ARE WE Americans romanticizing recent events in Moscow? Did a popular uprising really assert itself for democracy and against the return of a powerful autocratic government?
That's not quite the way the story was told by several aides to Boris Yeltsin, the elected president of the Russian republic; these aides traveled outside their country in the days following -- the failed coup and dis
cussed what happened with numerous Westerners, including some Americans.
In their view, expressed privately, only perhaps 1 percent of Moscow's population turned out for what appeared on U.S. television to be a massive demonstration against completion of a coup against the government of Mikhail Gorbachev.
This distinct minority -- and similar groups in some other cities -- led by Yeltsin did put up heroic resistance, even turning back tank columns headed for the Russian Parliament building.
The travelers from Moscow suggested that two other factors were primarily responsible for the coup's failure. One was the apparent lack of will on the part of the coup leaders, who might have crushed the minority of resisters had they been tough and ruthless enough to do so. Instead, they hesitated to take the necessary actions to silence Yeltsin and seize his stronghold in the Parliament building.
The other factor was the refusal of Gorbachev, while under house arrest and considerable pressure, to accept the coup, renounce his position and perhaps join, or at least bless, the plotters. As the Russian aides told the story, leaders of the coup had assumed that Mr. Gorbachev -- like Khrushchev in 1964 -- would go quietly.
That Gorbachev did not do so allowed the restoration of his government -- if not his full authority -- to become a goal of the resistance.
If that account of the coup, its failure and the reasons is accurate, it calls into question the popular picture in the U.S. of an outpouring of Russians and other Soviet citizens resisting autocratic government and demanding democracy.
That would make it less likely that when the dust settles a democratic form of government will have been established in whatever is left of the Soviet empire.
In all its long history, moreover, that empire -- however constituted and whether under czardom or communism -- has never known democracy. It's not plausible, therefore, that anything resembling democracy is likely to come about overnight, or even for years. Yet, that goal -- democratic government -- is perhaps the most vital interest of the United States, as it watches the present struggle for the soul of Russia.
The current debate in Moscow is over the composition of the future nation. That nation seems all but sure to be made up of most of the present republics, linked in some fashion to the huge, dominant Russian republic.
But if whatever organization that ultimately evolves into features the age-old pattern of autocratic central government, it will not be greatly different in that vital respect from the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, if some new grouping of republics is organized in democratic fashion, or in such a way as to make democratic government ultimately possible, it will make a great deal of difference.
That would be nothing less than a striking and historic departure from the long line of despotisms that through the centuries have ruled from Moscow.
Of course some Americans, with typical evangelistic fervor and envisioning massive foreign aid as their weapon, want to wade into the debate among former Soviet citizens in order to "influence the outcome."
Talk of a "Marshall Plan" is being heard, and Rep. Les Aspin, Armed Services Committee chairman, has proposed diverting $1 billion from the defense budget for aid to the former Soviet republics.
All this smacks of more romanticism. There was, and could be, only one Marshall Plan, designed to restore war damage to Western Europe's established industrial society.
Much of the billions spent since then for aid elsewhere has been wasted, stolen or ineffective, not least because the U.S. usually had no clear idea what it wanted to achieve and little understanding of the societies it sought to aid.
As for Les Aspin's billion, if he can get it out of the defense budget, it could do a lot more good right here in the country that's already spent so much to win the Cold War.