Russian activists seek referendum to let state take Communist Party property

May 13, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- In the cool spring sunshine of Gorky Park, thousands of Muscovites took a moment this weekend between listening to the rap singers and riding the Ferris wheel to exact quiet revenge against the Communist Party.

They put their signatures on a petition aimed at forcing a referendum on the following question:

"Do you consider it necessary to transfer the property controlled or owned by the Communist Party . . . to the state for the resolution of the most severe social problems?"

Three months after they started, enthusiastic anti-Communist volunteers are approaching the 1 million signatures necessary by law to put the explosive question of nationalizing party property to a popular vote in the Russian Federation.

Even before this weekend's push in Moscow's premier park, where a festival of the independent press had drawn a radical crowd, activists had gathered between 800,000 and 900,000 names, organizers said.

"The party has no right to all that wealth when things are in the shape they're in," said 60-year-old engineer Elvira Martynova as she put her name, birth date, address and passport number on a carbon-copied petition. "Our museums are in sad shape. Our libraries are perishing. Our hospitals -- well, don't even ask about our hospitals."

Ms. Martynova said her father had been a Communist Party member for 50 years, but when he died in the 1970s, he was deeply disillusioned by the party bureaucracy's accumulation of power and property.

"He was an idealist who died without a thing in a fifth-floor walk-up," she said. "He'd be glad to see the property taken away."

"I'm 51 years old, and all 51 years I've felt growing hostility toward the Communist Party," said Galina S. Pechnikova, a defense plant worker volunteering for the petition drive.

Standing for five hours with a clipboard at the Gorky Park gates Saturday, she had gathered 232 names. Nearby, other activists with the Democratic Russia reform coalition collected signatures support of the candidacy of Boris N. Yeltsin for Russian president and Gavriil K. Popov for Moscow mayor in the June 12 election.

"Here, everybody signs [the nationalization petition]," Ms. Pechnikova said. "Going door to door is tougher. One old guy came to the door, and when I explained the petition, he said 'I'm a Communist Party member, get out of here,' and waved a fist in my face and slammed the door. Still, I got about six out of 10 to sign."

If party property is indeed nationalized, history will be playing an ironic trick on the heirs of the Bolsheviks. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the core of their economic program was nationalization of the land, factories and shops they claimed were concentrated in the hands of the exploiting capitalists.

Today, the Communist nomenklatura -- the elite that still holds most top executive jobs -- is seen as the ruling class, whizzing around in chauffeured black Volga automobiles and skimming the best food and consumer goods while everybody else jams onto creaky trolleys and lines up in nearly empty stores.

But when parliaments in Lithuania and Latvia moved to nationalize some party buildings, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, president and Communist Party leader, sent troops to occupy and defend them. What might be the reaction to a move to nationalize party wealth en masse?

Worries about the reaction kept a number of prominent democratic leaders from endorsing the referendum plan, said Ilya V. Konstantinov, a Leningrad economist and member of the Russian Parliament who started the petition drive.

"They said, 'Don't tease a wounded animal,' " Mr. Konstantinov said in a telephone interview. "They feared it would prompt some kind of repressive measures."

But if some well-known anti-Communist politicians were reluctant lead the nationalization project, plenty of rank-and-file Russians were prepared to fill the gap -- Ms. Pechnikova among them.

"The Communists where I work think they're a better sort and I'm second-rate," she said. "My department head, naturally a party member, makes 1,200 rubles [a month, more than quadruple the average wage] and doesn't lift a finger."

Recently, her department received 10 auto-repair tool kits for sale to its 70 workers, about a dozen of whom are Communists.

"The party members simply took them all for themselves. Somebody found out and raised a big stink, so they agreed to sell them to people who owned cars. But that turned out to be mostly Communists anyway," she said.

Party property consists, first of all, of the finest real estate in thecountry.

The second big category of party property is the lion's share of the Soviet publishing industry. To exercise control over the media and the publishing industry, the party builtor acquired over the years most of the country's printing plants.

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