MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev threw down another gauntlet at radical anti-Communists yesterday by prohibiting local and republican officials from dismantling statues of Lenin and other monuments associated with Soviet history.
The presidential decree "On Stopping Outrages Against Monuments Connected With the History of the State and Its Symbols" also calls for more severe penalties for the vandalism of monuments as well as for desecration of the Soviet coat of arms, flag or national anthem. Last night's announcement did not specify what penalty Mr. Gorbachev favors.
This follows a decree issued by Mr. Gorbachev Friday authorizing the use of Ministry of Internal Affairs Troops to prevent the confiscation of property. That order clearly was aimed at blocking the radicals' demands for nationalization of the huge holdings of the Communist Party.
Monuments to V. I. Lenin, which are found in every main square of every city and village in the Soviet Union, have been targeted for removal in recent months by activists and officials in many places. Crowds have cheered in at least a half-dozen cities in the Western Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic republics as statues of Lenin were toppled.
In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment have been used in recent weeks to guard a Lenin statue and other historical monuments that are likely targets for activists.
In some cases, the statues have been demolished by crowds with no official involvement. But in others, newly elected radicals have voted to remove the statues -- decisions that would now be blocked by Mr. Gorbachev's order.
But as with other decrees Mr. Gorbachev has issued, there is considerable doubt that it will be consistently obeyed. The Soviet president himself often stresses his belief that the republics are "sovereign states," but his decree implies that he does not believe a sovereign state has the right to control monuments on its territory.
Mr. Gorbachev, still nominally head of the Communist Party, has been under considerable pressure from party hard-liners to stop attacks on Lenin monuments. In addition, in many places the monument issue divides the population along ethnic lines -- with Russians more likely to defend the statues -- and could become a flash point for violence.
Many citizens want the Lenin statues removed because they now associate the leader of the 1917 revolution with an ideology that led to millions of deaths and a failing economy. In the non-Russian republics, residents also often want to reclaim central squares for monuments to their own heroes.
Meanwhile, a debate is continuing over the fate of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square. Many politicians support burial of Lenin's preserved corpse, noting that Lenin himself opposed such cult-like manifestations as the mausoleum. But many Communists, including Mr. Gorbachev, consider the mausoleum a sacred site and think that it would be blasphemous to close it.
In a separate development yesterday, Mr. Gorbachev met with representatives of 11 republics, including the giant Russian Federation, to discuss coordination of efforts during the transition to a market economy. Georgia and the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, declined to attend.
According to Soviet television, Mr. Gorbachev obtained the agreement of the republican representatives that the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet should approve the basic principles of an economic plan, with details left to the republics.
Mr. Gorbachev is to present a compromise plan for the transition to a market economy to the Supreme Soviet tomorrow. By obtaining the backing of 11 of the 15 republics for a unionwide economic plan, Mr. Gorbachev is putting pressure on the Supreme Soviet to adopt a program.