History points to Russia's 'differentness'


Events over the past year have deepened the debate about Russia's often ambivalent relationship to the West. Free-market reforms were exposed as flawed during the financial meltdown last August. Moscow's outrage over NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia shows it is far from inside the Western security camp.

The cold war may have ended and the transition from communism appears unstoppable, but can Russia truly duplicate Western models? Or is it intrinsically authoritarian and "different"?

For those pondering these weighty matters, "Russia Under Western Eyes," Martin Malia's intellectual history of the Russian sphinx, is timely. This leading Russia scholar dissects the stereotypes over the centuries to come to a conclusion about the identity of this country. With sharp skill, he sifts through the West's seesawing perceptions, taking the view that Russia has always been viewed with either suspicion or idealization as "The Other."

Was Russia more Oriental because its religion did not come from Rome? Was it more imperialist than Western Europe? Was it consigned to be backward because it never underwent the Renaissance or Reformation? Or was Russia visionary because it embraced socialism before anyone else?

Malia begins his chronicle with the first phase of idealization from 1700 to 1815, when the "enlightened despotism" of reformers Peter I, Catherine II, and Alexander I were seen as relatively palatable to the West.

It then fell from grace in Western eyes between 1815 and 1855, when Russia was seen as an alien Oriental autocracy.

The third phase from 1855 to 1914 softened the negativity, as Russia was viewed more as a part of Europe under the Great Reforms of Alexander II and the final czarist regime.

The period before and after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was marked by either demonization or idealization. Russia was seen as alternatively an authoritarian menace or an ideological vanguard for all of Europe. This polarity deepened in the years following the revolution until the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Malia himself is no apologist for the Soviet state, unambiguous in his argument that it was totalitarian. He minces no words in dismissing Marxism-Leninism as "full fantasy" and Nazism and communism as "Siamese twins, attached at the spine," opposed to democracy. He says scathingly, "The impossible leap out of real history would in fact lead to a dead-end world whose totem is, appropriately, a mummy in a mausoleum."

As for the future, Malia concludes that even eight years after the demise of the Soviet Union, it is too early to say whether Russia will converge with the West. But he adds that it is not too early to assert that Russia hardly has anywhere else to go.

Reassuring to Western Kremlin-watchers is his assertion that fascism is not a likely destination, and that the communist experiment is over. Malia argues that if Russia wants to be strong, it will have to go the Western route of a global society.

One could argue that he has underestimated the potential of Russian grass-roots nationalism - especially provoked by NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia - and what the impact of it will be in parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming 13 months.

But even if a strong anti-Western leadership develops, Malia is on solid ground when he concludes that Russia is essentially a poor power trying to modernize after the failure of socialism.

Few Russia scholars would take issue with his prognosis: "It is quite unlikely that in the foreseeable future she will have caught up economically with the West - or even with China - sufficiently to move into any vacuum in Central Europe."

*Judith Matloff is the Monitor's Moscow correspondent.

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