Accusations Pour In--Justice or Revenge? : Inquiry: Soviet coup investigators ferreting out plotters walk a fine line, try to avoid ‘witch hunt.’


A strapping guard stands watch over the damning documents, just in case a guilty official with too much to lose resorts to violence to get at them.

Nearby, the phones ring repeatedly as the calls pour in: neighbors denouncing neighbors, workers denouncing bosses and co-workers. The accusation: showing too much enthusiasm for last week’s attempted coup.

“They taught us for so long how to inform on each other,” Yuri Khramov, a deputy on the Moscow City Council, said Wednesday. “Now, we’re getting a new breed--democratic denunciations.”


Khramov is a member of a city commission set up to investigate the coup. The Moscow commission is just one of a rash of investigative panels that have sprouted across the country to pin down and punish the thousands upon thousands of conservatives who backed the failed putsch.

Members of such bodies of inquiry say they know that they must walk a very careful line between justice and revenge.

“This is not a witch hunt, and we don’t like to look like bloodthirsty commissars,” Moscow deputy Igor Belyaev said. “We take only information that is not anonymous. There are too many informants who have their own personal goals.”

Many of the calls to the two spacious rooms in the Moscow City Council offices concern obvious, important culprits, such as the police officials who imposed a one-night curfew or the Communist Party editors who eagerly printed whatever the reactionary plotters asked.

But, panel members said, there are also calls from informers who have slipped back in time to the nasty Stalinist habit of denouncing anyone they want to get rid of, from the neighbor envied for the choice apartment next door to a rival at work.

“We get calls saying, “My boss supported the putsch, he put out decrees,’ ” Khramov said. “And then you start to check things out and find that the boss fired the person a month ago.”

Taking to heart the widespread warnings that the investigations must not turn into sweeping reprisals like the bloody purges that dictator Josef Stalin began in the 1930s, the Moscow commission’s members are keeping their work deliberately calm and cautious.

“Every case demands very careful examination,” said Victor Bulgakov, the panel’s bearded, soft-spoken chairman. “Our goal is to put together an objective picture of the violations of the constitution that officials committed during the period of the coup.”

In the four days that it has been working, the Moscow commission has deemed more than 100 cases worthy of full examination. Out of those, Bulgakov said, he expects two or three to develop into full-fledged court cases.

The Moscow commission has no power to take disciplinary actions or prosecute. But it does have the right to enter any workplace and to seal off those where important documents might otherwise be carted off by people with something to conceal.

On Tuesday, Belyaev said with a hint of wonder at his own power, four of the panel’s 23 deputies went to the Communist Party’s massive Institute of Social Sciences and sealed it. There had been word, he said, that papers had started to disappear, but that charge would be difficult to prove.

Chairman Bulgakov said it would also be hard to prove any charges of collaboration.

“Either the person says, ‘I was only following orders,’ or ‘How could I know it was anti-constitutional?’ ” he said.

The panel is pursuing only cases “where there were consequences,” Khramov said. “If a person just said he was for the coup, those are his convictions, and let him have them. But if there were consequences, that’s different.”

Despite their stress on objectivity, commission members did not hide their hopes that the investigations, trials, firings and disciplinary measures will purge all the reactionaries who were blocking reform from the entire city administration, major factories, the police and the KGB secret police.

Asked if such a purge could be expected, Bulgakov, a former political prisoner, said: “I’d like to hope that’s true. But we’ve fallen into euphoria so many times that we have to be careful.”

Panel members stressed that along with catching culprits, their mandate is to protect both Communist Party members and democrats from political persecution.

“Our biggest fear,” Khramov said, “is that we could slip backward and end up replacing Bolshevik Communists with Bolshevik democrats.”

Across town in the Russian Parliament building, another investigative commission that was launched Wednesday faced similar challenges.

After it was announced on television Tuesday night that soldiers being persecuted for their political views should phone the Russian Federation Parliament for help, Pyotr Novikov, a seasoned army corporal, was kept busy all morning answering one call after another--some of them openly hostile.

One voice that came crackling over the wires from Rostov asked craftily, “How much do you pay for each denunciation?”

Novikov dismissed the caller as a provocateur.

But he said that as conservatives in the army regroup, more and more soldiers who defended Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin during the coup are going to need help.

Yeltsin is expected to create a commission to investigate the military in the next few days, both to punish the guilty and to protect his supporters. But for now, Novikov said of pro-coup elements in the military, “they’re purging my comrades.”

The reported punishment of pro-Yeltsin soldiers raised concern that there might indeed be a swing back of the political pendulum after last week’s overwhelming triumph by Yeltsin supporters.

Belyaev of the Moscow commission said he received a disquieting phone call Tuesday morning.

“You are all scum,” the caller said, according to Belyaev. “Aren’t you afraid that in the near future there will be another commission, and this time it will be investigating your activities?”