A remarkable aspect of the Soviet Union's dissolution has been the generally bloodless and non-violent way in which the centralized government and the tightly controlled one-party system have been replaced by a fledgling democracy. Granted, there has been serious mayhem and bloodshed in Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But never before has a great empire become unglued as fast as in the former Soviet Union -- or as peacefully.
This is worth noting because Russia, too, has its potential for violence.
So far, much of that violence has been evidenced in skyrocketing rates of murder and rape -- and occasional shootouts among criminal organizations. But the May Day street fight last weekend between the Moscow militia and communist radicals suggests political violence cannot be ruled out, either.
More than 570 people, including 251 law enforcement officers, had to be treated after communist radicals clashed with militia after the authorities closed Red Square to a traditional May Day demonstration. The incident, in which demonstrators fought the militia's water cannon with sticks and stones, was Moscow's most violent political disturbance in memory. Authorities fear it might be repeated this Sunday, when Russia commemorates its World War II victory over Nazi Germany.
Viewed from a historical perspective, a return to political violence in Russia cannot be ruled out. In the convulsions before the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, the country had its share of anarchism, bombings and assassinations.
The May Day clash does not suggest that widespread violence is in the cards, however. It just shows that the unresolved political struggle between President Boris N. Yeltsin and his opponents has moved to the streets. Provocations are likely to fizzle out -- unless they are given a chance to succeed through militia overreaction or complicity.