Anatomy of a giant

Modern Russian politics defeats facile explanation. By Godfrey Hodgson; An Empire's New Clothes: The End of Russia's Liberal Regime by Bruce Clark Vintage, pounds 7.99

As Russia faces two elections, for parliament in December and presumably for the presidency next year, and as Boris Yeltsin, the West's chosen saviour, prepares to leave the stage, this clear-eyed account, written out of personal experience and original thought, is very timely.

Bruce Clark's view is what most Western observers would regard as pessimistic. He predicts the failure of the liberal Little Russia which has been the West's preferred option. But then he thinks that most western analysis has largely missed the point of what is happening in Russia: he believes that Russia is recovering economically and will soon be making itself felt diplomatically.

Whether or not you agree with all his conclusions, this account is to most journalistic commentary on Russian politics what a long, careful analysis is to a 30-second piece to camera on CNN, where all that locates you in Russia is the silhouette of St Basil's cathedral.

This rare attempt to understand Russia in its own terms starts with a great advantage over those who try to understand it only in ours. The Orthodox church is a good example of this. At first, westerners saw it as a heroic band of persecuted martyrs. Then, when the full extent of the church leaders' collaboration with the KGB became known, they were shocked. Clark points out that, to the Orthodox mind, co-operation with the temporal power was always seen as necessary to safeguard the spiritual dimension of life under autocracy.

He begins with an illuminating examination of the furious arguments over the very nature of Russia among intellectuals. He explains the influence, for example, of Lev Gumilyov's theory of Russia as a "super-ethnos", compounded of Slav and Turkish civilisations. To Western readers, that sounds like crazy geopolitical nonsense; yet Gumilyov is not some wild, Dostoyevskyan holy fool, but the historian son of that supreme heroine of western liberals, Anna Akhmatova.

Clark examines the strange, shifting alliances, the diametric alternations of ideas in the Russian political class: "Villains have metamorphosed into heroes, destitutes into multimillionaires, and reformers into arch- conservatives and back again". The post-Soviet world, intellectual as well as political, is, he says, far more remote from that of the West than we are prone to believe. Yet he does not underestimate the sophistication of the new Russian politics: think of chess and the hydrogen bomb, he observes in passing.

He is led to some surprising, even sensational conclusions. The war in Chechnya was not an aberration, he says, but, an essential part of a rational, if ruthless, strategy for controlling exports from the new Caspian oilfields. He takes Vladimir Zhirinovsky seriously, interpreting his imperialist ravings as the cover for a cool strategy of neutralising those countries - Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran - which share divided populations (Kurds, Tajiks and Azeris respectively) with the former Soviet Union. Indeed, he suspects a tacit alliance between Yeltsin and Zhirinovsky, the anti- Semite who, Clark shows, probably had a Jewish father: a perfect illustration of how things in the new Russian politics are never quite what they seem.

He suspects Yeltsin and his allies of manipulating the media image of his victory over the 1993 coup, and accuses them of stage-managing the killings at the Ostankino television centre.

His central contention, and it is on the whole convincing, is that the West in general, and the United States in particular, has committed a historic mistake by patronising and underestimating this convalescent giant.

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