A gentler 'iron fist'?

March 29, 1991

Russia has a history of and a gut instinct for the authoritarian. When all else fails, or when you think it is going to fail, or you think that perhaps it might fail, or you just don't know, go for the iron fist.

This philosophy kept the czars in power for a long time and the communists for a lesser time, and now the fading sometimes-liberalizing communists are trying to prolong their mandate by reversing course back to their basics, repression.

Banning demonstrations in Moscow is just the latest example, though it is a good one, an attempt to parry several problems in one ill-conceived stroke. First there was the rally yesterday in support of Boris Yeltsin. But the ban still will be in effect when food prices go through the roof next Monday.

A bloody clash did not develop yesterday. Repression did not turn into tragedy, into a Moscow version of what happened in Lithuania in January when troops killed more than a dozen

demonstrators. The Kremlin went easy on enforcing its decree, the demonstrators opted for less than a full challenge.

But as events of the last few years remind us, repression works only for so long. Though the Prague Spring was squelched in 1968, it eventually triumphed -- thanks in large part, ironically, to the same person who now is leading the squelching in Moscow.

The history of it all is not lost on the Russians. Yesterday one elderly man shouted at the mounted police, "So you're going to trample on the people with horses once again!" In 1917 the czar tried that tactic, and in the end it didn't save him. It just helped make his going the more unpleasant.

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