Soviet hostages traditionally aren't worth much to terrorists. In fact, the term "Soviet hostage" is an oxymoron. A bully takes hostages because he figures they will give him some leverage over his enemies. But that only works if the enemy cares.

Saddam Hussein must have been more than a little surprised then when the Kremlin announced that it would not hesitate to use military action against him if Soviet citizens trapped in the Persian Gulf crisis were harmed by Iraq. The Soviet leadership took its own sweet time endorsing the use of force to retake Kuwait, but it was not so timid with its threat to come to the aid of its own.

Behind the scenes, the threat had Saddam shaking in his boots. He knew some of his own people had beaten Soviet soldiers. Intimidation by Iraqi military officials toward their Soviet counterparts increased after the Helsinki summit between President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, when the Kremlin began to sing the American tune.

Then Gorbachev's emissary, Yevgeny Primakov, secretly threatened Saddam on Oct. 5, stating that if he didn't leave Kuwait in coming months, the Soviet Union would have to send troops to join the Americans.

Word filtered down to the Iraqi troops that the Soviets were no longer friends. Top-secret U.S. cables from Baghdad report that at least one Soviet may have been murdered, and others were mistreated. Gorbachev became incensed and let Saddam know it, privately. There is one State Department school of thought that increasing Soviet anger about treatment of its citizens prompted Saddam to promise the release of all foreigners.

If Leonid Brezhnev had still been leader of the Soviet Union, the more than 3,000 Soviets taken hostage by Saddam Hussein could have kissed their homeland goodbye. But the new Soviet Union has a heart that it can now wear on its sleeve.

The old Soviet brass never shed tears, at least publicly, for comrades who were helpless in far-flung regions. When the chips were down against some unlucky soldier, spy, diplomat or bystander who fell into the wrong hands, Moscow typically took the hard line against appeasement or even negotiations.

It was ultimately more effective in staving off future acts of terrorism than was the Jimmy Carter approach of hand wringing or the Ronald Reagan approach of bartering. Soviet citizens have not been popular targets of terrorism, any more than a bratty child would be a prime candidate for kidnapping.

The cold approach fit with America's preconceived notion of the Soviet mind-set -- "It's a hard-knock life." If there was any wailing about Soviet losses -- whether it was thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan or one obscure target of an assassination -- the Western world didn't hear the cries.

For decades, Soviets were not allowed to acknowledge, let alone mourn, how their nation was ravaged by World War II and brutalized by Joseph Stalin. Now that they are allowed to humanize the dead, the Soviets can openly value the living too.

Now, with glasnost in full bloom, the Soviets are expressing themselves in ways that Americans take for granted. Doubtless, it has been there all along, just hidden from the outside world and separated from the stuff of policy-making.

Now the new Soviet Union must be careful that it doesn't forget the lesson of Jimmy Carter -- that a nation can stand up for its individual hostages only if it does not allow its government and policy-making to be taken hostage too. If Saddam Hussein makes good on his promise to release all of his foreign "guests," the humane Soviet Union will have weathered its first real hostage test.