ALEKSANDR BESSMERTNYKH came over to me at a reception a couple of years ago, said he heard I'd written a book about Lincoln and our Civil War, and proceeded to cast Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Lincoln -- dedicated to preserving his Union.
I suggested this difference: Lincoln believed in human freedom and Gorbachev was trying to perpetuate a system of political slavery.
Bessmertnykh, who rolled his eyes at such old thinking, became foreign minister 48 hours after "Bloody Sunday," when Red army tanks killed or injured nearly 400 unarmed Lithuanian patriots.
So ends the end of the cold war; so begins the Soviet Civil War.
When asked if he had given the order to kill the Lithuanians, Gorbachev responded in a way typical of Russian despots: He lied in his steel teeth. He was fast asleep when it all happened. You see, the unarmed people of Vilnius fired first . . .
Latvia and Estonia, the other Baltic nations enslaved by Stalin and Hitler, come next; the "Black Berets" loyal to the dictator in the Kremlin can hardly wait to spill more civilian blood.
Having used glasnost to get rid of his party rivals, Gorbachev said the dissent in the Baltics "smelled of kerosene" and promptly demanded that an old-style Pravda stamp out any reporting of the truth.
With milquetoast militancy, the press secretary to the president of the United States peeped: "We don't share that viewpoint." Old State Department hands cautioned against canceling summit dates or in any way encouraging the protesters.
But in Moscow, the historian Yuri Afanasyev, a leader of the embattled reform movement, focused on the historic import of ++ "Bloody Sunday": Of Gorbachev's action he said, "this is civil war"; to oppose the dictator's dispatch of tanks to kill demonstrators was "an effort to avoid it."
With timing calculated to minimize world coverage, Gorbachev has in effect fired on his Fort Sumter. By reversing the "irreversible" -- by calling on his power base in the KGB and Red Army to crush the skulls of the independence-minded -- he has revealed himself to be a world-class genie-bottler.
That means he will, if necessary to remain in power, crush not only the independence movements in the captive nations but the reformers inside the republics.
Half-measures didn't work; now he will try no measures. If legislators balk, his Black Berets can surround the Supreme Soviet and conduct a Pride's purge.
Boris Yeltsin, elected leader of the Russians, has urged Russian soldiers not to obey orders to fire on unarmed civilians. Will he take the next step -- risk arrest by urging them to fire on the military commissars giving the orders to fire on civilians? That would be the sort of event to cause American news networks to look away from the gulf war.
He will not; the civil war that Gorbachev ignited will smolder for a while before it bursts into conflict. As the half-year pause in the Persian Gulf indicates, we are in an era of slow-motion run-ups to hostilities. It may be years before the killers of Tbilisi and Vilnius are brought to justice or the peoples of the empire use more than sticks against guns.
In the meantime, without suggesting military intercession, the U.S. can do more than oh-so-gently dissociating itself from evil's new emperor.
We can, for example, stop declaring the Cold War to be over; it ain't over till it's over, and that will be when Moscow limits its empire to those consenting to its rule.
We can stop pretending not to notice flagrant Red Army cheating on conventional force reductions, and respond by pressing on with our space shield -- the strategic pressure that most worries the Kremlin.
We can use new alliances to give repression a cost. President Bush should direct Michael Young, now at the CSCE meeting on "peaceful settlements of disputes" in Malta, to demand an investigation of the Soviet-Baltic nations dispute, and to put it on the agenda for the scheduled foreign ministers' meeting.
When Dainis Ivans and Bronius Kuzmickas, the vice presidents of Latvia and Lithuania, arrive here Thursday night, Bush should receive them to get their firsthand report. A snub now would never be forgotten.
In the sweep of history, the Soviet Civil War will matter even more than stopping a pre-nuclear tyrant in the gulf. That struggle for freedom has begun in Vilnius, and Gorbachev is no Lincoln.