Street clashes shatter Moscow's surface calm; Police jeered, jostled, resisted by young Soviets at singer's funeral
Moscow — The biggest street demonstrations in Moscow for many years, at funeral ceremonies for a famous actor and protest singer, underscore the tensions that lie just beneath the outwardly calm surface of Soviet life.
In a city jammed with tens of thousands of extra police to keep order during the 1980 Olympic Games, between 10,000 and 30,000 Soviets, many of them young, jeered and whistled at police, called out "shame, shame" as police tried to keep them back, shook clenched fists, and clashed with mounted police in scenes virtually unprecedented here.
The crowd had started to gather more than 12 hours earlier round the politically avant-garde Taganka Theater where the actor-singer Vladimir Vysotsky had appeared for years.
In Wester terms, Vysotsky, who passed on July 24 at age 42, was a combination of Laurence Olivier and Janis Joplin. Not only was he famed for roles such as Hamlet and other individuals at odds with society, but he wrote and performed protest ballads based on his years at a Stalinist prison camp.
Tapes of the songs were circulated widely in Moscow. Some of his less controversial ballads were recorded and sold officially.
Despite his fame, few here expected the kind of scenes that broke out in front of the theater July 28 as the cream of Moscow's intellectual elite mourned inside and most of Moscow's official attention was focused on Olympic events a few miles away.
Several young men who had been in the crowd described the scene to this reporter and a colleague as we stood surrounded by hundreds of people still thronging in front of the theater three hours after the main protest had occurred. Their accounts tallied with Western eyewitness descriptions down to the last detail.
Why had they gone there? Because of the protest songs? "Because of the spirit he represented," replied one man. Others nodded.
They said police began diverting traffic from the main ring road and from about a mile away southward toward Red Square late the night before. The theater is located just off the main ring road about two miles from Red Square.
As the morning wore on, crowds jammed in behind gray metal barricades. The people stood around the entire square. They climbed onto the roofs of shops and sidewalk kiosks.
Fist fights broke out as police dived into the crowd after individual demonstrators. One Western television reporter, arriving late, was seized and taken to a police car and warned not to film. When he emerged, people in the crowd slapped him on the back approvingly.
The crowd stood for hours as Vysotsky's body was brought to the theater in a bus serving as a hearse -- and carrying white Olympic Games license plates.
"The atmosphere was loaded with electricity and tension," said one Westerner, a fluent Russian-speaker, who was there. "I haven't seen anything like it before. . . ."
Flowers covered the sidewalk in front of the theater. On one bunch lay a hand-lettered sign: "What a shame the wrong ones are dying" -- as open a political statement of protest as has been seen in this city for years.
A lone guitar was propped against the wall of the theater near a portrait of Vysotsky. a sign paid tribute to him, saying he was not esteemed highly in official circles but that he had the recognition of the people.
A baroque Italian adagio, being played at ceremonies inside the theater, floated above the restless, angry crowd from three loudspeakers over the main entrance. Many wept openly. The body was brought out, the open coffin held high by mourners, and driven away with two trucks loaded with wreaths, including one from his French actress wife, Marina Vlady.
Plainclothes police in light blue uniforms issued for the Olympics linked arms to hold back the crowds. Hundreds rushed forward to lay flowers beneath the portrait. Suddenly the portrait was removed from the window.
"Portrait, portrait" chanted young people at the front.
Ten mounted police rode up and urged their horses sideways into the front ranks. The crowd whistled and shook fists in the air and fingers in "V" signs.
"See what the mounted police did to me," said a young man to me later, lifting his trouser leg to show a red bruise.
After several minutes of mob anger, a larger portrait appeared in an upper window. The crowd applauded -- then shouted "shame, shame" at the mounted police and the human barriers. More fists waved. For Moscow, it was startling for any crowd to behave in such a way.
Three hours later as we stood in front of the theater, police were still trying to clear the way for traffic.
At the Vagankovoye Cemetery, where the Russian poet Mayakovsky is buried, more mob scenes occurred as police tried to control large crowds.
Eyewitnesses at the theater were struck by the strength and apparent lack of fear among the young people as they protested what they saw as the desecration by police of the memory of a man they revered.