Angry Muscovites take to streets Thousands gather in peaceful defiance THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 20, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Defiant Muscovites lay claim to the heart of their city last night, unwilling to cede the dark rainy streets to the soldiers and tanks rumbling into the capital all day.

"They've made a Red terror -- a Bolshevik terror -- a Red Bolshevik terror," said Nina Semyenko, a doctor and fervent supporter of Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian republic president who quickly became the key opponent of the right-wing junta that drew the curtains on Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

"They'll do everything now, because they've committed a state crime, and they won't give up easily. But it's their last chance -- the last chance of communism. What's most important is what Yeltsin says: civil disobedience. A general strike. It's the only way."

Her comments were part of the political arguments that raged as usual on the sidewalk in front of the Moscow News building at Pushkin Square while bands of demonstrators marched by along Tverskaya Street, shouting their anger at the coup against Mr. Gorbachev.

Most marchers chanted, "Russia! Russia!" and every group was led by someone carrying an old czarist Russian flag.

Thousands gathered at the Russian parliament building just outside the city center. Through the night, others listened to speeches in front of the Moscow City Hall and in front of the Moscow Hotel, in the shadow of the Kremlin.

The entire center of Moscow had been closed to automobiles -- to clear the way for tanks -- but ordinary people used the opportunity to pour out their sentiments.

"We don't have the right to leave those people in power," said Tamara Pavlova, who works in a record studio, describing her reasons for turning out last night.

"We have only one life -- we can't live it afraid. Five men seized power, and now we suffer. Why should we suffer? For 70 years we suffered. The whole day I've been ill. It's a nightmare."

Still, the mood was strangely relaxed at Manezhnaya Square, a vast open space along one wall of the Kremlin.

Often the scene of large demonstrations in the past, the square had been almost completely cleared by soldiers brought in from bases in the countryside.

At one end of the square, tanks surrounded an exhibition devoted to the debacle of the war in Afghanistan. But at the other end, soldiers stood calmly in a line, smoking and talking with the demonstrators they were there to keep back.

They had been told by their officers that disorder was rampant on the streets of Moscow, but as they arrived during the day, they were met not with bricks but with ice cream cones from the crowds in the square.

People clambered up on the tanks, and no one, soldier or civilian, got out of line.

"The young people were very good, very high-spirited," Ms. Semyenko said. "Instead of running from the tanks, they ran after them."

Last night, though, after a demonstrator reminded one soldier of Mr. Yeltsin's decree that no Russian military personnel should obey the leaders of the coup, the soldier replied that he was zTC aware of the decree but probably would still shoot if ordered to do so.

"It's very dangerous," said Oleg Pakhmurin, a member of the Siberian Communist Party who was visiting Moscow.

"It's like Khrushchev's situation," he said, referring to the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, a move that brought on what is now referred to as the "period of stagnation" under Leonid I. Brezhnev.

"History should have taught us a lesson. If the coup leaders stay in power, the world will turn away from us and will be afraid of us, with all the consequences -- an arms race, a lower standard of living," Mr. Pakhmurin said.

"They came to bully us," said Valery Germalaev, walking by a row of military vehicles lined up along one side of Pushkin Square. "But I think justice will step in finally. It's very important now to maintain a vigil at the Russian parliament."

One of the great observers of the old Russia, a Frenchman named the Marquis de Custine, wrote in 1840 that no matter how cruelly the Russian government acted, it always justified itself with a lie.

And no matter how transparent it was, it allowed the people to pretend they had been deluded by the government rather than having to face the terrible cruelty with which they lived.

It was a practice that thrived under communism. But yesterday the Muscovites who turned out were declaring that the coup leaders had lied -- about being forced to act on account of Mr. Gorbachev's poor health, about carrying on Mr. Gorbachev's policies -- and it was a lie, they said, they weren't going to live with.

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