. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the differences between Russian and American nationalism, the changing ways Russian leaders have viewed Ukraine, and what sort of Ukrainian identity may emerge after this war.

How do you think Vladimir Putin’s outlook on the world is similar or different from past Russian leaders?

I remember at the beginning when Putin became President, early on, I was saying that he is horrible for Russia, and he’s perfect for Russia. He’s perfect for Russia in a sense that he channels the Russian inferiority complex with regard to the West, but he also channels a superiority complex, because, at the same time, Russia is a giant piece of land. The country produced incredible works of art, contributed to world affairs, not always in a good way, but still was instrumental to victory in World War Two, and so on. He channels this split-personality disorder and assured the Russians that their place on the world stage would be recognized and appreciated. Because, as you remember, in the nineteen-nineties, Russia was basically next to the toilet in its own definition of itself, and was the loser in the Cold War. It felt like the West or the United States particularly could do or say anything to Russia or about Russia.

Putin came in and said, I’m going to return you to greatness. He was very welcomed that way, but then the typical part of the Russian leader is that, unfortunately, returning to greatness more often than not comes with a body count. He was welcomed as somebody who made Russia respected. And the word “respect” in the Russian language is in relation to others, so if you respect me, it means a lot. But respect comes with fear. There’s even a saying that is, basically, “Somebody’s afraid of me; that means that he respects me.” In this sense, Putin is typical, though obviously it took quite a long road, twenty-two years, to get to where we are today. I didn’t know it would end this badly.

One of the fascinating things about Russian leaders of the past hundred years is that you have Stalin and his Georgian origins, and Leonid Brezhnev came from a family in what is now Ukraine. I know your family came from very close to what’s now the Russian-Ukrainian border, and had some Ukrainian connections. Can you talk about the way in which Russian nationalism has incorporated people from these different areas, and how you understand that?

Well, the Soviet Union was, of course, a collection of nations. Putin whines that the Soviet leaders lost parts of the great Russian Empire—these territories, whether self-proclaimed or not self-proclaimed republics. All these republics where people were rising. That’s the whole point of the proletarians of the world uniting—that people were rising from local Bolshevik organizations, and so that’s with Stalin coming from Georgia, and Brezhnev. They were a whole bunch of Ukraine-related party functionaries or Communist Party leaders. One of them was Khrushchev, although he was Russian by origin. He spent a lot of years in Ukraine and was in charge of Ukraine’s Communist Party for many years. But before him, there was a Communist of Polish origin who was in charge of Ukraine.

It was in this sense a dream of Lenin and Marx. Lenin, particularly, wrote in one of his works that every maid should learn how to rule the state. The maids could have come from everywhere, from Georgia, from Armenia, from Ukraine, but what’s important, I think, to further push your question, is that people with connections to Ukraine seemed to have very prominent roles in Soviet politics. In fact, Khrushchev was the beginner of it in a sense, because he promoted Brezhnev, who was coming out of Ukraine. In this sense, the Soviet Union had multiethnic representation.

Putin has obviously expressed anger at the way that Soviets allowed a certain degree of autonomy for Ukraine and for other Soviet states. Has this been part of the pitch, too—a certain anger at the amount of power that Ukrainian-origin people had in the Soviet ruling structure?

Ukraine used to be called Malorossiya, which is a “Little Russia.” It was sort of an appendage of Russia. In the sixteen-hundreds, the Cossacks, the traditional warrior polity, which was at the center of what Ukraine is today, attached themselves to the Russians. But they were too independent, too unruly, and Catherine the Great took their independence away. They were an independent polity within the Russian Empire—and she took it away. That’s why Putin loves Catherine the Great so much. She is probably his favorite leader. Interestingly enough, it’s a woman that he finds more important to his own agenda, in a sense. She took that Ukrainian territory, made it Novorossiya, the new Russia, that Putin now wants to reinstate.

Russians always thought of it as a bit of an appendage, and looked down on the “Little Russia,” so to speak. As you know, “Ukraine,” the whole word, means “on the edge”—it’s on the edge of Russia. Of course, all Russian leaders and all Soviet leaders would consider Ukraine or Kievan Rus the beginning of the Russian state, but not necessarily a Ukrainian state in a sense.

But it is important that Kyiv used to be known as the mother of all Russian cities. That’s why it’s so inconceivable that Russians are now bombing the city that they say is their own origin. One of the Russian tsars had a giant monument to Saint Vladimir, the baptizer of Kievan Rus, because it was supposed to represent that proto-state of Russian and Ukrainian. It’s a very close connection. At the same time, all Russian leaders, essentially all Soviet leaders, had very tense relationships with Ukrainians’ desire to be more independent from Mother Russia, from the Kremlin, from Moscow. That certainly goes into Putin’s calculations, that you used to be smaller, and now you are basically what Poland used to be during the Soviet Union. It was the last line of Western defense, so now Ukraine is the last line of defense. Of course, Putin is very angry about it.

How did your great-grandfather and people in your family talk about Ukraine?

He loved Ukraine. He thought Ukraine was special. The Russians have a word for Ukrainians, which is khokhol, sort of slightly disdain for them, which is that tuft of hair on the Cossack’s head. My mother told me many times that he would be very, very angry when he heard it. He would say, “You can’t call people like that. The Ukrainians are not lesser than the Russians, they are not little Russians.” One time, he almost lost his job, or maybe even his life in ’46 or ’47, when he, as they used to say in the Soviet Union, went national. He started supporting some national Ukrainian causes when he was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, and Stalin didn’t like it. He sent another flunky to basically eliminate Khrushchev for being too national, too Ukrainian national.

Khrushchev survived, but there were tensions that he was too much in love with the Ukrainian nation. During the war, he even promoted Ukrainian nationhood. Stalin was very, very mad at him for that.

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