Math teacher witnesses insurrection in Moscow Instructor flew to Russia for conference

October 19, 1993|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Staff Writer

When Hammond High School teacher Linda Kreitlow left for Russia three weeks ago, she was unaware that the math conference she was to attend would place her in a city torn by insurrection.

At least 100 people were killed in two days of fighting earlier this month, which culminated when troops loyal to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin stormed the parliament building with tanks and forced hundreds of hard-liners to surrender.

Mrs. Kreitlow and her group, while not witnesses to the fighting, saw the military blockades, heard automatic weapons fire in the night and shared the tension of their hosts.

"We had never heard of anything like that" happening in the United States, the math teacher said. "It was an uneasy feeling."

Mrs. Kreitlow was one of 100 American educators selected last January to participate in the conference sponsored by People To People, a Spokane, Wash., organization.

The U.S. and Russian educators gathered for two weeks to talk about international trends in math and how the two countries' educational systems differ.

The threat of instability already was evident as the group gathered in Moscow on Saturday, Oct. 2 -- a day before Russian rebels launched their attack against President Yeltsin's forces.

Though communist-sympathizing members of the Russian parliament still occupied the Russian White House, the conference's sponsors decided to go ahead with it, saying they feared no threat to the teachers' lives.

"On Saturday, I could not tell anything was going wrong," Mrs. Kreitlow said.

The next day, communist leaders shattered the calm Sunday afternoon, urging anti-Yeltsin protesters to attack police surrounding the Russian White House and the communications building in downtown Moscow.

The two days of fighting that resulted took place several blocks from Mrs. Kreitlow's hotel, The Cosmos, and much of it was seen on live television broadcasts worldwide.

Back in the United States, Mrs. Kreitlow's husband, Bill, was concerned about her safety.

"My stomach sort of churned all day long," said Mr. Kreitlow, who heard the news of the attack while at church. "I went home and turned on CNN. I remained glued to the TV after that."

In Moscow, the delegates continued their Sunday conference at the Presidium of Science, oblivious to the fighting, which took place well away from the meeting place, Mrs. Kreitlow said.

That all changed when the delegates returned to their hotel later that day. From there, they could see a plume of smoke rising from the parliament building and, as night fell, the red flashes of gunfire.

"It was like the Fourth of July," Mrs. Kreitlow said.

The sound of automatic weapons could be heard throughout the night, she recalled, though her hotel was too far away from the conflict to give a view of the fighting.

"People around the hotel were very anxious, frightened," she said. "Young people in the hotel were expressing fear of civil war."

The U.S. delegates gathered in the hotel lobby the night the fighting broke out, trying to decide whether they should participate in the remainder of the conference.

Those from small towns were most frightened by the gunfire, said Mrs. Kreitlow, who lives in Silver Spring and has taught math at Hammond High School in Columbia for the past 10 years.

"The people who were from the larger cities, like Los Angeles, Washington, Baltimore . . . we weren't as nervous," she said.

The group's concerns were compounded by the lack of English-speaking news programs, she said.

"We were getting something like CNN news, but it was in Russian," Mrs. Kreitlow said. "Sunday night, it was sort of hard to go to sleep."

On Monday, delegates bought copies of the English-language Moscow Times and read about the conflict. Most decided to continue with the conference, even though Americans were warned by the U.S. Embassy to stay in their hotels.

"We didn't want to send them out into the city," said Yvonne Pickel, associate director for program information at People to People. "We gave them the option of leaving. None of the delegates chose to come home."

On Monday night, Mrs. Kreitlow called her husband to allay his fears and those of their three children.

But the signs of conflict remained on the delegates' minds throughout the week.

From Sunday night on, soldiers in olive-colored uniforms stood next to personnel carriers, blocking many of the roads, Mrs. Kreitlow said.

And tour guides warned the group about snipers hiding along the side streets, looking for Americans and Yeltsin supporters, Mrs. Kreitlow said.

The conflict even colored the group's visit to Moscow School 57, one of Russia's best math schools. It was closed that Monday and Tuesday, along with all other schools in the city, because of the fighting.

The school itself, though well away from the site of the conflict, presented a battle-worn appearance, Mrs. Kreitlow said. Light bulbs were exposed and dimly lit the school's hallways. The chalkboard was worn, and there were no erasers or overhead projectors.

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