MOSCOW — My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery.
-- Abraham Lincoln, letter to Horace Greeley, 1862
For all of us Soviet people, there is no cause more sacred than the preservation and renewal of the union, in which all the peoples can live voluntarily and well.
-- Mikhail S. Gorbachev, New Year's appeal
to the Soviet people, Dec. 31, 1990
If a member of the U.S. Congress of 1860 had somehow stumbled across a century and into last month's Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, he might have experienced a powerful sense of deja vu.
Member states of a union assert their sovereign rights against the center, claiming the supremacy of their laws over union laws. The center gives no ground and, one after another, the states declare that they are seceding.
Pieces of the parallel seem almost uncanny. After Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 but before his inauguration, South Carolina rushed to secede, fearing that he would move decisively to abolish slavery. Last March 11, on the eve of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's assumption of the newly created Soviet presidency, Lithuania rushed to declare its independence, fearing that Mr. Gorbachev would use his expanded powers to block secession.
Both presidents first responded with a blockade, both took on steadily greater executive powers and both were accused of dictatorial ambitions.
The flash point for armed conflict in 1861 was the insistence of the federal government on maintaining and supplying federal troops at Fort Sumter. The most explosive issue in the Baltic republics today is Moscow's insistence on maintaining union troops there and local officials' threats to cut off supplies to them.
Lincoln answered secession with force. At the price of 600,000 killed and a million wounded, the Union was preserved. Mr. Gorbachev has not yet shown how far he will go to save the Soviet Union -- and quite possibly, the choice is not his to make.
This historical analogy is tantalizing and illuminating, but it is ultimately false, a number of Soviet historians and political scientists say.
Yet Mr. Gorbachev seems to be casting himself as a Soviet Lincoln, shouldering the fearful burden of saving the union and arrogating to a future federal government the U.S.-style role of protecting civil rights against republican violations.
"I like the idea of a comparison," said Viktor I. Borisyuk, a historian at Moscow's U.S.A.-Canada Institute. "But historical parallels are very dangerous."
In recent interviews, Mr. Borisyuk and several other experts explored the overlapping issues raised by the two tumultuous periods. They pointed to four critical differences:
* The Soviet republics are centuries-old national territories. The United States were mainly open lands settled by people of various ethnic backgrounds who had largely, with the exception of the African slaves, voluntarily left their national territories.
* The Soviet Union is, or was, a totalitarian monolith hammered together and held together by force, whether czarist conquest or Stalinist terror. The United States joined voluntarily into a truly federal system long before the Civil War.
* Assertions of sovereignty or secession by Soviet republics are motivated in most cases by a desire for freedom from the old, totalitarian system. Assertion of states' rights and secession by the Southern states were motivated by the desire to preserve slavery.
* Lincoln spoke not only for the federal government in Washington, but for 23 of the 34 states. Especially since Boris N. Yeltsin has arisen as a popular spokesman for the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, Mr. Gorbachev has been reduced to speaking literally for "the center" or "the Kremlin" -- that is, for the union-level ministries with their octopus grip on the Soviet economy, for the Soviet army and the KGB, and for the Communist Party, itself riven by secession but still more whole than the union itself.
"The South seceded in order to save the old system, based on slavery," said political scientist Boris V. Mikhailov of U.S.A.-Canada Institute. "The North stood for the new system. So history justified Lincoln's decision to use force to save the union. Here the situation's exactly the opposite."
American federalism, Mr. Borisyuk pointed out, developed gradually as a result of perceived common interests: from the colonies' independent status; to the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, with their minimal center; to the Constitution, taking effect in 1789; and to such key Supreme Court decisions strengthening federal rights as McCulloch vs. Maryland in 1819.
"When the Civil War began, the federal system already existed," he said. "The so-called federalism we've had here has been totally artificial."
Alexei I. Kazannik, a law professor and deputy to the Soviet parliament, found a critical difference in the economic reality underlying American and Soviet federalism.