TOMORROW, the Soviet Union will celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Standing, as they always do, atop Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow, the top-ranking Soviet leaders will have an appropriate vantage point. For despite the appearance of a celebration, they will be presiding over a funeral.
Indeed, any Communist Party official attending should wear black, for the omens are unmistakable that the Soviet Union almost certainly will not live to see its 74th birthday, or even another summer. Economic chaos and political disintegration are spreading rapidly. Kremlin edicts, once obeyed unquestioningly, now are routinely ignored, even in Moscow itself.
Under assault from all sides, the Soviet Union now faces the rapid awakening of its two mortal enemies: Russian and Ukrainian nationalism.
The Russian Republic, the Soviet Union's largest, is quickly moving to shake off Soviet control. Its government, headed by the politically adept Boris Yeltsin, regularly levels withering attacks upon the Soviet regime.
Meanwhile, to the south, the Ukraine moves with increasing speed and confidence toward complete independence. An independent Ukraine -- the economic breadbasket of the Soviet Union -- would strip Moscow of any claim to superpower status. A Ukrainian exodus would provide the catalyst for the breakup of the empire.
Mikhail Gorbachev seems incapable of meeting these challenges. By his latest waffling and compromise on economic reform, he has thrown away his last, admittedly slim, hope of salvaging his position and that of the Soviet regime by seizing the political and economic initiative.
It is now too late to avert the approaching economic crash. Critical food and fuel shortages are a certainty this winter; famine a real possibility. Russia's revolutions traditionally have taken place in winter, when such hardships are explosively combined with weakened political authority.
And Soviet political authority is weakening. In the all-important contest for the loyalty of the Russian Republic, Gorbachev is unlikely to prevail against Yeltsin.
By spurning Yeltsin's 500-day plan for economic reform, Gorbachev has handed the Russian leader a political trump card. Yeltsin can now portray any economic hardship as Gorbachev's responsibility. Already, Yeltsin has announced he will act to "protect" the Russian population and safeguard the republic's increasing autonomy from Moscow.
The picture is no brighter in Ukraine. Once a conservative stronghold, the most repressed of the Soviet republics is undergoing an explosion of nationalism. In October, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Kiev to demand sweeping political changes. Communist Prime Minister Vitali Masol was forced to resign, and the entire regime is likely to be toppled early next year and replaced by a democratic government.
The leading democratic group, Rukh, recently adopted a platform demanding complete independence from Moscow, rejecting proposals for a renewed Soviet federation or confederation.
Incredibly, the U.S. government has kept these democratic groups at arm's length. The White House all but refuses to meet with any of the opposition leaders from outside the Baltic states, and has offered no practical support. If the democratic and national independence movements are to be successful, it will be in spite of the West. Fearful of doing anything that might cause instability or offend Gorbachev, the United States and other democracies have been content to do nothing.
The irony is that by isolating these movements, the West has reduced the restraints on them and on Moscow against violence and extremism, thus increasing the prospects of instability.
Europe's last colonial empire, the Soviet Union, is in eclipse, and with it the last major threat to Europe. Instead of remaining on the sidelines, the United States should act to ensure that the transition occurs peacefully and that Western interests are safeguarded. We must establish ties with the band of countries now emerging from their long subjugation -- from Estonia in the north to Armenia in the south -- and ease their return to the world community.
This may well be the last Bolshevik parade down Moscow's streets, the last procession of troops and tanks and party faithful, the last time the Soviet anthem is sung in any republic, anywhere. For the democratic West to remain blind to such change would be to forget history, to disregard the present, and to ignore the future.
Douglas Seay is a European analyst with the Heritage 8 Foundation in Washington, D.C.