Russian isolationists vs. Westernizers Leading Westernizer, Shevardnadze walks away from the fight

December 23, 1990|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,Antero Pietila, an editorial writer for The Sun, was chief of The Sun's Moscow Bureau from 1983 to 1988.

Eduard A. Shevardnadze's resignation as Soviet foreign minister should draw our attention to a larger drama that is being played out inside the Soviet Union. It is not strictly a battle between Communists and anti-Communists but between Westernizers and Russian isolationists. The outcome of that struggle will determine whether the Soviet Union will continue to move away from totalitarianism or succumb to counter-reform.

During much of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's tenure, his Westernizers have been winning. In less than six years, they have changed the country of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev beyond recognition. Step by step, the Soviet Union has become a responsible member of the international community. The fear of LTC decades-old repression has disappeared. There may be little to eat, but people have freedom.

They can practice religion. They can read whatever they want. Unprecedented numbers of Soviet citizens are visiting foreign countries to see with their own eyes how backward their homeland is.

But these freedoms have also increased crime, black-marketeering and pornography-peddling at home. The old order and Communist structures have collapsed, creating chaos and fueling aspirations by ethnic minorities to win national self-determination.

Mr. Shevardnadze played a key role in this Westernization process. The former Georgian Communist Party leader and police general helped his friend, Mr. Gorbachev, initiate the Kremlin's close ties with the West. Emigration was relaxed, the jamming of foreign radio stations ceased, cultural exchanges increased to a daily routine. Not only is Reader's Digest soon to publish its first Russian edition, but even live performances are now regularly broadcast throughout the Soviet Union from New York's Metropolitan Opera. In the meantime, once-unknown foreign expressions now regularly crop up in Soviet publications. If not "kheppy end" (happy end), then "dividendi" (dividends).

A backlash against such "foreign" influences now has the anti-Western isolationists flexing their muscles.

Today's struggle between Westernizers and isolationists has been building for three years. But in a historical sense, it is as old as Russia itself.

Even the forces that today are trying to stamp out "foreign" modernism are the same as in the past. When 53 Soviet officials called on President Gorbachev last week to introduce a dictatorship-like "state of emergency or presidential rule" in conflict areas, they included Leningrad's reactionary party leader Boris Gidaspov, Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Moiseev, Interior Troop Commander Yuri Shatalin -- and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei.

The names really don't matter. These kinds of military-church coalitions have been urging crackdowns against dissent -- and non-Russians -- ever since the czarist times.

The opening salvo in the current attack against Westernizers was fired in March 1988 by an obscure Leningrad chemistry teacher, Nina Andreyeva. Her article, "I Cannot Sacrifice Principles," warned of the moral and ideological confusion Mr. Gorbachev was sowing through his reforms and his denial of the Soviet Union's Leninist-Stalinist heritage. Nihilism was spreading, she warned; instead of permissive Westernizers, strong Russians were needed in the Kremlin!

Meanwhile, a heated dispute was going on about the meaning of perestroika (restructuring). While many in the Gorbachev leadership seemed to define it as an effort to steer the Soviet Union away from totalitarianism toward accepted Western norms behavior, the isolationists argued that true perestroika would cleanse Russia of all influences that were foreign, particularly Jewish.

This view was shared by a number of diverse Slavophile groups, including Pamyat (Memory). An organization of Russian mystics and idolaters of czars, it seemed to have close KGB ties. Significantly, many of Pamyat's strongest supporters came from academic institutions in cities such as Leningrad, Sverdlovsk and Novosibirsk, suggesting that its anti-Semitic ideas found easy acceptance in supposedly educated Russian circles.

If an isolationist counter-reform succeeds, "the idea of national socialism has a real chance," Alexander Yanov, a New York emigre professor, recently predicted in Moscow's Izvestia. "The communist idea has outlived its time, it has ended its historical cycle." (It is symptomatic of the Westernizers' influence that Mr. Yanov, once denigrated as an "anti-Sovieteer," was not only allowed back to the Soviet Union but also given a prominent interview in a government paper).

Other observers of the Soviet scene have come to somewhat similar conclusions.

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