THE subject matter of Walter Laqueur's pioneering new book, "Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia," is a phenomenon that is less marginal in today's Russia than the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society are in the United States.
The book helps to explain much that is otherwise inexplicable: why, for example, the Russian right has been sending hundreds of volunteers to help its Serbian brothers in their task of "ethnic cleansing" and why the weak government of President Boris Yeltsin has scarcely tried to inhibit them from doing so.
The hard-right groups that Laqueur describes favor authoritarianism, a strong state, collective rather than individual values, and a much larger Russia than the reduced one of today. They believe in the existence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy aimed at subverting the Russian state and culture, and implemented mostly by the US, Israel, and the West. They hold that these countries and their agents - Yeltsin's government and most of Russia's intelligentsia - suffer from a Russophobia so acute that it moti vates them to destroy Russian civilization.
By contrast, most of the moderate conservatives, whom Laqueur briefly discusses, contend that democracy is admirable in principle, but that each country has to find the institutions that accord with its history and traditions.
Laqueur is concerned mainly with the ideas, not the actions of the various groups on the extreme right, and with the roots of these ideas in the Russian and the European past, and in the philosophy of the contemporary "Nouvelle Droite" in France.
Thus, Laqueur examines the origins in the 19th century of the belief that Russia has a manifest destiny and mission different from and superior to those of the West. He shows how the ultra-right "Black Hundred" movement emerged at the turn of the century and, with generous government financing, supported the czar, attacked his opponents, and organized pogroms against the Jews. He describes the complex processes that led to the forging of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which purported to expose gl obal Jewry's plans to rule the world. And he demonstrates the support received by the radical right from powerful elements in the Orthodox Church.
With the collapse of czarism and the rise of Bolshevism, Laqueur traces the development of these trends after they had been forced into exile abroad. He shows how Stalin made Marxism more palatable to some Russians by incorporating into it elements of nationalism. Also, from the early 1960s, the Communist rulers developed anti-Semitism in public by issuing thousands of ostensibly anti-Zionist publications attacking Jews. Simultaneously, a moderate Russian nationalism was allowed to appear in works of fic tion.
All this helps to explain how, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed freedom of political organization to reemerge in 1987-88, Russian conservatism surfaced in many of its old forms. Last year, for example, Gen. Viktor Filatov, the editor of The Journal of Military History, and Sergei Baburin, a leading parliamentarian, expressed a view widely held on the right, namely that the US Congress, obeying Zionist commands, decided in the mid-1980s to select Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and others to carry out its orders t o destroy the Soviet Union.
Laqueur examines each of the main currents that have emerged on the extreme right, and shows some of the linkages. Central is the "Red-Brown" coalition, made up of Communists like those who carried out the August 1991 coup, of conservative nationalists, and of proto-fascists and fascists. More particular currents are assorted monarchists; more numerous and dangerous Cossacks; the fractious "Pamyat" groups; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the fascist who got 8 percent of the vote when he ran against Yeltsin in 1991.
Laqueur does not discuss the activities of the hard-line groups in the Russian parliament. But he does venture the overall assessment that the present political strength of the extreme right is small. He also quotes the eminent historian Dmitri Likhachev, who sees nationalism as "the greatest of human misfortunes": "It lives in the shadows and only pretends to be based on love for one's country. But in fact it is spawned by malice and hatred for other nations and for those people in one's own nation who do not share these nationalistic views."
Laqueur bends over backwards throughout the book to be fair and understanding about the dilemmas of people caught up in a succession of national traumas. He writes with clarity, directness, and - to lighten the mood - occasional irony. On the other hand, the fragmented nature of his subject and the collaboration of a co-author, Valeri Solovei, make it hard to avoid repetition and some awkward transitions. And the quality of the book's editing and proofreading is lamentable.
Looking to the future, Laqueur says that while the current situation favors "the emergence of a strong populist movement gravitating to the far right," the hard-liners do not yet have a strong leader or a convincing enough program to take advantage of this opening. The near-term future may belong to less extreme politicians who can blend elements of socialism and nationalism, he says. Even though he does not foresee the rule of outright fascism in Russia, he says that the Germany of Versailles and Weimar
may ultimately provide at least a partial analogy.