LENINGRAD -- On a cold, foggy winter evening in this city's grimy industrial suburbs, 15 deputies of the Vyborg District Soviet (or council) reflected Russia at the turning point.
Although only three of the council's members who met us are Communists, the party's district secretary did much of the talking. Furthermore, one deputy identified himself as a KGB agent and defended that dread organization's snooping into private enterprise. The others, though less assertive, condemned the emerging crackdown.
That slice of life encapsulates the tensions building across this immense country. Reforms unleashed in 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev to end 70 years of Communist dictatorship are being leashed today by Mikhail Gorbachev to save power for the Communist-KGB-military apparatus -- and for himself.
But Leningrad, Russia's second city, shows that turning back the clock is not automatic. Non-Communists control the city government, with the party's once-unchallengeable authority shrunken here (though not in the Kremlin). Despite miserable living conditions, there is no evident public support for the hard-liners.
Eleven of the 15 assembled local council leaders in Vyborg District (population: 400,000) said they never had joined the party, one (the chairman or district "mayor") said he resigned last year, and three still belong.
One of the three is local Communist leader Serge Smislov, who claimed a new role for Stalin's creation. "Now we Communists have become a political party, required to compete with others," he said, adding that district party headquarters symbolically had stopped sharing the same floor with Soviet government offices. Smislov praised Gorbachev, but another Communist present broke in to say perestroika had brought "economic chaos."
The non-Communist delegates seemed skeptical about the professed Communist surrender of power. They voiced support for democratization, Lithuanian independence and privatization. But what about Gorbachev's order for the KGB to poke into private enterprises in search of "economic sabotage"?
When we asked this, a previously silent deputy in his early twenties -- sullen, husky, wearing a reindeer sweater -- spoke for the first time. "I am with the KGB," he announced, "and we are only enforcing the law to protect the public." That brought a harsh response from a deputy three times his age: "That is the traditional way of KGB thinking -- more command, more command, more command." When the local KGB agent protested that the secret police were only seeking "public order," another deputy shot back: "In Germany in 1933, they were only seeking order."
Such tension boils beneath the surface in this one-time jewel of the Baltic, whose residents say their city never has been so dirty, whose buildings are disintegrating and whose stores are empty of goods and people.
The democratically elected Leningrad Soviet gets the blame. Polling by the Center for Social Processes shows its support level has fallen to 31 percent. But Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, one of the Soviet Union's most famous reformers, gets 75 percent approval.
The reform leaders cannot stop complaining about Sobchak, the democrats viewing him as a trimmer and the free-market advocates seeing him as a closet socialist. "Our democratic forces are not united," Sobchak, who left the Communist Party six months ago, told us. "They tend to confront each other under circumstances that are fraught with peril."
The peril has brutal visibility in Leningrad. Members of the Memorial Society, made up of former prisoners of the gulag and their relatives, told us terror could return at any hour. During a chat, several scientists said they could be arrested tomorrow and sent to the gulag.
There is no question what ordinary citizens think. Distaste for Communist rule is such that polls show two-thirds of the city's residents want to change Leningrad's name back to the czarist St. Petersburg. The question is whether their will, reflected by non-Communist delegates elected to the Vyborg Soviet, shall be overridden by the sullen young KGB agent and the evil apparatus behind him.