As situation changed hourly, Moscow seized the day THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 22, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Theodore Bulfovich stood in the middle of the crowd gathered around the Russian parliament building last night and laughed gleefully at the prospect of the short-lived junta vanishing as abruptly as they had tried to seize power on Monday.

"They are used to seeing this nation quite obedient," said Mr. Bulfovich, an author and playwright carrying a huge thermos of hot coffee that he pressed upon everyone around him in the cold damp night.

"The people have changed," he said. "The masses have changed."

His friend, Igor Duel, agreed.

"They became citizens," said Mr. Duel, chairman of the board of the U.S.S.R. Writers' Union.

The simple folk who on Monday were told to believe that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was too ill to hold office were not the people standing shoulder to shoulder last night outside the Russian parliament building after facing down the nation's most powerful and insidious institutions, the army, the KGB and the Communist Party.

Russians have long been maligned as a nation of serfs so unwilling to take responsibility for themselves that they deserved iron-fisted rulers who would tell them what they should think.

"Under the Soviet system, everyone felt 'I'm like a screw. I can be replaced like a screw,' " Mr. Bulfovich said.

One worker was as good -- or bad -- as another. And the same for leaders. But what the hard-liners who took over Monday failed to count on was Boris N. Yeltsin, who told everyone who would listen that they were not assembly-line screws but individuals who could save a nation.

The Russian president called on the people of Moscow to save Russia from the coup with their bodies. Tens of thousands responded, standing guard over the Russian government, and something stirred that had not been felt since an earlier generation had bravely answered the same sort of call in World War II against invading Germans.

"They need me," Mr. Bulfovich said. "Something depends on me. They need me. They badly need me. The same trait was revealed that was revealed in the war."

In the last three days, it could be seen on face after face as huge crowds surged to the Russian building. A constant flow of people came and went, answering the call of their country, so many that it seemed the entire city of 9 million surely must have joined in.

Tuesday, thousands had walked along the garden ring road, as wide and congested as the Baltimore Beltway. They were hundreds across, taking the roadway from the cars that daily terrorize pedestrians. The look on their faces was astonishing.

The cowed Muscovites who characteristically shuffle along, looking down and muttering at each other, moved into the city this week with their eyes fixed straight ahead, small smiles of pride on their faces. They seemed happy in the determination to affect their own destinies.

That is what took them to the Russian government building TC where they stood each night of the coup, waiting to see if the tanks would try to roll over them.

And once they got there, these people who are part of an economy so inefficient and disorganized that bountiful harvests spoil before they reach stores managed to feed an army handily.

Little old ladies brought bags of hard-boiled eggs and home-made pies. Anyone who could brought cartons of milk or extra loaves of bread. Each evening with quick precision new volunteers fell into place, circling the few dissident tanks protecting the building, forming orderly consecutive rings around the building.

Inside, soldiers and Afghan war veterans and police stood guard all loyal to Boris Yeltsin. One post was set up around a coat check counter piled high with bread.

A 23-year-old police sergeant named Oleg had been there since the early hours of Monday, taking only an occasional nap. His mother was worried, but Oleg said he was not afraid to face death.

"Don't get your feet wet," his mother had admonished him.

Outside stood a less formal and unarmed row of guards.

"I voted for Yeltsin, and that's why I came to defend him," said Mikhail Avdeev, a 24-year-old night watchman.

"This decision was made by your conscience," said Yevgeny Kosholev,a 21-year-old automobile worker.

"People came here to die," said Sergei Usnakov, a 23-year-old computer student.

All day they stood, patiently listening to bulletins, thankful for once to hear the truth, laughing at their leaders' jokes and cheering on each small victory.

About 6 p.m., the Pizza Hut down the road delivered, 15 with pepperoni, 15 vegetarian and 15 with tomato and cheese. "It is our contribution," said Irina Petochenko, assistant manager.

Members of the Russian parliament, who were meeting inside the building yesterday, took turns coming out to urge the crowd on. They praised, exhorted, ridiculed and informed. "The last night of the Soviet Communists," said one, "was a rainy night."

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