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Kopeks and Big Macs – Russia’s Move to a Market Economy

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1991, the newly-formed Russian Federation took on the challenge of creating a market-oriented economy from the world’s largest state-controlled economy. President Yeltsin’s economic reforms led to hyperinflation and loss of financial security for many who had depended on state pensions, and Russia’s GDP contracted an estimated 40 percent in seven years.

Adding to the complexity of making this transition was Russia’s decision to settle the USSR’s huge external debts. State enterprises were privatized and foreign investment encouraged, but changes in elements needed to support this transition, such as commercial banking and laws, did not keep pace.

Nonetheless, many Russians did prosper in the new economic environment and by the mid-1990s were enjoying the same luxury brands and fast food as their Western counterparts. Most notably, the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR on January 31, 1990. Read more

1989 — A Swift Look at an Incredible Year

1989 — A year filled with magic, madness, heaven and sin. Among the defining years of the 20th century, 1989 had a lasting impact on the social, political and economic structures of modern diplomacy. Ruthless dictatorships, which seemed impervious to change, suddenly began falling one after another, so much so that 1989 is commonly referred to as anno mirabilis, the year of wonders.

So grab your passport and a pen, because here are 1989’s greatest hits. And kudos to Fall 2015 intern Sara, who wrote this.


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November 9, 1989:  The Berlin Wall came down, after dividing the city for nearly 30 years. The Wall had acted as a physical barrier between the East and West throughout the Cold War. When German Democratic Republic (GDR) officials announced that free travel to and from the West was permitted, crowds of East Berliners took to the streets and suddenly, there was a blank space where the Wall used to be. The Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the GDR from 1989-1990 J.D. Bindenagel recounts this monumental event.. Even he’ll tell you, it was insane.



The Fall of the Wall and a softer hand from Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow encouraged others in the  Eastern Bloc to fulfill their wildest dreams. Less than two weeks after the fall of Soviet power in the GDR, demonstrations began in the city of Prague, drawing crowds of over 500,000 to protest the Communist government in what was later called “the Velvet Revolution” for its peaceful nature. The government resigned shortly thereafter, paving the way for famous Czech playwright and human rights activist Vaclav Havel to become country’s first democratically elected President.



But unfortunately, not all breakups are as gentle as the Czechoslovaks’ — General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife can attest to that. No, they didn’t split, but the Romanian public (and just about anyone else with a conscience) sure had some bad blood from Ceaușescu’s oppressive and brutal  regime. After ordering his security forces to open fire on a group of demonstrators, demonstrations spread throughout the country, starting the Romanian Revolution. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were captured by armed forces and underwent a swift trial by military tribunal, and were sentenced to public execution. As any witness will tell you, band-aids really don’t fix bullet holes. (Photo: Corbis)


The new era of openness and restructuring — glasnost and perestroika — advocated by Gorbachev were not only felt by the Eastern Bloc. Afghanistan, which the USSR had invaded in 1979, witnessed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February. The U.S. embassy was also closed, due to a lack of security for diplomats. Some argued, however, all they had to do was stay, as the power vacuum led to the rise of the Taliban. The U.S. eventually reopened its embassy in 2001 after the U.S. invasion.



New York:  Concrete jungle where dreams are made…. Oh wait — we mean, it’s been waiting for you! Anyway, in the heart of downtown Manhattan, the United Nations Headquarters is host to hundreds of diplomatic visitors every day. Much of the UN’s work comes as a result of wanting, or needing something more. In 1989, the UN heard those cries for more, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This important document establishes the civil, political, economic and social rights of all children around the world and has been signed or ratified by every country in the world — except the United States.



LGBT rights also took a large leap in 1989, when Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex civil unions. The regulation, which excluded the actual marriage of same-sex couples, was a step towards marriage equality, which became legalized formally in 2012. We guess, for some, that’s how you get the girl.



Good manners never go out of style but sadly matters of protocol between countries can often be a rough and tumble business. Like inviting someone and later purposefully dis-inviting them. That was the case for Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist and dissident known for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests. Lizhi’s name on the proposed guest list was undetected at first glance by Chinese officials, who had approved the list for an upcoming Presidential Banquet with President George H.W. Bush. When the Chinese discovered their mistake, they threatened to boycott their own banquet unless Lizhi did not come. The U.S. eventually capitulated, but later accepted him as an asylum seeker in the U.S. embassy, where Lizhi spent the next year. 


While dictatorships were tumbling like dominoes in Eastern Europe, thousands of Chinese, long tired of their repressive government, tried to shake it off during the dramatic protests of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 Hundreds of peaceful civilian protesters were killed, as Chinese tanks were sent in to disseminate the ongoing demonstrations against government corruption. Unfortunately, there has been few improvements on the human rights front from the government, which keeps getting down with the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world.



We all know places where they take their shots, we’re bulletproof — and at year’s end, that place was Panama. Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama under President George H.W. Bush, occurred in December 1989 after  several U.S. military personnel were stopped by the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) and taken into custody. The justification for the invasion was to combat drug trafficking and arrest the notorious dictator Manuel Noriega, who ended up seeking asylum in the Vatican’s Nunciature (embassy) for several days until he was forced out by the military playing loud music, making it a real Hard Rock Hotel Panama.


