MOSCOW -- Soviet tanks dispatched to threaten Boris N. Yeltsin dramatically turned around to defend him last night, threatening to split the army and weakening the control of the right-wingers who removed Mikhail S. Gorbachev in a coup d'etat earlier yesterday.
Thousands of people who had gathered outside the giant white Russian parliament cheered and shouted "Yeltsin, Yeltsin," when tanks from the elite Tamanskaya division shifted position just after 10 p.m. Moscow time and pointed their guns outward.
By nightfall, other loose ends were appearing in the coup that had seemed so chillingly final in the morning hours. All indications were that the plotters were a relatively small group who had been forced to move selectively and speedily for fear of exposure.
The hard-line leaders of the KGB, the military and the Communist Party may find they had done only half the job when they announced yesterday morning that Mr. Gorbachev had been taken so ill that he was unable to perform his duties as president.
Mr. Yeltsin, the popularly elected president of the giant Russian republic, remains immensely popular among ordinary Russians. If opposition to the coup does develop, he will clearly be the rallying point.
MA The plotters may have also underestimated the commitment of a
Soviet population already deeply transformed by perestroika, which Mr. Gorbachev initiated six years ago.
Thousands who once dared nothing dared everything last night, convinced that if the Russian government center could only hold through the night, the coup would be thwarted.
Young, old, men, women, they walked purposefully to gather on Moscow's grand squares, to find out what was going on and to do something about it despite the menacing presence of tanks throughout the city. Factory workers and college professors, construction workers and physicists, wearing worn work clothes and carrying shiny briefcases, they walked in the rain to revolution.
"I have chosen to die on the barricades," Igor Chekovinski, a 20-year-old newspaper distributor, said calmly. "I can say one thing. We will stand."
Mr. Chekovinski was outside the Russian Parliament, which was guarded by an unlikely assemblage of barricades. Trucks full of gravel and cement were parked across the roads. They were backed up by electric trolley buses that men and women shoved and heaved into place after taking them off their wires.
The crowd piled up bits of broken bricks, parts of rusted-out fences, broken-down sticks of furniture, fragments of sewer pipes and whatever they could lay their hands on from the construction sites that lie, abandoned, all about. So there were great cheers when the solid metal of the tanks joined them.
Their leaders urged restraint, and no violence was reported in Moscow last night, though one person died in Latvia.
Gennady Yanayev, the Soviet vice president and the spokesman for the eight-member emergency committee that took power, held a matter-of-fact press conference earlier in the day, "calling on all genuine patriots to put an end to these turbulent times . . . to provide the necessary support to the emergency committee to get the country out of the crisis."
When asked about the fate of Mr. Gorbachev, he said, "Mikhail Gorbachev is now on vacation. He is undergoing treatment. He is very tired after these many years and he will need some time to get better."
Yuri Kurylenkov, a 44-year-old physicist, said most Soviet people were laughing at such statements. "It's a very bad performance," he said. "It's a pity anyone could believe it. This is a criminal act. It's very important for the world to help us."
Mr. Yanayev went on to promise big improvements in housing, food, transportation and energy. "Over the last three years we did a bad job in terms of housing construction," he said, promising improvement.
Mr. Yeltsin, who called for a general strike to resist the takeover, saw nothing but devastation ahead.
"The clouds of terror and dictatorship are drawing over the whole country," Mr. Yeltsin said. "They must not be allowed to bring eternal night."
Mr. Yeltsin, and everyone on the street, were calling the Emergency Committee the junta. Mr. Yeltsin said they had illegally taken over the government and issued a decree that was tossed in a flurry of white paper from the windows of the Parliament building.
He ordered the KGB to submit to Russian authority and ordered prosecutors to bring charges against anyone following orders of the new regime. He said the new leaders were guilty of high treason.
Earlier in the day, the 60-year-old Mr. Yeltsin actually climbed aboard a tank and urged soldiers and the nation to resist.
"Soldiers, I believe in this tragic hour you can make the right choice," Mr. Yeltsin said. "The honor and glory of Russian men of arms shall not be stained with the blood of the people." Later, members of the Russian parliament climbed aboard the tanks and spent the night taking turns urging the crowd to keep both its resolve and its temper.