It is scary how close Boris N. Yeltsin came to losing the Battle of Moscow. Initial police response seemed disorganized and half-hearted as thousands of rebels stormed the television center and mayor's office Sunday. Only the deployment of military elite units brought the situation under control, but at a terrible loss of life. President Yeltsin is in deep debt to commanders loyal to him, particularly Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, the defense minister.
Throughout seven decades of Soviet rule, the military was under tight Communist Party control. Even after the convulsions of the past two years, most professional soldiers have remained outside politics. Which does not mean they are disinterested or uncaring about their country, its future and its security. One likely result of the Battle of Moscow is that the military now will assume a more visible role as a political power broker.
To a nation that has seen its former might erode at a head-spinning pace, the fratricidal Battle of Moscow represents an ultimate humiliation. The 12-day occupation of the parliament building by rebels wanting to re-establish the Soviet Union ended in the worst fighting the city has seen since it was forced to capitulate to Napoleon.
Russians are people deeply conscious of their history. The shame they feel toward the Moscow bloodshed is likely to produce profound psychological consequences which will translate into changing political realities. It would not be surprising if a more nationalistic political line would be one of the key results of the Battle of Moscow.
Similarly, it is possible the confrontation will be interpreted by Russians as a warning of what excessive, Western-style democracy produces and that the freewheeling political atmosphere of the past two years will be curtailed somewhat. The military may even insist on that.
Any demand for rolling back political freedom in Russia would be argued as necessary for real reform and for improved economic performance. This debate has already been going on.
Proponents of a limited democracy have argued that the phenomenal growth of such countries as Thailand, Singapore and Chile has been possible exactly because they had held political freedom and anarchy in check. Thus the disaster of the Rutskoi-Khasbulatov-led parliament may be seen in Russia as a result of too little discipline, not too much.
Russia has widened and deepened the break with its Communist past. Government tanks shelled the parliament building which still carried the hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Soviet Union on its exterior wall and flew a red flag on its rooftop. The political sorting out in Moscow will take its time.
The ultimate winner may not be Mr. Yeltsin but some new face who emerges as a result of all this trauma. This much is clear, however: Only the reformers led by Mr. Yeltsin have a cohesive program to rebuild Russia. The hardliners had nothing to propose but failed ideas, hatred and revenge.