MOSCOW -- The squad trudged in formation in the afternoon darkness yesterday alongside Moscow's Marshal Zhukov Prospekt.
It was a familiar sight here. They were hard, laconic young men from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadzhikistan and Russia, draftees, 10 cogs in the one great institution that still transcends republic borders: the Soviet army.
The army hasn't been heard from since Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus declared a new commonwealth Sunday to replace the Soviet Union.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev asserted himself in his role as commander in chief yesterday, meeting with top officers at the Defense Ministry. But aides to Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president, said Mr. Yeltsin had called the Soviet defense minister, Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, Sunday evening and secured his tacit consent to the creation of the commonwealth.
Will the army choose sides between its nominal commander and the forces trying to undo the Soviet Union? Will the army enforce its own solution?
Such questions really don't interest Cpl. Kotiv Dadachonov, who
comes from Uzbekistan. They're not for him to decide.
Drafted at 18, he has served 1 1/2 years. He was stationed in Germany until March. Now he works in a construction brigade in Moscow, assigned to a civilian factory that makes concrete blocks.
Who's in charge? he was asked. And is this still the Soviet army? Or a Russian army? Or a commonwealth army?
"We obey our commanders," he said simply. "All is normal."
He was echoing a reply heard over and over again in August, during the putsch against Mr. Gorbachev that failed, from soldiers called in to guard barricades and patrol the capital. They didn't favor the junta and they didn't favor Mr. Yeltsin, they said back then.
"We obey our commanders."
All told, there are more than 4 million servicemen in what was the Soviet Union. The army is everywhere, as it always has been.
Officers hurry through the streets of Moscow with their briefcases; soldiers dig ditches along city sidewalks; army trucks bounce along the streets, their benches filled with conscripts from Central Asia peering out from beneath canvas tops.
Because the army embraces all the republics, mixing young men from two continents, it can't so easily be sorted out by republican politicians eager for independence. The army has to be taken care of -- carefully -- by those who would be in
Discipline is strong, as Corporal Dadachonov's willingness to obey his commanders demonstrates.
He and the other members of his squad don't particularly like their work, in which they spend all day outdoors in a cold, miserable yard pouring concrete into forms. Then they pile into an open army truck for the half-hour ride out to their barracks in Krasnogorsk, a suburb to the west of Moscow.
The barracks, made of cement block, are tucked away behind a high wall. They're heated. There's food. It's enough, the soldiers say.
It's not exciting. During the coup, while tanks were tearing up the streets of Moscow, Corporal Dadachonov was doing what he's doing now, pouring concrete into forms.
He knows that change is coming. The Soviet Union appears to be either extinct or nearly so. The economy is in a tailspin, food is growing scarcer, no one's quite sure if or how the army will be paid after Jan. 1.
"No one's said anything clear-cut," he said.
Is it enough to make him want to take to the streets with his rifle?
Not a chance. He makes 30 rubles a month, a meager amount in practically worthless currency.
"It's just 30 rubles, and I'm getting out soon anyway," he said.
But he obeys his commanders, and it's the commanders who are getting restless. The system that supported the army is falling apart, thousands are coming home from Eastern Europe, and their careers are on the line.
Liberals worry about what they see as saber-rattling by a discontented officer corps. It's not the 30,000 nuclear weapons here that worry democrats. It's the 4 million soldiers and sailors.