A Muddle Wrapped in a Mystery

Tuesday, April 30, 1996

The other day I was saying to a Russian that at least his country had now had five years of real politics. "Not as good as a thousand," he replied. And this lack of political experience has always gone with sectarian inflexibilities. Another Russian commented: "In America the division of powers leads to compromise. In Russia it leads to civil war." Still, none of the three main contenders for power in Russia--Yeltsinites, reformers, and mainstream Communists--actually wants civil war. And the power of apathy and exhaustion seems even greater than that of fanaticism and resentment--a reasonable hope, rather than a guarantee.

Nevertheless, no country can escape its past. A century ago Chekhov wrote of the weight of Russia's "chilling history, savagery, bureaucracy, poverty, ignorance." And this was many times truer of the Soviet period and its infliction of huge mental distortions on the population, with recovery as yet far from complete. (Who would have thought that Pravda would now be denying Soviet responsibility for Katyn?)

Another characteristic of Russia is pessimism. Half a century ago, Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the great poet dead in the Gulag, typically quotes her brother as saying: "In Russia every path always leads to disaster." The mood is widespread today. But there is now a dearth of the countervailing utopian fantasies. The main politicians are promising a lot of things, but at least they are not promising heaven on earth. The Russian "excess" (proizvol), which Ronald Hingley notes in his excellent The Russian Mind, is found only on the political periphery. Zhirinovsky, of course, exemplifies it and the extreme wing of the Communists holds to the old ideology. But the main effort to fill the "spiritual vacuum" comes in dilute form from the Communists proper. Orwell once said that the most brilliant political invention of the century was "National Socialism," appealing to both the traditional and the utopian. The new "red-brown" stance of the Russian Communists is based on a similar appeal--to all the icons of the country's past, Orthodoxy and the tsars, Sovietism and Lenin--involving some of them in the mental feat of being Leninist without being Marxist and supporting the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which the Communists themselves blew up. The communist leader Zyuganov has praised Stalin, blaming the Terror--not much of a terror--on non-Russian subordinates, mainly Jews. Unlike Nazism, all this is a mish-mash rather than a fighting ideology.

The Russians have been told a hundred times that the chief defect in their attempt to become a "normal" country is the absence of the rule of law. It is indeed. Less often noted is the lack of political parties, except for the (by no means monolithic) Communists. Otherwise there are "clans"--alliances between ministers, industrial bosses, bureaucrats, mayors of big cities, local governors, and fixers of various types.

Polls show that very few Russians regard foreign policy as a major issue. However, about a quarter of the population are concerned to revive the old Soviet Union. And the Communists are committed to restoring it "by peaceful means"--but any sort of closer voluntary union would be accepted by other republics only with a postimperial, nondominant Russia. So, if "peaceful" means fail?

As to the West, once again apparent contradictions. A large majority of Russians polled think not only that people live better in the West but also that Western society is more just. At the same time there is widespread fear and resentment of the West as the ruination of Russia--especially among political activists. Will this result in a hostile, expansionist Russia? And would such a Russia be dangerous? We are told that the country is so weak that it could not pose a threat to us. "You are rich, you are poor/You are strong, you are weak/Mother Russia!"--the paradox persists. A state with a myriad nuclear warheads may be weak in many ways but still be a threat. (Smaller, less heavily armed states have proved hard to handle--Iraq, North Korea, North Vietnam.)

Russia does have legitimate area interests. But the far too common notion of Russian chauvinists is that their country gets "respect" by threats and bullyings, the stance of adolescent thugs in the West. Russia has won respect in the adult sense as the land of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov--and will win broader respect as the polity itself becomes civilized. This precludes idolatry of the state--the mystic derzhava--which is in fact an undisguised slogan of the Communists. The world needs a cooperative Russia. But it must be ready to cope--carefully, cautiously, firmly--with something less satisfactory.

The rocky road ahead may not lead to the abyss. But the margin remains narrow. Cross your fingers.