Yeltsin tours Russia before election--and turns out the crowds

May 31, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

TULA, U.S.S.R. -- Newly restored church bells rang out and a dour Lenin statue looked on yesterday as Boris N. Yeltsin brought his presidential non-campaign to this ancient city in the heart of Russia.

Some 15,000 people, many of them desperate about the present and fearful for the future, thronged the town square to cheer the stocky, white-haired, recovering Communist in whom they are investing their last hopes.

They chanted his name, waved and pelted him with flowers, demonstrating why Mr. Yeltsin is considered the odds-on favorite to win June 12 in the first popular election of a Russian leader in history.

Mr. Yeltsin says he is too busy as chairman of Russia's parliament to campaign for the presidency, insisting that his current 10-day, 10-city tour is an ordinary working trip. Nonetheless, he stood up an auditorium full of Tula factory directors yesterday morning to address the rapt outdoor audience of rank-and-file voters.

As hapless campaign workers struggled with a balky public address system, the crowd surged forward against the granite walls of the speaker's stand, then back, then forward again, crushing the front ranks.

"Comrades, comrades, I ask you not to push," Mr. Yeltsin shouted, watching in distress. A little girl in an orange dress was lifted overhead and handed forward to safety. An elderly man hoisted himself onto the stone wall to escape the crush.

Mr. Yeltsin discovered that if he spoke through a megaphone into the microphone, he could be heard.

"That's our main goal -- Russian sovereignty!" he bellowed. "Some people tell me: Because of that sovereignty, you attack [Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev and so forth and so on. Yes! I'm ready to quarrel with the Lord God for the sake of Russia!"

His words echoed simultaneously from the red-brick Tula Kremlin, the city fortress built in the 1560s, and from the white-marble House of the Soviets, built in the 1970s. A peaceful, verdant city of 560,000, Tula seems politically in limbo, suspended somewhere between eight centuries of Russian history and seven decades of Soviet rule.

Communists still control local government, but anti-Communists predominate among the public. Mr. Yeltsin, a former Communist Party Politburo member who bucked the system and quit the party last year, catches the public mood in Tula when he advocates the cause of Russia against the Soviet Union. Here, there seems little doubt that he will easily outdistance his main Communist rival, former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov.

Historically, Tula made samovars -- charcoal-burning Russian tea-urns -- and guns. In 1712, Peter the Great founded the Imperial Small Arms Factory here; today, military plants such as the big Arsenal still dominate the local economy.

Meat, macaroni, matches and vodka, among other products, are strictly rationed. The tripling of food prices April 2 has done little to boost supplies, Tula residents say.

"Under [President Leonid I.] Brezhnev, we knew it was bad, but there was food," said Alexander A. Yesikov, 59, an embittered pensioner. "I'd say Gorbachev is an enemy of the people. I worked honestly 40 years, and now everything is ruined."

Mr. Yeltsin's stump speech, accordingly, was heavy on economic populism: The Russian Federation government is doing its best to protect Russians from the impact of the price increases ordered by the Soviet government. Students' stipends and workers' wages are going to be raised, and every worker will be guaranteed 24 days of annual vacation. Czechoslovakia is sending 1 million tons of grain and 70,000 tons of meat, thanks to Mr. Yeltsin's recent visit.

He said he understood that people's patience was running out. "In the next two years, we have to make some kind of thrust forward -- then people will be able to stand it. Without it, in two years, there will be an explosion, such an explosion that it will sweep us all away -- leftists, rightists and centrists," he said.

Mr. Yeltsin escaped from the crowd aboard a yellow van, an undoubtedly deliberate contrast with the black limousines traditionally favored by Soviet politicians. He spoke to Tula Polytechnic students and to a gathering of rectors of Russian universities and institutes, promising that higher education would get "super-priority" from the Russian leadership.

Later he drove out of town to watch war games performed by the Tula Airborne Division. Helicopter gunships roared overhead, 100 soldiers parachuted into battle, and artillery appeared to obliterate a birch grove a half-mile off. Mr. Yeltsin sat chatting with Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, a hero of the war in Afghanistan who now commands all Soviet airborne troops.

The military officer corps is said to be hostile to Mr. Yeltsin, with his stress on republican sovereignty and vow to slash defense spending. Certainly the top brass are campaigning against him and for his opponents.

But at yesterday's exercises, it appeared that the views of military men below the top brass do not differ radically from those of civilians.

"Most of us are for Yeltsin," said Maj. Alexander Kravchenko. "He's democratic. He's direct. He answers what you ask."

What about Mr. Yeltsin's threat to trim the army?

"I think he's right," said Lt. Nikolai Komissarov. "We need to move to a smaller, professional army and get away from the multimillion Chinese model."

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