LIVING conditions in Russia are so untenable that last Sunday some 4,000 people marched in Moscow, many carrying posters of Stalin and shouting for a return to the Soviet Union.
But last Sunday's events do not portend a significant rightward shift in Russia. If anything, 4,000 was a poor turnout. Reports indicate the protesters were a fairly ragtag group - in contrast with the 25,000 to 100,000 middle-class, educated Muscovites marching through the city at various points last year, notably against the August coup.
Caught up in its own problems, and in the midst of an election season, the US could easily miss the minor miracle that has happened in the former Soviet Union since December, when Ukraine split off and the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed. Russia has been under a wrenching economic shift to privatization for two months. And yet there has been no real violence in the streets and no right-wing crackdown by the military.
The times are brutal, but the Russian people, just as those in Eastern Europe, seem to understand what they are going through. Most feel they are in a necessary period of chaos and woe, but that in a few years their lives and world will improve.
Certainly it seems as if US officials, and particularly the White House, have failed to feel the pulse of Russia at this time. What a disappointment for Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first popularly elected leader, to journey West last month to the US and come home with almost no significant aid. Currently, the US is providing about 7 percent of the overall aid to the former Soviet Union.
The US may not have to worry about a crowd of hard-line Marxists reasserting themselves in Moscow. But with enough failures, enough chaos, it is possible that a more authoritarian regime could be elected in Russia, someone, for instance, like current vice-president and Air Force Gen. Alexander Rutskoi, who would co-opt military loyalty.
The huge Russian military is still intact. The senior high command supposed to be purged after the August coup never has been. It exists in a vague commonwealth of former republics and has no clear strategic role and no clear set of loyalties.
This is one reason Washington should wake up to what can only be called a global responsibility and help Yeltsin. Bush and Congress must expedite $12 billion to the IMF - money that would spring $60 billion in loans to the former Soviet Union.
Another reason is that the US can't deal itself out of the need to help the old Warsaw Pact in its hour of woe. Russia and the world's nations are watching the US example. They won't forget it.