The Long, Dark Shadow of the Russian Past

RUSSIAN nationalism surfaced a year ago, when Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist party made an astonishing showing in elections to parliament. After that triumph, Mr. Zhirinovsky lost favor by his loudmouthed behavior, but his brand of resurgent nationalism has increasingly influenced Russian policy. Russian sympathy for the Serbian cause in Bosnia has hindered an already divided United Nations and Russia has intervened against Chechnya's secessionist government. President Boris Yeltsin, objecting to the NATO plan to embrace East European countries, has warned that we may be exchanging the cold war for a cold peace.

Mr. Yeltsin's words were tough talk, but promoters of the NATO plan must have known that almost any Russian politician would regard the plan as a new cordon sanitaire, like the belt of anti-Soviet East European states established to isolate Russia between the two world wars.

The incident suggested that sparks will fly if tough Russian nationalism collides head on with the nationalism of the the new American Congress. The diplomats may have a hard time controlling the friction.

Nationalism in the West generally expresses a confident superiority, real or imagined: Rule Britannia, American destiny, French cultural greatness, Deutschland Uber Alles. But Russian nationalism, defensive and often resentful, reflects an inferiority complex rooted in history.

It is hard for us to appreciate the depth of that nationalism, for we think of Russia as emerging from something called ``communism.'' But what if the Soviet system, despite 70 years of Kremlin ideological rhetoric, had very little to do with Karl Marx and communism, but was just a state-run war economy, with elements inherited from old Russia, and streaked through and through with nationalism?

Communism was conceived as a system for a developed industrial country. When World War I broke out, Russia was catching up with the Industrial Revolution, but it was still largely a land of semiliterate peasants engaged in strip farming, with a nearly 400-year tradition of secret police and authoritarian rule.

This was the country the Bolsheviks seized from the czarist regime. Small wonder that some of the Bolsheviks hoped their Russian Revolution would be merely the spark to ignite revolution in other countries more suited to the dream of communism.

Incipient revolts in other European countries failed miserably, however, and the Bolsheviks found themselves isolated within Russia and confronted by a bitter civil war. Foreign powers intervened - Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Japan. The Germans occupied the Ukraine for a time, and the Japanese held Vladivostok until 1924.

The Bolsheviks told the people that their land was being invaded and that the Reds were Russia's defenders. Thus, early on, the Communists discovered the effectiveness of appealing to patriotism, even nationalism.

After Russia emerged from civil war, the Bolsheviks faced the problem of what to do with the exhausted and backward country.

Stalin's answer was his five-year industrialization plans, which established the pattern of Soviet society. He would drive the people ruthlessly to catch up with more advanced powers. Peter the Great, who built St. Petersburg on the bones of thousands of serfs, could have understood the goal; Ivan the Terrible could have understood the means. Karl Marx might have been surprised at the shape given his doctrine.

Stalin supported an international communist movement, but used it for Russian purposes. At home he instilled fear of the capitalist foreigner and invoked Russian nationalism to reinforce the propaganda of communism.

Russian history provided a groundwork for it. Stalin set the tone with a famous speech in February 1931: ``Those who fall behind get beaten,'' he said, and cited Russia's history of defeats at the hands of the Mongols, the Swedes, the Poles and Lithuanians, the French, the British, the Japanese, and the Germans. Russia had managed to expel those successive invaders, won many wars throughout the centuries, and seized territory.

But what stuck in Russian memory was that the Mongols had sacked Kiev and held Muscovy vassal for 200 years; that a Polish force once occupied Moscow; that Napoleon took the city; that Russia lost the Crimean War, lost to Japan in 1904, and lost to Germany in 1914-17. Most of all, Russians remembered that when their country did win wars, it was at terrible cost.

In World War II, the Red Army vanquished the Wehrmacht. Victory brought pride, but it did not remove resentment of the more fortunate foreigner, for once again the country held out only at the price of a frightful toll; and after victory came the heartbreaking task of repairing the war's ravages, on lean rations, once more under the whip. And after the people had rebuilt their war-wrecked industrial society, they found the West was moving on into a more advanced postindustrial age, leaving Russia behind once more.

Today nationalism and resentment feed on the hardships of most Russians amid the signs of foreign wealth around them - the foreign goods beyond their reach. Should we have been surprised by the rise of Zhirinovsky, by the bond between the old-line Communists and the new ultranationalists, and by the reappearance of a tough nationalist policy?

Yet many of us were taken by surprise, for a simple reason. There is a generational gap in our perception. American reporters, commentators, and analysts today are removed in time from first-hand awareness of the conditioning that Russia underwent. They must focus on immediate developments - economic reform, nuclear arsenal, crime, corruption, infighting in the Yeltsin administration, disintegration of the former Soviet state, and the almost daily discovery of more of Stalin's infamy. They hardly have time to contemplate Russian history and its clues to today.

As for our public at large, if it knew of the Russian experience, it has forgotten it. Americans live in the present, and sometimes in the future. Russians have a past. Can a new generation overcome its heritage and find new leaders who look to the future? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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