Communists try for a Soviet comeback

March 18, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Loyal Communists tried their best to re-establish the Soviet Union yesterday but managed only to drive ignominiously about the countryside before meeting in an unlighted hall on a dairy farm.

Attempts to organize a huge anti-government rally later in the day fared little better. Only about 10,000 Communist sympathizers turned up at a vast square near the Kremlin to call for the return of the Soviet Union, which was replaced in December by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The food riots that many have feared ever since prices rose dramatically Jan. 2 failed to materialize. Given the opportunity to demonstrate against President Boris N. Yeltsin and his policies of market reform, most Muscovites chose to pass.

The rally was organized by Communists and nationalists, who also called a meeting of the 2,250 members of the Congress of People's Deputies, which voted itself out of existence in September following an aborted coup against then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Only 200 former Soviet deputies appeared yesterday. Instead of convening in the grandeur of the Kremlin as they once did, they were forced to gather on a dairy farm about 40 miles south of Moscow. The new Russian government had banned their meeting.

Pursued -- and outnumbered -- by about 300 journalists, the former deputies were driven in buses to the farm, where authorities turned off the electricity on them. They met for 90 minutes by candlelight and declared the Commonwealth of Independent States null and void.

Then they drove back to Moscow to transport the crowd at Manezh Square back into the past, a past in which the Soviet Union existed. The crowd bore all the old hallmarks: the red flags, the hammer and sickle.

The demonstration had been convened as a veche, an old Slavic word for the gathering of an entire community in which common decisions were made.

"The U.S.S.R. is and remains," said Sazhi Umalatova, who was elected chairwoman of the congress. "No one can say this country doesn't exist," she proclaimed to repeated cheers and chants of "Soviet Union, Soviet Union."

Many of those interviewed on the square did not know quite what they wanted -- except for something better and a return to the certainties of an earlier time.

"We support the Soviet Union," said a 21-year-old locomotive engineer named Andrei Alexeev. "That's why we're here."

He was one of the few young people. He said he lived with his mother, who had just lost her job in the Ministry of Agriculture. "We need renewed Soviet power," he said. "There are problems with money. Starvation is coming."

But like many others interviewed, he had no clear idea what he wanted a renewed Soviet Union to do that would make life better for its people.

"A complicated question," said Gennady Gusarov, a 36-year-old construction engineer. "All I know is that I cannot get enough food for my two children. This government has given us speculators. Now they buy something for 5 rubles and sell it for 100. That is wrong. And our government incites this evil."

Then there were others, like Yelena Alexandrova, 17, and her friend, Pavel Isaev, 18.

"We're here because of simple curiosity," said Miss Alexandrova. "We don't support them at all. Those people don't know Russian grammar or history. They don't know what they're saying."

Vladimir Gershuni, a 61-year-old former dissident, was there, too. "I wanted to see it with my own eyes," said Mr. Gershuni, who spent nearly 17 years in labor camps courtesy of the Soviet Union.

"There are those who are decent people but aren't in the habit of thinking. They think of tomorrow but not the day after tomorrow."

Mr. Gershuni was a friend of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's and was imprisoned for helping to publish some of the writer's samizdat work.

For the first time, he feels optimistic about his country's future. "The number of supporters for this movement is very low," he said. "I think even before the end of this year there will be positive changes."

Changes for him are coming even sooner. Twelve years ago, his telephone was turned off -- just two days after Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize-winning dissident physicist, was exiled to Gorky for criticizing the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gershuni said he has been notified his telephone will be turned back on tomorrow.

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