Chopin's piano and the Russians

Some weeks ago in Vienna Vice-President George Bush delivered a speech lambasting the Soviet Union for its repressive policies in East Europe. It was a powerful, eloquent speech that rightfully rejected any Soviet claim to a sphere of influence in the region and emphasized the historical and cultural indivisibility of East and West Europe.

For this observer, however, there was one jarring note. The vice-president appeared to lump the ''Russians'' along with the ''Soviets'' in his criticism, blurring a distinction that past American leaders have largely respected.

Referring to an anecdote of the Czechoslovak author Milan Kundera, the vice-president told of how 14 years after Chopin's death, ''Russian soldiers'' on the loose in Warsaw hurled the composer's piano from a fourth-floor window. Repeating Kundera's words, the vice-president said that ''today the entire culture of Central (Eastern) Europe shares the fate of Chopin's piano.'' To be absolutely sure that his point was not missed, the vice-president reminded his Vienna audience that Russia did not participate in any of three great events in European history - the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment.

The anecdote may be true, and one can argue endlessly about the extent to which the Russian people, through their own intelligentsia, absorbed the values and culture of the West. But for Americans, there is a more important question - whether it is wise to abandon the distinction between ''Russian'' and ''Soviet'' when berating the Soviet Union.

Over the years the Soviet Communists themselves have been careful to draw a distinction between Americans and their representatives, invariably described as coming from the so-called ''bourgeois ruling class.'' This is the Marxist-Leninist way of looking at non-Communist peoples. The same logic inclines them to lump Western countries together in a single ''imperialist camp.'' This means, on the military level, that British and French intermediate-range missiles are seen as no different from similar United States systems, so long as they can reach the USSR. On the cultural level, this means, to borrow the words of A.J.P. Taylor, that they ''do not distinguish between the Germans and the French, the British and the Americans. For them we are all simply the men of Western civilization, with our higher standard of life, with our superior machines and weapons, and with our refusal to treat the Russians as equals.''

Certainly for those Americans who have lived in the USSR the distinction between ''Russian'' and ''Soviet'' is valid. Many of us there have known individual Russians who are repelled by Marxist ideology, repelled by the Soviet trappings which Lenin and his successors have imposed. At the same time they are proud of their Russianness, proud of their historical and cultural heritage. I am sure that attacks aimed at my friends as ''Russians'' would have drawn uncomprehending, angry reactions: ''Don't you believe that we, too, have contributed something to Western civilization?'' ''What about Tolstoy? Dostoyevsky, not to speak of Tchaikovsky?''

Ironically, it is such Russians who have provided the most telling warnings to the world about the danger which the Marxist-Leninst juggernaut represents. The works of Solzhenitsyn come to mind, or those of another emigre, Alexander Zinoviev. It was the latter who warned the French a few years ago that if communism were established in their country, ''it will tear down Notre Dame to build a swimming pool, Paris will be called Marchensk, and the people will have to get used to following the style set in Moscow.'' (No one who has lived long in Moscow can doubt that this would indeed be the outcome.)

Several years ago Andrey Sinyavsky, after observing that ''the whole of Russian culture has been hacked away, burned out,'' pointed hopefully to the then emergent ''tiny green shoots'' of dissidence: ''does not that mean that the people and the nation and the land still have in them some life-giving sap?''

Sinyavsky may have spoken too soon, but surely the burnt-out field of Russian culture will ultimately yield green shoots. And where will the Russians turn for their ideas but to the great figures of the past such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?

It is also possible that they will turn, despite Marx's ill repute, to Western ideas. But they won't do so, we can be sure, if we present those ideas in ways which even they find offensive. It is important for this reason to maintain the distinction between ''Russian'' and ''Soviet.'' And it might also be well for us to acknowledge that the Russians, even if the worst of their lot have hurled Chopin's ''piano'' and much else to destruction, have also made their contribution to our civilization.

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