MOSCOW — People began to gather on an asphalt lot across from Luzhniki Park on a late weekend afternoon just as picnicking families sitting in the grass nearby were lazily starting to collect their things.
By the time the last baby stroller had been wheeled out of sight, the Russians--by now, hundreds of them--were lighting candles, collecting signatures on petitions, distributing leaflets, taking turns at a microphone--in other words, engaging in what one well-dressed woman described with a wave of the hand as "open-air democracy."
On the fine autumn afternoons leading up to today's opening meeting of the fall session of the revamped Supreme Soviet, the national Parliament, this riverside park has provided a regular platform--informal, but well-advertised by word of mouth--for peoples' power, Soviet style.
Since the first democratic-style elections in March and the first fiery meeting in May of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, the rest of the world may have become accustomed to the idea that some measure of political debate is possible here.
But for the Muscovites and visitors who have gathered in Luzhniki most evenings this month, the heady scent of freedom is still a new one.
Excited and Optimistic
The crowds in Luzhniki, who just a year ago would likely have been dispersed or arrested, are converging openly, almost feverishly excited and optimistic in the belief that they can affect parliamentary decisions and the very course of their country's history.
Those beliefs will be put to the test when the Supreme Soviet begins meeting for the second time this year with the potential to do the most serious, far-reaching work of any Soviet legislature to date.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is scheduled to address today's opening of the Supreme Soviet, which is expected to meet for two months and consider nearly 100 pieces of legislation.
At its previous meeting, most of the attention went to establishing parliamentary rules and setting up committees.
This time the first priority of the 542-member Parliament, whose members were elected from among the larger Congress of Peoples' Deputies, will be to consider a package of economic bills. Also on the agenda are proposed freedom of information laws and a suggested budget for the coming year.
But the issues to be discussed by deputies in the Kremlin halls are first being debated in the park.
Moscow's Hyde Park
Luzhniki, perhaps best known as the site of a number of sporting events at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games, has become Moscow's version of London's Hyde Park, where ordinary citizens can take a turn on the soapbox to air their views.
This weekend's gathering was ostensibly called to commemorate 150 years since the founding of Christ the Redeemer Cathedral, built in gratitude for the deliverance of Moscow from the French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Once considered among the most beautiful cathedrals in Moscow, Christ the Redeemer was torn down by Josef Stalin in the 1930s and replaced by a huge outdoor swimming pool.
Many of those present demanded the restoration of the cathedral.
But topics ranged far afield.
Pre-Revolution Flags Waved
The state of the economy was bemoaned, leading Politburo conservative Yegor K. Ligachev was criticized and Russians were urged to unite against other restive ethnic groups. The merits of communism itself were discussed. Some people waved the blue and white pre-Revolution flag.
Soviet police officers who watched the event did not interfere, even when a scuffle broke out between its organizers and members of one far-right group called Pamyat, or Memorial.
Pamyat members yelled anti-Semitic slogans through a bullhorn until one of their leaders, Constantine Smirnov, was given permission to take the microphone for precisely seven minutes.
Then they retreated to a hillside overlooking the crowd, where they chanted, and some threw stones that fell short of their mark.
"Rascal!" members of the audience shouted at Smirnov and his supporters. But none argued his right to speak.
'The Peak of Democracy'
"I consider meetings like this to be the peak of democracy," said a 52-year-old man who identified himself as Vasily. "The problems people express are more true to life than those voiced by most of our leaders."
Peter N. Yegorov, a 63-year-old engineer, traveled more than two hours from a city in central Russia to take his turn at the microphone. He said it was the fifth such meeting at which he had spoken.
Like many of the speakers, Yegorov was troubled primarily by the country's economic woes.
"I first extend greetings to those who are not Muscovites but have traveled here from the villages simply to try to buy sausage," he told the crowd, winning applause.
Vladimir A. Ivanov, 31, also took the microphone and drew cheers when he complained: "The Communists have destroyed our spiritual values.
No Time for Living