'Workers of the world' few and bitter On May Day, aging die-hards sigh for glorious Soviet past

May 02, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The celebrators of workers' power who once streamed through Red Square in endless, banner-carrying lines on May Day returned yesterday in bitterness and small numbers.

Too much has happened since last May 1. The march toward a workers' paradise has been halted. The nation has disintegrated. The once glorified Communist Party was disgraced.

And yesterday the final indignity was reported. Viktor Tolmachev, worker, pensioner and courageous defender of the Motherland, marched to Red Square to praise the Communist cause. He was not wearing underwear.

"I have no underpants," said Mr. Tolmachev, who was wearing three rows of military decorations on his suit coat. "I fought in the Great Patriotic War, and it has come to this. I have no undershirt. I have no underpants. I have no socks. I can't afford them,"

Mr. Tolmachev was among about 15,000 demonstrators who came to Red Square in anger and despair yesterday, joined by about 10,000 more strollers and onlookers celebrating the holiday.

The demonstrators railed against President Boris N. Yeltsin's economic policies. They called him a criminal and murderer. They accused former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of being a traitor. Waving red banners and the occasional picture of Stalin, they muttered anti-Semitic slogans and demanded the return of the Soviet Union and communism.

Until this year, May 1 was the Day of Workers' International Solidarity, an occasion when every factory was ordered to produce marchers who would hail the working class and chant communist slogans as they paraded across Red Square.

Then two years ago, the chants turned to jeers. Mr. Gorbachev, standing atop the shrine of Lenin's tomb, was heckled. The observance was half-hearted last year. This year, instead of urging workers of the world to unite, Russia's leaders are promoting capitalism.

The huge banner of Lenin that used to hang along one side of Red Square on May Day was replaced by a 55-foot high banner advertising freedom. "Freedom Works," it pronounced in English and in Russian. The banner was put up by the Freedom Forum. Its director, Charles Overby, told the Interfax News Agency that the forum was working to help establish an advertising industry and encourage freedom of the press.

Directly across from Lenin's tomb, another banner advertised vacations in the Canary Islands.

Never mind the Canary Islands, Mr. Tolmachev said, he would be glad to be able to buy bread and underwear. "Look," he said, unbuttoning his shirt. "I have no undershirt."

"These shoes I bought under Brezhnev," he said. "Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin nothing is available. Earlier, I could speak freely. Now everything is propaganda."

Mr. Tolmachev, who will be 65 in July, said life was good before Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin. So he carefully gathered pieces of wood from junk piles and cut and hammered and painted them into a gleaming sign with a hammer and sickle and USSR on top. The number one was cut out from within a circle proclaiming "Proletarians Unite." The word May was painted brightly below.

"This is very successful," he said, glancing about at his fellow demonstrators. "Today I'm born again."

Regiments of police had been called out for the occasion. They were lined up two deep for 300 yards along the Kremlin wall.

The police had little to do but shift from foot to foot and yawn as the weary and aging demonstrators listened to speeches.

The tourists were pleased. They snapped picture after picture of Mr. Tolmachev. They snapped the lined faces of old women carrying red flags. They loved the flags emblazoned with Lenin's face.

"It's very special to see this," said Corlien Nijsse, a young woman visiting from Amsterdam. "There are people against the system and people for the system. It's quite amazing to see this happening here. It's a pity I never saw it in earlier years."

Next to Red Square, thousands of children living in orphanages were being entertained by singers and dancers, part of Moscow's attempt to turn the old holiday into a spring festival.

When the demonstrators' two hours was up, they sang "The International" and drifted away.

As they left, the festival moved into Red Square. Men on horseback galloped about, part of a huge outdoor opera depicting Moscow's history.

Tourists snapped more pictures. The pageant would be almost as good for the albums as communism.

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