As we write, the first news of the apparent collapse of the Moscow coup of August 19 has arrived. We still cannot know how this extraordinary and rattling event will play out in the next few days; who its beneficiaries will be; who, among the military, the KGB, and the Party apparatus, will emerge as the central conspirators. What we do know, however, is that, like a bee that stings one last time before it expires, this putsch is the final spasm of a system that is coming steadily (or, rather, unsteadily) closer to extinction. Most important of all, perhaps, is the fact that it was thwarted not by a countercoup, or by an equally illegitimate conspiracy of the left, but by the courage of the peoples of the Soviet Union.

What we have witnessed was at times tragicomic: the ludicrous, pseudo-legal invocations of Mikhail Gorbachev's ill health; the remarkably contagious flu that then spread throughout the Soviet leadership; the archaic rants put out by the Tass news service; the Pavlovian reaction of Soviet embassies around the world; the miserable front man Gennadi Yanayev, a Communist, as he once put it, "to the depths of my soul." But finally, even though the gang couldn't shoot straight, this was not funny. The coup was the brutal act of" an elite besieged. Its leaders' resort to ancient Stalinist rites was a form of orthodox obeisance to a doctrine in which they can no longer believe, but without which they can find no comfort. These Stalinists were at least intelligent enough to see that they were living posthumously, and they panicked.

The attempted brutality, the failed attempt to marshal the Soviet army in the old repressive way (see "Uniform Failure" by Gabriel Schoenfeld, page 9), was a way in which they could protect their offices, their perquisites, their privileges, their picture of Soviet reality. All of these, we are pleased to say, will now become things of the past.

But the coup served another purpose. It brought to a sudden, chilling climax the contradictions that have plagued the Soviet Union since Mr. Gorhachev's ascent to power. The swift, shabby failure of this conspiracy should not obscure the fact that the reform of the Communist political and economic culture of the Soviet Union has not been, will not be, smooth. The coup was a reminder that the institutions of Soviet authoritarianism were never going to relinquish power of their own accord, and that the forces for democratic change, however nebulous and young, were never going to tolerate the survival of those institutions. A decisive reckoning between these two forces was bound at some point to take place.

The shadow of this reckoning is now long. It stretches to Mr. Gorbachev's own paradoxical place in history. He is a man who depended on the system, yet who also recognized that the system had to be undone. From the very beginning, in other words, he was trapped: obliged to use the instruments of the old regime to abolish it. As his political reforms began to take root, it became increasingly clear to Mr. Gorbachev that the success of his enterprise would be marked by his own obsolescence. He too declined to live posthumously, and so he began to tack and tilt, to maneuver when he should have leapt, to slow down the change to which he had contributed so much speed, to calibrate the day of judgment. As the democratic energies he unleashed grew stronger, both in the outlying republics and in Russia itself, he was constrained to reassure the Communist "center" that he was still loyal to it; as he promised one side revolution, he was obliged to promise the other side renewal. He found himself in the intellectually and politically absurd position of arguing that there is a place between freedom and unfreedom.

The result was a succession of contradictions. His abandonment of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was accompanied by repeated affirmations of communism; his moves toward economic liberalization were balanced by his clampdown in the Baltic states. He negotiated an agreement with the republics that would have ceded control of Soviet territory forever, but balked at an attempt at market capitalism and sought finally to appease the military and secret police. Throughout, he represented a force for Soviet continuity at the moment of the greatest discontinuity in Soviet history, when the Soviet idea was finally bankrupt. Sometimes it seemed that Mr. Gorbachev could not quite grasp the enormity of what he was involved in, or the ruthlessness of its meliorating logic. He never understood that the institutions he relied upon were institutions that would not go gentle into the good Communist night.

