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Independent power centers have taken hold in the new Soviet Union. There are republic leaders, legitimately elected mayors, legislators, independent journalists. The society is too various and too well educated for rulers to control in the old Stalinist way. Russians are not, as Marx called them, "rude Asiatics." Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute of Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has observed, "There has been a general trend throughout the postwar period toward increasing education, urbanization and professionalization of the labor force. Those trends bring with them different attitudes toward authority and a greater desire to control one's destiny. It's not the same society it was a generation ago."
The Soviet military-security apparatus tried to use ominously rumbling, fume-belching columns of tanks and APCs to bring Moscow to submission, but proved no more potent than the Wizard of Oz. The communist system by last week had reached such an advanced state of debility that the brain was no longer capable of sending commands to the limbs. What most Soviets will remember about "Acting President" Gennadi Yanayev is his trembling hands as he tried to explain himself on television.
The coup was not necessarily doomed to failure. Many millions of Soviet citizens did not demonstrate against the takeover, but sat back, awaiting the outcome. If other conspirators try again to overthrow the government, they will have learned some lessons from August 1991. They will not make the same mistakes. Suppose the plotters had killed Gorbachev and Yeltsin, found army units to invade the Parliament Building, locked up the country's media, communications, airports and roads . . . The outcome might have been infinitely messier and more dangerous, both for the Soviets and for the world. And a spirit of vindictiveness against all communists may still come to haunt the land.
But the event is probably irrevocable. Russian history is a progression of false dawns, from Catherine the Great to Peter the Great to the Bolshevik Revolution to the Khrushchev thaw. Last week's looked like the real thing.