- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004


By James H. Billington

Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95, 234 pages


The Soviet Union in its closing decades was a lot less powerful than it appeared; Russia in the first decades of its democratic transition is a lot more powerful, in terms of its continuing key or “swing” role in world affairs, than it appears. And it is this that makes James Billington’s new book so important — and troubling.

Mr. Billington has long been a national treasure. The current librarian of Congress, he is also incontestably our greatest living expert on Russian history and culture. He always takes the magisterial long-term perspective without losing track of or disdaining the kaleidoscopic confusion of current events.

Modest in scale (but not conception) by the standards of his earlier masterpieces such as “The Icon and the Ax,” “Russia in Search of Itself” ought to be required beach reading for the administration’s foreign policy-makers.

Mr. Billington here confronts and explores the mysteries and enigmas of a Russia arguably more open to Western scrutiny and study than ever before, yet also bewildering in the sheer variety and confusingly contradictory chaos of its internal development.

“Uncertainty in a time of drastic change has produced a kind of cultural-psychological nervous breakdown,” Mr. Billington writes. “A rich and variegated torrent of words has poured forth, but it is not clear where the noisy conversation — let alone Russia itself — is heading.”

There is no Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, no Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, to set the public agenda.

The almost indestructible Mr. Solzhenitsyn is still around at age 87. But from a Western perspective, he has become a disturbing figure rather than the friend embraced as a prophetic hero by American conservatives three decades ago.

It is typical of the wild ironies of the Russian public arena in the early 21st century that, today, Mr. Solzhenitsyn appears to be an ideological soulmate of the remnants of the once all-powerful Soviet communist forces the writer so memorably defied for so long.

The author cites Olga Volkogonova as seeing “the same convergence of extremes in the parallel insistence by both the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the conservative writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn that Russia’s identity depends on rejecting contemporary Western models and reuniting with Russia at least the Slavic republics (Ukraine and Belarus) of the former USSR.”

The author describes a Russia caught between the exuberance of its new democratic and free-market freedoms and bitterness over the continued hardship of so many of its 146 million people from the economically catastrophic implosion that followed the collapse of Communism.

Many of the tales he has to tell are haunting: There was the extraordinary Father Alexander Men, who “wrote a prolific number of devotional and pedagogic works of Orthodox evangelism” and even “completed a seven-volume study of world religions.” Men, a devout Orthodox Christian of partially Jewish background, also was a leading exponent in rooting anti-Semitism out of the tradition of his church.

In 1990, on the cusp of the age of the new freedom, he was brutally murdered by an ax “in the shadow of the great Laura of St. Sergius and the Holy Trinity in Sergiev Posad.” In an adoption of symbolism perfectly in tune with the inspiring best of the Russian tradition, Mr. Billington notes that Men, a leading precursor of the post-Soviet religious revival, was buried “on the day consecrated to the beheading of John the Baptist, who is known in Orthodoxy as ‘the precursor.’”

Most political prognostications benefit from being qualified and hedged. Mr. Billington, guided by the extraordinary history of the land and people he knows so well, here courageously opts for the opposite approach. “The first suggested conclusion is that the range of distinctly possible future identities for Russia should include alternatives that are both far better and far worse than any presently anticipated,” he argues.

Further, “an enduring positive identity will be possible only if Russians are able harmoniously to synthesize Western political and economic institutions with an indigenous recovery of the religious and moral dimensions of their own culture.”

Where is Nikolai Gogol’s famous troika galloping now across the snows at breakneck speed? Is it towards becoming a prosperous, stable and contented democracy living happily in peace and concord with its neighbors of the European Union to the west and, beyond, the United States?

Or might it yet become, as Russian political scientist Alexander Yanov warned in the title of one of his books a decade ago, “Weimar Russia,” an angry, irredentist, nihilistic political society and culture more potentially dangerous than even Nazi Germany ever was, because of its continued possession of a vast arsenal of the most destructive thermonuclear weapons?

As Mr. Billington concludes, “The prospects for world peace in the twenty-first century will depend in good measure on Russian democracy succeeding and becoming the norm in Eurasia.”

Martin Sieff is chief political correspondent for United Press International. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union in The Washington Times.

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