LONDON. — ''Attempts to ban a party of 19 million people because of the crimes of its individual members -- even thousands of them, or tens of thousands -- will be seen throughout the world as an act of barbarity from the Middle Ages.''
-- Former Central Committee Secretary Vladimir Kalshnikov, Moscow, 14 July 1992. London -- Actually, there haven't been any street protests against the medieval barbarism of banning the Soviet Communist Party round where I live. On the list of popular civil-rights causes worldwide, Soviet communism ranks 3,245th.
It's almost a year now since the Communist Party was banned in Russia after the abortive Communist-led coup in Moscow last August. No more than 10 percent of those 19 million members would rejoin the party if it were legalized today, and it has no hope of ever coming to power in Russia again.
So why did the Russian Constitutional Court end up holding well publicized proceedings to decide whether President Boris Yeltsin's ban on the party should stand? The answer has very little to do with the past.
It really has to do with two issues: property, and Gorbachev. The Communist Party used to own much of the most desirable real estate in the country, plus printing presses, fleets of cars and other valuable property. It now belongs mostly to the Russian government, but in theory it would all have to be handed back to the party if Yeltsin's ban were lifted.
More important, the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, is starting to make political noises again. Mr. Gorbachev (who has never faced a serious election in his life) has been warning that Mr. Yeltsin's government is sliding into authoritarianism.
He broke his promise to refrain from sniping at Mr. Yeltsin's government after only five months out of power, and his language has got steadily more extreme. By mid-July he was telling the Italian newspaper La Stampa in an internationally syndicated interview: ''I know [the new democrats], and I can tell you that what they're doing has a tremendous stink of Bolshevism. The methods are the same.''
Mr. Gorbachev will never hold high political power in Russia again. But he can certainly cause difficulties in the West (where he is still taken seriously) if his anti-Yeltsin campaign gathers momentum. The latter clearly feels that people need to be reminded about the nature of the party that Mr. Gorbachev led.
The timing says it all. The original appeal to the constitutional court to set aside Mr. Yeltsin's ban on the party was lodged late last year by some three dozen petitioners, mostly former Communists. But nothing happened then.
The hearings were not actually scheduled until Oleg Rumyantsev, head of the Russian parliament's constitutional committee and a Yeltsin ally, petitioned the court to declare the Communist Party unconstitutional and thus perpetuate the ban.
That happened in April, just when Mr. Gorbachev was showing the first signs of jumping back into politics. And the constitutional court then agreed to hear both petitions at once, which made it possible to examine the party's past rather than just concentrate narrowly on the legality of Mr. Yeltsin's ban.
But that still begs the question: what was all this supposed to accomplish? After all, the key facts about the truly evil period in Soviet history, when millions were murdered under Lenin and Stalin, have been widely known for decades even in Russia.
And bear in mind that there is no intention, even now, of bringing the surviving criminals to justice. Quite sensibly, the Russians have decided that it is not worth tearing their society apart in order to punish a few tens of thousands of wicked old people. The tacit amnesty is still in effect, and nothing the constitutional court decides will change that.
What gives the government's game away is that such a high proportion of the evidence has to do with relatively recent foreign misbehavior by the Communist Party: funding terrorists and so on. The point is to incriminate and discredit people who were senior Communist Party leaders in the late '80s (like Mr. Gorbachev), and in particular to deflate their image abroad.
This is all quite understandable politics, but there is one serious psychological problem with identifying the ''Communists'' as the source of all evil. It basically lets Russians off the hook about the past 75 years of their history.
That has already led to such bizarre incidents as May's joint Russo-Afghan declaration, in which Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and the victorious Afghan guerrilla leadership noted ''the similarity of the historical destinies of two nations, which were victims of Communist totalitarianism.''
Similarity, hell. The Communists did not invade Russia; they were Russians themselves. The Russians did invade Afghanistan, and the war they waged there killed about a million people. The Russians are in danger of absolving themselves, in an almost Japanese fashion, of responsibility for their own history.
In the meantime, the juiciest revelation about the old thieves has not come from the Constitutional Court hearings at all. It comes from the Soviet State Film Committee, and deals with relatively recent decades when the party's leadership was no longer a psychotic and self-righteous gang of mass murderers, but merely an association for mass bullying and mutual enrichment.
The State Film Committee supplied movies for private Kremlin viewings, and its records document the taste of Soviet leaders from Leonid Brezhnev's time through Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. It turns out that most of them liked hard-core pornographic films, and just about all of them grooved on movies glorifying violence (''Dirty Harry,'' ''Taxi Driver,'' ''The Godfather'' series, etc.)
Just about what you'd expect, really. They didn't do it much any more, but they still dreamed about it.
Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on foreign affairs.