But Moscow’s fascination with Castro extended beyond the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Nostalgia played a part of that. But more importantly, in nominally capitalist Russia, Castro remained a symbol of defiance to U.S. influence abroad, and one that has meant more for Russia as tensions with the West have risen again.
“Castro proved it: you can be an object of pressure and economic war from the United States and endure,” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, after news of Castro's death broke. “And now the head of the USA goes to Havana, and not the other way around.”
Castro “showed that political will oriented toward the national interests of one's own country are stronger than any internal or external factors,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's upper house of parliament.
When Russia was slapped with U.S. sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, politicians here compared themselves to Cuba. When the United States decided to lift the embargo against Cuba just months later, it was treated as proof that Cuba (and hence Russia) was on the right side of history.
“It is characteristic that the president of the United States admitted the lack of results of many years of attempts to ‘isolate’ Cuba,” Russia's Foreign Ministry wrote in December 2014, after President Obama announced that the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. “It remains to hope that Washington will soon recognize the fruitlessness of the similar pressure of sanctions on other countries.”
Castro's ability to endure is a running joke here. Dmitry Smirnov, a reporter for the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda who is assigned to Russian President Vladimir Putin's press pool, last week tweeted a photo summing up that relationship. “Trump?” the caption shows Castro saying. “He's already my twelfth.”
There were concrete benefits to Moscow's relationship with Havana during the Cold War. Cuba provided the Soviet Union a warm water port, a staging area for Marxist revolutions in Latin America and Africa, as well as a source of cane sugar and a tourist destination as a perk for citizens who had earned it.
When the Soviet Union came crashing down, Russia no longer needed much of that. But Russia’s Defense Ministry recently floated the idea of restoring the Soviet naval base on Cuba, and Putin canceled $35 billion in Cuba's debt to Russia as Moscow searched for friends following the annexation of Crimea.
“Fidel Castro was a true and reliable friend of Russia,” Putin said Saturday. “He made an enormous personal contribution into the making and development of the Russian-Cuban relationship, of a close strategic partnership in all areas.”