Interview With Medvedev: Russian President Reflects On Fall of the Wall

Interview on what the fall of the wall meant to the Russian president.

ByABC News
November 9, 2009, 8:51 AM

Nov. 9, 2009 — -- SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with other world leaders in Berlin. Where were you on Nov. 9, 1989?

Dmitry Medvedev: I don't remember, but I still recall very precisely how suddenly our lives changed. I was a teaching assistant at the University of St. Petersburg at the time, and I realized that this development would affect not only the Germans, but all of Europe and, ultimately, also the destiny of our country. The Scorpions' hit "Wind of Change" became an anthem of the times. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the division of the continent, and the fall of the Wall united us again. Some of our hopes from back then have been fulfilled, others have not.

SPIEGEL: The fall of the Wall made former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a respected figure in Germany and throughout the West. How would you judge his historical accomplishments?

Medvedev: As the head of state, it is not my place to pass judgment on my predecessors. Germany and other European countries give Gorbachev credit for the fall of the Iron Curtain. There are differences in opinion about his accomplishments for our country. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred during his term in office. A great many Russians have the feeling that they lost their country back then, and they hold him responsible for this. Whether or not this is justifiable is something for historians to decide.

SPIEGEL: Your predecessor Vladimir Putin was not so reserved in his remarks. He called the collapse of the USSR "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

Medvedev: He didn't connect this with the name Gorbachev, so in that sense he was as reserved as I am. The collapse shocked everyone who lived in the Soviet Union, regardless of whether they perceived the disintegration of the state as a personal catastrophe or as a consequence of the rule of the Bolsheviks. And it was really very dramatic: A people who had been united for decades -- and in some cases for centuries -- suddenly found itself in different countries again. Contacts with family and relatives were cut off.

SPIEGEL: It was certainly a tragedy, but was it really the greatest?

Medvedev: In my opinion, World War II was no less of a catastrophe. Tens of millions of people were killed. And wasn't the Russian Revolution of 1917 also a catastrophe? It sparked a civil war where friends and relatives shot at each other. The collapse of the Soviet Union certainly ranks among the most dramatic events of the 20th century, but it didn't have such bloody consequences.

SPIEGEL: A few days ago, you pointed out in a video message posted on the Internet that "millions of people died as a result of terror" in the Soviet Union before the war, but 90 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds knew practically nothing about this. What does this say about the state of Russian society, when you, as president, have to remind your citizens that Josef Stalin was a mass murderer?

Medvedev: Every historical figure is revered by some and rejected by others, and this holds true for Stalin as well. In my blog, I clearly defined Stalin's deeds as crimes. Fifty million Russians regularly access the Internet -- over a third of the Russian population. Thousands have responded. Some wrote that the head of state has finally taken a clear stance on the oppression and on Stalin. Others, on the other hand, refused to accept my views. They wrote that our country has Stalin to thank for its developed economy and free social services, and they said that there was virtually no crime under his leadership. They said that today's Russian leaders should first of all try to match those achievements.

SPIEGEL: That doesn't sound very flattering for you.

Medvedev: The government has to be honest and clearly recognize events about which historians are unanimous. As a lawyer I can also tell you that the liquidation of an enormous number of Soviet citizens -- no matter what the pretexts -- was a crime. This also explains why there can be no rehabilitation of the people who were involved.

SPIEGEL: We believe that only once the people have collectively recognized that Stalin was a dictator can there be talk of a mature society.

Medvedev: Ever since perestroika, I and many of my fellow countrymen have taken a critical view of Stalin. This is due to Gorbachev and those politicians who led the country at the time. They had the courage to publish documents that cast a shadow on the government and the Communist Party. There are still older individuals as well as young people with left-wing political views who believe that Stalin's role was completely positive, but they are in the minority.

SPIEGEL: The post-Soviet legacy also includes relations to other former Soviet republics. In accordance with your instructions, there is currently no Russian ambassador in Ukraine, and you are regularly engaged in disputes with Belarus. Why do you constantly try to solve problems with your neighbors with strong-arm tactics?

Medvedev: Are there no problems between EU countries? Germany also has problems with its neighbors. We are therefore no exception.

SPIEGEL: To say that an ambassador will only be sent when another country's president has been toppled -- that's really a pretty unique stance in Europe.

Medvedev: Many things are unique in this world. All of these difficulties have been created by just one man -- the current president of Ukraine. He is guided by anti-Russian ideas, and no compromises can be achieved with him. Everything that he has done over the past four years has been aimed at disrupting bilateral relations. He has breached economic agreements, he tries to rewrite history and he has expelled a number of Russian diplomats from the country. That was an unfriendly act that requires a robust reaction. Presidential elections will soon be held in Ukraine. I sincerely hope that politicians will come to power there who are more pragmatic in their approach to Russia. Then there will be a Russian ambassador in Kiev again.