DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, as Michele mentioned, one flashpoint between Russia and Ukraine is the region of Crimea, a Russian province for hundreds of years that only became part of Ukraine in 1954. At the time, Russia and Ukraine were both Soviet republics, so the transfer was largely symbolic. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did it to mark the 300th anniversary of a Russian-Ukrainian alliance.
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I think to some degree it was also a personal gesture towards his favorite republic. I mean he was ethnically Russian but he really felt great infinity with the Ukraine.
GREENE: That is the voice of Nina Khrushcheva, Khrushchev's great granddaughter and a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York. She recalls that Khrushchev served as Ukraine's communist boss after the Great Famine as the 1930s killed millions. The Soviets had collectivized farms and confiscated crops, destroying a vital breadbasket.
KHRUSHCHEVA: Khrushchev tried to do something about it, not that he was not a Soviet despot himself. I just always want to make sure that I'm not going to be accused of bias.
GREENE: Nina Khrushcheva believes the brutal Soviet legacy is fueling resistance to Russian domination today.
KHRUSHCHEVA: Throughout all Soviet history, there would always be a Russia first, Ukraine second. That has been really ingrained into the Russian psyche, that these are all smaller, inferior, nor as important nations, and I think the battle for Kiev and, you know, now the dispute over Crimea comes from that.
GREENE: Yeah, this is a history that it's worth sort of pausing on for a moment. Kiev is where Russian culture was born in the 9th century. This is where Russian orthodoxy began. I mean can Russians imagine Ukraine falling out of Moscow's orbit?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I think they can. I mean, you know, Ukraine really fell out of Moscow's orbit in '91. It became an independent country so that was the first step. Then, in 2004, during the Orange Revolution, because we want to remember that Viktor Yanukovych already - already became president then in 2004, but then...
GREENE: And then didn't.
KHRUSHCHEVA: Elections were rigged, right, it didn't take. He was ousted by the Orange Revolution, which actually really showed how different Ukrainians and Russians are, because Ukrainians were able to stick to their guns and say, you know, we don't want to be oppressed. We want our vote matter.
GREENE: I wonder, I mean we've been hearing about the instability in Ukraine right now. The U.S. government and Britain's prime minister warning Vladimir Putin to stay out of Ukraine and not intervene. What's your prediction? Will Vladimir Putin send troops in to maintain control in Crimea? Will he act in some way like that?
KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I don't want to predict because I don't want to end up with egg on my face, but I did write about this in Reuters that when Putin starts using the tough language of anti-state coup and whatever else they're talking about now, I think in front of the peninsula they're parading their military ship just to show that, if anything, they can come in, in my experience when Russians start speaking this way, they actually send those tanks.
I think it would be not very wise for Putin to do that because, once again, Ukraine's showed that it can really stick to its guns, but he probably believes that even showing the force and showing that he can do this will be quite enough.
GREENE: Take me to what you know of your great grandfather, a complicated Soviet despot, as you said. What would the Khrushchev from the 1950s think of the way Putin is handling Ukraine today?
KHRUSHCHEVA: He probably would say Ukraine needs independence because at the end of his memoirs he apologized to all the people he kind of insulted along the way and really spoke about the fact that the Soviet Union should not dictate other countries or people how to behave and act. So I don't think that Putin would be his hero.
And once again in 1968, when the Soviet Union sent tanks to Czechoslovakia at the time to suppress the Prague Spring, it came 12 years after Khrushchev himself suppressed a liberal revolt in Hungary, in Budapest, also sending tanks. And that's why I'm sort of wary - when Russians start threatening tanks, the tanks are not far behind anyways.
Anyway, so when '68 happened and he was very upset and he said, well, you know, it has been 12 years and we haven't learned a better way. So if he said that in '68 and now it has been over 50 years, I think he would be stunned that the Soviet Union or Russia today, Putin's Russia, really hasn't learned a better way.
GREENE: Nina Khrushcheva is an associate professor of international affairs at The New School in New York City. Her book coming out in April is called "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind." Professor, thanks so much for joining us.
KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.