Sweeping changes leave Russians dispassionate

December 15, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- When Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Soviet government was overturned last week, it had about as much noisy drama as a ball of yarn slowly unraveling down a stairway.

Average Russians, lining up yet again for milk in the 3 p.m. darkness, wondering how long their jobs would last and calculating how much less their rubles were worth than the week before, might not have noticed.

Rarely have such sweeping changes been accomplished with such a small national expenditure of adrenalin.

Maybe it's the darkness, or maybe Russians have had their fill.

Even the perpetrators seemed decidedly lacking in passion.

August's Man on the Tank became December's Paragon of Moderation. Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president who joined two other republic leaders in proclaiming a new Commonwealth of Independent States, made sure he wasn't going to lose -- but did so with surpassing tact.

How different this was from those thrilling days of summer.

Four long months ago, after rescuing Mr. Gorbachev from the shaking hands of a group of putschists, it was Mr. Yeltsin who then humiliated the Soviet president. In front of parliament, on live national television, he forced Mr. Gorbachev to read the minutes of a Cabinet meeting in which most of his own ministers implicated themselves in the coup.

Then he told the Soviet president whom to appoint to replace them.

Last week, though, perhaps because he was on firmer ground, Mr. Yeltsin went out of his way to try to find a face-saving formula for Mr. Gorbachev. He offered Mr. Gorbachev a job in the new commonwealth. He never forced a showdown, but stood by patiently while Mr. Gorbachev's support melted away like flakes of snow falling on warm ground.

Mr. Gorbachev himself just looked worn out.

The mood seemed to infect the whole country.

A demonstration called to attack Mr. Yeltsin Tuesday evening found only a few hundred protesters in a Moscow square that can hold 400,000. Their number appeared even smaller because the anti-Yeltsinites were torn into two factions, mistrustfully taking up positions about a hundred yards apart.

By the same token, the ordinary citizens who flowed to the Russian parliament in August to defend democracy did nothing at all last week.

"This is indeed a major event in our lives," said A. S. Alexandrov, a retired quality-control worker from Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains. "But we've already lived through more than enough major events for one lifetime."

Mr. Alexandrov, who was visiting in Moscow, gazed around the historic confines of Red Square. It was here, in medieval Russia, that an unsuccessful politician, or would-be politician, could count on losing his head.

"Well, also, we Russians have learned to be passive," he said.

Yet the Russians have responded to stirring events in the past. A revolution in 1905. Two in 1917. Barricades. Lenin in countless bad paintings, haranguing the crowds, pointing the way.

And, of course, there was August, when residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg took the subway to the revolution and there was electricity in the air.

Last week there was damp in the air and slush on the ground.

The government's authority was publicly challenged by leading politicians, and no extra police were called out, no military units mobilized. In fact, the army said it was cutting back on maneuvers so as not to alarm people and to save money.

One popular theory links the lack of interest to the shortening day. It gets light about 7:30 a.m. and dark just before 3 p.m. Each day is startlingly shorter than the one before, as the Earth hurtles toward the winter solstice.

It's almost always cloudy. When the sun does shine, it manages to heave itself up a little ways above the horizon, then slumps back down, as if exhausted.

People, so the theory goes, respond to that. Everything's drawing inward now. There's a long winter stretching ahead. Some inner voice says, "Hunker down."

Later on in winter, when the daylight is pushing outward again, things begin to liven up here. Two of three earlier revolutions occurred in late winter. (The only one to buck the trend was in November 1917, when the Communists, with some stealth, simply grabbed power.) More recently, February and March have seen big demonstrations, strikes, the stirring of civic feeling.

Viktor Medikov, a member of the Supreme Soviet from the Kuzbas coal fields in Siberia, has another explanation.

"Some forces just did not get organized," he said. And, because people were caught unawares by the Minsk proclamation, they weren't sure what to make of it.

TC Was it a coup? A revolution? The conclusion of something that began in August? An orderly transition of power? An elaborate performance to mask hidden maneuverings?

"It was definitely not a coup or a conspiracy," offered Mr. Alexandrov, adding that whatever it was, it "should have been done long before."

"Well, it's not clear. It will be important for us, but I'm not sure how," said Elena Posadskov, an ethnic Russian living in Latvia, who like many Russian residents has been denied Latvian citizenship and doesn't know what will happen to her.

"Well, it's -- progressive," said a 17-year-old student named Anya. "It's so difficult to say anything definite about the Soviet Union. Of course, all the other republics have already left, so what else could these three republics do? I don't follow politics, you know."

But one thing seemed certain. As Raisa Nakonechnaya, who works in a shoe factory in Rostov-on-Don, put it: "The Soviet Union disintegrated, that's what happened."

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