20,000 rally to denounce Yeltsin plans

February 10, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- In the largest public display of opposition here to President Boris N. Yeltsin, 20,000 Russians demonstrated in the capital yesterday demanding his resignation.

At the same time across town, an equal number of flag-waving, chanting citizens cheered him lustily.

The people had taken to the streets, as the rest of the world has uneasily been expecting since Mr. Yeltsin plunged Russia into radical economic reform five weeks ago.

But riots many had feared did not occur. Instead, the crowds exhibited the best of democratic values -- they publicly and forcefully expressed their differing opinions then went home.

The anti-Yeltsin crowd bore red hammer-and-sickle flags of the recently dissolved Soviet Union and protested the high prices and uncertain future that have accompanied Mr. Yeltsin's economic reforms.

Mr. Yeltsin's supporters waved the red, blue and white flag of Russia and proclaimed that all the nation's prospects rested on its people enduring the temporary hardship of high prices and little to eat.

The anti-Yeltsin group -- Communists, Bolsheviks, people on the far right and those simply longing for the certainties of the past -- gathered in Manezh Square outside the Kremlin's walls.

They marched from a Stalin-era monument to the people, the Central Park for Culture and Rest Named after Gorky. They proudly carried their red banners under gray Moscow skies in temperatures just below freezing. "Yeltsin is Judas," signs read. "Menu for Today: Tea without Sugar, Soup without Meat, Porridge without Butter."

It was the first wide-scale public opposition to Mr. Yeltsin since the heady days of August when the entire nation seemed to be behind him.

There were perhaps 20,000 people in the group. What was surprising was that in such difficult economic times they had not emerged earlier and angrier.

Their opposites gathered at the Russian Parliament, the building known as the White House where in August Mr. Yeltsin had withstood the coup, surrounded by thousands of compatriots.

They wore buttons or carried signs identifying their posts on the August barricades, and greeted one another as fondly as old classmates, re-creating the mood of six months earlier.

Alexander G. Babayans, a 43-year-old truck driver, joined hands with Valentina I. Maslinkova, a 71-year-old pensioner -- links in a human chain that formed around the White House just as one had in August.

"Why am I here?" asked Mr. Babayans, who held a flag pole in the crook of his arm, his hands thrust in the pockets of a short brown coat. "I am here today because I don't want to live as we lived before."

Once again, he said, ordinary people had to make a stand to protect their government from conservatives. Last time, he said, it was a coup. This time, it was conservative politicians and marchers with red banners, criticizing Mr. Yeltsin's reforms without giving them time to take hold.

In August, Mrs. Maslinkova said, she was here heating kettles and serving tea. She was happy to return, she said, and do whatever she must to save democracy, no matter how cold.

She said she had survived the horrifying Leningrad blockade of World War II, when a million people starved. Today's high prices and limited supplies are nothing, she said, compared with that.

"We are like cockroaches," she laughed. "No matter how they try to poison us, they can't stop us."

Most of those at yesterday's gathering were in their 40s or 50s, in contrast with the huge turnout of young people in August.

"I don't think young people like a lot of talk," said Maria Bobrova, a 19-year-old secretary. "They like to do something. In the three August days, there was a lot of work to be done, constructing barricades, lying in front of tanks. Now you can only stand here and listen."

Still she came yesterday with her parents because she felt the government was threatened again. "I thought I should be here," she said.

While the Manezh demonstrators complained that Mr. Yeltsin was moving too quickly with high prices, his defenders outside the Parliament complained he wasn't making changes fast enough in Russia.

"I take a lot of trips for my job," said Vladimir V. Savastyanov, 46, a scientist, "and all the old party bosses still have their positions. . . . They are slowing things down."

Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest and a member of Parliament, addressed the crowd over a public-address system. He called on Yuri Petrov, who heads Mr. Yeltsin's administration, to resign. He said Mr. Petrov was a party boss in Sverdlovsk -- a job once held by Mr. Yeltsin.

"Today we see a great sea of apparatchiks and party bosses stopping democratic reform," Father Yakunin said. "What's worse, we see those former bosses around the president. That's what worries me the most."

At the Manezh, the crowd was singing "The Internationale," the proletarian hymn. Here there were huge knots of police -- far more than at the Parliament. Now it's the Communists who bring out the police, not their opponents.

Nellie Galkin, 58, was holding a red flag and a 1942-era Soviet poster.

"I'm only a common person," she said, explaining she didn't know who should lead the country instead of Mr. Yeltsin. "I do know we need a state plan and socialism."

Vladimir Chebakov, a mild-mannered 36-year-old engineer, held a flagpole. Atop it flew the hammer and sickle.

"The Communist Party didn't do wrong," he said. "I think the last seven years were all wrong. I want the country to return to the way it was before 1985. We had free education, free medical care and we got a good lunch for 70 kopecks instead of 12 rubles."

A tiny woman wearing a bright green coat sighed. "We had a good life under Stalin," she said. "Now we have nothing."

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