Moscow -- MY CONTACT said to meet the group across the street from the October movie theater. Long familiar with clandestine meetings in this capital, I murmured assent, arrived early and waited in the cold rain.
In the group was a writer with a black beard that made him look like Karl Marx, a dissenter who had once hijacked a plane to try an escape, and an eager young physicist in a black jacket with a strange-looking medal on it. Before going to the angry meeting of the Democratic Russia movement in the theater, we slipped into black-jacket's office in a nearby building to compare notes.
That was my first shock. The young fellow in the black jacket, Arkady Murashev, turned out to be the chief of the Moscow Police Department. He was on the side of the good guys. Not only did he reassure me about being illegally parked, but disagreed with the bearded writer about the need to crack down on Chechen-Ingush separatists who wanted to break from Russia; the police chief was the soft-liner.
That was the hot issue at the meeting in the movie theater, a scene that offered a second shock. Huge posters of famous faces were on the walls, but they were not Marx and Lenin, or Gorbachev or even Yeltsin. The huge faces staring down on the debating delegates were Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, stars of "Russia House," the movie playing at the theater. A film of this scene would lead through a bewildering hall of mirrors.
A sense of unreality touched by a hint of dread and a note of wonderment assails the visitor to Moscow after the putsch and RussRev II. The oppressive feeling of being watched or eavesdropped upon is gone; the excitement of participating in the collapse of the lie of the century and being present at the creation of a new political-economic system is in the air.
The unreality is in our diplomatic pretense that a Soviet Union still exists. Gorbachev, who at best will be coordinator of a small secretariat, tries to act as if his superpower has not disappeared, while we maintain the fiction of Moscow central only to negotiate down the number of nukes in the separated republics.
The permeating dread is in the danger of food riots, as in 1917, but the greater fear is of nuclear disagreements among the separated republics. When Moscow's Independent Gazette reported that contingencies of atomic war with Ukraine were even discussed, the Russian information minister threatened to close the paper down.
The wonderment is in the double-edged sword of nationalism. The natural division of the Soviet Union has taken place. Now the subdivision is under way, as the Chechen-Ingushetias come home to roost; natural enough for that region of Russia to separate, but where does it end? Boris Yeltsin, having espoused the glory of separation and national identity like Jefferson Davis, now assumes the Lincolnian mantle by declaring martial law in areas of the Russian republic that want to secede. He apparently wants to emulate the one-year Roman dictators.
That right to secede was the issue roiling the Democratic Russia movement at the October theater. This was the proto-party of liberal reformers that supported Yeltsin against Gorbachev's half-measures. Now its members are split; a minority wants Russia as it was, all 11 time zones; the majority, including my police chief friend and his boss, Mayor Gavriil Popov, says: No more imperialism. Let local cultures determine their political future.
Abraham Lincoln, who believed that union was necessary to majority rule and would make war to enforce it, also had a political saying: When you have an elephant on a string, and the elephant wants to run better let him run.
Nationalism is running. Our policy should be to let it run, urging respect for minority rights in the new sovereignties. This need not lead to anarchy; separatists, having made their points of pride and identity, will in time find advantage in freely choosing economic combinations and then political mergers.
In Russia, they don't say tovarishch -- comrade -- anymore. False equality is dead. Now they address each other as Gospodin, Gospozha -- "Mister, Ms." Respect is alive.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.