CHERNIGOV, Soviet Union — It was a prosaic auto accident on the outskirts of the city, the kind of thing that just a few months ago would have been hushed up and gone generally unnoticed. But the "incident at Chernigov" on the eve of Orthodox Christmas hit the Communist Party like an earthquake, and aftershocks are still reverberating through the region.
The accident and its aftermath sparked an explosion of public outrage against the special privileges enjoyed by the Communist Party leadership, leading to the ouster of six top officials in Chernigov and setting the pattern for similar party shake-ups elsewhere.
Even today, exactly what happened is a matter of dispute. All that seems clear is that a chauffeur-driven black Volga sedan, a symbol of the perquisites extended to the elite party functionaries known collectively as the nomen-klatura , collided with a small private car driven by an off-duty army officer near Chernigov, about 80 miles north of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
The Volga belonged to a local party official, Valery Zaika, who was returning from his mother's house in Nezhin. One report said he was alone except for his driver, another that he was accompanied by his son and a third that he was with a mystery woman.
No one was hurt. The chauffeur was apparently drunk at the time and tried to run away, as one report had it, after removing the car's license plate. A mob gathered and began pounding on the Volga. Suddenly the trunk snapped open.
Inside was a pile of Christmas gifts that made eyes pop in the crowd: sausages and other smoked meats, bottles of expensive liquor--all "deficit goods," a Soviet euphemism meaning they are always out of stock in state shops.
Enraged, the crowd dragged the Volga 3 miles to the center of Chernigov. A huge demonstration followed in front of the imposing marble building on Lenin Prospekt where the Communist Party has its regional offices.
It was Jan. 6, the eve of Orthodox Christmas, and many of the demonstrators had been drinking. Still, for the Soviet Union, it was a rare moment. Anger built up over generations of deprivation boiled up into a public display.
"It was like a spark," said Vladimir Borisenko, who since the incident has become editor of the local party newspaper, Desnyanskaya Pravda. "The time was ripe. Shops were empty, there were no goods and no housing. People saw no changes taking place."
Demonstrations against the party continued for several days and began receiving press attention throughout the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian opposition group Rukh, formed last October, had been unable to generate much interest in Chernigov, a city of 280,000 not far from where the Ukraine meets the Russian republic and Byelorussia. But within two days of the incident, Rukh's membership in Chernigov increased tenfold to more than 1,500.
"It just fell from the sky on our heads, and we benefited," said the local Rukh representative, Maya Voguslavskaya. "People were demanding not only more meat, but also more freedom. It grew from an economic complaint to a demonstration of political force."
Staggering from the shock of the demonstrations, the regional party leadership held a plenum to consider personnel changes. Worker groups demanded that the entire 13-man leadership be replaced.
In the end, the party replaced the regional first secretary, the official responsible for ideology and the head of the party organizing committee, whose Volga had caused the scandal. In addition, three local officials were replaced, including the editor of Desnyanskaya Pravda.
"The people were not satisfied with the changes because only three party leaders resigned," Voguslavskaya, the Rukh representative, said. "We demanded that they all go."
The action taken in Chernigov was widely felt; party leaders began falling elsewhere in the Ukraine and the Russian Republic, under attack on charges of mismanagement and flaunting their special privileges.
Ivan I. Leonov, the new ideology official in Chernigov, said in an interview that the special privileges were more fantasy than reality. He said that before he accepted the post, he and his wife grew their own vegetables on a family plot and had a hard time getting by.
Leonov said the crowds on Jan. 6 were angered by the chauffeur's illegal actions after the accident, not the gifts in the trunk, which he insisted were given to the official by his mother and did not come from special shops for the party elite.
But editor Borisenko described the demonstrations as "a mass attack on the party . . . strong and powerful," and he said the party "has done things which it can be criticized for."
Among other things, party officials were said to have had access to special health care while the rest of the people had to put up with a creaking medical system and that the party officials took expense-paid holidays in comfortable hotels, ostensibly attending advanced courses in communism.
Borisenko said there is still a question about the first secretary's house, a mansion paid for out of party funds at a time when housing is desperately short in Chernigov.
Nearly all the ousted officials are said to be hospitalized at this time, recovering from heart attacks and other ailments stemming from the upheaval in Chernigov. Others are in isolated retirement. None could be reached for comment.
The scandal is expected to have a powerful impact on Sunday's elections for the Ukrainian Parliament and the local council.
Chernigov has two parliamentary seats at issue, and in one contest the Communist Party is running 13 candidates against the Rukh candidate. In the other, the opposition candidate faces seven Communists.
"Personally, I think these events shook the people," said Leonid I. Gerasimenko, a party member and head of a local election commission. "I was ashamed at our leader's behavior. The party should cleanse itself."