The early summer of 1989 was the most optimistic season in recent memory. William Wordsworth, writing in a previous revolutionary moment, captured the sentiment: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” I remember that feeling, if not those words, as a high school student convinced that I was blessed to be born at such a time.


In the early months of 1989 the communist governments of Poland and Hungary, two traditional stalwarts of the Soviet bloc, opened political participation to long repressed trade unions and dissident groups. The leaders of these societies saw that the Soviet Union had entered a period of rapid political and economic reform, including unprecedented efforts to open to the capitalist West. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke explicitly of ending Cold War tensions and creating what he called a “common European home.” This meant a reversal of Soviet-enforced tyranny in Poland, Hungary, and soon all the other satellites in Eastern Europe. By June 1989 it was clear that Gorbachev and his political reforms were for real. No one knew precisely where events would lead, but all signs pointed to brighter sunshine in what had been the very dark world of postwar communism.


On May 15 Gorbachev visited China. He was greeted by mass demonstrations led by students and intellectuals demanding democratic reforms in their country. Centered on the huge Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, but spreading throughout other urban areas, a popular movement that began to grow in April took rising inspiration from the Soviet reformer. If Russian communism could be reformed to allow more political freedoms, why couldn’t Chinese communism do the same? The street demonstrators in Beijing and other cities had supporters within the Chinese ruling elite who were themselves inspired by Gorbachev and the example of reform throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader’s visit brought international attention to the tremors shaking China.


For nearly three weeks after Gorbachev’s visit, leaders throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China debated how to manage the powerful impulses unleashed for radical change in their societies. This was one of those rare but recurring historical moments when impregnable institutions looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of their long-standing inertia. Gorbachev and his East European counterparts chose to embrace change and re-define political authority in their societies to address the demands of their citizens. Chinese hard-liners, led by Deng Xiaoping, turned in the other direction. They purged reformers from government and ordered more than 200,000 soldiers from the countryside to attack demonstrating students in the cities. On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party massacred those who dared to hope for democracy in their country.


For many American observers, the flowering of freedom in Eastern Europe disguised the murder of courageous activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party has subsequently used force, economic coercion, and propaganda to erase the memory of June 1989. Twenty-five years later it is difficult to imagine the democracy movement in China producing anything other than the repression and autocracy that followed it. Twenty-five years later the current communist regime appears “natural,” even appropriate for a vast and populous Chinese society in need of political order and managed economy.


Returning to the history of the Chinese tragedy in 1989 deflates this very damaging lie. Chinese society, like its counterparts in Eastern Europe, had many democratic alternatives to repression in that promising early summer. The popular movement in Beijing and other cities was as serious and substantive as anything occurring elsewhere. Chinese democracy activists had a long history of their own to draw upon, including major efforts a decade earlier. The reformers were well-educated, cosmopolitan, and compelling. They had supporters throughout the Chinese political and military establishment. Many of them had strong personal and institutional connections to the power elite of their society.


The massacre at Tiananmen was a rear-guard action opposed by many and, by some accounts, barely pulled off. For a few days it appeared that the military might revolt against its instructions to attack civilians. Some high-ranking generals resigned or disregarded orders. The success of the repression shows the extreme determination of a select few leaders, and their effective manipulation of a large and poorly-informed rural population.


It clearly did not have to turn out this way. Renewed focus on the realistic alternatives of 1989 should remind us that alternatives are also available today. History is about contingencies, near misses, and possibilities for rapid change after long periods of stagnation. Repression is never as “necessary” as it seems.


Americans had little influence over the Chinese events in 1989. Our influence is similarly limited twenty-five years later. We have many reasons to work closely with the contemporary Chinese government for the sake of East Asian security and global economic growth, both of which are imperiled today.


The historical memory of 1989, and the remembrance of what might have been, should prevent us from simply accepting present circumstances. The Chinese people have a recent and an ancient history of struggling for self-governance, personal dignity, and freedom from repression. We should affirm those values as we manage our relations with the current regime.


All politics, like all relationships, is about the past, the present, and the future. The present Chinese leadership must recognize that it cannot erase the past. It must instead make that past part of its future. Thinking back to the optimistic early summer of 1989, we owe the kindling of this historical memory to those who suffered for change and those who might make it young again.


This blog post originally appeared at



Effective policy-making begins by accurately assessing adversaries. Americans have a tendency to assume that their opponents are either pathetic pip-squeaks, ranting like irrational madmen, or enormous evil-doers, bent on Hitler-like world domination. Russian President Vladimir Putin fits neither of these character types. The pattern of Russian regional aggression, dating back to Moscow’s invasion of the Georgian Republic in 2008 (when George W. Bush was still president), reveals a different kind of adversary.

