A Question of Character

July 25, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Alexander Solzhenitsyn arrived in Moscow Thursday after his journey across the expanse of Russia. It has been a strange voyage, by private railroad car, stopping wherever he wished, allowing him to meet and talk with people whose lives otherwise have been spent in anonymity. He has listened more than he has talked. However, he has delivered a message, uncompromising in one respect, evasive in another.

He has said that he is not a politician and would accept no office or nomination. He nonetheless condemns those now running the country -- ''an oligarchy . . . composed of ex-members of the nomenklatura and adventurers emerged from the underground economy'' -- as well as the reformers or pretended reformers, and parliament itself. He tells ordinary people that they must take responsibility for what has happened in Russia, and must become responsible for giving the country a different future.

He is, one woman says, ''a healer of souls. I had never imagined that he would be so simple. He hides nothing about the errors of the past, but at the same time he has confidence in us.'' Another man says, ''He destroys indifference. He disarmed me. . . . He speaks like a friend, someone close. This was the first time in my life that I had the impression of someone who really wanted goodness. . . .''

There are others who say that he is out of touch with Russia today, irrelevant. ''Am I really responsible for everything that went on in the past? What does he want? Does he think we should fall on our knees in Red Square and confess our sins?'' It is a fair question. What would Mr. Solzhenitsyn have the Russians actually do?

Nonetheless, he touches a very deep chord. A Russian sociologist, Valentina Fedotova, has recently written of characteristics of the Russian people that in the past have blocked Russia's attempts to reform itself on Western models. One is a lack of material ambition. Polls in Estonia, for example, before communism's collapse, showed that 90 percent of the Russian portion of the Estonian population was completely satisfied with the country's economic situation, while 90 percent of the ethnic Estonians thought the economy in deplorable condition.

The second obstacle to change is ignorance. Well over 90 percent of the population has never been out of the country, so has no standard by which to make comparisons. There is virtually no historical experience of capitalism or of the functioning of the market. In the countryside, the mass of people still live in pre-industrial conditions.

The economic change that already has taken place has not inspired new efforts to improve the level of life but rather seems to justify the old popular notion in Russia that riches are theft. The Russian church has always said this, and the actual $H experience of Russians in recent times has tended to bear it out. Economic change has brought profiteers and crime, with worsened conditions for the majority.

The much-deplored success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky in national elections last year followed his promise not only to make Russia a superpoweragain but to restore its internal health. His solution to the Russians' troubles was an old notion, that of redemptive national expansion. Russia would heal itself by giving peace and happiness to others, incorporating them within an enlarged Russia whose frontiers might be those cited by a poet a century and a half ago: the Nile, the Elbe, the Euphrates, the Danube . . . This was dangerous nonsense, but a quarter of the active electorate voted for Mr. Zhirinovsky. Whatever those voters seriously thought they were doing, they certainly signaled their uneasiness with what Russia has now become.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn demands inner change, a form of spiritual conversion, as the necessary step toward real social and political reform. Mr. Zhirinovsky offers aggression and national messianism. And hard as the latter may be, it is easier than the former.

An extreme demand is being made on the Russian people today, that they transform their society on a foreign, Western, model. That model contradicts certain profound characteristics of the Russian past: its communalism and popular egalitarianism, its sense of a special destiny and redemptive mission to others, its endurance and belief in the value of sacrifice, as well as its traditional morality, outraged by the racketeering and corruption the country.

In radically different ways, Mr. Solzhenitsyn and the man he rightly describes as ''a caricature of the Russian patriot,'' Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are proposing Russia's transformation on Russian models. For that reason they both have found an important response. They are speaking to a profound and ancient Russia, in its language. The one is asking good of it, the other evil. The spiritual identity of the nation is being tested.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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