MOSCOW -- A series of conversations with Russian intellectuals, concerned to discuss their own country's past as well as its future, has left this writer convinced that the inner landscape of Russia today, in the aftermath of Communism's collapse and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is more fearful than the outer landscape of economics, politics, elections and geopolitics.
There is very deep pessimism, but also there seems to be apathy, or resignation, in anticipation of still more catastrophic events as consequence -- but also eventual resolution -- of Russia's crisis.
A cloudy future
The country now is said to be cut off from its moral traditions, its ethical identity, but also to lack a coherent notion or program of action for what it should become. There is profound dissatisfaction not only with the condition of the nation, but also with the nation itself. Politics is seen as mere squabble among power-seekers.
Russia's progress has always had to be imported from the West, it is said. There has never been confidence in Russia's own civilization, so that successive generations of the Russian elite, from Peter the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, have tried to make Russia a part of the West, even though the mass of the Russian population had, and has, virtually no connection with the West, or conception of the real Western way of life.
The Russians' belief in themselves and their destiny has tended to be apocalyptic, as bearers of some special and redemptive spirituality which after much suffering will save all the world -- Moscow the ''Third Rome'' (after Rome itself, and Constantinople), the final center of Christianity, awaiting the Second Coming of the Messiah.
Yet there is deep resentment of what imitation of the West has made of Russia. Today the Western model is seen as having bestowed upon Russia poverty, crime, exploitation, pillaged national resources, personal anxiety and suffering, lost living standards, national humiliation. Nearly half the working population now must work at two jobs (declared and undeclared) in order to survive. Two-thirds of the public would, if they could, go back to Communism, the polls indicate.
A philosopher argues that the country has never had a clear notion of basic political conceptions. Freedom, individualism, rights, have not been part of the national philosophical dialogue. Philosophy itself was not professed and taught in Russia until the 19th century. The great issues of national life have been debated in spiritual terms or in literature, but not in the logical categories that translate into political programs and constructive political action.
The army, for example -- in new legislation on national security -- is charged to defend not only Russia's frontiers and territory but also Russia's spirituality, its soul.
A tumultuous past
The country's past traumas are connected with its progress -- Tatar rule, Ivan IV's rule (''Ivan the Terrible''), the ''time of troubles'' which followed the reign of his successor, Boris Godunov, with foreign intervention and Poland's taking of Moscow; the 1917 revolution, the civil war, the ''Great Patriotic War'' (World War II). The inference drawn is that Russia today experiences another time of troubles, which will grow worse before they end.
Only after that, it is implied, can times improve. Russians, it is said, are patient in their suffering, but accumulate enormous energy while they wait, which eventually bursts out in a convulsion of action. ''Everything is stable in Russia,'' they say, ''yet it stands at the edge of an abyss.''
Russians, today, after the break-up not only of the Soviet Union but also of the Russian empire which Soviet rule had consolidated and extended, are alone as a people for the first time since expansion began in the 16th century. Eighty percent of the population of the state now is ethnically Russian. There no longer is a ''Muslim threat'' from within the empire.
Nonetheless there is political pressure for ''re-integrating'' the component states of the old USSR. A scenario commonly presented for what could follow a nationalist-Communist victory in December's parliamentary elections is (1) impeachment of Boris Yeltsin, (2) revision of the constitution, (3) re-nationalization of crucial areas of industry, and (4) ''re-integration'' of the old USSR.
The lack of confidence in Russian civilization stands in striking contrast to other societies which have found themselves at the edge of the West and challenged by the West. Japan and China have gone through grievous troubles in reacting to the Western challenge, but neither has ever doubted the intrinsic and ultimate superiority of its own civilization over that of the ''barbarian'' West.
That confidence is lacking in Russia. ''Other nations live; Russia survives,'' one of those in my conversations said. Perhaps -- he added -- that is because Russia is already part of the West by being Christian. It has never been able to conceive of itself as completely separate.
An old debate
Yet it is separate because it has been the vanguard of the West in Asia; it is irrevocably Asian by geography and origin as well as Western.
This debate today is Russia's oldest debate, over the nation's identity and its relationship with the West. Elections, politics, privatization, are incidental to this, the crucial problem for Russians, and crucial for the West as well.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.