Who are the 'boys in colonels' epaulets?'

December 24, 1990|By New York Times

MOSCOW -- A week ago, Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov summoned two rogue army colonels to his office and warned that their public tirades against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev were giving the military an image problem.

The colonels recalled later in interviews that they told their superior they would not obey his admonition to tone down their right-wing evangelism.

And how did the defense minister respond to this insubordination?

"He smiled, as you are smiling now," said Col. Nikolai S. Petrushenko, a balding and whip-tongued army propaganda officer. "In his soul, he is with us."

The two colonels -- and this country's special mix of military and politics -- have been at the center of attention since last week, when Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze abruptly resigned with a warning that "reactionaries" were pushing his country toward "dictatorship."

Shevardnadze did not name those he called the "boys in colonels' epaulets," but their derisive criticism of his work had been "the last straw" in his decision to quit, and no one doubted he meant Petrushenko and Col. Viktor I. Alksnis, two of the most scornful critics of Soviet retrenchment abroad and domestic disorder.

"And what is surprising, and I think we should think seriously, who is behind these comrades, and why is no one rebuffing them?" Shevardnadze wondered aloud to the Congress of People's Deputies, lending new credence to the public nightmare of Gorbachev's perestroika ending in a rumble of tanks.

Shevardnadze, through a spokesman, took pains to emphasize his parting blast was not aimed at the military as a whole, and that the armed forces were not the only spawning grounds of reactionaries.

The lobby for more authoritarian rule, for applying force to halt the erosion of centralized power, is much broader.

It encompasses industrialists, especially in the military-related industries, and Communist Party functionaries whose power and privileges are endangered.

It includes ideologues in the arts and academia. It includes senior officers of the KGB, whose chairman, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, delivered a sermon on Saturday on the dangers of creeping capitalism.

The few KGB officers who have emerged from that murky organization as open critics say that despite a recent campaign to soften its public image, the leadership of the state security police is still predominantly conservative.

Their intelligence reports to Gorbachev are said to portray non-Communist political groups as subversive, and Western intentions as sinister.

The hard-line front also includes part of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy, which has been making its peace with power since long before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Alksnis and Petrushenko are most commonly identified not with the military leadership, but with a parliamentary faction called Soyuz, or Union, which unites hardliners from a range of backgrounds.

Soyuz is now the largest bloc in the 2,250-member Congress, with 456 members, only 15 of them military. Originally organized to lobby for preservation of the union, they have increasingly turned against Gorbachev for letting things spin out of control.

"They have moved too far to the right," said a deputy, Nikolai N. Engver, who recently quit Soyuz.

"Their purpose is not to preserve the union, but to preserve those mechanisms of totalitarianism which answer the interests of the general directors of industry and first secretaries of local party committees and a certain group within the military."

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