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The man who came to dinner in Red Square

When the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, a story about Brezhnev's most horrifying dream started making the rounds in Moscow. What he dreamed was that a Czech was squatting in Red Square eating matzo balls with chopsticks. Today, adapted to new times, the story is being told in two versions. In one, it is an Afghan rebel who is using the chopsticks; in the other, it is Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader.

This story will stay alive so long as the Russian empire exists. And it will always have two constants, the Jewish and Chinese elements, and one variable: the man who came to dinner in Red Square. Today the dinner guest is either an Afghan or a Pole; tomorrow he will be an Estonian, a Georgian, or maybe another Czech. There are lots of understudies for this part, because the greater the empire the more enemies it has.

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Whoever succeeds Brezhnev will inherit an empire bulging with space, peoples, contradictions, and weapons. That empire has its own problems. And when the future leader of Russia tackles them, his decisions will be dictated not by his own views or wishes so much as by the nature of the empire. The nightmare about the "national minoritarian" who came to dinner in Red Square is not just Brezhnev's own: It is a collective bad dream of the Russian empire, which perceives its own fear of retribution as a fear of aggression and wants the rest of the world to see it in the same way.

Although invulnerable militarily, the empire is emotionally vulnerable. It is frightened by the least show of rebellion: not only by the Polish workers demanding the right to strike but by the Estonian schoolchildren who marched in the streets of Tallinn demanding that their Russian classes be replaced by courses in Estonian literature.

Since the time of Stalin, the Russians have regarded themselves as "the older brother" in the most patriarchal and unattractive sense. And they are worried about the survival of their empire because, in their recent history, they have known nothing butm empire.

In Russia, the relatively liberal Khrushchev era is remembered as a period of the empire's enfeeblement. There is real resentment against Khrushchev for having returned one military base (Port Arthur) to China and another (Porkkala) to Finland and for having pulled the Soviet troops out of Austria.

The empire's fear of breaking up suggests to it that the best defense is to go on the offensive. It is in this perspective that one must view the invasion of Afghanistan, which is not a new page in Russian history but a return to old ones. In no way does that invasion differ from the conquest of Afghanistan's neighbors, the Khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara, in the late 19th century.

This resolute retrogression indicates that the period of dual government in Russia has come to an end; that behind the ceremonial figure of Brezhnev stand men who are much more strong-minded and willing to take desperate gambles. This is all the more true in view of a factor that is growing not from day to day but from hour to hour: the Russian fear of China. This fear is historical (the parallel with the 300-year Tatar-Mongol yoke), racial, demographic, and total. Because the Chinese are not Afghans, Czechs, or Poles. They cannot be frightened or tamed or occupied.

One can get a notion of this fear both from the stepped-up aggressiveness of official anti-Chinese propaganda and from the dwindling optimism of the jokes told in Moscow. (The shortest of these goes: "All is quiet on the Sino-Finnish border.")

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But along with explicit propaganda, the empire draws upon two Eastern traditions -- the Byzantine and the Tatar- Mongolian -- in employing a language of allusions, parables, historical allegories, and parallels. There are some striking examples of this in the flood of articles devoted to the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kulikovo between the Russians and the Tatars, which is rated by the Russians as one of the greatest in their history -- on a par with Borodino in 1812 and Stalingrad in 1942-43. They see Kulikovo not as a battle between states but as one between so far removed in time, belongs rather to mythology than to history, the Russians are quite sure that it will have to be fought again in the near future.

To quote from Sovetskaya Kultura, an organ of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: "Is fate not bringing closer to us the time when we shall again go forth onto the field of Kulikovo to defend Russian soil and Russian blood?"

This is not black humor nor a nightmare: It is a daytime reality in the last great empire on this earth.

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