Keeping Moscow vigil, coup's foes remember past heroics, look warily at future

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

MOSCOW -- Some of the young people who faced down the August coup for 60 hours here are unwilling to leave the scene of their epiphany.

Nearly six weeks after their barricades proved tougher than the coup leaders' resolve, about 60 of them -- men and women -- are still standing watch outside the Russian parliament building, the center of the drama in which they played a part.

They sleep there, eat there and try there to figure out what will become of them and their country.

Some of them are very young, including Irina Sidichknaya, 15.

Her parents objected to her going to the barricades Aug. 19, when Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin called on the nation for help. Irina's parents thought the coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would probably be a good thing. When she insisted on going out, she said, they told her she had better not come back, and she hasn't.

"I realized I couldn't stay at home," she said last week. "I could put my small contribution into this cause."

During the coup nights, she said, ominous, muscular young men in street clothes often threatened her and others, saying they were sure to be found and killed.

"When they said they would annihilate us, we accepted it," she said. "We were prepared. People were sure they were going to die."

Three of them did die in a skirmish with tanks before the coup collapsed. Irina and her friends give those deaths as their reason for staying at the White House, the Russian parliament building. They are observing the Russian Orthodox 40 days of mourning, they say, and will leave when the time elapses tonight.

But other ties also hold them. "It is difficult for me to talk to my friends who weren't here," Irina said. "This made us grow up."

Andrei Nemchenko, a 23-year-old who works for an animal doctor, was visiting Moscow from Smolensk when he saw the tanks. "My father went home," he said. "I stayed."

He quickly emerged as a leader of a unit organized to guard the White House. He felt bound to those he joined and finds it difficult to think of going back to Smolensk. "Someone has to remember those who were killed," he said.

Oksana Artamonova, a 22-year-old beautician, has been living outside the building even though her home is nearby. "We feel an obligation," she said. "Here I have found a good spirit in the human soul."

Irina, who expects to go back to school soon, finds the idea of returning to homework and powerlessness unappealing. "We can stop tanks," she said, "but we can't decide what will happen to our country. Who will carry out our will?"

Until last week, those who remain had little protection against the cold. Then an army unit gave them tents equipped with stoves and a kitchen tent.

The group of anarchists among them has its own tent -- pitched, appropriately, at an unauthorized spot across the street.

Irina tried to cover Ms. Artamonova with part of her jacket. They hugged each other against a cold wind and pondered the future.

"We don't want leaders who are just greedy for power," Ms. Artamonova said. "We need people who want to make the country better. But how do we get them?"

"For me personally, Lincoln is a pattern of such a person," Irina said.

As the two talked, old women stopped by, their creased, work-worn faces wrapped in scarfs. They listened as Irina and Ms. Artamonova talked of freedom and bright days ahead. The old women looked sadly at the hopeful young faces.

"Fifty-eight years I have lived in Moscow," one of the old women said. "I have nothing. If I had a machine gun, what I would do to those men who have done this to us."

"My son, my son," another of the women said, holding back tears. "They persecuted him for no reason. Oh, what they have done to us."

Irina hugged Ms. Artamonova and said, "We are all together now. That is the important thing. Now we have strength."

"What's important now," Ms. Artamonova said, "is that we are all human beings under the sun. One day, this nightmare will be finished. Our lives will be different."

The old women sighed and drifted away.

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