Gorbachev's Would-Be Assassin--a Man Obsessed : Soviet Union: Metalworker was not just another disgruntled consumer. Friends say he was an activist consumed with politics. The KGB says he planned the attack for two years.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For every problem, however complex, Alexander Shmonov had a slogan: "Oust the Communists!" "Direct elections!" or "Do not believe the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!"

When his slogans didn't change the world fast enough, the blindly stubborn metalworker and radical had another solution--kill Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

On the morning of Nov. 7, as thousands of Soviet citizens paraded across Red Square in Moscow to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the revolution that brought the Communists to power, Shmonov took a position 50 yards from where Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were viewing the festivities from atop Lenin's mausoleum.

He pulled his German-made hunting rifle from under his coat and aimed it toward the viewing stand, but just as he pulled the trigger, a police sergeant deflected the weapon and the bullet struck no one, according to authorities.

"I think it was desperation," said Andrei A. Markyanov, 24, a friend of Shmonov. "He is a simple man. But he was totally consumed with politics and wanted changes to come quickly, so it was very frustrating when nothing seemed to change."

For the world at large, Gorbachev is the man who ended the Cold War and lifted the Iron Curtain and ended decades of repression in his own country. In Shmonov's view, according to friends, the Communists were at fault for all problems in the Soviet Union, so the simplest solution was to get rid of Gorbachev, the No. 1 Communist.

Now the 38-year-old, pink-cheeked husband and father who desperately wanted change is being held by the KGB on charges of attempted terrorism. If convicted, he could be executed by firing squad.

The KGB has said that Shmonov planned the attack for more than two years, quitting his job at the Izhorsky metalworks three weeks ahead of time to practice firing his double-barreled rifle in rapid sequence.

"He honestly wanted to improve the situation in our country, but he's dull-witted," said German M. Ushakov, an economist who unsuccessfully ran for the Russian Parliament with Shmonov's help. "He saw someone he thought was standing in the way of progress, and he shot at him."

Why a former factory worker from the grimy industrial suburb of Kolpino near Leningrad would want to kill Gorbachev is no mystery to some Soviets.

"Too bad Shmonov didn't knock off Gorbachev," a 42-year-old taxi driver said in disgust. "We all hate Gorbachev because of the horrible way we live."

Friends, co-workers and fellow political activists said that Shmonov was not just another disgruntled consumer fed up with a president who seemed to do nothing to fill the empty grocery shelves. Shmonov's mind was always on larger issues, they said.

"He never complained. He seemed to forget about his family and their bad living conditions," said Vladimir V. Sergeyev, one of his foremen. "All he thought and talked about was politics."

Shmonov regularly attended meetings of the Popular Front and the Free Democrats of Russia, two radical political groups to which he belonged, and he volunteered to make and distribute leaflets to help their candidates campaign against the Communists. Fellow radicals on the fringe of the political scene in this city of 180,000 said that Shmonov is a man of limited intellect whose solutions to the country's problems went only as far as the single-phrase slogans he loved to write on leaflets and signs.

Never an orator or leader, Shmonov was content to do the most menial political work, but he was not shy about expressing his views.

Other workers frequently laughed when he parroted political theories he had heard the night before at political meetings, his foremen recalled, but he never reacted with anger or let their mocking sway him from the causes in which he believed.

"Once his mind is set on something, it is impossible to dissuade him," said Markyanov, who has known Shmonov for several years. "A big issue for him is the need to have direct general elections for the presidency." In March, Gorbachev was elected to the office not by citizen voters, but by the Soviet Congress.

Neighbors described Shmonov as an odd loner who rarely came home to the single dormitory room he shared with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. When home, he spent much of his time in the dormitory's common room, painting slogans on signs and printing leaflets.

"No one knows him well," said Maria M. Akhmametyeva, 28, a neighbor for three years. "He has a strange way about him. Almost as if he is drunk when he's not. He talks slowly and deliberately, one word at a time."

Even the woman who has been married to him for three years said she does not know him well. The family lived in a room so small there were only narrow walking spaces between two beds and the baby's playpen. They shared a bathroom with another family and a kitchen with nine others.

Because of lack of space, Shmonov's wife said, her husband often went to a one-room shack in a tiny village about 60 miles from Leningrad, where she had lived before they were married.

Three weeks before the Revolution Day parade, Shmonov quit his job and holed up in the shack and, according to the KGB, practiced his marksmanship. He did not return home or talk with anyone, his wife said.

"I thought he was at the country house when I heard a report on the television about what he did," said Shmonov's wife, who asked that her name not be published. "He is a naive and peaceful man. He could never have thought up such a plan on his own; his political friends must have pushed him into it.

"Now, because of these stupid political ideas of his, my daughter and I are left on our own," she said, sobbing.

Although KGB investigators said that Shmonov plotted the assassination attempt long in advance, his attack seemed obviously doomed to failure, given the expected heavy police presence on Red Square. Those who worked closely with Shmonov said that devising such a plan would have demanded all of his intellect. Others said it was more than he was capable of.

"By his nature he's a slow person. I could never give him an independent project," foreman Sergeyev said.

Another foreman, Igor N. Mararov, 32, added, "His head was always in the clouds--it was hard for him to think about the task in front of him."

But when he wanted to accomplish something, he would not be distracted. Friends and co-workers remember that Shmonov developed a sudden interest in guns and hunting about 1 1/2 years ago.

When he tried to join the local hunting society, members who knew Shmonov refused to recommend him, his foremen recalled, but somehow he found two others to support his application, which gave him the right, under Soviet law, to own a firearm and take classes in marksmanship.

Although guns are scarce here, Shmonov bought his weapon last August and paid for it dearly: it cost almost four months of his meager salary--900 rubles, or the equivalent of $1,600.

To those who knew Shmonov, his sudden fascination with hunting was just one more peculiarity. Neighbors, fellow political radicals and co-workers said his oddities ranged from the way he dressed to his attempts to publish articles that read like elementary school essays, complete with bad grammar.

His shirt sleeves and trouser legs were often too short; despite his full frame, his overcoat hung on him like a sack, and he would wear sandals in icy weather. Shortly before quitting his job, new work uniforms were issued, and he asked for one several sizes too large.

Asked why he did not get clothes his own size, Shmonov said, "I'm planning on gaining weight," Mararov recalled.

"He's not completely normal," said Nikolai A. Bognovsky, 26, the postmaster of Kolpino who worked closely with Shmonov on campaigns. "He's not mad; he could work, but there was something not quite right about him."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°