MOSCOW -- Sitting comfortably in one of their monuments to privilege, nine angry Communists gathered yesterday to denounce Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin for trampling on the rights of common folk by throwing Communist Party cells out of public agencies.
"This is a chilling blow against democracy." That was the way Alexei Ilyin, deputy leader of the Russian Communist Party, described Mr. Yeltsin's decree at a news conference. "It is an unconstitutional act."
The decree, signed Saturday by Mr. Yeltsin, attacks the very heart of the Communist power structure.
Throughout its 73 years in power, the Communist Party has relied on the cells organized in army units, factories, businesses and government offices to operate as a kind of parallel government. The cells give the party power over citizens' everyday lives and influence how the government operates. Government reforms opposed by the party can be easily subverted.
Mr. Yeltsin, following through on a campaign pledge, decreed that political activity of any persuasion could no longer be carried out on work time in public agencies in the Russian republic. And he said party affiliation -- or lack of it -- had to be dropped from work records.
The Russian Communists' sharp rhetoric at the news conference may be only a hint of what is to come tomorrow when the Soviet Communist leadership meets for what is expected to be a lively session of the Central Committee.
A democratically oriented newspaper,Nezavisimaya Gazeta, published yesterday what it said was the platform Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev plans to present at the meeting.
The draft of the platform paper calls for the official rejection of Marxism and contains statements supporting private property and religious freedom. It also describes the Soviet Union's totalitarian system as "the tragedy of our society."
But the Communists have no intention of being so easily dismissed. The party still has more than 16 million members and took in $880 million in dues last year, when it had a $1.15 billion budget. And it owns thousands of buildings, including the site of yesterday's news conference -- the sleek Oktyabrskaya Hotel, which towers incongruously over a city of falling plaster and the smell of decay.
Some prominent newspaper columnists say Mr. Gorbachev, who is general secretary of the party as well as president, may be forced out of the party tomorrow. Others predict that he will prevail, but only after a bloody fight.
Mr. Gorbachev, famous for his delicate political maneuvering, was stepping quickly as usual yesterday, trying to appease his fellow Communists even while writing off all they have stood for.
Vitaly Ignatenko, Mr. Gorbachev's spokesman, criticized Mr. Yeltsin's decree on his boss' behalf.
"In our country's current situation, with the forces of consensus and consolidation gathering strength, there is concern that this decree contains elements of tension and confrontation," Mr. Ignatenko said.
At the Oktyabrskaya Hotel, a Soviet reporter asked whether Mr. Yeltsin's decree was the first step toward dictatorship and thus grounds for impeachment. Mr. Ilyin said he hoped so. "We have created our organizations to protect our interests," said M. G. Titov, a retired general and war veteran, "and we shall defend our organizations. We shall fight for our rights."
Outside, standing in the rain to buy some sausage for her dinner, Victoria Ogneva, a member of a Communist cell at a research institute, wasn't so sure.
"It looks as if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union will be disbanding," she said cheerfully. "Of course they are upset. It is not a secret to anyone that they have certain privileges and power. Of course they don't want to lose that."
Mr. Yeltsin's decree, she said, "is the next step toward democratization."