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A Debate Renewed: Does Russia Belong in East or West?


Paris. -- The influence in Moscow of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo sect, thought responsible for loosing poison gas in Tokyo's subway system, is disquieting. European reports say that Aum Shinrikyo's sizable Moscow implantation is due in part to support from within Boris Yeltsin's presidential entourage.

If this is so, it is easy to imagine a banal explanation, linked to money. Russia today is wide open to clandestine trading in anything anyone thinks he can make a profit on, and this sect has plenty of money, as well as its apocalyptic doctrines and ambitions.

There is also a banal psychological explanation for its success. In Japan, since the Second World War exploded what had been Japan's her- metic society, sects have proliferated, offering solidarity and moral comfort -- at a cost -- to people morally adrift. In Russia the rupture with established society and ideology has since 1989 been even more radical than it was for the Japanese in and after 1945. Seers, fortune-tellers, prophets -- and swindlers -- have prospered.

In Russia there is also a politico-cultural dimension to this disorientation. What is happening again poses the old Russian problem of whether the country belongs to Western European civilization. Is it the easternmost of the Western nations?

Or is it something apart and unique, with central Asian attachments -- its Tatar legacy -- as well as an apocalyptic religious identity as site of the "third [and final] Rome?" (The "first Rome" was papal Rome itself, the second was Constantinople, which the Emperor Constantine made the capital of the empire and of Christianity in the fourth century. Moscow was said to have become the "third Rome" after Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks and Russians became the custodians of Orthodox Christianity.)

This is not a theoretical argument. How Russians see the answer will decide whether Russia reconstructs its national future in cooperation and interaction with Western Europe and the United States, or whether it sets off once again on a course which will make it a rival and potential enemy of the West.

Nor is it hard to find this argument made. Talk with some of the younger intellectuals and politicians of Russia and you discover acute sensitivity as to how they are seen in the West and are treated by Westerners.

The issue is important to them because if Russia's civilization is separate from that of the West, some of its historical catastrophes, and some of its present-day anomalies, are easier to rationalize. An old and harmless version of this idea of Russia as not like other countries is the contention that Russians are "spiritual" and wise, while Westerners are crass and shallow materialists.

The dangerous version of the argument is the one which says to the Westerner: 'You think we are not westerners, unfit to be your partners, that we are backward and "Asian?" Fine. That's just what we will be, and how we will behave, and once more we will make you as sorry as you were during the seven decades that led up to glasnost."

Peter the Great, the liberal "Decembrists" who tried in the early 19th century to make Russia a democracy, and Lenin himself were westernizers. Lenin wanted to make Russia a powerful industrial state like Germany. Mikhail Gorbachev is a westernizer. Stalin and Stalinism were in the old, arbitrary and obscurantist tradition of Ivan the Terrible, who began Russia's expansion eastward, into Siberia and toward Asia. We do not yet really know where Boris Yeltsin stands in this.

But a kind of blackmail is taking place on the issue. The United States and the West European governments are warned to make concessions to Russia if they want to keep it a democratic Russia. NATO is told that if it expands too far or too fast Russia may turn again into the old "bad" Russia. Some Russians warn that if the West continues to make difficulties about Mr. Yeltsin's attack on Chechnya, worse will follow.

The truth is that no simple and dramatic choice between west and east exists for Russia -- even if a people could consciously and collectively make such choices. Russia is and has been both XTC western and eastern. It continues to deal with both legacies. What comes out of this will have little directly to do with what Americans or West Europeans do or say. It will arise out of the society's own dynamics and understanding.

But Russian society is volatile today, without solid institutions and traditions that attach it to the West, even though the country's deepest material and moral interests demand that it take the western course. That is why the crucial concern today is the cultural development within Russia, the reanimation of a devastated moral landscape exploited by the cults and charlatans.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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