Paris. -- The English writer Thomas Carlyle wrote, in April 1855, to the romantic Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen, "I have never had . . . the least hope in 'Universal Suffrage' under any of its modifications: and if it were not that in certain deadly maladies of the body politic, a burning crisis may be considered as beneficent, I should prefer Tzarism itself . . . to the sheer Anarchy (as I reckon it sadly to be) which is got by 'Parliamentary Eloquence,' Free Press, and counting of heads. . . . I have always respected (your vast country) as a huge dark 'Birth of Providence,' the meanings of which are not yet known -- there is evident, down to this time, one talent in which it has the pre-eminence, giving it potency far beyond any other Nation: . . . the talent of obeying . . . "
Read in October 1993, this may be seen on the one hand as romantico-historical tosh, and on the other as a prescient admonition. The history of Russia until now has been marked by obedience, a terrible and dumb popular obedience, motivated by a conviction that some dark Providence would justify it.
How else do you explain Leninism and Stalinism? Russia's past revolutionaries, from Herzen until Lenin, conducted futile plots from exile. It was the shock of the world war that created the conditions in which the Bolshevik revolution could succeed -- and it was not really a revolution, only a coup d'etat that the Kerensky government was incompetent to put down.
The singular thing about the Stalinism that followed is that the worse it became, the less it was resisted. There was an all-pervasive secret-police presence, certainly. But a revolutionary option always existed. Other leaders, the generals, rational figures in the police and party, did not have to take all that was done to them. Yet there was obedience.
There was something uncanny in the willingness of the historical leaders of Bolshevism to sacrifice themselves when Stalin demanded it. Despite being imprisoned and tortured in the purges, which they recognized as sordid power struggles, they proved willing to accuse themselves of absurd and untrue crimes, in obedience to what they conceived as the higher interests of the party, of mankind and of Russia.
Reflections of this kind may seem remote from what has gone on in Moscow during the last few days, but they seem to me a useful corrective, or at least a necessary supplement, to the conventional analysis.
The conventional account says that Boris Yeltsin, a democrat, liberal and advocate of free markets, having suspended a hostile parliament elected under an undemocratic constitution, obtained the support of the army to crush what had become a parliamentary coup d'etat. Western governments gave him their support (even if it was originally conditioned upon his avoidance of violence), and now that he has won, he deserves the West's confidence that Russia will resume its march toward becoming like us.
I have always thought it most unlikely that Russia will become like us. Russia is one of the great historical nations of Europe, and of the Asian land mass as well, neither fully in or out of Europe, tormented by that fact. Its history since the time of Peter the Great has had one dominating theme: that of the choice between accommodating the West or rejecting it.
Today it may be that communications, the integral world economy, the dangers of nuclear proliferation, etc., make accommodation inevitable. But this is practical necessity, not spiritual necessity, and the Russians still are a people for whom spiritual issues are real. At least that has always been Alexander Solzhenitsyn's message.
The practical consequences of the events of the weekend are very important, certainly. Mr. Yeltsin and his colleagues are in control. Their domination of the regions is, however, incomplete. The army, principal custodian of Russian nationalism, wounded by its sense of Russia's present humiliation, deprived of its former social status and reduced in its material advantages, has had to save President Yeltsin.
The attempted coup has made more visible than ever the political alienation of a very considerable part of the Russian people, victims of an economic revolution conducted according to the instructions of Western-dominated international financial institutions, according to doctrines developed to fit advanced Western economies.
The result thus far, for most ordinary people in Russia, has been lowered living standards and the emergence of new economic sectors open to exploitation by profiteers and criminals. The apathy shown by Moscow's population toward both camps in the weekend's struggle was very significant.
Mr. Yeltsin today is repeatedly assured of support by the United States government, the European Community, the European governments. This would seem to me a poisoned gift. It is not to Mr. Yeltsin's political advantage to be known as the agent of Western values or interests. The crisis with which he must deal only subordinately concerns the issues that interest the West: elections, the attempt to install market economics, the survival of a free press. The real question before him is the historical question that history still has not answered: Where does Russia belong? To the liberal West (which Solzhenitsyn condemns as morally bankrupt)? To itself? But what would that mean?
The Slavophiles could answer in the 19th century that Russia was unique and superior to the West; but that was when the Orthodox Church was intact and powerful, and the old peasant communal institutions and popular assemblies survived. Today's Russia can't go back to that. But where, then? This is an issue whose resolution cannot be found in a coup or even an election, but it is the crucial one.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.