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Jewish World Review Aug. 18, 1999 /6 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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The Bear in travail: new government, same Russia -- NOW WE SEE RUSSIA as through a glass, darkly. The light and shadow, once so clearly defined, like good and evil in an old morality tale, fade and blend and mix in swirling confusion.

Not since Germany's von Hindenburg has a great nation been led by so doddering and deluded a president -- an old hero who has gone on too long and now stumbles blindly, but who remains the one dim constant in its politics of upheaval. It was said of Marshal von Hindenburg in Weimar Germany that he would sign anything put before him, including his breakfast. In today's disheveled Russia, Boris Yeltsin would probably fire the butler who brought it. He's just dismissed the nonentity he appointed prime minister only a few months ago and replaced him with another. He's endorsed this latest premier as his successor, but the new man can be unendorsed, too.

Boris Yeltsin tends to clear out his government the way vodka clears the senses. The hero who once clambered atop a tank to free his country from Soviet tyranny now appoints a familiar KGB type as his successor, for whatever the appointment is worth. Does anybody pay the least heed to Russian premiers anymore?

What madness. And what agony awaits. A new Chechnya called Dagestan threatens to break out in Soviet Central Asia, while in the capital, the usual confusion reigns and matters ever less. Instead of revolutionary hero, Boris Yeltsin acts like a last czar, only without the dignity.

And instead of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Churchill famously summed up Russia, now it is only a sprawling mess. Once again, Constitutional and Social Democrats debate pointlessly while the Bolsheviks and Black Hundreds of the future begin to materialize in the mist, like wolves waiting patiently for the exhausted pilgrims to collapse in the snow. It's as if nothing had changed since 1905. Is Russia ever going to get to the 21st century, or, G-d forbid, is it about to repeat the 20th?

This will make Russia's fourth government in 17 months, the third this year, but who counts anymore? It is enough to know that the economy is in ruins, the country long ago broke into feudal principalities, that political life becomes increasingly irrelevant to people's basic concerns, and that Russia staggers on into the darkness, looking for salvation, finding only scalawags and scapegoats.

Russia: When strong, a menace to herself and others, and a ready ally for the darkest forces in human nature. Historians still argue over which part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was the greater threat to the world. And when weak, Russia is a swirling whirlpool of confusion that sucks its neighbors into the same chaos.

Russia: erratic, unsteady, dangerous. See the Kremlin's mischievous role in the late unpleasantness with Serbia, and Moscow's sudden seizure of the airport at Pristina even before hostilities were concluded. What should have been a humane partnership that might have protected the rights of all in Kosovo became a race for the spoils. Much like Russia's domestic politics today, and the spoils diminish as one crew of kleptocrats after another picks away at the country's vitals. Even Russians can bear only so much before revolting.

For the moment, with an ever weaker leader atop a tottering tower of incompetence and worse, Russia continues her fall. Power lies in the street, waiting to be seized. The usual contestants vie -- the bickering democrats who haven't been able to organize and govern since Kerensky if then; the same old Communists who remain strong as long as their old-age pensioners hold out; a few reformers who seem to matter only in the abstract; and a great pool of pure, self-seeking cynics.

Yes, Weimar keeps coming to mind. For behind the shattering facade of power lie the darkest forces, waiting to feed on the disgust and desperation of a disheartened people, capable of leading the nation into far deeper and darker waters.

And yet Moscow remains the third Rome, for something there is in Russia that produces holy men wandering the back roads, saints in its wooden churches, seers like Solzhenitsyn and thinkers like Sakharov, mystical scientists who combine brilliance with eccentricity, and a literature beyond great -- poetic, sweeping, vast, a thing of beauty and light, understanding and hope, even redemption.

For now, Russia sinks into a slough of despond, but it is impossible, it would be foolish, to ignore her, give up on her, turn our backs. Not that her friends can save Russia. It becomes clearer with every downward slide, every change of government that changes nothing, that only the Russians can save themselves. Russia's friends may already have done too much, trying to make her over into some pallid version of themselves.

Remember all those earnest experts from our universities who visited Russia as it was emerging from Communism, thinking they could simply transplant the American Constitution and economy and whole system to a country without an American or even Western history?

But this much others can do for Russia: Respect her. Be wary of her. Offer to help, but never let our guard down. Celebrate every ray of diminishing light, and warn against the encroaching darkness.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate