Chicago -- The incredible courage of people standing up to tanks was the most moving part of the story coming to us from Moscow and Leningrad, as it was the most moving aspect of the Tiananmen Square story from China last year. But the Chinese brutally restored order, and the Russian coup leaders could not.
The difference is that the Russian events are part of an ongoing revolution. The Chinese had no plans such as the treaty among the Soviet republics that provoked the Soviet army to act. The reactionaries thought they could build on the unpopularity of Mikhail S. Gorbachev caused by economic conditions, in order to sabotage his treaty loosening the union.
This is an example of the delicate balancing act Mr. Gorbachev was compelled to undertake once he launched his reforms. He had to keep the people, the army, the republics and the Communist Party moving along with roughly equal steps toward the new freedoms. That is a more difficult task than his critics ever realized. Boris Yeltsin will soon realize it, if he emerges as the new leader.
American right-wingers have nagged at Mr. Gorbachev over the years of his historic breakthroughs. They told us he was still not trustworthy because still a Communist. They said we should not support him because he did not instantly free the republics, or switch to a totally free market overnight, or entirely repudiate long-standing commitments to such Soviet allies as Cuba.
This kind of ideological purity is the enemy of progress in the explosive stages of a revolution. Revolutions customarily devour their own leaders, as economic necessity, ideological division, personal differences and social instability make it hard to preserve enough continuity to hold the community together.
Mr. Gorbachev for years was able to gauge what he could get away with. He could not directly repudiate the party, the army or the past without bringing on himself just that coalition of reactionary forces that last weekend arrested him. The coup failed because he held it off until the people had tasted freedom, experimented in spontaneous action and undermined the will of the army to confront their friends and relatives in the street.
President Bush has been criticized for being too committed to Mr. Gorbachev. But Mr. Gorbachev had the best chance to move Soviet society as far as it has come. That he was testing the outer edges of the possible was proved by the actions taken against him.
Hasty people tell us he did not go far enough, fast enough. They are dismissive of massive changes that, just five years ago, would have been considered miraculous if not impossible.
If his usefulness has reached an end, that is something to be mourned. Perhaps it is time for a new leader to take on the next stages. But it will be very surprising if Mr. Yeltsin, or anyone else, proves as brave, ingenious and farsighted.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.