The Party goes for a courtroom showdown: Most Russians want to rid themselves of the communist legacy, but the old guard refuses to be buried. Peter Pringle reports from Moscow

SEVEN decades of communism went on trial last week, pressed into a courtroom so small that even the correspondent of Pravda, the party's old voice, could not gain entry.

The lack of space prompted former comrades to accuse the chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, a mild and serious man named Valery Zorkin, of being like Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet prosecutor notorious for his rancour and vindictiveness during the Stalin purges in the 1930s. The Pravda man demurred. 'Let us not draw parallels with such an obnoxious figure,' he said.

Even so, such parallels have been drawn in the unfolding courtroom spectacle that Boris Yeltsin asserts could determine 'Russia's destiny'. In joint hearings, the communists are challenging Boris Yeltsin's decree last year banning the party and seizing its assets, and Mr Yeltsin is contending that the party itself became unconstitutional by its conduct. By agreeing to hear the pleas, Mr Zorkin has been accused by the communists of conducting a political trial, a charge he sternly rejects. It is open to the public, he emphasises, even if people have trouble squeezing in.

Other Russian lawyers view the hearing as a signal of a return to civilisation, with both sides permitted to present their cases, in contrast to the one-sided affairs of times past. They say that if the ruling is grounded in law, not passion, it will show Russia is building a state founded on rule of law. The case, which is expected to last several weeks, is nevertheless being viewed as the last gasp of the Communist Party that once numbered 19 million, but can hardly muster 10,000 at a Moscow demonstration these days.

The 13 judges hearing the case are wearing black gowns in the style of the US Supreme Court. But unlike members of that court, who sit on a raised dais in the huge neo-classical white marble building on Capitol Hill, the Russian court members sit in armchairs on the same level as the spectators and the lawyers around a half-moon-shaped table. The chairman sits behind an unfurled Russian tricolour below a hammer and sickle symbol, a leftover from communism, and he keeps order by banging on a brass plate hanging by a piece of string from a stand on the table.

The court, which still has old hardliners on its staff, has been tough but fair. Asked by each side why the last chief communist, the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, was not attending (he declined, saying the proceedings were too divisive) Mr Zorkin snapped back: 'Is his absence an obstacle to examining the case in essence? Members of the court express their opinion that it is no obstacle . . . I ask you not to return to this problem again.' Asked by the communists if they had the right to reject any of the judges, Mr Zorkin said they did not. The law did not permit it and he would follow the law. He also rejected complaints from the Yeltsin camp that the communists were allowed too many representatives.

Each side seems to sense the overweening need for compromise and calm, but every so often they are outraged. The communists exploded when they heard the court was ready to take evidence on Mr Yeltsin's behalf from the Harvard University professor, Richard Pipes, who has a long history of producing anti- communist tracts. 'I felt wonderful when I was led into the courtroom,' said Professor Pipes. 'Here I was, invited as an expert witness by a court that is in the process of delegitimising the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was an enormously satisfying moment.' Much to the annoyance of the communists, he also got a seat.

'Why should Pipes be involved in this?' the communists demanded. 'Why is not some other specialist here from China, for

example?'

'If you like you can express your opinion later in the press or in a monograph,' Mr Zorkin replied to laughter in the room. 'There is no time limit to the hearings,' he went on, 'but we count on the sense of the speaker. At some parliaments they speak endlessly . . . I did not mean the Supreme Soviet.'

Fed up by the third day, the communists tried to break up the hearing. The party lawyer, Alexander Kligman, asked that the two pleas should be heard separately as the communists had originally requested, but he was turned down, making way for the initial attack from the Yeltsin lawyers.

As presented, it was predictable. The Politburo had approved KGB terrorist and assassination squads before and after Stalin's time. A Ukrainian priest had been murdered with Khrushchev's assent at the time he was the Ukrainian party boss. A Pole named Sashit and an American named Ogints had been assassinated. The KGB had crack troop units that were 'infinitely devoted to the Communist Party and the Motherland'. Everything they did had been approved by the party.

Former Soviet citizens had guessed as much; they had just never heard the documentary evidence which the robust Yeltsin lawyer, Andrei Makarov, had unearthed from the communist files.

There is plenty more to come, including six volumes - totalling 2,000 pages - on the failed August coup and many more from the Central Committee's Special File, the KGB and the Moscow party archives. The trial could take months.

Most Russians, it seems, would rather it was all over sooner. They are more concerned with overcoming the communist legacy and improving their lot under Mr Yeltsin than bothering to examine whether the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should exist or not, or whether President Yeltsin's decrees banning the party and confiscating its property were acts in accord with the law.

(Photograph omitted)

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