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Moscow Crowd Urges Yeltsin to ‘Hang On’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Desperate for information and distraught at the thought that the freedom they had come to take for granted had vanished overnight, thousands of Muscovites converged Monday on the headquarters of the Russian Federation government to protest the coup that ousted Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The crowd raised nervous cheers as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, once again their hero and the focus of their hopes, clambered to the top of one of the dozens of armored vehicles encircling his government’s building.

“Hang on! Hang on!” the people chanted as Yeltsin used as a podium one of the tanks dispatched by the self-styled State Committee on the Emergency Situation to cow him and his followers.

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With Gorbachev described by Russian Federation authorities as under house arrest in the Crimea, armor cruising the streets of Moscow and most of the mass media in the hands of the country’s new self-appointed rulers, stunned citizens weighed Yeltsin’s every word as he declared members of the commission to be criminals and called for a nationwide, open-ended general strike.

“Only his words can have any force because he’s our president,” Alla Panasyuk, 40, an engineer, said as Yeltsin spoke. “We elected him.”

“I was shocked and worried when I saw Yeltsin up on that tank. I thought he would be arrested,” said Andrei Gordeichuk, 46, a scientist. “But of course, it lifted my spirits to see him. He’s our only hope.”

Just as Yeltsin showed his defiance of the new regime by climbing on the tank, people rashly approached both stationary and moving armored vehicles in the city streets and challenged the troops.

Thousands of demonstrators at Manezh Square just outside the Kremlin walls surrounded and jumped up on armored vehicles in an attempt to stop them from reaching Red Square.

Some bravely planted their white, blue and red Russian flags on the vehicles to show their support for Yeltsin’s government, while others blocked armored personnel carriers by sitting down in front of them.

The commander of the tank crews told the crowd the military was not called in to attack the people or destroy democracy. But protesters jeered back: “Then why are you here?”

Everywhere, citizens pleaded with soldiers to obey their consciences and not the orders of the hard-line committee that seized control earlier in the day.

“Don’t forget that you are serving us, the people,” Yevgenia Krilova, 41, a teacher, said to a young soldier in one of a dozen armored vehicles in a column on a bridge outside the Russian Parliament’s building, the so-called “White House.”

“My son is a soldier now, too,” said Krilova, who was holding her son’s photo. “When he went to the army, I told him that he must not fulfill these kinds of orders.”

The soldiers, many red-eyed from what they said had been an all-night drive to reach the capital, seemed confused about their mission. They denied having any prior knowledge that they were taking part in a coup, and some even said that they were told they were going to participate in a parade.

“I must say I feel sick inside about it, but when we are given an order, we must follow it,” said Igor, a 21-year-old lieutenant. “I support Yeltsin, but (Defense Minister Dmitri T.) Yazov is my boss.”

Many of the soldiers, however, said that if ordered to fire on their countrymen, they would refuse.

“I do what my captain says, but not if he tells me to shoot,” said Lt. Vladislav Blaguveshinik, 22. “I know Russian soldiers have shot civilians in the past, but times have changed. Our psychology has changed. We know how to think for ourselves.”

Instead of harassing the crewmen of the armored vehicles, passersby tried to win them over by offering them cigarettes, bread and flowers. In one column of 20 tanks, every cannon was decorated with a red flower.

While some people tried to talk sense to the soldiers, others were busy constructing barricades of cement blocks, metal fencing, bricks, logs and scrap metal and any other refuse they could find to block access to the Russian Parliament building.

Buses, cement trucks, trolley cars, bulldozers and jeeps were also positioned to keep tank columns from approaching Yeltsin’s headquarters.

“We learned this from the Lithuanians,” one barricade builder said, referring to the barriers Lithuanians built around their Parliament after an abortive coup by archconservatives in January.

The crowd outside the Russian Parliament was a mishmash of professionals, workers, students, young girls in miniskirts and high heels, and families with grandparents and toddlers.

“We all came here to defend our president,” Rima P. Sobolyeva, 59, said as she held up her bag of provisions. “We will not leave here until we are victorious.”

Those on vigil at the Parliament, thirsting for any drop of information, scrambled to catch copies of Yeltsin’s statements when Russian Federation officials threw them from third-floor windows.

People who tuned their portable shortwave radios to Radio Liberty and the British Broadcasting Corp. were quickly surrounded.

But when someone from the Russian government appeared to give a speech or read a statement, the crowd immediately fell silent.

“The only power we have is our people,” Ruslan Khasbulatov, the acting chairman of the Russian Parliament, said to the gathering during a brief respite from the day’s frequent rain showers. “This is why we call on all Russian citizens to strike until the junta is ousted and brought to trial.

“This is the last decisive attack of that convulsing system that had realized it was close to its pitiful end.”

Khasbulatov’s rousing speech was greeted with great enthusiasm, because many people felt helpless as their government appeared to be falling apart around them.

“Give us arms!” one man yelled.

While those assembled at the Russian Parliament did their best to keep up with the unfolding political drama, some people learned about it when they bumped into armored vehicles on the street.

One elderly gentlemen seemed shocked when he saw dozens of T-72 tanks and other military vehicles on Novy Arbat Street, about a mile from the Kremlin.

He approached a young soldier sitting in the front of a tank and asked, “Who attacked us--the Americans?”

The soldier simply shrugged and said, “No one attacked us.”

As evening drew near, bands of young men organized themselves to protect the Russian government building, and officials pledged food and heat to supporters who would stay through the night.

“This is a fascist coup, and I will give my last ounce of strength to support Russia,” said Anatoly Maslov, 61, a retired construction worker.

Dozens of bonfires burned in the early hours today as thousands of people protesting the coup planned or rehearsed their responses in case of attack on the Parliament.

Military Muscle

The Soviet military quickly moved to back up the political shake-up with a show of arms. 1. Soviet troops surround the Russian Federation building. 2. Tanks move past the U.S. Embassy toward the Kremlin. 3. Demonstrators confront tanks at Manezh Square.


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