When the faces of children make you stop and think

The simplest way to measure our foreign policy toward another power is to answer the question: Do we show pictures of their children? When we opened up China, almost the first thing we opened ourselves up to were the irresistible stares of Chinese children. At that moment, China - the China of the family album - ceased to be referred to as Red China.

Earlier this month, as the President's talk with Andrei Gromyko approached, the ''Today'' show sent its cameras and Bryant Gumbel for a week in Moscow. The ''focus of evil'' was not the focus. Cute little Russian children were all over the NBC screen - in their mothers' arms, walking with their fathers.

When the cold war is on, we show tanks in Red Square. When the thaw is on, we show close-ups of kids. Could the symbolism be clearer? On the one hand, we confront a ruthless enemy. On the other hand, we meet our kissing kin in that great extended family known as the human race.

At warily defrosted moments like this the question follows: If the Russian people (with the exception, naturally, of their leaders) are fully human, then what kind of people are they?

National stereotypes are dangerous as well as unfair. A person could get into a lot of trouble going through life on the assumption that all Englishmen are sensible, all Italians are excitable, and all Frenchmen are somewhere in between. Still, we Americans - who are, of course, hardworking and naive - cannot resist trying to sum up with a couple of adjectives some 270 million Russians, the most elusive national stereotype of them all.

Perhaps the thaws are too short. Perhaps our ignorance is too profound. But we don't even come close to a neat pigeonholing. If it's any consolation, nobody else has, either, including the Russians themselves.

Dostoyevsky required three contrasting personalities - the brothers Karamazov - to span the national character. Tolstoy postulated the peasant as the quintessential Russian - while desperately striving to educate his own peasants more or less according to the standards of St. Petersburg drawing rooms. Gogol ended up shaking with laughter and tears over the self-contradictions he found all around him - epic quirks to make Dickens's characters appear dully normal.

Is the Russian, in fact, even more of a self-contradiction than most other human beings? Readers of another 19th-century Russian novelist - and is there a better reflecting glass than fiction? - may conclude so. Ivan Goncharov's ''Oblomov'' presents a hero so immobilized by his self-contradictions that he can hardly get out of bed.

But Oblomov is not simply the personification of laziness some readers have taken him for. He sees his friends ''plunged up to the ears in work ... what they call 'a career.' '' He watches them run to parties, waltz through balls, trot their horses, and pursue the latest fashions, down to chic Parisian gloves. And he confronts the whirl with a yawn - not because he is a cynic but because he is too much of an idealist.

He confesses: ''At no point in my life have I been touched with a fire which could either save me or destroy me.'' Let others ''express life's restless aspects'' and ''exercise forces of construction and destruction.'' Oblomov will remain asleep - but pure.

Goncharov saw the comedy of Oblomov's supine position, but he loved his laid-back eccentric nonetheless. He saw him as standing for - or rather, lying down for - the ''idealistic-peaceful side of human existence.''

Does Oblomov still live among the Russians - knocking over all the five-year plans like a house of cards with the gigantic apathy of his peaceful yawn? Goncharov - and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol and all the other Russian paradox-collectors - would not consider it illogical that Oblomovism might coexist with the most fiercely monolithic of modern states.

As we distinguish between the Russian People and that state, we can certainly hope that the goodwill of Oblomov still lives. The one thing that brought him to his feet, blazing, was the refusal of the ''realistic'' novelists of his day to see the good in human beings. ''Give me a human being,'' Oblomov cried to those authors, ''and having given me a human being, try to love that human being.''

Not a bad motto for a summit.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.