Reconciling Slavic Nations Remains an Impossible Dream

Article excerpt

Some 19th-century Slav intellectuals proudly claimed "the Slav problem" was the most important mankind faced. As the crisis in Bosnia attests, it still has not been solved.

What was - what is - the Slav problem? It is the reconciliation of a powerful people who in 1800 were mostly divided, illiterate and subject to foreign rule, with the Western nations who dominated the world then and continue to do so today.

Russia ruled itself in 1800, on Europe's edge, but the only Slav nation that since the Middle Ages had played a major European role, Poland, was partitioned, and politically did not exist.

All the other Slav peoples were in the Turkish or Austrian empires. Some, such as the Serbs, had experienced ephemeral national existence during the chaotic medieval period when the Byzantine Empire's power atrophied, and the Ottoman Turks took over southeastern Europe.

The Slavs' awakening was provoked by Germany. The German romantics saw in the rural and backward Slavs a dramatic contrast to Italian, French, and German sophistication. The latter, too civilized, were alienated from nature and simplicity.

The romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder said that the Slavs possessed superior moral and spiritual qualities that would make them "the coming leaders of Europe." This nonsense had a disastrous effect upon those Slavs who believed it, hence upon the Slavs' subsequent history.

The pan-Slav movement called for union of the Slavs, as they gained their independence. Yet it can be asked whether a distinct Slavic people exists. The Slavs are a linguistic community. The Slav languages are a subgroup of the Indo-European group of languages, spoken by the rest of Europe. Pan-Slav militants argue that all the Slavs have a common origin in prehistory, but there is no evidence for this. Ethnically, the Bulgarians are not Slavs at all, and the rest are hopelessly intermingled with the Baltic peoples, Turks, Finns, Mongols, Germans, Greeks, and Illyrians.

There is slight cultural affinity. Some Slavs are Orthodox Christian, some Catholic, some Muslim. Some write in the Cyrillic script and some in the Latin. Some, like the Poles, Bohemians and Croats, are deeply implicated in modern West European history. Others, like the Serbs, emerged from the Turkish empire only 200 years ago.

Russia itself was isolated and remote from Europe in 1800. …