Not since 1917 has the Soviet Union been witness to such a life and death struggle, a struggle that this time may seal the doom of the very same Communist Party that shook the world when it came to power. The world is shaking once again as hardline elements try desperately to protect the power and privilege their Bolshevik predecessors won 74 years ago. But in our view, they cannot prevail. Like the czarist regime overthrown by Lenin, they are doomed and discredited by the absolutism that separates them from their people.
Much anguish and drama accompanied the coup d'etat of 1917 and the harsh civil war that followed. Much of the same may again be the fate of the largest empire on this planet. Yet the disintegration of the Communist Party, repudiated by reformist leaders (Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Shevardnadze) who were once its favored products, has assumed an air of inevitability.
For what can coup-masters who are trying to depose legitimate governments at federal, republic and municipal levels possibly achieve? The honor of presiding over the next Russian winter? Of reviving a wrecked economy without assistance from successful capitalist societies? Of reimposing dictatorship on peoples who in the last half decade have tasted freedom? Of saber-rattling against Eastern European nations that have broken loose of Moscow's control -- or against Lithuanians and Georgians whose highest wish is the same?
Gennady Yanayev, the vice president Mikhail Gorbachev thought he could trust, is already losing members of the eight-man junta that illegally clutched at power as this week began. Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov is "sick." Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov is reported ill. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov may have resigned. Leningrad and the Ukraine -- two pivotal centers -- are resisting the reactionary takeover. Siberian miners are on strike. There are signs of increasing defection in the armed forces, even with several score tank commanders and several hundred troops risking all to side with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
This fiery populist, the only freely elected official in the top hierarchy, is already the hero of the democratic countercoup and, sadly, a potential martyr as well. His scathing denunciations of those in control of the KGB, the army and the Interior Ministry have attracted the admiration of President Bush, who not so long ago was inclined to put Mr. Yeltsin down in an ill-conceived show of loyalty to President Mikhail Gorbachev. Now one of Mr. Bush's priorities is to safeguard both from the frightening instruments of Communist power.
The president is adroitly using what leverage he has to influence these stirring events. By denying the junta a shred of legitimacy, by putting economic cooperation on hold, by rallying the moral indignation of the democratic world, he and other Western leaders are displaying a resoluteness that is worthy of Boris Yeltsin's courage.
Soviet Communism's days are numbered.