Anyone with a speaking acquaintance with Russian history and literature can hardly escape a deep sense of foreboding these frenetic days that the old Russian proclivity for botching things monumentally will once more reassert itself.
Look at the history of this century alone. Between 1914 and 1918 -- years which encompassed the First World War and the Russian Revolution -- 60 million Russians lost their lives. Between 1930 and 1940, another 20 million perished during the Stalinist purges. And between 1941 and 1945, 25 million more died during the Second World War. So within the memory of living people more than a 100 million Russians -- one out of four who have lived in this century -- died from war, terror and revolution. Nothing in human history can begin to match the magnitude of that suffering and hardship.
Must the Soviet people once more endure another massive bloodletting? Mikhail Gorbachev seems to believe that it is possible, because in recent days he has issued warnings that sound like Madame Pompadour's famous -- and accurate -- prediction, "apres nous, le deluge."
Just what form that deluge might take is anyone's guess. Perhaps the grimmest possibility is that the Soviet Union will fall into civil war much as that now besetting Yugoslavia -- except that the former Soviet Republics could have access to the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons which still stud the old empire's countryside. It would not take many "limited" nuclear exchanges to add a few more million deaths to the toll.
Even if nuclear wars are averted there remains the prospect of famine in the coming winter. If massive privation comes throughout the land, is it not inevitable that there will be a fulfillment of the prophecy of Doestoevsky's cynical Grand Inquisitor: "In the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: 'Enslave us, but feed us!' "
And will Boris Yeltsin turn out to be not so much the savior of Russia as a latter-day Marc Antony, who preached Caesar's funeral only to further his own sinister purposes? Those who saw Mr. Yeltsin, during his visit to Baltimore two years ago, almost literally muscle Mayor Kurt Schmoke off the podium at Johns Hopkins, could hardly doubt the man's aggrandizing tendencies.
But perhaps the imminent threat to Russia is a reign of terror like kind which consummated the French Revolution two centuries ago.
For manifestation of this tendency, consider a chilling interview last week on "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour" with the Soviet "human rights activist" Yelena Bonner, who flatly charged that Mikhail Gorbachev was behind the failed coup attempt. Mind you, she was not merely suggesting that Mr. Gorbachev bore responsibility for having appointed the treacherous putschists who turned on him. She maintains he hatched the plot in order to shore up his own position and simply had not calculated on matters getting out of control.
If her scenario were accurate, it logically follows that Mr. Gorbachev should not be running the country today; he should be in the dock, on trial for his life alongside the traitors who merely did his bidding.
Forget for the moment that had it not been for Mr. Gorbachev, Ms. Bonner and her husband, Andrei Sakharov, might have been killed or left to rot in exile. As one watched Ms. Bonner's grim countenance and listened to the seething bitterness, the figure which came to mind was Madame Defarge of Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," who knitted as the guillotine lopped off the heads of French noblemen and anyone suspected of sympathizing with them.
When Madame Bonner was asked if she, as the putative defender of "human rights," were not concerned that this sort of thing could get out of hand, she replied with a sinister smile that if that happened, the world could rest assured that she would speak out against the excesses.
Madame Bonner's blood-thirst seems to be shared by her Jacobin supporters in America. In a column last week Cal Thomas, who purports to speak for the Christian Right in America, declared that Mikhail Gorbachev's belated resignation as head of the Communist Party was not enough, that he "ought not to be able to plea-bargain with history and escape indictment, conviction and punishment."
Two other conservative columnists, Pat Buchanan and A.M. Rosenthal, excoriated President Bush for slavishly befriending Mr. Gorbachev. So the clarion of the witch hunt heard in the land. We have already seen statues of Lenin and other demons of the past swinging from nooses. Will it next be living bodies instead of bronze statues?
Well, if we are to have hangings for favoring Mr. Gorbachev, then I'd be honored to be among them, because I believe him to be the greatest man of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of
Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.