The Russian Revolution

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The course of the coup was surreal. Has television, which helped unravel the putsch, come to enforce its own brief attention span upon history? Recent great events -- the breakup of Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf war, the failure of the coup -- seem to be enacting themselves in shorter and shorter time frames. Three days last week undid 10 centuries of civic dormancy. It is possible that the world is dividing between blood feuders and channel changers. The blood feuders, like zealots in Ireland or the Middle East, cannot forget revenge, even over many years; the impatient channel changers of the electronic age favor fast-paced, variable and possibly shallow new realities. The old communists are blood feuders. The new Russians are channel changers.

The Gang of Eight was caught between the feud and the change. Its coup looked like Stalin's ruthlessness written on the fifth carbon, a smudgy, illegible piece of work. It was fitting that stupidity should be a prevailing theme. An oafish brainlessness has for decades hung over the Soviet communist venture like one of Nikita Khrushchev's suits. Its secret has never been intelligence but rather ruthlessness. The cardinal rule of coupmaking, says Edward Luttwak of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, is "to seize control of all the centers of power in one fell swoop, to paralyze the situation." Even banana republics know this. The Gang of Eight was inexplicably though mercifully inept. Perhaps the conspirators picked up some debilitatingly humane manners during the Gorbachev era. They did not launch a coup but proffered a sort of half-coup, saying complimentary things about Gorbachev and holding out the possibility of working with him again. The Gang was a bit like an assassin named Karakozov, who tried to shoot Czar Alexander II in 1866, missed, and is said to have shouted to bystanders as the police led him away, "Fools! I did it for you!"

The biggest mistake the Emergency Committee made was not to kill both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But the plotters craved constitutional legitimacy for their illegitimate act and could not bring themselves to be ruthless about it. "They may have had Leninist nostalgia," says Luttwak, "but they didn't have a Leninist temperament -- which is to shoot the bastards."

Many ineptitudes: tyranny does its best work in the dark, and information is often more powerful than guns. But the committee did not grasp that rudiment either. It did not shut down the country's television, telephones and other communications with the rest of the world. Or maybe it could not have done so anyway, so pervasive, adaptable and versatile are the electronic instruments of our age.

More broadly, the cabal failed because it was an old-style coup in a new- style society. The Russian people have been transformed over a period of years. They are not the Russians whom Bertrand Russell was talking about when he justified Bolshevik despotism by saying "If you ask yourself how Dostoyevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand." The new Soviets owe much of their transformation and fearlessness to Gorbachev -- and by last week they were using that freedom to outgrow him.

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