Fascism: History and Present

Putin is an early twentieth century fascist, ruling a twenty-first century country that possesses middling international power, but still maintains aspirations to greatness and deep-seated resentments against the societies, especially the United States and the European Union, that are allegedly keeping it down. Putin is ruthlessly realistic. He recognizes that he cannot challenge the United States across the globe. He seeks, instead, to assert Russian power by beating up on weak neighboring societies, thumbing his nose at the foreigners who criticize his actions, and mobilizing his own suffering citizens with the promise of national strength. He used the Sochi Summer Olympics this year to display Russian physical prowess, just as he uses the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine to assert that Russians are superior among the other Slavs. The bombast, muscle-flexing, and aggression are designed to manifest Russian ethnic and cultural rejuvenation after decades of decline and humiliation. Putin promotes nearby aggression to redeem Russian politics; he defines the authenticity and greatness of his nation by its ability to bring violence on lesser peoples.

The best historical analogy for Putin is neither Adolf Hitler nor Joseph Stalin. The Russian president does not have the messianic world conquering vision of the German Führer, and he does not possess the universalistic ideology of his Russian predecessor. Putin is more of a “classical” fascist, on the model of Benito Mussolini in early twentieth century Italy or Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain after the country’s bloody civil war. Mussolini and Franco built their dictatorships on the promise of greatness, the display of force, and the myth of a savior figure who would carry a fallen people back to the top of the international pyramid of power. They asserted near total control over their societies for the purpose of bringing total transformation. Most of all, they exploited opportunities for attacking vulnerable citizens (especially Jews) and weaker neighbors (especially in North Africa.)  Conspicuous assertions of Italian and Spanish physical superiority served to galvanize followers and generate apparent greatness.

Fascism has come to Russia because of current international conditions, echoing many of the circumstances in the 1920s and 1930s. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in the world has grown, and many Russians feel unfairly deprived and disrespected. The allure of democracy has faded due to the evidence of ineffectiveness, stalemate, and corruption within many of its chief exponents, including the United States. Perhaps most significant, the many lingering wars and conflicts of the last decade have brutalized the image of politics in Russia and other societies. If violence and related forms of coercion are acceptable elsewhere, why shouldn’t Russians use the same behaviors in areas close to home? When Americans and Europeans reject this claim on grounds of international law and human rights, Russians point to the hypocrisy of recent interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Their argument about Western inconsistency has some merit.

Fascist Lessons

The history of fascism in Italy and Spain, and now in Russia, offers some helpful guidance in considering American and European responses to Putin’s military meddling. First, Putin’s domestic legitimacy is deeply connected to his international aggression. We should not expect him to back down or change course anytime soon. We should anticipate more acts of intervention in the region around Russia.

From this observation follows a second expectation. Putin’s popularity, like that of other fascists, will remain strong at home as long as he can show “victories” in bullying opponents, dominating neighbors, and standing up against foreign opponents. His domestic power will grow as he defiantly flaunts loud international condemnation. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, and its citizens, but Putin will rally his population around his conspicuous displays of physical courage and national strength.

The third and most important historical insight is that this fascist aggression will only cease when it confronts firm external resistance. Fascists are opportunistic bullies who will turn away from fights they cannot win. They enjoy their positions of power too much to risk losing everything. Hitler is the exception to this historical analysis, of course, and we should recognize that he is not a guide for thinking about Putin or most other dictators.


How, then, should Americans and Europeans encourage external resistance to Putin’s fascism? For sound reasons, citizens in the United States and the European Union are not prepared to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Americans and West Europeans held to a similar position during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. What worked in the Cold War, and what is feasible today, is a policy of forceful containment in this region. That involves increasing the readiness of the Western alliance (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to combat Russian military moves. It also requires the aiding and arming of local forces in Ukraine, Georgia, and other states most vulnerable to Russian attack.

The United States and its European allies must do everything they can to create native fighting forces that can resist Russian aggression. Although local armies might not be able to defeat Russian soldiers immediately, they can raise the human and financial costs for Russia. They can make the bully in Moscow consider the risks of extended warfare on his borders, rather than the quick interventions and land grabs that he obviously prefers.

Containing Russian fascism is not ideal. It will contribute to a further militarization of the region around Russia. It requires working relationships with many less-than-democratic groups that oppose Putin. It cannot reverse recent Russian gains, at least not immediately. Containment, nonetheless, offers a strategy that plainly recognizes the nature of our fascist adversary, diminishes his aggressive opportunities, and allows for effective American and European action that is sustainable in the current political environment. Containment is a credible way of combating fascism in Russia today. Leaders in Washington, Berlin, Paris, and London should coordinate their efforts behind this strategy, and they should start soon.


This blog post originally appeared at

Featured Book
Liberty's Surest Guardian

Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-building from the Founders to Obama (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Fall 2011)

Americans are a nation-building people, and in Liberty’s Surest Guardian, Jeremi Suri looks to America’s history to see both what it has to offer to failed states around the world and what it should avoid.

More at the book website >

About Jeremi Suri
twitter facebook rss feed

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. In September 2011 he published a new book on the past and future of nation-building: Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.