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Dark Star

RUSSIA UNDER WESTERN EYES: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum;\o7 By Martin Malia; (The Belknap Press / Harvard University Press: 514 pp., $35)\f7

May 16, 1999|LESLEY CHAMBERLAIN | Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "Nietzsche in Turin" and a collection of fictional Cold War episodes, "In a Place Like That," which was published in the United Kingdom last year by Quartet Books. A former journalist, she is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement in London

To try to explain the enigma Russia has presented to three centuries of Western eyes is by turns an equally impossible and attractive task. With a lifetime's academic career in Russian history behind him, Martin Malia has sifted through vast amounts of international diplomatic, social, military and intellectual material to account for shifting Western attitudes. The four basic stances he discerns, all of them substantially influenced by the West's varying self-perception, will be immensely useful to anyone trying to understand his or her own attitude to Russia. But perhaps the particular benefit will fall to those on the political left, whether they were dismayed or rebellious at the apparent death of socialism when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The first attitude Malia identifies is one of broad acceptance verging on admiration. Acceptance comes with the sense of a shared civilization, well illustrated by the friendship between Voltaire and Catherine the Great. The French Encyclopedists of the mid-18th century nurtured the idea of a cosmopolitan civilization based on the universality of reason, politically anchored by enlightened despotism. Without ever going to Russia himself, Voltaire was so impressed by "Cateau's" record that her example led him to criticize the more benighted French regime of the time. Over the last 200 years there have been repeated periods in which the West has similarly admired Russia, not least when the new world of communism seemed truly viable.

With the Cold War not so long over, however, many of us will remember Russia perceived absolutely negatively, as Ronald Reagan's "evil empire," and this is the second kind of view Malia targets, Russia as Oriental despotism. "Oriental" was Montesquieu's term for the least reasonable, least developed societies under enlightened Western eyes. And viewed in conjunction with the scattered accounts of travelers to Russia since the 16th century, it has helped to figure Russia as an enduringly secretive, coercive place. The country's reputation in the modern world has been underscored specifically as a threat to liberty. In the early 19th century, the West judged Russia to be an alien place from the moment Alexander I lost his way in domestic reaction. As Malia says, with Metternich leaning heavily upon him, "Alexander . . . became ever more preoccupied with preserving 'legitimacy' and the established order throughout Europe. . . . This transformation brought Russia into her first conflict with European liberalism." The vision of darkness, forever bound up with the name of Alexander's successor Nicholas I and his Third Deportment secret police, lasted until Russia, at least in name, abolished serfdom in 1862. To move backward and forward in history, as this book impressively does, the dark vision of Russia returned in the Soviet era as fear spread that the repressive Soviets, heirs to the Stalin of the gulags and persecutors of intellectual dissidents, would win the space race and rule the world.

For a while in the late 19th century, a look eastward inspired more positive political sentiment. Encouraged by Russia's economic and scientific progress and greater openness and calmed by the tsar's military impotence, the West, in the guise of England and France, was happy to entertain a sense of convergence. According to this, Malia's third view, Russia clearly lagged behind in terms of the general progress of civilization, anything from 50 to 100 years, but everything would be all right in the end. Optimists of course believe this now too. They talk about the West-East cultural gradient, by which the countries of east central Europe and Eastern Europe are gradually rising to the level of their Atlantic European brethren. This book doesn't persuade me either way. Meanwhile it's curious to notice that the paranoid Cold War version of the convergence was the CIA's insistence in the 1970s that the Soviet economy was growing at 60% of American GNP.

Finally then to Malia's fourth attitude, of Russia as a "barbaric yet vital soul." Westerners delight in the exceptional, nonrational Russia. Suddenly the country is found to be sublime entertainment for the beleaguered modern spirit. This is the Russia that many will forever associate with Dostoevsky and which was doubly transmitted to the West through the enthusiasms of Rilke and Thomas Mann. One remembers it was the turn-of-the-century exiles who brought the Ballets Russes before the eyes of astonished Western audiences. But the art that stayed at home was equally exciting and probably helped to attract future political enthusiasts for the Great Soviet Experiment.

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