Fortunately, the giant protest march in Moscow this week did not end in violence as many had feared. No Soviet version of China's bloody Tiananmen Square took place. Both sides won some and lost some as the confrontation consisted mostly of shoving and pushing.
But the demonstration did vividly show that the Soviet people are not as afraid of police, soldiers and the KGB as they once were. That could have profound implications for the future.One can only hope that Gorbachev and the increasingly powerful hard-liners in the Soviet government will get the message.
The march was called by anti-communist reformers who are opposed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and are backers of his arch-rival Boris Yeltsin, who favors more rapid economic and political reforms.
While the protest march failed to reach many of its objectives because thousands of soldiers and police blocked key streets, most of the symbolic victories of the day seemed to belong to Yeltsin.
That the public protest was held at all is significant since an increasingly touchy Gorbachev had banned such demonstrations in Moscow. He brought in thousands of troops when it became clear that the central government's orders would be ignored. More than 200,000 people jammed the streets in the center of Moscow to shout anti-Gorbachev slogans.
In addition, the Congress of People's Deputies, the local Parliament for the Russian Federation, one of the 15 Soviet republics, met in a special session called by hard-line communists for a possible no-confidence vote against Yeltsin. That vote was never taken.
Instead, radical lawmakers voted to suspend the emergency session and passed a resolution protesting the Kremlin's ban on demonstrations and the massive troop presence in Moscow. The communists were badly outvoted on these issues.
One of the remarkable things about the huge gathering in the Soviet capital is the fact that "communism" appears to have become a dirty word for thousands of Muscovites - and they seem unafraid to voice that thought, demanding the right to "rise up and live like human beings."
Such feelings are not simply going to go away because of the presence of soldiers. Just two weeks ago, another crowd of 200,000 gathered in a different part of Moscow to support Yeltsin's reforms.
Gorbachev let the genie out of the bottle with his earlier reforms for greater freedom of speech and press, political participation, elections, and private enterprise. People who had been oppressed for more than 70 years were given a whiff of freedom.
The reaction has threatened to unravel the Soviet Union. Independence movements have sprung up all across the country seeking to restore old identities. The economy has fallen into even worse repair and Gorbachev, the author of all the change, has become personally unpopular.
Gorbachev and others have begun to retreat, trying in some measure to stuff the genie back in the bottle.
Perhaps they can succeed, as the Chinese communists did. But it seems unlikely without causing a violent clash that could shake the entire Soviet Union. The story is just beginning to unfold.