The Russian Revolution

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An abyss opened for a moment, and black bats flew out. They filled the air with old nightmares, throwbacks to a style of history that the world had been forgetting. The Soviet Union was seized by a sinister anachronism: its dying self. Men with faces the color of a sidewalk talked about a "state of emergency." They rolled in tanks and told stolid lies. The world imagined another totalitarian dusk, cold war again, and probably Soviet civil war as well. If Gorbachev was under arrest, who had possession of the nuclear codes?

Three days: then the bats of history abruptly turned, flew back and vanished into the past. By act of will and absence of fear, the Russian people accomplished a kind of miracle, the reversal of a thousand years of autocracy.

Nadezhda Mandelstam, the brilliant, bitter memoirist of the Stalin era, wrote in the early '70s: "Evil has great momentum, but the forces of good are inert. The masses . . . have no fight in them, and will acquiesce in whatever happens." Until last week the Russian character was judged to be politically passive, even receptive to brutal rule. At first the coup seemed to confirm the norm. The news administered a dark shock, followed immediately by a depressed sense of resignation: of course, of course, the Russians must revert to their essential selves, to their own history. Gorbachev and glasnost were the aberration; now we are back to fatal normality. "Every country has the government it deserves," Joseph de Maistre wrote in 1811.

Now, after 74 years of communist dictatorship and, centuries before that, of czarist autocracy, the Russians may get a government they have earned -- a democracy. For the first time, they did not subside into an acceptance of overlords. Instead they turned last week's reactionary coup into a transforming rite of passage, an epochal event that forced even Gorbachev to re-examine his most basic beliefs and resign his post as head of the Communist Party.

Citizens poured into the streets, determined, methodical and -- the biggest change in a Russian experience suffused with a genius for official terror -- astonishingly unafraid. They defied the junta's curfew, built barricades around the Russian Parliament Building, where Boris Yeltsin had organized his resistance. They had absorbed something about people power from Prague, Berlin, even Vilnius. A crowd of Muscovites brought a column of armored personnel carriers (APCs) to a halt, stuffing rosebuds and wildflowers into gun barrels. A line of women stood ready to face down troops with a single banner: SOLDIERS: DON'T SHOOT MOTHERS AND SISTERS. Clearly the soldiers had orders not to use force. One of a dozen soldiers who marched to the central telegraph office on Tverskaya Street, when confronted by outraged Muscovites, showed them that the clip of his automatic weapon was empty. When the tanks did move, people were ready with gasoline-filled bottles (named, of course, after the old Stalinist V.M. Molotov). Tank drivers, even paratroop commanders, defected to the resistance. Miners went on strike.

With all of that, the people of Russia last week purchased their freedom and citizenship. They abolished serfdom in Soviet political life. The event is one of the turning points of world history, proclaiming the end of a totalitarianism that has destroyed so much of the 20th century.

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