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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£14616 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading specialist in Electronic Ci...

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003