As Cold War thaws, Mother Russia again reigns THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 25, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Move over Soviet Menace, Mother Russia is coming, and we'd better learn to tell the difference.

It has not always been easy. For instance, the director of the 1966 film "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" got it dead wrong. In those distant days of Cold War it should, technically, have been "The Soviets Are Coming."

Today, however, he would be right. The Russians are coming. They are coming more and more to the forefront of both national affairs and international relationships. The Soviets, conversely, are going -- further and further out of the picture.

In the anti-Communist lexicon in general use here since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it hasn't really mattered which of them was coming or going. To most Americans, Soviet or Russian was a distinction without a difference. Only diplomats and scholars clearly understood one from the other. To Everyman, both were regarded as Red and better dead.

But, after recent events in Moscow, even John Q. Public knows that the Russians are the good guys; the Soviets are the bad.

Gennady I. Yanayev and the seven other "coup people," as President Bush quaintly called them, are archetypal apparatchik Soviets. Boris N. Yeltsin and his courageous followers are classic, romantic Russians.

Shakespeare clearly had the Yeltsins and not the Yanayevs of this world in mind when he wrote in "Macbeth":

What man dare, I dare;

Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear.

There has always been one essential difference between the two types: Soviets are man-made; Russians are born.

Nobody was a Soviet until Vladimir Ilyich Lenin began creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. "Soviet" in the Russian language means "council." The Bolshevik slogan was "All power to the Soviets."

Lenin set out to create a "new man" -- the Soviet citizen -- to people his new country. There was also a new art form, socialist realism, to depict this superhuman creation as big of bicep, strong of thigh, barrel-chested and usually flourishing a hammer or a sickle.

Lenin aimed at a collective society that tried to merge the natural traits and characteristics of Russians and Tadzhiks, Georgians and Siberians, Uzbeks and Ukrainians, into one large, indistinguishable, classless Soviet mass. The ultimate ambition: to convert the world to universal grayness.

One of Lenin's heirs, Nikita S. Khrushchev, who managed to get most things wrong, told the British ambassador to Moscow in 1956: "Each year humanity takes a step toward communism. Maybe not you, but, at all events, your grandson will surely be a Communist." During the past two years, a mirror has been held up to that prediction. There is now, in reality, the greater likelihood that Mr. Khrushchev's grandson will be a capitalist.

For centuries before Lenin's doomed experiment, Mother Russia, the first and largest of all the 15 republics to be recruited into the Soviet Union, had been producing sons and daughters, writers, musicians and artists, whose intellects were more respected than their muscles.

Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Chagall. They were a melancholy lot, steeped in a history of hardship and hope, always yearning for freedom, always deprived of it by Mongol, czar and, finally, Communist.

Wrote the poet Fedor Tyutchev: "Homeland of patience, land of the Russian people."

Their waiting may be over. Now all that stands between the Russians and realization of their eternal dream is the rapidly diminishing menace of the Soviet Union.

Now even Mikhail S. Gorbachev, born a Russian but bred a

Soviet, looks back to the Communist Party for the future.

Mr. Yeltsin was born a Russian, grew up a Russian, and last week acted like a Russian. Alexander Pushkin, the greatest of Russian poets who died in a duel in defense of his wife's honor, would have been particularly proud of Mr. Yeltsin as he stood atop a tank and fearlessly faced down a mighty enemy. The stuff of old Russia, it caught the imagination of the new world.

Another Russian poet, Nikolai Nekrasov, caught a sense of the future as well as the past while penning these unchanging lines:

Wretched and abundant,

Oppressed and powerful,

Weak and mighty,

Mother Russia!

For all her contradictions, Russia is replacing Soviet as the power center to be reckoned with.

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