"Berlin should become a free city," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev repeated in public and at home throughout 1961. It was my great-grandfather's habit; once taken with an idea, he never let it go.
"Parity" was his ruling diplomatic concept. If one side in the Cold War can do something, so can another, he reasoned. This was the logic he employed in sending rockets to Cuba in 1962: If America, the superpower, can have missiles in Turkey, right on the border of the Soviet Union, he reasoned, then surely the USSR, another superpower, must be able to do the same. Fifty years later, Russia, though a superpower no more and the Cold War long since dead, still adheres to this world-dividing concept. Vladimir Putin, president-turned-prime-minister and the main politician in charge, never fails to point out that his country (with its geography and natural resources just enough to make it great and powerful) should be on equal footing with the world most-industrialized countries -- and have the same international influence as the United States.
This line of thinking leads to policies that are dangerous for both the Russian people and global security. But to understand how it emerged, it's necessary to go back to the height of the Cold War in 1961.
Fifteen years after World War II, Berlin was still considered occupied territory, divided into four spheres of influence -- the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Britain. Khrushchev pushed for a peace treaty to give the largely unrecognized communist government of East Germany (GDR) international legitimacy. This was an issue for the Americans, and so Khrushchev threatened to turn Berlin into a free demilitarized zone, giving the GDR full power over the city's Eastern zone and leaving the Western half under the control of the pro-Western Federal Republic.
The United States saw this plan as an enormous threat to the West and to capitalism -- a ploy to give all of Berlin to the Soviets. Indeed, that may well have been the endgame Khrushchev envisaged. He was big on parity, but was also a cunning politician serving the communist cause.
Meanwhile, fearful of being stuck with communism forever, East Germans were defecting through the city's porous border checkpoints at a stunning rate. By 1961, the country had lost over 3 million of its citizens. Walter Ulbricht, Secretary of GDR's Socialist Unity Party, accused the West of the "destructive and undermining actions," blamed Western propaganda for the defections, and believed he could prevent further immigration by separating Berlin into two parts. Yet in the first weeks of August, Ulbricht -- who already made mandatory a system of passports and advocated the border closing -- was adamant that the final division, the wall, must be a last resort.
Khrushchev was also hesitant about the division, believing that Washington would take it the wrong way, and that interactions with the West could suffer. But the wall seemed to be the only way to stop immigration and keep East Germans from experiencing the higher quality of capitalist life. On Aug. 13, 1961, the wall went up and Berlin began its three decades of division.
Fast forward to 1964. After the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis had passed Khrushchev wanted to establish closer relations with Europe. His son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei, the editor of the newspaper Izvestia, became an unofficial envoy for this mission. But during a July visit with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, Adzhubei went a bit too far. Rather than just testing the waters of possible rapprochement he offered a solution to the division, as recounted in his memoir, Those Ten Years. "When I tell Nikita Sergeevich you are such good folks, he will get rid of the Wall," he promised.
A scandal ensued. Ulbricht couldn't formally admit he had wanted to divide Berlin, preferring to let Moscow take responsibility for the drastic measure. Khrushchev, on the other hand, couldn't be officially looking for ways to unite it; even if by 1964, following the crises in Berlin and Cuba over the past two years, he believed more in "peaceful coexistence" than in "parity" as a viable European policy for the Soviet Union. The wall remained standing. And just a few months later, in October 1964, Khrushchev was ousted for "failed and erratic policies" and "voluntarism in politics." For the Kremlin hardliners, the Berlin crisis was on the laundry list of his failures -- first he wanted to build the wall, then decided to tear it down. After all, in the always defensive politics of USSR, changing policy to accommodate the other side was seen as nothing less than weakness. It took almost 30 years for another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to try to open up the communist monolith.