MOSCOW — Moscow-- THE GREAT English romantic poet Shelley, in his poem "Hellas," wrote, "And empires gleam, like wrecks of a dissolving dream."
That really is what one is seeing here, day after tired day: an empire, like the Roman or the Ottoman, falling to bits. Only I would reword Shelley: "and utopias fated, die vulgarly exchange-rated."
There are some who see the change unfolding every day before our unbelieving eyes as progressing with a certain inevitability.
"What we are seeing is the classical process of the dissolving of empire," said Boris Mihailov, a leading analyst of political systems at the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, when we talked on a recent snowy day. "The old 'center' is dead, and that's good.
"We are now in the business of building classical nation-states." He paused. "But there are problems," he said, adding with some hope that the new market-oriented system is indeed in place since, after all, elections to choose this kind of government and this way of life were actually held 18 months ago.
Hope seemed real another evening when I sat in the now-famous "White House," the headquarters of President Boris Yeltsin's government. There, in busy offices where modern young Russian officials such as Oleg Rumyantsev are working frantically day and night to write a new constitution for Russia, there was still the exhausted excitement of building a modern state from those "wrecks" of empire. They had received 10,000 letters from citizens applauding their difficult work.
Yet, the omnipresent feelings of lostness -- and the lack of any traditions of internalized discipline -- explain why many analysts are forced to believe this is just not going to hold together.
"This society was born in 1917 of a spiritual crisis," says David Satter, a Sovietologist with the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Philadelphia, now living here. "Now it has another spiritual crisis that surely won't be solved by the barely competent capitalism being installed here.
"The Russian tradition has always felt very keenly the need to live for an idea -- and under the conditions of deepening political crisis, they need it even more."
Indeed, as I look around this dissolving empire, what concerns me is that unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) spiritual crisis. People do not seem to know who or what they are anymore. (Look at the TV pictures of the humiliated, angry, resentful military officers trying to make sense of their destroyed professional lives.) And it is clear that even "liberals" are confused and diminished by the end of empire.
"I feel sorry for all of us people who are now not citizens of anything," said Ivan Kadulin, a 21-year-old reporter for the youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Before, at least I could walk by the Kremlin and see the Soviet flag and know we were Soviet citizens.
"My father was one of Gorbachev's speechwriters. I love Gorbachev for what he did for us -- but I hate him for the country he left us."
What concerns me even more is the fact that the Russians have, traditionally and temperamentally, characteristics opposite to those associated with the origins and bases of capitalism and democracy.
Capitalism believed individuals would husband the land. Here they believe the individual farmer will rape the land. Capitalism and democracy demand a certain basic trust and cooperation. This society is historically based upon suspicion and fear of the other.
Perhaps worst of all is that one can see, even in the Western hotels and foreign-oriented shops, that the young Russian men and women have no idea how what they are doing fits into any whole.
It is true that this is no poor country. It is an immensely rich country but one that does not have the tools and accoutrements to become a modern state yet.
It is also true that, from what one can see now, the most probable scenario is that Russia will stumble and bumble along and eventually end up with its own mixed forms of basically dishonest capitalism and socialism.
And so this empire is dying not in any glory, but at the hands of the cold and pitiless exchange rates of the system the communists vowed to defeat.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist who specializes in foreign affairs.