Low-profile police avoid confrontation


May 10, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Maria Lapina knew that yesterday's big march of Communists and nationalists down Tverskaya Street was supposed to turn into an even bloodier clash with the police than the one on May 1, so she came prepared.

With two bright scarves, the diminutive Mrs. Lapina, a retiree who lives on a pension of about $4 a month, had strapped a dented steel soup pot onto her head.

"I intend to be ready," she said. "But I'm not afraid -- because I'm going to die soon anyway."

She squinted from beneath the rim of the pot into the brilliant sunshine. "I'm here because I'm a veteran -- well, I wasn't at the front, but I worked hard -- I'm a veteran, and I'm against [President Boris N.] Yeltsin," she said.

As it turned out, though, no police truncheons, no rubber bullets, no hooligans' fists came down on Mrs. Lapina or her soup pot. Like thousands of other opponents of Mr. Yeltsin and his government, she showed up at yesterday's Victory Day march ready to do battle with the police, only to have the police refuse to get in the way.

As a nation, Russia had seemed shaken all week by the May Day violence, which left 600 injured and a police officer dead. Was this, finally, the beginning of serious fighting?

Mr. Yeltsin's opponents had promised to be out again yesterday, when the country celebrated the 48th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, and both sides were talking tough. The Communists promised to show up with guns, and the police promised to crack a few skulls.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov had declared that no protesters would be allowed in Manezh Square or Red Square, both of which adjoin the Kremlin, and the battle lines were drawn.

But authorities switched strategies overnight, and in yesterday's warm sunshine the estimated 10,000 protesters found themselves walking down Tverskaya Street, and then around Manezh Square, and then into Red Square, while the lines of police did nothing more than help them stick to the route.

Moreover, the police were in their ordinary coat-and-tie uniforms (albeit with rubber clubs) while the fearsome anti-riot squads, with their shields and helmets and face masks, remained out of view.

The Communists, with their red banners, the Christians, with their banners depicting Christ, and the nationalists, with their czarist imperial banners, moved into Red Square with the deflated emotions that might be expected when an arduous, jaw-clenching quest turns into a sort of Easter parade.

Demonstrators chanted slogans ("Yeltsin's a hangman!"), but there didn't seem to be any heart in it.

"I'm here for many reasons," said Vassily Solomontsev, who was a fighter pilot in the Caucasus during World War II. "I'm here to show solidarity with peasants, workers and working intellectuals against the fascist regime that will be installed in this country. I hope we will defeat it the way we defeated the fascists in '45."

"This shows it's impossible for Yeltsin's Zionist government to put the people on their knees," said Oleg Lepishinsky, who was a guerrilla fighter in the region of Vitebsk.

His black uniform almost jangling with medals, he said, "We fought against Hitler because he was trying to bring capitalism to our country, which we didn't want -- and which we still don't want."

All of this was too much for Yuri Vdovin, a former torpedo boat officer who lost an arm when his boat was attacked by a German warship in the Baltic Sea. He remembered, with disdain, how panicky Soviet officers tore up their party documents in 1941 so as not to run afoul of the advancing Nazis.

"I fought for my mother and for my country," he said, "not for the Communist Party."

He had no use for yesterday's anti-government sloganeering.

"We need a democratic Russia," he said, while passers-by jeered at him, despite his frailty and his naval uniform. "I'm for Yeltsin. This confrontation has to stop. On Victory Day we should remember instead how much blood we've already shed."

Red Square is a big place, and the marchers -- who included plenty of younger civilians along with the World War II veterans -- didn't begin to fill it.

Beyond Red Square is Moscow, and beyond Moscow there is all of Russia -- and for every demonstrator yesterday there were probably 1,000 other people out on their country plots, working hard to get the vegetables planted so as to have something to eat and something more to sell.

Others were toiling away at bricklaying and carpentry, as new DTC country cottages, some small and some not, spring up in the Moscow region and elsewhere.

All of these people were already demonstrating the self-reliance that Mr. Yeltsin -- who yesterday laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and opened a new park dedicated to the victory over the Nazis -- has been preaching as the cornerstone of the new Russia.

The only incidents marring yesterday's observances were the crashes of a stunt plane in Siberia and a helicopter that was dropping leaflets in the central Russian city of Saransk.

The pilot and 14 people on the ground died when the plane plunged into a crowd. Two crewmen were killed and three others injured on the helicopter.

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