Third Rome

September 30, 1990|By William Pfaff

THE MESSAGE Delivered to the Russian people by Alexander Solzhenitsyn a few days ago was a powerful statement of that Slavophil outlook that has been a force in the Russian national debate for more than a century.

The great novelist told his Soviet audience - in two major Soviet publications - that the Slavic people of the Soviet Union should separate themselves from the other members of that union and form for themselves a Slavic state which would resemble the Russia that existed before the tsarist imperialism of the 19th century and communism's expansionism in the 20th.

"We have no need for the empire, for it destroys us. We have to make a cruel choice, between the empire and, the salvation of our own people."

The Slavic nations are Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. The writer would include in his new state what he argues are permanently Russified sified regions in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. All these peoples, together, could then find not only a political liberation and development but spiritual renewal.

"Spiritual qualities and the purity of social relations" should be "more important than abundance." He condemns the cultural impoverishment of the West, devoted to materialism.

Some people find this alarming because it seems to align Mr. Solzhenitsyn with the rightist and nationalist, movements that have emerged in. Russia, which frequently have revealed themselves to be anti-Semitic as well. He says nothing to link himself with them, though, and speaks in admiration of "the Hebrew cultural revolution," which he says refuses "to capitulate in front of American cultural imperialism and its by-product, Western intellectual waste."

Many in the West who recognize the authenticity of the emotions and convictions to which Mr. Solzhenitsyn appeals are distressed by his hostility to the West and specifically by what, seems his reductionist view of American society and culture, which he reguards as a threat to the cultural and spiritual autonomy of his Russia.

There is little new in this. A century and a half ago a Slavophil intellectual could describe the West as "carrier of a terrible and contagious disease" - as "a rotting corpse," The Slavophil is convinced that Russia plays a unique role in the development of mankind because it possesses an unparalleled spirituality and holds a special position in the evolution of Christianity as the "Third Rome" (after Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Rome itself). A 16th-century Russian monk wrote: "Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be."

This is dangerous. The 20th century has been made what it is by messianic doctrines manifesting themselves as political ideologies. In an admirable and influential series of articles last year in the Soviet journal Science and Life a writer and philosopher identified as A. Tsipko described "the trap that history set for us. People sincerely believed that we were a special people and a special country created to do the impossible, to work wonders, to make a reality of the fable.' Stalin made masterful use of this belief."

That Stalin was in an important respect the product of Russian messianism is a point that of course has been made before. Less widely understood is that he was not some incomprehensible phenomenon of pure evil (any more than Hitler was - or Saddam Hussein today!) but - a human formed by specific historical and cultural forces.

These were Russian on the one hand, and European on the other that European revolutionary and utopian intellectual current that has caused men and women to believe in the possibility of "a breakthrough to the future." From that it was easy to derive the conclusion that (as Dr. Tsipko says) "the strength of the future would be determined by the scale of the destruction."

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, of course, despises secular utopias as having all but destroyed the Russia he loves and would recreate. What he nonetheless expresses is the conviction that the Russian nation is unlike any other. His insistence that this is so makes a significant and disturbing contribution to the attempt the Soviet Union's intellectuals and the Soviet people now are making to establish new political structures and meaning in their society. This could prove a dramatic affair. People treat the U.S.S.R. today as if it were at the end of its historical journey. They fail to observe that Russia has already started on a new journey, in an unknown direction.

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