May Day in Moscow: more red tape than fun

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Notes from the diary of one US correspondent who battled red tape and roadblocks to watch the May Day parade through Red Square in Moscow -- a parade shorter than usual, less eventful, and boycotted by at least 14 ambassadors, including those from the United States and most other NATO countries:

9 a.m. One hour to go. Time to check documents: a colorful cardboard pass for me and for the first time in four years, one for my wife, too. It's her last May Day in Moscow: Officialdom relented and lifted a previous ban. Children are always allowed.

9:04. Crisis. My Soviet identity card is missing (later found). The cardboard passes don't work without separate identification. Decide to use passports and pray.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

9:06. Triumph. Find official parking permit for car. Without it, better to stay at home. Whole downtown area closed off today.

9:15. Fix precious parking permit to windshield. Drive around the corner. First roadblock. Gray militia uniforms with red tabs. Gray metal barriers. We are waved on.

9:17. Another roadblock. We go through, feeling liek royalty. All streets deserted except for roadblocks. Eerie silence.

9:19. Down Petrovka Street to Bolshoi theater. Strings of civilian auxiliary police in red armbands across road every 50 yards.

9:20. Park outside Bolshoi, which is garlanded with red and gold banners for the day.Impressive.

9:22. Through an underpass to entrance of Red Square. A jam. Guards check passes with agonizing slowness.

9:30. Up the hill to the square. Domes of St. Basil's Cathedral hazy at far end. Blue sky. Warm. People everywhere. Huge red and yellow signs hail communism. Portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin hang three stories high on gray facade of GUM department store.

9:45. Our eighth checkpoint. Favored Soviet citizens already in low, permanent reviewing stand beside mausoleum. All solemn. One wonderful Tartar face, old man, white-haired, enormous moustache drooping well below chin.

9:59. Seize positions in foreign press area. In square athletes cheer and wave. To our right, the solid, square figure of Leonid Brezhnev pauses half way up stairs to reviewing stand on Lenin Mausoleum. Sun glints on row of gold medals on his suit-coat. He moves easily, smiles, waves. He is fresh from a vacation in the Soviet south.

10:00. Prerecorded announcer's voice hails the victory of communism. Martial music blares. Balloons float upward.Athletes move quickly through the square.

10:15. What's this? No mass gymnastics. No children dancing. Floats roll by bearing pictures of Poltiburo leaders and figures on steel and energy output. It is the least compelling of my four May Days so far.

10:30. Gene Pell of NBC says he and his wife walked along Moscow River for an hour to get to parade. At last checkpoint she was turned back: no passport to back up her pass.

10:45. Correspondents peer into diplomats' enclosure beside us. Who is boycotting to protest Soviet troops in Afghanistan? We compare lists, consult ambassadors who are here. American charge d'affaires absent on purpose. Most other NATO countries away -- West Germany, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, etc. French ambassador very much here, though: "La grandeur," comments another diplomat wryly.

10:46. Latest list: 12 countries boycotting.

10:47. No, 14

10:48. No, 13. New Chinese ambassador couldn't have come anyway. He hasn't presented credentials, someone says.

10:49. Latest list: 14 countries boycotting. Chinese ambassador is absent deliberately. I ask a Chinese diplomate why. "He very tired, "says diplomat -- and laughs.

10:50. Another float: "Stop the interference of imperialist forces in Afghanistan."

10:51. Alastair tries to buy a drink from a portable stand on which sandwiches and drinks are frying in the hot sun. No, says the woman, later. She is still closed when we leave 15 minutes later.

10:56. Woman selling ice creams from a cardboard box repeatedly ignores nine-year-old Alastair's proffered money and serves adults.

10:58. The cones are vanishing. My wife goes over: "five, please." No, says the woman, only three left. She starts to serve a man. "Three, then," says my wife firmly. She gets them.

11:05. We leave. Behind huge wooden doors in Kremlin wall are a hundred troops, armed, on alert.

11:10. Last marcher goes into square. Second parade starts: huge water trucks, wheeling and spraying the route to clean it.

11:15. Back at the car. Hot. Children race for a water fountain. Militiamen calls my wife back. Trouble? No -- he hands her a cardigan she had dropped without knowing it. Nice man.

11:20. Cruise home through empty streets. Shortest parade in years. Our last Moscow May Day is over.

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