WASHINGTON — I KNEW the Soviet coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was going to fail when NBC News called upon "our reporter in the White House" to tell New York what was happening.
"Our reporter" was not from Chicago, Sioux City or Dallas, and was not covering George Bush; she was rather a smart Russian journalist in Moscow speaking flawless English. "The White House," meanwhile, was a slang term for GeorgieAnneGeyerthe large, white Russian parliament building in downtown Moscow where Boris Yeltsin was holed up against the hard-line conservative forces of the past.
At that moment, as well as the gratifying ones to follow, I paused to take a long, invigorating breath. For behind that image of Russian journalists reporting on a failing KGB coup in the heart of Moscow for Western news-gathering organizations and for a rapt American audience, lay all the incredible changes that have occurred in the Soviet Union over the last 30 years.
Indeed, if there were one overwhelming characteristic of these dramatic last few days -- from the time Sunday midnight when it appeared the old communist order might really have returned, to the announcement Wednesday that Gorbachev was being reinstated -- it was a sense of pervading unreality.
When I first went to the Soviet Union in 1967 to investigate the new generation of Soviets for the old Chicago Daily News, I soon found a little-noticed reality. A new Soviet generation was being formed that was totally different from the hard-line, true-believing, rigid Soviets of the old Bolshevik states. Their date of birth was really 1964, when Nikita Khrushchev began the post-Stalin liberalization of the U.S.S.R.
Even though sociological studies on youth, such as those I found at the University of Leningrad, indicated strongly that the Khrushchev generation of young Soviets was non-ideological, bored to death with communism, impassioned about knowing the forbidden outside world and eager for good jobs and material possessions, nobody here would believe that there was indeed a new generation. The common wisdom, held by both the American left and right, was that the Russians were hard-line communists and would stay that way forever.
I was somewhat disturbed and disappointed that my analysis of this far more sophisticated new generation -- which would want to work with young Americans instead of fighting them -- had been so ill-received here at home. The little book I published in 1976, "The Young Russians," was so derided as naive and illusionary that for a time I lost interest in the changing Russia I had found. Then, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev burst upon the scene.
Not only did I soon recognize him as the avatar of "my" generation, but I avidly perused the country again, only to find this Russian generation surfacing all over the place.
For what was happening in the Soviet Union during these years was not really as mysterious as many people make it appear. Countries and peoples can remain in the throes of fanatic ideologies for only a limited period. They gradually liberalize, while their young people become educated and less susceptible to totalitarianism at home and less fearful of the stranger abroad. Economies have become linked across the world. Russia came to a point where it could either join that world or fall further and further behind.
Meanwhile, the best efforts of the West to position Western democracy against Eastern totalitarianism often went unnoticed. Above all else, while nuclear military power held the equation stable, information was systematically broadcast into the Soviet Union by radios like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
It was that "information revolution" that led to those smart English-speaking Russian journalists this week reporting on their own historic turning point to their new Western friends and neighbors. It led this week to Izvestia reporters going on strike during the coup, insisting that Boris Yeltsin be covered as legitimate leader of the Russian federation.
These are spiritually the kids that I interviewed in 1967 and 1971. They are even sometimes the children of those who, out of sight of the dour communist apparatchiks, would talk for hours to me of morals and ethics and even of their yearning for God.
To worry, therefore, that the West did not support Gorbachev enough at the G-7 meeting this summer and save him from those tired old men of the KGB and military is to worry about irrelevancies. This historic moment is not decided by exaggerated notions of our own power in a vast and intensely complicated land.
Meanwhile, those men of the old order finally revealed that they could not even do what they used to do best. They cannot any longer oppress their swiftly changing nation.