THE GORBACHEV era of Soviet history began in the spring of 1985. It ended the summer of 1990.
Day after day the news from the Soviet Union has been that what Mikhail Gorbachev tried to do has failed and is over. He tried to reshape the country to make it more efficient and permissive but keep it within the boundaries of the Soviet empire and under the direction of the ComA.MRosenthalmunist Party.
Yet the news of the end of the "reform" era has still not penetrated the consciousness of the West. It has escaped, in particular, Western politicians and Soviet affairs specialists who tied their futures so tightly to Gorbachev.
The man still has continuity value to his country and may stay on in office as president of the Soviet Union for a year or two. Suddenly, it does not seem to matter much anymore.
The job has little long-range significance and Gorbachev's chief opponent will not touch it. Boris Yeltsin has better things to do -- mainly bringing about the dissolution of the hodgepodge of conquered nationalities the president is supposed to govern.
Inside the Soviet Union the end of the era, if not the man, is told by lines outside bread stores and empty shelves inside. For the five years of the Gorbachev era, the Soviet Union marched resolutely backward. Now he has no place to retreat to keep any remnant of the system alive, though he searches still.
Only a year or so ago, Gorbachev was swearing he would not preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the help of the United States he blocked Baltic freedom. Now the question is how long the republics will keep the fiction of control by Moscow.
All this is no surprise to Soviet fighters for human rights who spent years in communist jails while Gorbachev was climbing the Soviet ladder. Some of them admire Gorbachev for his initial boldness.
None of them I know believed for a moment that he could do the impossible -- make the Soviet Union work within the communist structure to which he clung.
But the collapse of the Gorbachev era is hard for Western politicians and intellectuals to accept. Many of them either never understood the full corruption of the Soviet system or glossed it over.
I can smell the smoke as a few American economists burn their own books, the ones that told us how efficient the Soviet system really was.
Somehow, American leaders, including President Bush, convinced themselves that the interest of the capitalist United States was to insure the success of something called perestroika, a cockamamie "plan" on how to succeed through communism.
Only recently in Helsinki, Bush still solemnly praised perestroika, by then long cold in the grave. If Soviet citizens paid any attention at all, they were saying, "Perestroika who?"
So Yeltsin rises. He once talked total murk and acted the buffoon; no longer. He has moved intellectually far faster and further than Gorbachev, who now pants behind.
Yeltsin calls not for reform but rejection of Soviet statism and the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Gorbachev could not win fighting that platform and won't try.
But Yeltsin concedes he is still regarded with suspicion by some Soviet citizens because he made his career through the Communist Party. Vladimir Bukovsky is a Soviet human rights activist who saw the Soviet collapse coming while Westerners thought the system would last forever.
He writes in the New Republic that fair or unfair, Yeltsin may also be transitional because of his communist-bureaucrat background.
Anyway, Americans should not try to pick the leaders of the Soviet people by channeling all help and attention to one person. Let's not make the same mistake again -- picking a hero, focusing only on him, denying a chance to young newcomers and veteran Soviet freedom fighters who have not yet made American front pages and talk shows.
American economic and technical help should no longer be funneled through the Gorbachev Kremlin. The Gorbachev era may be over but the explosion it brought blew open new openings for American business.
Deals with old-time bureaucrats will not stick for long; they are signing for what does not belong to them.
Finding the new entrepreneurs and capitalist-minded officials of the breakaway republics will take more time and sophistication. But that is where to look for profit -- and for the new era of Soviet history.