New York -- On the fourth day, it must have felt pretty good to be a Russian. Most of them are still poor, and their prospects are no better than they were before the Coup of '91, but they made or saw history and changed the way their children and their children's children will live.
Their great-grandparents did the same thing, of course, in the ''Ten Days That Shook the World,'' the title of John Reed's eyewitness account of the momentous events of October 1917. But those changes, the move to communism, failed, and it was time to stand up again and see whether Russian troops would shoot down Russian people.
They did not fire. These three days may be Tolstoy or they may be soap opera; it may happen again, and probably will; but the Soviet Union will never be the same. That is the lesson for us, the United States. Soviet communism is no longer our enemy, no longer even a worthy adversary, and we have to decide what to do about that.
The question for George Bush and the rest of us -- the president's three-day performance seemed flawless to me -- is not so much what do we do now, but what do we want from and for the Soviet Union. Whatever else the three-day coup accomplished, it laid out the current alternatives for the Soviet Union: old-fashioned political-military totalitarianism, which was what the coup might have achieved; a lively and erratic populism personified by the hero of the day, Boris Yeltsin; or the dancing-as-fast-as-I-can politics and pragmatism of Mikhail Gorbachev.
For the moment, we have to deal with a combination of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin alternatives. They are escaped prisoners, but their leg-irons are chained together.
It seems to me that the time has come -- it came a couple of years ago -- to reject two ideas: 1. that we should not offer government aid to the Soviets until they get organized; 2. that good old American private enterprise and investment can turn communism into California.
What the United States should debate now is an economic risk assessment of the Soviet Union to replace the military risk assessments we have been piling up since 1946. What would it cost us and Europe if there really was a civil war in the Soviet Union, or a series of them in the Soviet republics? What would it cost us if the inevitable factory closings and unemployment of conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter's ''destructive capitalism'' lead to anarchy or even famine?
In either of those cases, the rich countries, of which we are the leader, would be smothered by desperate refugees from the Soviet Union -- and from Eastern Europe, too
Until this week, the official line out of Washington and most other rich capitals has been: First, reform your institutions, then we'll 00 talk money.
That seems ridiculous after watching revolution and counterrevolution of the three days that shook the world. We have a big stake in the stability of the Soviet Union -- few people will benefit from the chaos of too-little, too-late policies -- and we must begin to match our policies to the obvious reality. Otherwise, we take the chance that we will be just as irrelevant and foolhardy as the Gang of Eight and their failed coup d'etat.
And we have to take the frustration of seeing the Russians screwing things up, sometimes with our money. That's the way it will be because the Russians have to make their own choices and decisions -- which is exactly what we want them to do. And what they seemed to do pretty well this past week.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.