The 'Slaw Question' and the Decadent West


Paris -- There were 19th-century Slav intellectuals who proudly claimed "the Slav problem" was the most important mankind faced. As the crisis in Bosnia attests, it still has not been solved.

What was -- what is -- the Slav problem? It is the reconciliation of a powerful people who in 1800 were mostly divided, illiterate and subject to foreign rule, with the Western nations who dominated the world then and continue to do so today.

Russia ruled itself in 1800, on Europe's edge, but the only Slav nation which since the Middle Ages had played a major European role, Poland, was partitioned and politically did not exist.

All the other Slav peoples were in the Turkish or Austrian empires. Some, such as the Serbs, had experienced ephemeral national existence during the chaotic medieval period when the Byzantine Empire's power atrophied, and the Ottoman Turks took over southeastern Europe.

The Slavs' awakening was provoked by Germany. The German romantics saw in the rural and backward Slavs a dramatic contrast to Italian, French and German sophistication. The latter, too civilized, were alienated from nature and simplicity.

The romantic philosopher Herder said that the Slavs possessed superior moral and spiritual qualities which would make them "the coming leaders of Europe." This nonsense had a disastrous effect upon those Slavs who believed it, hence upon the Slavs' subsequent history.

The pan-Slav movement called for union of the Slavs, as they gained their independence. Yet it can be asked whether a distinct Slavic people exists. The Slavs' is a linguistic community. The Slav languages are a sub-group of the Indo-European group of languages, spoken by the rest of Europe. Pan-Slav militants argue that all the Slavs have a common origin in prehistory, but there is no evidence for this. Ethnically, the Bulgarians are not Slavs at all, and the rest are hopelessly intermingled with the Baltic peoples, Turks, Finns, Mongols, Germans, Greeks, and Illyrians.

There is slight cultural affinity. Some Slavs are Orthodox Christian, some Roman Catholic, some Muslim. Some write in the Cyrillic script and some in the Latin. The Poles, Bohemians and Croats are deeply implicated in modern European history. The Bulgarians and Serbs, emerged from the Turkish empire within the last 200 years.

Russia itself was isolated and remote from Europe in 1800. Thanks to its defeat of Napoleon's invasion it became a major European power. By 1900, although still politically immature and zTC socially backward, it had produced novels, drama, poetry, music and dance that astonished Europe. But none of this had anything to do with the other Slav nations.

For two centuries Russia has been obsessed with the Western political and intellectual challenge, as well as with a strategic threat which has produced a series of invasions from Europe. The Bolshevik revolution was, among other things, an attempt by Russians to "overtake and surpass" the West by leaping into the communist future, where the West would have to follow. The internal Russian debate has taken the form of "nativists" versus "Westernizers." Josef Stalin was a nativist, Mikhail Gorbachev a Westernizer. Boris Yeltsin is an unknown.

These are relevant reflections because much has been said about pan-Slavism in connection with the Bosnian crisis and NATO's expansion. Russia obviously wishes to be consulted on events near Russia or affecting countries with a claim on Russian sympathy, which is the case for the Serbs.

That does not make Russia an ally of Serbia or a supporter of Serbian aggression. It means that Moscow must be engaged in the debate over what to do about Serbia. The Russians have a legitimate concern that the Western powers do not re-create a strategic encirclement of Russia, which NATO expansion suggests. Others may reasonably say that the Russians must not give them cause to wish Russia's encirclement. The post-1945 historical experience has to be overcome. The Chechnya war does not help.

The West must take Russia seriously, and attend to the Russians' legitimate interests and to the tragedy of their recent history. To do otherwise is dangerous, as well as unjust. However this does not mean that the West has to take seriously every Serbian, pan-Slav or Russian neo-nationalist pretension.

Russia's real national interests are served by stability and non- aggression in the Balkans, and by a peaceful European order based on democratic institutions. Russia's interests lie in cooperation and an increasing integration with a West which is sure of its own values.

The original pan-Slav idea was based on the conviction that the West was decadent, rotted by sophistication, self-indulgence and political cowardice. Slavic virtue would give the Slavs a domination that Western vice would have forfeited.

A Bosnian Serb official told the Associated Press last Wednesday, "The Serbs are amazed by the international community's capacity for self-deception. The international community is sick, and it needs help. We, the Serbs, intend to sober it up."

The issue today, then, is the West, not the Slavs. Is it indeed decadent and cowardly? The Serbs, as well as Russia's own nationalists and imperialists, say that it is. They say that you have only to look at the West to see this.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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