The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, an America U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, causing great embarrassment to the United States, which had tried to conceal its surveillance efforts from the USSR. In 1957, the U.S. had established a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan in order to send U-2 spy planes into Soviet airspace and secretly sent the spy plane into Soviet territory.

Upon release of the news, the United States initially covered up the story by claiming the U-2 was a NASA aircraft that had gone missing north of Turkey. However, President Eisenhower had to eventually admit the mistake after the Soviets produced the missing U-2, the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and pictures of Soviet bases that the spy plane had captured. Read more

The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 14-28, 1962

The early years of the Kennedy Administration proved to be a tense time in relations with the Soviet Union. Kennedy had decided to go ahead with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion (which had initially been authorized by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower) and then was severely tested during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to cut off allies’ access and make Berlin a “free city.”

Just a year later, the United States noticed a large influx of weapons being transported from the Soviet Union to Cuba. Based on aerial surveillance, Washington realized these were nuclear missiles, capable of reaching much of U.S. territory. President Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22 as the world feared it was on the brink of a nuclear war. Read more

A Russo-American Diplomat: Back in the USSR

Vladimir Toumanoff, a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, had the extraordinary experience of returning as an American diplomat to the country which his parents had fled. The Toumanoffs were members of the Russian nobility who fought in the White army against the Bolsheviks. They left Russia in 1919 and eventually emigrated to the U.S.

As a Political Officer, Toumanoff returned to Russia suddenly in 1958 at the request of the State Department. In a twist of fate, this son of a Tsarist Army Colonel became a confidante of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He would later distinguish himself by drafting an appeal to the Soviets for a collaborative effort to solve “world problems of food, population and energy.”

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Putin, The Early Years

From his crackdown on domestic opposition to his decision to invade Crimea and bomb U.S.-backed rebels in Syria, Vladimir Putin has increasingly become a thorn in the side of Western policymakers. His aggressive policies combined with his KGB background and over-the-top machismo have made him a bigger-than-life figure on the world stage, despite Russia’s flagging economy and declining population.

And yet, in his early years on the political stage, Putin did not stand out as a “rising star” whose rise to power was somehow preordained. Many in the U.S. government saw him, during his stint as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, as someone who was tough on crime and potentially helpful to U.S. interests. After Putin’s unforeseen rise to the presidency in May 2000, President George W. Bush famously said in June 2001 that he had looked in Putin’s soul and found him trustworthy. Read more

Day of Atonement, Day of Animosity – The 1973 Yom Kippur War

For Egypt and Syria, the 1967 Six-Day War was a bitter defeat at the hands of long-time foe Israel. They wanted to regain the Sinai and the Golan Heights while Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also wanted to reopen the Suez Canal. On October 6, 1973 they launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions in the Israeli-occupied territories on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, which also occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The hostilities in turn led to even greater tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which began to rearm their allies, Israel and Egypt. Fears of a large-scale battle in the Middle East, perhaps escalating to the Cold War superpowers themselves, ultimately persuaded all involved to back away from the abyss and negotiate a peaceful resolution. Read more

From Victim of Nuremberg Laws to “Kissinger’s Kissinger”

The Nuremberg Laws were introduced by the Nazi government in Germany on September 15, 1935 to ostracize and impoverish its Jewish population. The laws prohibited marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, limited employment and revoked citizenship.  Jewish workers and managers were fired and Jewish businesses sold to non-Jewish Germans at prices far below market value. Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat non-Jews and Jewish lawyers were barred from practicing law.

By the start of the Second World War in 1939, more than half of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Palestine, Great Britain, and other countries. In December 1941, Hitler decreed that the Jews of Europe should be annihilated; an estimated 6 million people died in the resulting Holocaust.

Among those caught up in these winds of war was the family of Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who emigrated to the U.S. and had a long, distinguished career in foreign policy. Read more

Negotiating the End of the Yom Kippur War

Israel’s resounding victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 left the Arab states humiliated and looking to regain the swathes of territory they had lost. On October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, shocking Israel and the United States.

The Egyptian and Syrian militaries had performed maneuvers in the months leading up to the initial strike against Israel, but they were not seen as a threat. As fighting continued, the United States worked to arrange a ceasefire agreement acceptable to both Israel and the Arab states. Read more

Trouble in the Mountains: The Sino-Indian War, 1962

When two powerful countries cannot agree on the location of their shared borders, there is trouble. Such was the case with China and India in October 1962. China and India had long disputed ownership of the Aksai Chin, a mountain pass that connects Tibet to China’s Xinjiang province on the western side.  On the eastern border, China and India battled over the territory of the North East Frontier Area (NEFA).

China’s incursions into these disputed areas, including the construction of a highway in Aksai Chin, led Indian President Jawaharlal Nehru to increase the number of troops patrolling the region. Indian troops soon advanced beyond the disputed borders, creating outposts in Chinese territory.

Chinese response was swift. On October 20, 1962, Chinese forces invaded Aksai Chin, a part of Kashmir, and the NEFA simultaneously, capturing both regions and driving back Indian ground forces. This action marked the beginning of the Sino-Indian War, fought at an altitude of 14,000 feet.

Read more