MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of Muscovites rallied in support of Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday, defying a ban on demonstrations ordered by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's government and an unprecedented display of military force.
Marching briskly along Moscow's Garden Ring Road in snow flurries at dusk, demonstrators chanted "Freedom!" and "Gorbachev out!" They cheered a handmade banner hanging from the scaffolding on one of the capital's crumbling buildings: "Communism to the Trash Heap of History."
They waved fists and V-for-victory signs at the massive traffic jam in the open lanes of the ring road. Drivers honked their cacophonous sympathy in reply.
"If we demand only the resignation of Gorbachev and [Prime Minister Valentin S.] Pavlov, we're deeply mistaken," Nikolai I. Travkin, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Russia, told the cheering crowd. "It is the entire Communist Party that is in power. If we get rid of just the tip of that iceberg, it will come back with even more reactionary leaders. We have to remove the whole party from power."
Despite fears that the demonstration could produce violence, it ended with no bloodshed and only a handful of arrests -- possibly because dozens of Moscow City Council members and Russian parliamentarians led the columns and persuaded marchers not to try to reach the Kremlin.
The evening saw an uneasy standoff of troops, who had sticks, helmets, shields and water cannons, but no firearms, and demonstrators, who taunted security forces but made no serious attempt to force their way past. Between the rally and the Kremlin were successive lines of mounted police, flak-jacketed Internal Affairs troops and police bearing 5-foot metal riot shields.
Democratic activists claimed victory because they were not intimidated by what Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo said were 50,000 police and troops.
For his part, Mr. Gorbachev managed to keep the demonstrators from reaching their announced destination, Manezhnaya Square beside the Kremlin. And by ignoring a vote of the Russian Federation Congress of People's Deputies repealing the demonstration ban, he sent the message that he still controls the capital.
But the symbolism of Russia's polarized politics was not to Mr. Gorbachev's advantage. If his rival, Mr. Yeltsin, showed he could summon broad public support, Mr. Gorbachev proved only that soldiers and policemen obey his orders -- and many of them were visibly unhappy to be set against the crowds.
"No one is threatening public order in Moscow," Viktor L. Sheinis, Russian deputy and leader of the reform coalition Democratic Russia, said in an interview. "This is just a test of power. It's just to show they have the strength to stop the congress and the will of the people."
He said Mr. Gorbachev has made a fatal error by "operating outside the logic of the first years of perestroika" and coming to rely on the army and the KGB.
"If the right-conservative camp is victorious, he'll become unnecessary to them, and he, too, will be cast aside," Mr. Sheinis said.
The 1,060-member Russian Federation congress set aside its agenda yesterday morning after deputies expressed outrage that they had been forced to come to the session in the Great Kremlin Palace through lines of troops and military trucks.
"I consider it impossible to begin work under such pressure on the people's deputies of Russia," said Bella Kurkina, a Leningrad television journalist.
Noting that the rally ban had been prompted by an appeal of 29 deputies -- mostly conservative Communists -- for protection against demonstrators, she sarcastically proposed that each of the 29 be given an armored vehicle and the rest of the force removed.
Deputy after deputy backed Ms. Kurkina's position. In a vote of 532-286, with 93 abstentions, the congress passed a decree suspending the Soviet government's ban on rallies as well as a Gorbachev order placing the Moscow police under Kremlin control.
Russian Vice President Ruslan I. Khasbulatov was dispatched to present the decree to Mr. Gorbachev and demand that the troops be pulled out.
But Mr. Khasbulatov returned two hours later to say that Mr. Gorbachev had refused to recognize the decree or to lift the rally ban, though he promised the troops would leave today. Mr. Khasbulatov added: "If Russia had a real head of state, with real power, we wouldn't be in this position."
The deputies voted to suspend their session until this morning, partly to allow many of them to attend the rally.
Mr. Khasbulatov's remark was a call for deputies to abide by the result of Russia's March 17 referendum and amend the constitution to create a new, directly elected presidency for the largest Soviet republic. Mr. Yeltsin, who was chosen by the parliament as its president last year, would be the overwhelming favorite.
Though the decree denouncing the rally ban passed by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, heartening Mr. Yeltsin's supporters, the rules require that a measure get the backing of more than half the
deputies to pass. Thus the decree got only one vote more than the required 531.
To amend the Constitution and establish the presidency will require a two-thirds vote, which even the most optimistic democrats say will be tough. At the same time, the alignment of forces appeared to make it extremely unlikely that Mr. Yeltsin's hard-line opponents will muster the two-thirds vote necessary to remove him from office.
Vladimir N. Lysenko, leader of the Republican Party, said that if the Communists cannot unseat Mr. Yeltsin, they will target for removal his prime minister, Ivan S. Silayev, and aides such as Mr. Khasbulatov.
The democrats scored a coup by uncovering, duplicating and having printed in a Moscow newspaper a confidential document purportedly outlining the Communists' planned political tactics.
Among other choice items, the document says Communist deputies should accuse Mr. Yeltsin of seeking the "annihilation" of all Communists along with their families, totaling 60 million people. Oleg G. Rumyantsev, author of the new draft Russian constitution and a Social Democratic Party leader, should be dismissed as "a specialist in bourgeois law," the document says.
It concludes, in schoolmarmish style: "After speeches by Communists, applaud in a friendly manner and shout approval."
In anticipation of yesterday's demonstration, the Bush administration pressed Mr. Gorbachev not to clamp down on the protesters.
U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock raised the issue privately with senior Soviet officials Wednesday in Moscow. Yesterday, the White House issued a public call for the Soviet government to "remove all unnecessary restrictions on the rights of peaceful assembly and free political expression."