Peaceful rally marks victory day in Russia: Police ease off as 15,000 hardline Communists demonstrate against Boris Yeltsin on Moscow's streets

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MUSCOVITES yesterday defied the prophets of doom who had predicted more of the political violence which marred May Day. Instead they celebrated the 48th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in many different ways, but always peacefully.

But tragedy struck the long- suffering Russian people as a light plane performing in an airshow in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil plunged into holiday crowds, killing 15 people.

The disaster in Nizhny Tagil, compounded by a smaller accident in the city of Saransk where a helicopter crashed killing two people, cast a pall over the holiday. Yet there was considerable relief at the absence of street violence that might have sent Russia down a dangerous path towards civil conflict.

Peace was achieved because the authorities in Moscow, who had used batons and water cannon on May Day to keep rock- throwing, hardline Communist demonstrators out of the city centre, eased up, allowing 15,000 mainly elderly opponents of President Boris Yeltsin to march to the tomb of the unknown soldier and to Red Square.

For their part, the Communists were better disciplined, allowing themselves to be marshalled by the Union of Officers, rather than the extreme National Salvation Front, which had led them into bloody clashes last weekend.

The marchers, some carrying portraits of Stalin and calling Mr Yeltsin a 'butcher', were still very bitter about May Day. 'I will scratch their eyes out if the police attack us again,' said Anna Vasilievna, who stood with her husband, a retired air force colonel, listening to speeches on Mayakovsky Square before the procession began.

No doubt colleagues of the riot policeman Vladimir Tolokneyev, who died of injuries inflicted on May Day, have equally strong feelings, but police who were on duty that day were given a rest yesterday. 'Different officers are here today so emotions don't get out of hand,' said a police major, Gregori Petrov. 'We are going to allow the people to march where they want, provided they behave themselves.'

So the column, led by a hardline parliamentary deputy, Sergei Baburin, and marching to a beat of wartime songs, set off down Tverskaya Street to the tomb of the unknown soldier where earlier in the day Mr Yeltsin had laid his wreath and made a short speech promising concrete measures to enhance reform straight after the public holiday.

Not all in the crowd were old or Communist. Dima, a 20-year- old businessman, said he was there because he believed in 'Russian capitalism, not giving away our assets to foreigners'. He also complained about the Western position on Yugoslavia, saying the world was prejudiced against the Serbs because of the Orthodox faith they share with the Russians.

But marching was very much a minority pastime as most Russians chose to enjoy the warm weather in less political ways. Half the city seemed to be gardening at dachas in the countryside. Thousands turned out to stroll in the parks of the giant war memorial complex, which opened yesterday at Kneeling Hill, where Napoleon waited in vain for Muscovites to come and bow down in surrender to him.

In the city centre, holidaymakers opted for the opening of a Western sportswear shop, complete with a giant balloon in the shape of a matrioshka doll.

And in the afternoon Mayakovsky Square, vacated by the Communists, turned black as it was occupied by a huge crowd of young people dressed in leather. Who were they? Neo-fascists? No, they said, fans waiting for the rock group Depeche Mode.