IMAGINE a country that has recently undergone devastating inflation, humiliation of its military, territorial losses, large-scale unemployment and an attempted coup d'etat.
It gives about 25 percent of its vote to xenophobic and authoritarian parties that claim fundamental hostility to its fragile constitutional order.
The country was Weimar Germany in early 1924.
Within a year, however, it was on its way to economic stability; extremism was waning, its rocky beginnings apparently overcome.
Six years after that electoral breakthrough, the Depression settled in. Foreign policy issues fed rancor and revanchism, and in September 1930, Germany's National Socialists sent a shudder through Europe by jumping from 2 to 20 percent of the Reichstag. This time, they were on their way to total power, which they achieved three years later.
Such analogies could not be far from the minds of those observing the unexpected success of the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party in capturing a quarter of the proportionally allocated seats in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament.
They were probably not far from the thoughts of Polish leaders, who noted Mr. Zhirinovsky hope for a common German-Russian frontier, and from the minds of the Ukrainians and citizens of the Baltic states.
Analogies are the way we try to extract policy guidance from history. The trouble, of course, is that they are In the long term, we must consider Mr. Zhirinovsky a serious threat, a man not to be mellowed by power.
at best crude and often misleading. Still, to ignore them is to disregard important lessons. Analogies should never exert final influence on policy, but they can never be left out of account entirely.
The sobering element of the interwar analogy, however, is not Mr. Zhirinovsky retrofitting of "Mein Kampf," which may only express his delight in being outrageous. Even if that is the case, he will be immensely dangerous. His streak of self-pity is common to many despots. And verbal recklessness represents a tremendous menace. Keeping peace requires restraint and patience; rash initiatives and verbal posturing force confrontations in crises.
In the long term, we must consider Mr. Zhirinovsky a serious threat, a man not to be mellowed by power. In power, he would mean war: The issue would be when, where and how wide.
What is threatening and requires critical judgment by the Clinton administration is the tightrope situation in Russia.
The challenge for foreign policy today is reminiscent of the one from 1930 to 1933, before Hitler's accession to power, when German foreign policy had already begun to have a truculent tone.
The challenge for the West at that time was to be firm enough that the leaders in Berlin would understand the limits of nationalist initiatives and conciliatory enough to keep extremists from power. Of course, this balancing act proved impossible.
Then as now, foreign statesmen could exert only limited leverage on the internal politics of large and bitterly divided countries. During Hitler's rise, the West's dual approach made sense. Retrospectively, the important questions were: Up to what point in the 1930s was the West's approach misguided? When did conciliation become appeasement?
At our own uncertain and precarious moment, how can we apply the lesson of the 1930s? It was not wrong to show strong support for Boris Yeltsin, moody and potentially authoritarian though he might be. Now, the West must press on with economic efforts that enhance the forces of reform and moderation in Russia and that buttress Russia's neighbors as well.
Europeans need to fret less about their financial union and move forward with widening the European Community and extending its economic network to the East, if only in stages.
We and the Europeans should continue to encourage Russia to participate in such regional cooperation, to keep it looking westward.
As for security, we and the European Community should reaffirm our strong interest in ensuring the independence and sovereignty of the countries that a nationalist Russia might threaten:
Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics. Such resolve will not be easily demonstrated because of the fiasco in the former Yugoslavia -- but better late than later.
Formally extending NATO to the Russian border would certainly increase the nationalist pressures on President Yeltsin, because would be seen as a provocative threat; so long as Mr. Zhirinovsky remains remote from power, it will not be necessary. But if in future years he comes closer to holding a top office, firmer offers of military support to Eastern European neighbors will have to weighed.
Credible deterrence requires geographical limits. We should express support for Ukraine -- with its long national and cultural, if not state, tradition -- but insisting on its independence does not require endorsing its nuclear status quo or its precise eastern frontiers.
It is hard to resolve in advance what kind of protection should be given to Belarus and Moldova, which only recently became nation-states. And there are virtually no realistic ways to defend the Central Asian republics.
Instead of identifying one by one the republics whose security we might be prepared to defend, we should remind Russia that we want it to respect national autonomy and are ready to reward it for doing so.
To neutralize Mr. Zhirinovsky and his sympathizers indirectly, we must persist in supporting Russia's reformers and must show understanding for the uneven pace of their economic transition.
The best way to keep his virulent nationalism at bay is to link the economies across the East-West divide so that Russia's reformers can point to economic progress, real and prospective.
Charles S. Maier is professor of history and acting chairman of the Center for European Studies at Harvard.