2 Crusaders for Justice or 2 Grand Inquisitors? : Soviet Union: The exploits--and woes--of the two embattled investigators have polarized the nation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the longest-running political morality play of the Gorbachev era, a controversy so heated that it brings throngs of people into the streets when their two idols seem threatened by the Soviet high and mighty.

Anti-corruption investigators Telman K. Gdlyan and Nikolai V. Ivanov were once again the focus of attention this week as the Soviet lawmakers debated whether to strip them of the parliamentary immunity they enjoy as members of the Soviet Congress so that they may be tried.

An hour-long warning strike was called in Leningrad on Tuesday, and thousands rallied there and in Moscow to oppose any attack on their heroes.

"By defending Gdlyan and Ivanov, we defend liberty and democracy!" one speaker told the Leningrad crowd. Outside the Kremlin, 10,000 massed to hail the erstwhile law enforcers now accused of being lawbreakers.

But the Supreme Soviet's 275-84 decision sharply restricting their comments, arrived at Wednesday after two days of debate, will only perpetuate controversy over the two, who parlayed their reputation as incorruptible public servants into seats in the Congress of People's Deputies last year.

For although Gdlyan and Ivanov are crusaders for justice in the eyes of their many admirers, they seem like McCarthyite inquisitors to others, sham believers in legality who accuse the innocent, up to and including President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, of involvement in corruption without ever offering concrete proof, apparently seeking personal or political gain.

"It would seem to me that this is a return to the practices of the 1930s," KGB Chairman Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, whose agency admittedly has had firsthand experience with summary justice, told the Supreme Soviet in a reference to the forced confessions and show trials of Stalin's Great Terror. "Gdlyan and Ivanov are involved in adventurism at a state level."

The legislature, conscious of the outpouring of popular anger that could result from overly harsh treatment of the two men, rejected the call by Prosecutor General Alexander Y. Sukharev to allow criminal proceedings against them but did put them under a virtual gag order. It warned them that further "groundless" statements jeopardizing the country's stability would lead to the lifting of their parliamentary immunity.

The legislature also gave its consent to their dismissal as state investigators, posts that had given them virtual folk-hero status because of their fabulously successful six-year probe of senior government and Communist Party officials in Soviet Central Asia.

The political fortunes of the pair are a unique barometer of the widespread popular frustrations and distrust in officialdom during the sixth year of Gorbachev's tenure as Soviet leader, and may be likened to the surge in Boris N. Yeltsin's popularity every time Communist Party or government officials try to denigrate him.

"Some radical groups today simply use Gdlyan and Ivanov as a battering ram for destroying the bastions of power," said Moscow jurist Konstantin D. Lubenchenko, who sat on the special commission the Soviet Congress created to scrutinize the two men's actions.

Gdlyan is the former head and Ivanov the former deputy chief of a group set up by the prosecutor's office to investigate corruption in Uzbekistan. This led to the arrests of 62 officials involved in the falsification of cotton production figures, the confiscation of about $58-million worth of ill-gotten assets and evidence that implicated members of the ruling elite of the Leonid I. Brezhnev era, including the former president's son-in-law, Yuri Churbanov. Churbanov, convicted of bribe-taking, was sent to labor camp.

Had the investigators stopped there, they might have remained honored members of the Soviet prosecutor's staff. But the falling-out with authorities apparently took place in the summer of 1988, when the pair made public their investigation of a number of senior Communist Party officials who had been subordinates of Yegor K. Ligachev, now the voice of ideological orthodoxy on the Politburo.

During a live TV program in May, 1988, Ivanov claimed that Ligachev, as well as former Politburo members Grigory V. Romanov and Mikhail S. Solomentsev, were personally involved in the corruption network. All 209 members of Gdlyan's group were fired in the days that followed, and the prosecutor general, Sukharev, began preparing a criminal case dealing with "violations of legality by a group . . . headed by T. Gdlyan."

The investigators' accusations, and the government's rapid reaction, convinced many Soviet citizens that the party machine and law enforcement organs were festering nests of organized crime. For people who must line up to buy bread or foul-smelling sausage as their well-fed rulers race by in limousines, Gdlyan and Ivanov took on the stature of popular avengers, bringing the bosses to account in their interest.

Conversely, any attack on the two seemed to many Soviets to be an assault on the egalitarian idea that even their rulers should have to answer before the law.

Also, because Ligachev was a target, the controversy assumed an ideological dimension: conservatives vs. radicals. When Ligachev denied any role in corruption and was given a clean bill by the party's Central Committee in September, it seemed that the Old Guard was protecting its own.

However, there are no "white hats" in this dispute, whatever rank-and-file Soviets may think. Publications, some of which cannot be suspected of anti-Gdlyan and Ivanov leanings, have bared Star Chamber-like techniques used in their probe, including these:

To force confessions, the investigators reportedly arrested the wives and children of the accused.

Although Soviet law prohibits holding an individual without trial for more than nine months, former top-ranking officials were kept in custody by the Gdlyan group for between three and six years.

Under rising attack from the legal establishment, Gdlyan and Ivanov charged that the Politburo, the Supreme Court, senior officials in the prosecutor's office and the current leadership of the KGB are enmeshed in a conspiracy to protect the Soviet "mafia."

Whether the two investigators can or will keep silent when their pronouncements have brought them such political prominence seems doubtful. They were absent from the Supreme Soviet while it weighed their fate, and Kryuchkov told the puzzled deputies that KGB operatives had found them--running for election in Armenia.

The ploy seemed obvious: If shorn of their immunity as deputies in the Soviet Congress, Gdlyan and Ivanov could still avoid prosecution, and presumbly still keep speaking out, as newly elected members of Armenia's legislature.

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