Russian Breakdown

GARRY WILLS

June 03, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Some Americans find it hard to accept the fact that we are not entirely in charge of the world's destiny. We are still the only superpower, but we have a new awareness of our own limited resources, and so do other nations. The ''leader of the free world'' may have to follow, on occasion, as well as lead.

If that is true of us, imagine what psychic adjustment is going on in the former Soviet Union, and especially at its core, in Russia. That proud country has slipped from being the hub of a superpower, the adjudicator of the fates of others, into a beggar role on the world scene. It has gone from bogeyman to basket case in less than a decade.

Historian Paul Kennedy, who predicted that America's rocketlike rise in world history would level off and maybe even dip a bit over time, also predicted a much more rapid disintegration and downfall for the Russian empire -- and both parts of his prediction seem to have come true, the Russian part spectacularly.

It is necessary to put ourselves in the position of a Russian, looking around at his or her nation's magical shrinking act. It must be as if the walls of every room they move through are closing in on them. Bad as things were under the communists, there was some sense of a larger purpose at work, of great events, even if mistaken, giving significance to their actions. But all that has exploded, like the sun suddenly going out.

David Remnick reported from Moscow in a recent New Yorker on the daze and disorientation following on such an upheaval. It was hard enough for England to lose an empire over the course of half a century -- some citizens still feel those lost countries like lost limbs, which still ache though they are no longer there. But the Russians have had to face as great a lopping off in a matter of months.

As Mr. Remnick writes: ''What took decades for the citizens of London to absorb struck the Russians in an instant. The empire -- Russian greatness -- had vanished. That the economy has been dying is obvious to any Western visitor. Less obvious is the Russian's anxiety about his place in the world. The jewels of the empire are lost: The beaches of the Crimea, the vineyards of Moldova, the oilfields of Kazakhstan, the port of Odessa -- to say nothing of Prague, Budapest and Warsaw -- are all parts of foreign lands now.''

This is the background for the jockeying against Boris Yeltsin. No matter who tries to lead in Russia, for the foreseeable future there will be resentments and a sense of lost control, the feeling of a nation that has spun crazily downward. Even the communist past will look good to some people, and at times it may look good to many people.

Mr. Remnick argues that it will not be possible to go back to Lenin or to Stalin. But a yearning for that will be one element in the general wish that the drift would just stop occurring.

It may be hard for us to sympathize with Russia when it indulges that kind of nostalgia; but we should be able to imagine their despondency when we see how our little dip in influence has caused a queasy sensation of sinking, even in us.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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