MUCH official and unofficial Western commentary on events in the former Soviet Union is missing the point. Russia is on the threshold of breaking a vicious circle of structural problems that have condemned it to misery since the late 15th century.
Peter Chaadaev, an early 19th century Russian, puzzled over the eternal question for Russian intellectuals, "What is Russia's purpose?" He answered that it was to suffer in order to teach the world a great lesson - how miserable life can be. A convinced Westernizer, he hoped that Russia's suffering could soon be ended, allowing it to join the rest of the human race. His opponents, the Slavophiles, saw Russia on a special Slavic path, not suffering, but showing the world a new path through Russian autocra cy.
What neither the Westernizers nor the Slavophiles understood was that Moscow had locked Russia into a vicious imperial circle as early as the reign of Ivan the Great (1462-1505). Having vanquished all the Muscovite princes, he began to expand Russian control over non-Russian peoples. That required a strong army, which in turn required a central authority that could extract resources from the peasant economy to feed and arm it.
Success in expansionism merely created more military requirements. Non-Russian peoples had to be governed by a martial regime, and neighboring states became hostile to Moscow for fear of being the next victims of Russian imperialism.
Peter the Great, at the turn of the 18th century, lent a new dynamism to this imperialism, formally enserfing the peasantry and ruining the economy on an army and navy for foreign wars. As Peter noted, "Money is the artery of war." Later in the century, Catherine the Great added massively to Russian-controlled territories, and her grandson, Alexander I, continued the tradition during the Napoleonic wars.
The structural problems for this great imperial state were three. First, the "peasant question," or how to squeeze the economy for military resources. Second, the "military question that is, how to organize, train, and operate the army and police required for imperial control. The third, the "nationality question," sharpened in the 19th century under the influence of the French Revolution and modern nationalism. The inchoate national aspirations for independence made the requirements for military and pol ice forces all the greater. That in turn left the government with little alternative but to exploit the peasant economy all the more in support of the military.
Each of these three problems, of course, reinforced the other two. And strong central bureaucratic control coupled with deep suspicions of any social, economic, or political initiative from non-government circles, became the essence of Russia's political culture. No precedent was ever established for limiting state power. The tsar was responsible only to God, never to a Magna Carta or to a constitution.
Defeat in the Crimean War in 1855 caused many key officials to believe that radical change was required. Alexander II initiated his Great Reforms in the 1860s. Social and political articulation from below was allowed in limited degree for the first time in Russian history. Truly hopeful development followed over the next five decades. The prospects for political liberalization of government were promising in the decade before war broke out in 1914.
THE Bolshevik seizure of power reversed all of this and threw Russia back decades in its political development. The Soviet regime was essentially a return to pre-1861 approaches to government but under a new ideological banner. By the 1930s, the peasants had been re-enserfed, the economy re-centralized, and imperial rule over non-Russian peoples strengthened. The military was again the government's top priority. World War II allowed another chance for territorial expansion and a reinforcement of the old vicious circle of the three structural problems. The circle condemned the Soviet Union, like the old Russian Empire, to a repressive regime at home and an expansionist policy abroad.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev may go down as history's greatest "inadvertent" revolutionary. He clearly did not understand what he was doing, but he took three radical steps toward breaking the vicious circle. First, he disavowed the ideological concept of "international class struggle," thus removing the modern rationale for Russian imperialism.
That logically led to the next step: reduction of the military burden on the Soviet economy. The official ideology defined most of the world as a "military threat" to the union, which justified unlimited military expenditures. Removing the threat with a stroke of the ideological pen, Mr. Gorbachev laid the Soviet military open to the rest of society's claims against it - against its resource priority, its secrecy requirements, its abuse of youthful soldiers, and its privileges for generals, admirals, and
marshals. The KGB soon emerged as a target too.
As the military's coherence and reliability declined, and as the KGB's grip weakened, the national minority republics felt braver about asserting age-old desires for independence. This political development, of course, virtually ensured the breakup of the empire.
Most remarkable was that some Russian leaders and intellectuals, left and right, have come to believe that Russian culture and nationalism was as much a victim of Russian imperialism as the minority nationalities. Russian President Boris Yeltsin chose to carry their banner. It was not big news that the Baltic republics wanted to secede from the Union. It was dramatic news that Russia wanted to follow that path. The Western media virtually ignored this extraordinary turn of events.
The Soviet Communist Party, with its ideological rationale for empire, and the military and police were the only instruments capable of maintaining the structural predicament. The party is already officially dead, and the military is breaking up. That, of course, means new possibilities for economic and political development - a new answer to the old "peasant" question - and a new answer to the "nationality question self-determination. The search for these new answers has been at the core of Russian hist ory for nearly two centuries.
The breakup of an empire is unlikely to be entirely peaceful, but from the viewpoint of its citizens, the breakup is desirable if they want national self-determination and the right to choose their own political forms. The only thing that stands in the way is the Soviet military. And the prospect that someone can salvage it for maintenance of the empire looks very poor.
That is cause for celebration, not only in the old Soviet Union, but also in the West. Yet we mostly see hand-wringing by government officials and pundits about the dangers involved. This is a puzzling reaction, even if the current situation carries some risk of nuclear proliferation.
Can the West really ask 270 million people, against their will, to return to life in an empire simply because we are nervous about the very low risk that some nuclear weapons will fall into evil hands? This is not to suggest that the nuclear problem is not real. It is to put it into proper perspective. The former Soviet peoples are taking very big risks. Should we not be willing to take some small ones?
Mr. Chaadaev asked how long Russia must suffer. Some of our leaders are asking that Russia continue to suffer indefinitely. This is morally perverse and politically short-sighted. How can we do anything but welcome the incredible historical event - the end of the old vicious circle of the Russian Empire's three fundamental problems?
Breaking out of that circle, of course, does not ensure that democracy will spring up in the successor states. It probably means that considerable violence and suffering will occur. Most of the successor states will try and fail at democracy. But does that mean that they should not have the chance?
There is some risk that a new empire eventually will be restored. It depends largely on the politics in Russia. The level of violence will be fairly low unless Russia decides to reassert its traditional control over its neighbors.
Because Mr. Yeltsin's government has by and large avoided that path, we have every reason to support it. Gorbachev, before his departure from power, wanted our support; but once again, he did not understand the implications of his own policy preferences. Today they would lead back to empire. For about five years, his personal ambition contributed to public virtue: the de-colonialization of the empire. Today it would contribute to public vice: the re-colonization of the newly independent states.
It is still too soon to comprehend the events of recent months fully. They will either mark the greatest turning point in Russian history since the 15th century, or they will mark a failed effort to make that turn.
The West should celebrate this dramatic opportunity and think clearly about how to make it succeed. The problem with highest priority is political, not economic or military. It is how to ensure the independence of the successor states and their internal stability. Only when that is accomplished will the administrative and political conditions exist for providing effective economic assistance. If we continue to miss the point about Russia today, the world will be worse for it.