Coup leaders can't stem flow of information Citizens have means to get the word out SOVIET CRISIS

August 21, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The men running the Soviet Union did everything they could to make sure everyone got the story right. They filled television with old movies, they jammed radio programs and they shut down any newspaper that didn't get it right:

Mikhail S. Gorbachev was sick and would be back to work eventually. The conscientious vice president was taking over to carry on the ailing president's philosophy. The motherland was being saved from anarchy and chaos.

Within hours, most of Moscow was ridiculing this version of events as the truth swept the city.

The paraphernalia that obstructed the new leaders' efforts was a legacy of the man they overthrew.

"We have telephones, we have a telex, we have electronic mail," said a busy Alexander Shmukler, speaking between the fresh batch of faxes he was sending out yesterday on behalf of B'nai B'rith of the Soviet Union. "We have created our own information system."

Not long ago, Mr. Shmukler, president of B'nai B'rith, would have been jailed for what he was doing. He was showering Moscow with paper, telling everyone he could that Jewish organizations were solidly behind Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president who was standing up to the coup leaders.

He was also keeping Jewish organizations in 29 other cities informed of events in Moscow.

In Moscow, all the independent newspapers were banned, leaving the Communist Party paper, Pravda, and other stalwarts to publish. While Pravda was reassuring its readers that the troops moved into Moscow were only there to defend against "anti-constitutional forces," reporters from the banned independent papers were describing how the Communists had violated the constitution. They wrote their dispatches on computers, printed them out and posted them for crowds to read.

Radio Echo was quickly jammed, but it switched over to a higher frequency and started broadcasting again yesterday, telling the city that crowds were gathered around the Russian Federation building. Inside, Mr. Yeltsin videotaped a speech to the Russian people. But it was not broadcast on Russian television because of the restrictions imposed by the coup leaders.

All day long, groups of people walked to the Russian government building from other parts of Moscow to pick up leaflets being printed inside and to listen to the continuous speeches broadcast on loudspeakers telling them what was going on.

They also listened to Russian-language broadcasts from the Munich-based Radio Liberty, another crucial source of information. Every fresh dispatch brought gasps and a hum through the crowd as the word was passed.

Not long ago, it was illegal for most people to possess a typewriter that had not been registered with the authorities.

But Mr. Gorbachev, in his attempts to reinvigorate life in the Soviet Union, decided to let people speak up. They did. Now they are unwilling to stop.

"This is one of the results of perestroika," Mr. Shmukler said, "the freedom of communication."

Even as they waited for guns to be trained on them yesterday, people were insisting on speaking up. As the night wore on, radios were apparently jammed again. But telephones and faxes kept humming.

"Everyone in Moscow has a lot of friends," said Igor Borovik, a computer hacker. "Before, we had to get all of our news from our friends. The practice has almost been forgotten in the last six years.

"So they go back," he said, "and we go back."

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