When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukrainian control in 1954, it was simply for logistical and symbolic reasons, according to his son Sergei. Now, he swears, Russia will never give it back.
Sergei Khrushchev has been living in the United States since emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1991 and is a naturalized American citizen, but he speaks as if he is still in the Russian government. He views the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich as an illegal seizure of the Kiev government by force and he insists that 96 percent of Crimeans voted to separate from Ukraine and join the Russian federation. Khrushchev spoke to The Daily Beast ahead of a Tuesday night speech at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
“Russia will never surrender,” he said about the escalating battle over the fate of Crimea, which Vladimir Putin invaded and then annexed after a popular referendum that took place outside the view of international observers.
Nikita Khrushchev led Russia during the most serious standoff of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took both countries to the brink of nuclear war. In the American telling of history, Khrushchev the elder ultimately backed down. But in the current tensions over Ukraine, the son said, only Russia really has a huge stake in the outcome and therefore will prevail if the conflict escalates.
“For the United States, it’s just one more attempt to show Russia who is the master of the world’s politics. For the Russian President and Russia itself, it’s a matter of national pride and they will oppose it as much as it can,” he said.
Back in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukrainian administration, the main reason was that construction of two major canals between Ukraine and Crimea was underway. Khrushchev wanted to streamline the process by placing both sides of the project under one administration, according to Sergei. The 300 year anniversary of the treaty that joined Ukraine to Russia was a happy coincidence, he said.
“My father was the leader of the Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine were two union republics, equal inside the Soviet Union,” he added. “For my father there was no difference because it was all inside one state.”
Khrushchev blames the decision to let Crimea go on Boris Yeltsin, who he said was distracted with his own ambitions and in 1991 told Ukrainian leaders they could have Crimea.
“I think my father would have been very unhappy with what Yeltsin decided to do,” Khrushchev said.
It’s impossible to say how Nikita Khrushchev would have handed the current crisis in Ukraine because he never would have been able to imagine that the Soviet Union would be disbanded and disappear from the map, Sergei said.
“What would President George Washington think about the war in Iraq? He would say ‘You are crazy, your real enemy is in London, not Baghdad.’ So you can’t take a historical figure out of his time.”
But Sergei Khrushchev sees Putin as a reformer in the mold of his father and comparable to Theodore Roosevelt, who busted up corporate monopolies in the United States in the early 20th century.
“The Putin era is an era of bringing Russia back to the order, destroying the oligarchy, and enforcing the role of the government,” he said.
Ukraine historically had no identity and was simply an amalgamation of farmers who lived on the Russian periphery and applied to join Russia in the mid-17th Century, and even then it was only Eastern Ukraine, said Khrushchev. Western Ukraine joined them in 1945, but there are still essentially two countries there living together, he said.
“When people talk about Ukraine, they talk about some competition between Russia and the West. But in reality it is two different sets of Ukrainians who now live in one country,” he said. “We have two different Ukraines.”
He blames the West for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by supporting protests on the Maidan and he said Putin has no designs on invading Eastern Ukraine unless the country descends into all out civil war, which is possible.
“It was not Putin who invaded Crimea and at the barrel of the gun just annexed it. No. It was the will of the people,” he said. “So my message is, don’t try to provoke Ukrainians to fight with each other. If there will be no civil war, Putin will not invade Ukraine.”
Sergei Khruschev is a direct product of the bond between Russian and Ukraine; his mother was Ukrainian and his father was Russian. “So,” he said, “I am somewhere on the border.”