Both of us remember how, when we were schoolchildren in Russia, the proud pointer wielded by the teacher would roam across the political map, as we learned by rote that the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of the earth's surface and that its territory was vast enough to accommodate 2.3 Americas, 40 Frances or 92 Great Britains. That by itself was supposed to inspire patriotic fervor. It was not official propaganda but nationalist feeling.

In the U.S.S.R., georgraphy takes the place of history, politics and ideology. And this applies to the people no less than to the goverment: the unanimity here is astounding. For example, with very few exceptions, all of the great Russian writers of the 19th century were confirmed imperialists in their political (or, more precisely, their geographical) views. Gogol wrote ecstatically about how his country covered almost half of the world. Pushkin wrote a militaristic poem about the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1831, and the taking of Warsaw, by Russian troops. Griboyedov drafted several colonialist treaties for the government. (It was while he was putting one of them into effect, as Russian ambassador to Tehran, that he was killed by a violent mob of Moslem fanatics.) Dostoyevsky yearned passionately for the capture of Constantinople. And Tyutchev, as he lay dying, asked for details on how the Khanate of Khiva was captured. Since these were the best minds of Russia, what could one expect of government officials or the people?

Russians have a Wanderlust in their blood. Some of Russia's conquests cannot be explained from an economic, political, strategic or any other reasonable point of view. What we have here is an obsession with space -- an obsession arising from constant restlessness and historical nomadism. Russia was given the burdensome, tragic gift of space. It prides itself on its vast distances. But there are only kilometers in it; and the Russians can do nothing more than be frightened by those expanses of fields occupied by nothing and nobody. Actually, Russia is only Moscow, which with its iron hand keeps countless provinces and colonies on a leash. This defect in their country's structure is taken by the Russians to be its greatest virtue; and they strive to preserve all that space, and increase it.

Aristotle held the opinion that if an object was too tiny or too huge for the eye to take in, it could hardly be said to exist. Russia is too vast to be a reality. It is a georgraphical and political fiction that must expand and extend its borders as a kind of sublimation. And this is precisely what Russia has been doing successfully for a long time, regardless of whether it was ruled by the czarist autocracy or the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Russia, history has evolved not in depth but in breadth. And in lieu of historical differences, those in Russia have been geographic. Petr Chaadayev, a philosopher of the last century, wrote, in connection with his country's "historical nothingness": "If we didn't stretch from the Bering Strait to the Oder, no one would even notice us."

The process was begun under Grand Duke Ivan Kalita (Ivan I), who, in the 14th century, "gathered in" the lands around Moscow. According to the calculations of Fridtjof Nansen, beginning in 1500, every seven years Russia added as much territory to its empire as that occupied by the kingdom of Norway.

From a safe distance, we are now looking intently at a splotch spreading all too widely over the political map. One can imagine it as a sleeping beast that is stretched out on the cushions of two parts of the world, yet still feels cramped. Russia would seem to be in the same condition as that in which the Marquis de Custine found it in 1939: "Today the Russian people are incapable of anything except conquering the world." Hence the catastrophic contrast between economic and military development. It is not the specter of communism that is haunting Europe, as Karl Marx once wrote; it is Russian history, for which expansion has always been a substitute for inner vigor.

The most astounding thing, however, is how the Russians themselves view this obvious trait of imperialism. Their attitude can be ascribed to, among other things, one of the most distressing factors in Russian history: the constant invasions of that country by its enemies. For some 300 years -- i.e., during about one-third of its entire history -- Russia was under the Mongol-Tatar yoke. For century after century, right up through the last war, Mongols, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, French and Germans made devastating incursions into Russia, even capturing and burning its capital. And the memory of those national humiliations is preserved in two forms: in an acute xenophobia (anti-Semitism in the U.S.S.R. is not merely a result of official propaganda but also an expression the Russians' allergy to aliens); and in the great-power instinct of the people, to whom their imperialism seems a strictly defensive phenomenon, not an aggressive one.

Today, their fears have taken on a specific form and a new name: China. Moreover, an analogy that is close even in racial terms has been preserved and prompted by the nation's historical memory: the catastrophe of the 300-year occupation by the Mongols. Simultaneously with this sense of danger, and directly opposed to it, there has been an increase in Russia's aggressiveness toward China, its potential allies and the countries bordering it. (Paradoxically, Afghanistan was the first country to fall a victim to Russia's fear of China.)

To the foregoing, one must add Russia's fear of the peoples it has subdued: the hangman's fear of his victims, the master's fear of his slaves, the persecution mania of the persecutor. After the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, a story was going to rounds in Moscow about a bad dream that Brezhnev had had. It seems he dreamed that a Czech was squatting in Red Square eating matzo balls with chopsticks. The reader can easily imagine what a man is capable of, after awakening from a nightmare like that.