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Jealous Gods : BLACK HUNDRED: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia, By Walter Laqueur (HarperCollins: $27.50; 306 pp.)

June 20, 1993|Jane A. Taubman | Taubman is Professor of Russian at Amherst College

After a decades-long confrontation with communism on the left, the clear if not present danger in Russia now, we are warned, comes from the right: Help Yeltsin and Russia's fledgling democrats now, the West is urged, or face anti-Western leaders even more unsavory than their communist predecessors. But who, exactly, are the forces on the Russian right, what do they believe, and what do they stand for?

That we know far less of Russian reactionaries than we do of the Russian reformer-democrats is understandable: the Russian right has little use for Western culture and values, and they are not particularly concerned what we think of them, as long as they convince us that they are powerful, or potentially so. They don't travel in the West, collecting lecture fees from universities and business groups, and their writing, aimed at a native audience, is seldom translated into English. Only a few Western scholars and journalists seek them out for interviews. True, the intellectual giant of Russophile conservatism, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, still lives in Cavendish, Vt., but his star has been on the wane here since he excoriated the West in his 1983 Harvard speech and proposed, in his 1990 "How to Rebuild Russia," a truncated Slavic union consisting of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and northern Kazakhstan.

It's hard to evoke American sympathy for cultural and political groups united by little besides a common rejection of the West and an assertion, often unsupported, of the superiority of the Russian nation and the "Russian idea." In "Black Hundred," distinguished historian Walter Laqueur has taken on a subject that he views with obvious distaste, but of which he is very knowledgeable. He tries in advance to defend himself and his book against charges of "Russophobia," but the reader senses they are inevitable.

For, as Laqueur convincingly demonstrates, one of the Russian right's most consistent characteristics is a paranoid conviction that the rest of the world hates Russians and denigrates Russian culture. "Students of Russian conservatism have noted its strongly utopian and metaphysical character; perhaps nowhere else has the right shown so much disdain for pragmatism and common sense. But the greatest weakness of Russian right-wing politics and thought--now even more than in the past--has been its paranoiac style." Consumed by conspiracy theories, the Russian right has historically blamed the failures and tragedies of the Russian people on malevolent alien nations, primarily the Jews, usually in alliance with the Masons in a worldwide "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy."

Laqueur finds little novelty in the political, cultural or economic ideas of the Russian "New Right." Nor is this surprising--they are, after all, conservatives. Though Laqueur does make some comparisons with contemporary European right-wing ideas, his failure to mention the American far right is regrettable. It would be interesting to compare the rhetoric and ideology of, say, Pat Buchanan with Siberian nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin.

Both the American and Russian far right aim to preserve, or even restore, a traditional family lifestyle; both are concerned by what they see as a wave of sexual license and pornography. Both hate the rock culture--the Russians all the more because it comes from the West. The Russians are understandably more concerned with the ravages of alcoholism on the Russian people and of ecological degradation of the Russian land; unlike the American right, they have not yet become fixated on homosexuality and alternative lifestyles. Perhaps this is a peculiarly American obsession, as the Jews and Masons are for the Russians.

Laqueur begins by tracing the economic and philosophical origins of the original Black Hundred. These loosely-organized groups appeared in Russia at the time of the 1905 revolution, and, with tacit support from the government, launched a series of pogroms against the Jewish population, particularly in the southern areas of the Russian empire. Many an American Jew has them to "thank" for his grandparents' decision to emigrate.

Laqueur characterizes them as "a halfway house between the old-fashioned reactionary movements of the 19th Century and the right-wing Populist (Fascist) parties of the 20th. . . ." Unlike earlier conservatives, who were largely aristocratic and elitist, the new right wing, Laqueur points out, "understood the importance of mobilizing the masses." Their holy text was the best-selling forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which purports to document a Jewish conspiracy for world domination "whose main tools were democracy, liberalism, and socialism."

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