We Start to Be Mankind THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 23, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — It is tempting to believe the global village is so completely linked now that every outrage against democracy everywhere will be played out in real time before the eyes of the world, and so be defeated by popular opinion.

What happened when tanks rolled in Moscow this week was a far cry from what happened in Budapest 35 years ago this fall, when the Soviet army crushed the Hungarian rebellion. The most stirring memory of that resistance is of the state radio announcer, still broadcasting as Soviet troops broke into the building, who finally went off the air begging for help from the West.

No help came. Egged on by Radio Free Europe and other Western radio stations, citizens of Budapest fought the Red Army's tanks as the Russians surrounding Boris Yeltsin's headquarters were ready to fight them this week. But in Hungary, in the depths of the Cold War, there was no hesitation by Soviet troops. About 7,000 of them were killed as they cut down more than 30,000 Hungarians. The rebellion was crushed.

Though a few diligent Western reporters were there to report what happened, most of the details seeped out slowly. Communications lines were shut down. There was nothing like live television from the scene. The uprising was not quite like the tree that fell in the forest with no one to hear, but headlines about Hungary were promptly superseded by those about the abortive British-French invasion of Suez and Dwight Eisenhower's re-election.

When the next great wave of Eastern European revolt came, the old regimes tried but could not shut down communications. In 1989, it was still impossible to make a phone call at busy hours to points a mile away across the Berlin wall, and those lines could be closed at any time. But for the people of East Germany, Western TV and radio acted as bulletin boards of revolution.

Opposition groups talked to Western reporters. Their demonstrations were filmed. And when seen in the East, those broadcasts brought out more protesters. The demonstrations grew and grew, until the Communist party and government were afraid to stop them.

The East Germans had followed the growth of Solidarity in

Poland, watched the party in Hungary change. If there, they said, why not here? In turn, the people of Czechoslovakia saw what was happening in the streets of East Berlin and Leipzig -- If there, why not here? Upheavals that in earlier years might have come years apart, if not crushed at birth, instead followed each other within days.

In Moscow, where outgoing and incoming news was controlled for so long, telephone lines, computer modems and fax machines proliferated during glasnost. Foreign reporters swarmed in, filing via satellite or other instant links. So when the hard-line bullies decided last weekend that things had gone too far toward democracy, they were unable to cut communications.

Early on, a message from one of Boris Yeltsin's aides came to Washington by fax. ''Tanks are everywhere,'' it said. ''The Russian government has no way to address the people. All radio stations are under control.'' It sent a Yeltsin statement and urged that the Voice of America ''Broadcast it over the country.'' ''Do it! Urgent!'' it said, reminiscent of that last poignant plea from Radio Budapest.

But this time, though the right-wingers brought official Soviet organs into line, they could not stop news and pictures from flooding back and forth to and from the world. Foreign reporters broadcast from within the Yeltsin headquarters, and their reports bounced back almost immediately to listeners in Russia.

Support from Western leaders rang loud and clear, encouraging those resisting the coup. President Bush talked directly to Mr. Yeltsin, and relayed what he said back to the Soviet Union. A reporter told Mr. Bush that ''Given the way the world is wired for sound and pictures, it's conceivable that Gorbachev is hearing you right now.'' What would he say?

''Stay by your principles,'' Mr. Bush said. ''Stay with your reforms. Stay with your commitment to the democratic process and constitutional law. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Yeltsin . . . ''

If indeed Mr. Gorbachev heard, it was an unprecedented moment in world history. Whether he heard or not, the Russian people did.

Everything about this week has been unprecedented as messages flash back and forth, making borders obsolete. Vitaly Korotich, editor of the Soviet magazine Ogonyok, watched from this side of the ocean. Instead of nations speaking to one another, he said, ''We start to be mankind.''

The sad part is that whatever we would like to believe in this week's euphoria, the people in some repressed parts of the world -- Libya, Iraq, China -- still are not citizens of the global village. For them, history is not yet instantaneous. But in time they will hear, as the people in Berlin, Budapest and Moscow heard.

Telephone lines, computer modems and fax machines proliferated during glasnost. Foreign reporters swarmed in. So when the hard-line bullies decided things had gone too far, they were unable to cut communications.

The sad part is that the people in some repressed parts of the world -- Libya, Iraq, China -- still are not citizens of the global village. For them, history is not yet instantaneous. But in time they will hear.

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