Americans would do themselves a favor by paying serious attention to Russia's Vice President Alexander Rutskoi. The man who stands just a heartbeat away from Boris N. Yeltsin has emerged as the chief opponent of the Russian president's desperate efforts to stop the current free-fall and turn the country's economy around.
Just the other day, Mr. Rutskoi gathered a strange cabal of die-hard communists, anti-Semites and monarchists to attack Mr. Yeltsin's policies. "Yeltsin the Judas!" some of the 15,000 protesters shouted. The spectacle was so upsetting Mr. Yeltsin penalized his vice president by putting him in charge of Russia's troubled agriculture.
Hate and polarization increase in societies grappling with economic difficulties. We know that from our own. Yet the post-communist convulsions in what used to be the Soviet Union have created an extraordinarily difficult and explosive situation that rabble-rousers of different stripes are trying to exploit. They are finding fertile ground because people are unhappy, confused and scared. The old communist colossus is gone but little that is new is working well or yet in place.
Through much of its history, Russia has been a conservative nation afraid of foreign influences. Today, foreigners are invading Russia as never before. U.S. Air Force planes are ferrying emergency food supplies; art dealers are raiding national treasures. American sitcoms are being run on Russian television. In a country which just a few months ago was still a communist superpower, one channel recently began and ended each broadcast day with news in Russian from the BBC, London.
Whatever Russia is, it is a nation proud of its culture and historical role as a bulwark against the Mongol hordes as well as the invasions of Constantinople, Napoleon and Hitler. Today even many democratically oriented Russians are ashamed of their nation's misery. Everything is for sale -- and foreigners and their local agents are snapping it up. The geographical vision of Russian nationalism has been dismantled. Instead of a once-great superpower, the country is splintered into feuding republics, all teetering on bankruptcy.
Faced with daily evidence of chaos and corruption, many people wonder whether democracy and a free-market economy in fact can work in Russia or whether greatness can be re-established only under autocratic rule, as it was in past history. Vice President Rutskoi enflames their doubts when he says Russia is not ready for democracy and that the country can overcome its current problems only if it is ruled by a strong hand.
Boris Yeltsin's attempts to revive Russia as a viable country may not be always consistent or effective. But against the background of rising extremism they represent the best chance to create and foster democratic institutions in a nation that has so long lived and suffered without them.