Soviet reformers have Communists on the run

August 24, 1991|By Celestine Bohlen | Celestine Bohlen,New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- The Communist Party, for decades the bulwark of the Soviet state, was put to a humiliating rout yesterday, as party bosses and organizations across the country either defected or were locked out of their offices in mass retribution for the party's complicity in the coup attempt this week.

On the streets, people said over and over again that now was the time to break the party's back, in case it managed later to regroup and assert control again.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ordered a halt to the publication of Pravda and other party newspapers, sealed the headquarters of the Central Committee and suspended the activities of the Russian republic's party branch while an investigation takes place into party support for the coup.

Across the country, similar actions were taken. The city of Moscow had moved to close the city party committee Thursday, and district party offices were locked and empty yesterday. In some cases, their external signs had been stripped off. The city party chief, Yuri A. Prokofyev, was detained and taken to the prosecutor's office for questioning.

In disgrace and on the run, the Soviet Communist Party is on the verge of extinction, Alexander Rutskoi, vice president of the Russian republic and a Communist who had tried to reform the party from within, told the alternative newspaper Kuranti.

"It can no longer call itself the people's party," he said. "Its place is where the Communist parties of Eastern Europe ended up."

Except from Communists themselves, there were no protests against some of the moves. Nor did those party leaders who quit their seats on its leading councils explain why they had not as individuals spoken out against the coup. To some observers, the lack of debate was a troublesome sign that all criticism of the prevailing political line would be considered suspect.

Speaking before the Russian parliament yesterday, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is not only Soviet president but also general secretary of the Communist Party, warned against "anti-Communist hysteria."

"We should separate out those who participated in the first stage and who afterward supported" the coup, he said. "But by all means, we should prevent this from turning against the rank-and-file citizen, the workers, peasants and intelligentsia of the party.

"No one has the right to set the task of banishing socialism from our country. This is just another utopia, and notorious witch-hunting."

At a news conference yesterday, a deputy editor of Pravda accused Mr. Yeltsin of using "the same unconstitutional methods as the so-called state emergency committee." Gennadi Seleznev said there was no legal basis for the suspension of Pravda, a newspaper of 3 million that since the days of V. I. Lenin has been the mouthpiece of the Soviet leadership.

The ruling council of the Communist Party Control Commission expelled the coup leaders from the party last night and condemned their "unlawful actions." But it protested "attempts to hold the entire party responsible for criminal actions of a handful of adventurers."

"We appeal to leaders of state organs not to fall for emotions," the commission said. "This struggle for democracy has nothing in common with violations of human rights and people's prosecutions for political convictions."

But with right-wing forces paralyzed by the failure of the coup, the leaders of forces supporting fundamental change in the Soviet Union struck hard and fast in a clear attempt to take advantage of the party's weakened position.

The aborted coup was only the latest offense to be laid at the party's door by such speakers. The outburst of revulsion against Communists drew from a longer history of undeserved privileges, abuses of power and, going further back, terror conducted under its name.

During the last few years, the Communist Party has suffered repeated blows to its once all-powerful status. In 1990, it was stripped of its monopoly as the Soviet Union's only legal party, and in local and republic elections it has repeatedly lost to nationalist and democratic insurgent forces.

"I spent 12 years in Siberia," said an elderly man in Vilnius, Lithuania, joining in the singing and cheering as Lenin's statue fell. "But this is a happier day for me than the day I was released from the camps."

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