To those who lived through it, the night of November 9, 1989, seemed to mark a new epoch in human history. The Berlin Wall was suddenly undefended, in a single delirious moment that promised to end the Cold War division of Europe. Two years later, the Soviet Union would be dissolved. Elected leaders would govern Russia for the first time since the country’s brief democratic experiment of 1917. “Europe whole and free” seemed more than a far-off aspiration: it seemed a work in the making.
A quarter century later, Russia under Vladimir Putin is more repressive and more aggressive than the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was. It has invaded Ukraine and menaces the Baltic republics. In 2013, Russia spent a higher portion of GDP on defense than the United States for the first time in a decade. As Europe contends with economic depression and internal terrorist violence, Russian money flows to extremist parties in the hope of breaking apart the European Union. One former Warsaw Pact member, Hungary, is backsliding toward authoritarianism. “Europe whole and free” sounds like haunting mockery.
As the relationship between Russia and the West has deteriorated, some have hastened to blame the United States and nato for starting a new Cold War, while others entirely blame Putin himself. There is, however, another way to think, both more plausible and more troubling: the question is not “Has a new Cold War started?” but rather “Did the old Cold War ever end?”
Post–World War II Germany faced its past, discarded its Nazi institutions, and committed itself to reconciliation with its neighbors. Justice was not always done. Some ex-Nazis continued to hold high judicial and bureaucratic offices in Germany into the early 1970s. But the truth was told—and on the basis of truth, society could be renewed and peace secured.
Post-Soviet elites in Russia never acknowledged the truth of what their predecessors had done to their own society—and to the subject peoples they ruled. It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway is the expressive title of the best book on the subject. Russian rulers’ refusal to face the past allowed and invited the past to return.