ELSTAL, Germany — "I will never give a command to shoot against my own people, and I would never obey such a command."
A cold rain dripped from the four gold stars decorating the uniform of the Soviet officer who dared to say these words but not to give his name, interviewed outside a sprawling Soviet army base in what, because of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, is no longer Communist East Germany.
Far from home, the 273,000 Soviet soldiers still on German soil are relying on radio and television to follow developments in Moscow. In tiny Elstal, at least, a mood of quiet defiance is evident among the men, many of them just days away from their scheduled withdrawal back to the Soviet Union.
Although opinions varied about Gorbachev's ability to lead the country, none of a dozen soldiers interviewed believed that he was ill--the reason given by the new leaders in the Kremlin for removing him from the presidency. All agreed that power had been wrongfully seized.
The voices to be heard in Elstal were remarkable for their boldness. The vehemence seemed to surprise even the soldiers themselves as they spoke of their fears Tuesday in a muddy lot across from the base. They had come here to buy cheap clothes, tape recorders, hair spray and fresh fruit from vendors who display their wares on wobbly tables or on their cars. Many of the vendors are themselves from the Soviet Union, mostly Jewish refugees who have resettled in nearby Berlin over the last year.
"Better not to stand right out in the open and talk," an officer eating a banana counseled a 21-year-old private. "Go back behind the trucks or somewhere."
The young man shrugged. "It doesn't matter," he said.
With officers and fellow soldiers within earshot, he, like many others, then wondered aloud if there would be civil war and said, no, he could not shoot his own people.
"Of course not," he said.
Most of those interviewed here said the overthrow of Gorbachev was inevitable, but they had not expected it to happen this way, and not so soon. But most also insisted that it was not a military putsch and said they could not imagine using force against fellow citizens.
"It is not military coup," said the four-star officer, who said he was a captain and tank commander. "It was an illegal action by groups who do not have the right to do such a thing. I don't believe Gorbachev is ill, either."
The commander, whose weathered face seemed far older than his 32 years, said he first heard the news "when I was awakened by a call at 5 a.m. that morning. I heard it through the chain of command," he said, declining to elaborate. "They said we would see the details on TV."
He was surprised, he said, but hopeful that the military could restore order so that normal government could return. "But the military should not take action against people for refusing to work. We should never use force against our people."
A 27-year-old officer due to return to the Soviet Union this month had just put his wife and 2-year-old son on a plane back to Omsk earlier Tuesday, and was trying to convince himself that the trouble in Moscow would blow over quickly and peacefully.
"Of course we're worried," the lieutenant said, asking not to be named.
Asked if he wanted to join his fellow soldiers in the streets of Moscow, he shook his head violently.
"No, no, no!" he cried. "Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to participate in it. The bloodshed we have witnessed in Central Asia is enough and we want no more."
The military will back off, he predicted, "because it is only common sense. After all, it is our own people. I would not want to kill anyone."
How, he was asked, could a Soviet soldier in uniform openly declare his reluctance, his refusal even, to blindly obey orders?
"Times have changed," he replied.
He has been in eastern Germany for five years, he said, and has seen first-hand the historical changes wrought by Gorbachev's policy of \o7 perestroika, \f7 which is largely credited here for opening the Berlin Wall and paving the way for German reunification.
"People are starting to think and soldiers like me are really trying to answer to themselves for what they are doing," he said.
A 30-year-old first lieutenant, a veteran of the Afghanistan campaign, echoed that belief, but could not reconcile it with the image of tanks on the streets of Moscow.
"Every human being adapts to the system they live in," he said, but if the situation involves soldiers turning on the Soviet people, he was less certain that he could adapt, that he could use his gun on unarmed protesters.
"The influence of the Communist Party in the Soviet army is much weaker," he said.
Assigned to an infantry unit, the officer said he was uncertain what he would do when he returns to the Soviet Union later this week. He hoped he would not find himself fighting a civil war.
"It's quite possible, but I don't want to believe it," he said. "Another Tian An Men Square is possible. Of course, I would be very afraid in such a situation.