By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — It was one of the tensest days Muscovites had experienced in some time. The immediate cause of the strained atmosphere was a decision by the liberal majority in the Moscow City Soviet to call a mass demonstration to support the policies of Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin.
During the past two years, the Manezh Square in central Moscow, where the demonstration was to be held, has been the venue for a series of anti-government protests, all of them peaceful and some attracting hundreds of thousands of participants.
But this demonstration was called for the evening of March 28 — a few days after the Soviet cabinet had banned all marches and demonstrations in the capital from March 26 to April 15. The reasons given for the ban were stiffly uninformative platitudes about allowing the forthcoming session of the Supreme Soviet to deliberate without being subject to "pressures".
The real reasons were less mysterious: on April 2, the Soviet Union was to undergo what was quaintly termed "price reform". Prices of bread, meat and other staples were to rise 300% and more. Recalling the explosive protests that followed similar price rises in the Baltic republics in January, President Gorbachev and his ministers were not taking chances.
When it became clear that Moscow city authorities would not cooperate in enforcing the ban, Gorbachev issued a presidential decree taking control of all the Moscow security forces. On March 28, most areas of Moscow were stripped of police. A reported 50,000 security force employees were concentrated in the city centre, as official spokespeople stated emphatically that demonstrators would not be allowed anywhere near the Manezh Square.
I realised just how serious the government was about this on the evening of March 28, as I entered the street that leads down from the "Children's World" department store to Sverdlov Square and the Kremlin. Where a dense stream of traffic normally flows, a line of camouflage-painted military trucks was parked across the roadway. In the distance, lines of grey-uniformed militia blocked the approaches to Red Square.
Had any crowd been able to gather in the Manezh Square, and was any kind of meeting taking place? I skirted through the streets that lead to the Bolshoi Theatre, then continued on to Marx Prospect. More lines of police and, near the metro station, several hundred people, some with placards, milling about in frustration before another row of trucks. Could I make it around to Tverskaya Street, I wondered, and get a view over the Manezh?
I set off through the narrow streets that mount up the slope immediately to the north of the city's core. It had been a cold, windy spring day, and now it was snowing, dense clouds of huge wet flakes.
There was no sign of the armoured vehicles and automatic rifles which the more alarmist reports had predicted. But parked along the kerbs were green "ZiL" military trucks and, huddled under the canopies, jackets. I turned a corner and came up against an unnerving sight: a line of riot troops in steel helmets and flak jackets, with shields and truncheons, all enveloped in the clinging snow.
"Can I go through?", I asked. "Only to the right", was the reply.
The route he indicated with a wave of his baton stretched up the hill, further from the Manezh Square, which I could no longer doubt was bare of demonstrators.
Every hundred metres or so was another line of militia. People leaving the city centre were allowed to pass; those trying to enter were turned back. The security forces had laid siege to the centre of Moscow. Within the cordon were jobs without workers able to penetrate to them, and hotels, restaurants and shops starved of customers.
No matter: the point had been made. Whatever the elected deputies of the Moscow Soviet might have decided, the apparatus had been shown to rule, to be capable of making decisions and enforcing them. The Gorbachev government's opponents might be able to draw a crowd of demonstrators, but the government could draw a crowd of police. The lesson will lie heavily on Soviet politics for some time to come.