MOSCOW, NOV. 17 -- Three days after Moscow Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin was ousted from his job, a young actress stood on a Moscow stage and lectured her audience about their passivity in the "Yeltsin affair."
As spectators later recounted the remarkable outburst, the leading actress in "The Seventh Feat of Hercules," a new and topical play about the cleaning of the Augean stables, departed from her script last Saturday and accused the audience of standing by while a new "Hercules" who had come to clean up the city was ridden out of town on a rail.
The actress' bold accusation, which named Yeltsin, was greeted first by astonishment, then applause, according to people present at the Sovremenik II theater that day. The next performances of the play, seen here as an allegory for stagnation in Soviet society, were sold out, the box office said today.
The Yeltsin affair has gripped this city like no other political event of the last few years. At all levels of society, in cafes, restaurants and public forums sponsored by popular journals such as the magazine Ogonyok, people are discussing and debating the fate of the popular Moscow party boss and, in particular, the brutal way he was pushed out of office.
"We talk about nothing else," said one young artist who usually pays little attention to politics.
Popular sympathy for the 56-year-old Siberian has mounted with widening rumors of his poor health. Today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yuri Gremitskikh confirmed that Yeltsin had been in the hospital for several days, suffering from a heart ailment. But he denied rumors that have been gathering force for the past 24 hours that Yeltsin was dead or had suffered a heart attack.
Yeltsin's hard-driving and down-to-earth style apparently endeared him to many Muscovites, who also welcomed his efforts to improve services and liven up the city. Harsh recriminations against him as a manager and party leader, printed in Friday's newspapers, were met with skepticism, not just from the intelligentsia but also from ordinary workers, judging from conversations heard around the city.
Questions about Yeltsin predominated over the weekend at evening lectures by noted writers and editors.
Meetings on Yeltsin's ouster reportedly also were held at Moscow state university and local institutes. Even some Communist Party members who attended meetings held last week to explain the events said privately they were dissatisfied with the sketchy explanation for Yeltsin's dramatic downfall.
The key piece of evidence against Yeltsin, his speech Oct. 21 to a plenum of the party's Central Committee, has not been published. From taxi drivers to artists, from waitresses to journalists, the nagging question now is the lack of information about the charges that brought down Yeltsin.
The public humiliation of Yeltsin, who had been closely linked to Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev's program of reforms, is also taken as an ominous bellwether for the future of glasnost, the new policy of openness fostered by Gorbachev. Members of the intelligentsia have begun to scan the press for signs of a return to a more conservative line on culture and public debate. The more pessimistic say those signs are already accumulating, from attacks on rock music to calls for greater discipline.
Some of Moscow's independent clubs, whose existence is a result of the new openness, have gathered petitions protesting the absence of public information about the Yeltsin affair.
The groups, including the Club Perestroika and the Club of Social Initiatives, petitioned Moscow's city hall on Nov. 8, after the controversial speech and three days before Yeltsin was fired, for permission to hold a demonstration calling for more facts in the case.
Permission was denied on Nov. 12 on the ground that the issue was an internal party matter. On Sunday, representatives from some of the groups decided to cancel plans for demonstrations the next day in order not to provoke the authorities, a spokesman said.
Leaders of Club for Social Initiatives and other groups reported that they have been followed by marked and unmarked cars this week. Today, five of the clubs delivered a letter to the Central Committee protesting the surveillance and asking who was conducting it.