Communism came to power in Russia by a coup d'etat in October 1917. It might well have been preserved by another coup d'etat in August 1991, had there been among the Gang of Eight a Leon Trotsky, the master tactician of the Bolshevik coup, who understood the requirements for seizing power in a modern state.
Fortunately for the Soviet people and for the world, there was not. But it was a near miss, and we should not conclude from this coup's failure that the reform process in the Soviet Union could not be threatened by another, better planned and executed coup. (Nikita Khrushchev defeated one coup attempt and was brought down by a second.) Nor should we suppose that a modern state is not vulnerable to the seizure of power by, as Trotsky said, ''a small company -- cold-blooded and violent, well trained in the tactics of insurrection.''
It was not, finally, Boris Yeltsin's brilliant leadership nor courageous popular opposition that brought this coup to a standstill -- though both of these were very important. Neither was it world disapproval strongly expressed -- though that, too, may have helped. It was above all, the weaknesses and mistakes of the plotters that ensured their defeat.
Both the plan and the execution of this coup were inadequate. The conspirators arrested Mikhail Gorbachev and removed him from the scene, but they left most democratic leaders free to rally opposition to the coup. This is, of course, precisely what Boris Yeltsin, the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, Eduard Shevardnadze and others did so brilliantly.
The plotters seized some communication facilities but not all. They never cut telephone and telegraph lines inside and outside the Soviet Union. They took control of Baltic capitals but not the Russian capital. They mobilized some forces but not enough to control the streets of Moscow. They issued decrees but did not implement them, empowered a curfew but did not enforce it. They marshaled force but shrank from using it.
Trotsky said the seizure of a state was a problem of tactics, not of politics. But these plotters were both tactically and politically deficient. They did not adequately analyze the structure of power, identify its choke points and silently practice seizing control. So focused were they on the institutions of the Soviet state that they missed entirely the importance of the new local and federation leaders.
They lacked clear political goals and leaders who could make the case for their cause. Like Alexander Kerensky, the victim of the Bolsheviks' 1917 coup, they seriously underestimated their opponents.
Nevertheless, these plotters gave the world a scare. Mr. Shevardnadze warned of the return of class war and of cold war. The whole experience reminded us of how much the world had gained from the unexpected reforms into which Mikhail Gorbachev had led his country. And it left us with nagging questions.
Should we have known? Could we? The answer, I think, is probably not. By its very nature a coup is hatched in deep secret, sprung as a great surprise. Nonetheless, Mr. Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev repeatedly predicted a coup. Doubtless both we and Mr. Gorbachev should have listened more carefully.
Was there something we could have done to prevent it? Again, probably not. It is not true that this coup could have been avoided if the West had provided the Soviet Union more money or Mr. Gorbachev more stature. Mr. Gorbachev has been exceedingly well treated by Western leaders from the beginning, and Western nations have been generous with their assistance.
Could it happen again? Perhaps. The Soviet peoples are in jeopardy until they develop strong pluralist institutions and leaders.
Is there something we can do to prevent another coup? Perhaps.
The whole experience dramatizes how great is our stake in the freedom of these people who have so recently escaped the totalitarian grip. It reminded us that we should have no higher priority than to help them build free pluralist societies, productive economies and democratic governments. Now it is up to us -- the United States, the G7, the European Community, NATO -- to nurture free societies by all available means.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.