A part of his mistake (and many commentators in the West shared it) was to think in Eastern European terms. For in those countries the force of the Gorbachevian contradiction was blunted. This was not merely because some of those countries have traditions of liberalism upon which dissidents and reformers could lean. It was also because a foreign power could be blamed for the structures of control. The fight against communism in Central and Eastern Europe was also a fight against imperialism, against a foreign occupation, and so reactionaries could find some common ground with liberals in the struggle. Moscow could be blamed for everything. Guilt could be washed away by the excuse of occupation. Something of that same logic, moreover, can be felt in the Baltic states and across the Soviet republics. There the resolution also seems relatively simple: the occupiers could be scapegoated. The banner of genuine sovereignty, long suppressed, was one under which many could march.

But in Russia everything was different. In Russia there is no liberal patrimony. In Russia the foreign power was the domestic power. The old regime could not retreat, because it had nowhere else to retreat to. It could only disappear. The rolling reckoning that began in Central Europe and had slowly been closing in on the center could no longer be pinned on someone else. Thus Mikhail Gorbachev faced a choice: be eclipsed by the new democratic force of the Russian republic, or be ousted by his Soviet allies. In the end, of course, the choice was made for him, and the real battle for the future of the Soviet Union was joined. The reason that Boris Yeltsin was able to rally the forces of opposition to the coup was the reason Mr. Gorbachev was not: he was elected. He glows with legitimacy. He represents a real nation. He had made the intellectual and political leap required of the times. For that reason, he could be symbolic of more than his own interest in power, and the streets could fill up in his support.

The delusion of Washington, as the coup began, was to believe that there was something we might have done that could have affected these momentous events; that, by a large promise of cash at the London summit, the coup might have been avoided; that, by a more flexible approach to arms control earlier, the collapse could have been postponed. As usual, we flatter ourselves. The last few days have shown beyond a doubt how naive and self-regarding such judgments are.

The editors of this magazine have long argued that an American policy toward the Soviet Union that was centered on Mr. Gorbachev, centered on the center, is a historic error, and represents a failure to grasp fully the profound change that has occurred in the last few years in that region. And as it turned out, Mr. Gorbachev has indeed become a sideshow to the real battle between democracy and its enemies. He may have been Act I, but the drama is now well into Act JI. Moreover, we were never under the illusion that the United States could affect the ultimate course of events. The historic forces at work — the grand collapse of the Communist lie, the implosion of a transcontinental empire, the latest twist in the old struggle between Russian liberalism and reaction — were too profound and too powerful and too indigenous to be swayed by anybody but the peoples in that region themselves.

Indeed, the West's attempts to manipulate recent change in the Soviet Union now look more than foolish. The Bush administration's construction of a "new world order" on the fragile shoulders of Mikhail Gorbachev has been rendered moot by events. The very obsession with Mr. Gorbachev — which Mr. Bush continues to labor under — was a way of forgetting the deeper collision of forces that we are now witnessing. But it was also a way of undermining the integrity of American foreign policy. Mr. Gorbachev may well survive these events. But his role, already minimal, will now surely be eclipsed by the new powers of the sovereign republics, emboldened by their stand against the old regime, secure in their newfound democratic legitimacy. And American foreign policy will need to adjust.

Eventually it will be reconstituted. Now, however, the diplomatic imperatives are plain enough: firm support for the governments of the sovereign republics; unequivocal backing for the elected government of Boris Yeltsin; a clear sign that we will encourage the speedy bringing to account of the ringleaders of this coup.

This last week has finally provided answers to some of the most hotly debated questions of recent years. Has a transformation really taken place in what used to be called the Soviet Union? Is it, in whole or in part, irreversible? Do such notions as popular sovereignty, the rule of law, and independence for the republics hold more than a veneer of support among the people of that continent? Many doubted it. They should doubt no longer. The organs of Soviet authoritarianism came up against the force whose name they and their predecessors have taken in vain for most of this century: the people. The irony is delicious. Of course, the struggle is not over yet. There are other forces of reaction in the Soviet Union, more popular forces; and the Soviet economy is still a basket case, and a potential occasion for political recidivism. Still, this much is clear: in the spirit of Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968, the Soviet Union finally turned around in Moscow 1991 and invaded itself. And the invasion failed.

This article originally ran in the September 9, 1991, issue of the magazine.