DURING the Soviet era, Moscow's Manezh Square facing the red-brick walls of the Kremlin was the domain of the democrats. Tens of thousands gathered to demand the end to the Communist system, waving the red, white, and blue tricolor of Russia and shouting support for Boris Yeltsin. But last Tuesday about 30,000 demonstrators turned the square into a sea of red, unfurling the flag of the defunct Soviet Union and displaying a potpourri of anti-American and extreme nationalist slogans.
At the center of attention and adulation were four of the men who plotted the August 1991 attempted hard-line Communist coup. Since their release from prison pending the beginning of their April trial, the 12 men charged with organizing the coup have become the new folk heroes of a small but growing Communist revival.
Efforts to restore the party, outlawed by President Yeltsin after the coup, have gained new momentum since a court decision late last year restored legal status to local party organizations.
Two weeks ago some 650 Communist delegates met outside at a congress to restore the Communist Party of Russia. The weekend gathering marked the first public appearance of seven of the leaders of the putsch, most of whom were let out of prison in late January.
In a wave of articles, speeches, and television interviews, the putschists have taken the offensive, attempting to turn their trial into a new round of political struggle. While it is the Yeltsin government that seeks their conviction, the coup plotters prefer to aim salvoes at their old enemy - former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms.
One line of defense, advanced by former Premier Valentin Pavlov and by former Soviet parliament chief Anatoly Lukyanov, claims that it was Mr. Gorbachev who drew up plans for emergency rule. Gorbachev's isolation during the putsch at his vacation dacha in Foros on the Black Sea was self-imposed, they charge, as he waited to see who would emerge with the upper hand.
More frequently, the putschists defend the coup as a patriotic act to save the Soviet Union from destruction and its citizens from impoverishment. In this version, it is Gorbachev and his right-hand men, former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and glasnost architect Alexander Yakovlev, who are the traitors.
"We were guided by a desire to help our people, to prevent the terrible calamity that has now afflicted our homeland," former KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov, considered by many to be the chief organizer of the coup, said in a Jan. 28 interview in the hard-line daily Sovietskaya Rossiya.
Mr. Kryuchkov is the author of the charge that the Gorbachev reforms were the work of Western "agents of influence" out to destroy the Soviet Union. "The disaster in our country was not an upshot of the actions that had occurred during the past two years," he asserted. "Everything was planned much earlier."
The main target of this tale is Mr. Yakovlev, long vilified by Communists as a reformist Rasputin who manipulated Gorbachev. In an excerpt from his memoirs published on Feb. 13 in Sovietskaya Rossiya, Kryuchkov alleges that Yakovlev was a United States agent, first recruited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1960 when he was a student at Columbia University. In 1990 Kryuchkov went to Gorbachev with supposed intelligence reports showing that his chief aide was viewed by the US as its man in the Kr emlin. He even claims to have confronted Yakovlev with the evidence.
In a pair of interviews published this week, Yakovlev angrily dismisses these charges as "a pack of lies." "Kryuchkov has always been skillful at provocation," Yakovlev told the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta. "It's quite possible that he and his accomplices have opted for attack as the best form of defense in the run-up to the trials."
Still, Yakovlev, who is currently on a lecture tour in the US, feels compelled to respond to the specific claims. Following their publication, Yakovlev says he called Gorbachev, who denied having had any conversation with the former KGB boss about him. Kryuchkov's confrontation with him also never took place, Yakovlev adds.
"But I wouldn't wish to reduce this to a quarrel between the former KGB chief and myself," Yakovlev told Literaturnaya Gazeta. "It is a much more serious matter - the necessity to be aware of the danger of an offensive of the conservative, revenge-seeking forces."
While the Russian Communist Party has no chance to gain a large following, he said, they have joined hands with extreme nationalists and fascists in a growing front, taking advantage of the economic difficulties and the weakness of the democrats.
"I will tell you frankly," he concludes, "I can't help wondering at the serenity of the president who does not take any measures to combat the fascist danger. We must see our own idleness, our own serenity, as the main threat to reform."