60 miles from Moscow, city is divided over coup THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 29, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

SERPUKHOV, U.S.S.R — SERPUKHOV, U.S.S.R. -- This city of 150,000 perched above the Nara River is only 60 miles from Moscow, but in a way it seems oblivious to the tumultuous events that shook the Soviet capital and the world last week when hard-liners tried to overthrow President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Crowds of people abound on their way to and from work. The statue of Lenin still stands on the square -- though they say that no one objected recently when an old one in another part of town broke off at the waist and toppled down.

No one has renamed Gorky Street, as they have in Moscow. There's still a Red Army Street, too. Small red banners flap from the light poles, bearing a hammer and sickle and the words "peace" or "truth." A giant building sign proclaims "Glory to the Communist Party." Other light poles hold hammers and sickles and red stars, shaped from strings of lights and ready to be turned on for special holidays.

But these trappings of the crumbling old order are misleading, for the reaction here to news of the coup last week was schizophrenic. Somepeople who were behind in their Communist Party dues rushed in to pay up. Others quietly tore up their membership cards.

The old Serpukhov was hedging its bets when the hard-line Communists toppled President Gorbachev, hoping everything would go back to being the way it used to be. The new Serpukhov was desperately hoping nothing would go back to being the way it used to be.

"In Moscow, everyone supports Yeltsin," said a 55-year-old woman with bright red hair, referring to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, hero of the resistance to the coup. "Here it is different. Everyone has different opinions."

Beneath the abiding banners and slogans, despite the public silenceduring the coup, many people of Serpukhov have been deeply transformed from two generations of acquiescence to Communist control.

The vigorous middle-aged people who get things done and the young who will inherit their work have been won to the task of revolution by nearly six years of perestroika.

Irina Chernova, a reformist member of the City Council, described her own evolution as typical of what has happened to much of a generation.

"When I was 16," said Mrs. Chernova, who is now 45, "and adults spoke about problems in my country, I was scared and thought they were spies. Many people thought it wasn't patriotic to talk of problems in front of children."

She believed that America was the land of classes so badly exploited by capitalism that vast numbers of the unemployed lived hard lives on the streets. "I was quite persuaded our socialism was the best in the world and Stalin had spoiled it. All we had to do was keep working to improve it," she said.

With perestroika, she began to read. First, Novy Mir, the trailblazing literary journal, published some Western literature. "It was quite a shock," she said.

Then she read some Arthur Koestler -- who condemned Communist totalitarianism -- and finally exiled Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "That was enough for me," she said. "I knew they [the Soviet leaders] were all a gang of scoundrels. After this I became different."

She had been an engineer, but three years ago she went to work writing for a new paper here.

"What has put people on different sides of the barricades today," she said, "depends on whether they are able to accept new information or not."

Many are not, says young Alexei Burov, a 19-year-old soldier. When he tried to tell fellow soldiers what was really going on during the coup last week, his superiors locked him in their office for the day and warned he could get in serious trouble.

Some elderly people here told a reporter yesterday that they were not aware of the tanks and barricades until after the coup collapsed.

Serpukhov lies on the other side of miles of green fields from Moscow. In the bleak weather yesterday, a whole nation of country people seemed to be standing at bus stops between the two cities.

Serpukhov is an old city, celebrating its 652nd birthday this weekend. Near the river, the pre-revolutionary village exists unchanged with picturesque log and frame houses alternating between smooth stuccoed public buildings painted pale yellow. Wooden filigree windows hang like slightly askew picture frames on the bright blues and greens of the houses. Graceful parks encircle Lenin Square.

Driving away from the river, ungainly housing projects sprout up. For about a half-mile, the two Serpukhovs stare at each other, the lovely village lined up along one side of the street, the deteriorating brick and concrete apartments of the Soviet era on the other.

Then the new becomes dominant. The trees and quiet of the old part give way to mud and half-finished sidewalks and crowds of people gathered at bus stops, splashed by cars racing past.

There is no university, but there are two big military factories -- one of which is considering switching to making vacuum cleaners -- a large textile plant and a huge physics research institute.

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