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CSUF Professor Is in Leningrad When Putsch Comes to Shove : Soviet Union: 'It was like having a front-row seat to history,' he says, after watching thousands of apprehensive citizens receive news of the crisis.

September 01, 1991|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PLACENTIA — The black and white photo is like many that came from the Soviet Union during the failed coup last month, showing angered citizens crowding to hear speakers rail against the hard-line movement.

But what's different about this one is the grainy image of a tour bus oddly parked in the middle of melee.

"That's us--there we are," said Cal State Fullerton professor Robert S. Feldman, pointing to the picture published Aug. 21 in Izvestia, the Soviet national newspaper. Feldman, who returned home Saturday, was aboard that bus, leading 13 of the school's alumni on a tour of Leningrad when the Aug. 19 putsch occurred.

"We were in our hotel (that morning) and everybody knew something was going on when the government announced that no Russians could meet in groups of five or more, and they began confiscating video cameras and arms," said Feldman, 55, the director of the university's Russian studies program. "So we went down to the square to see what was going on."

What was going on at the central St. Isaac's Square was the announcement of the coup to thousands of apprehensive citizens, and an emotional plea from liberal leaders to oppose the attempted overthrow and support the law of the land. At that point, no one knew how long the takeover would last, or how bloody it would be.

"It was like having a front-row seat to history," Feldman said while examining mementos from the trip at his Placentia home.

Some young Soviets, delighted at meeting an American, presented him with an armband representing their reformist group. Another faction, camped defensively outside the Soviet Parliament building, posed for pictures with the tourists and presented Feldman with a gas mask bearing their autographs.

"Most of the people protesting and fighting the coup were the young people, who have grown up with (President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev. Their formative years were spent living with perestroika, and when they heard this junta wanted to switch things back--well, they just don't want that," he said. "I met one young man--he was 19--who said, 'My wife is pregnant, and I don't want my son or daughter growing up without freedom.' That's what it's all about."

While the startling events took the tour members by surprise, Feldman said he urged them not to be too apprehensive.

"After we saw what was going on, I told them the coup would be over in 48 hours. It was obvious that it was falling apart from the beginning and that these guys up there in charge didn't really have their act together."

The tour participants returned home last week on schedule, while Feldman added a stop to the republic of Georgia to his trip--a visit highlighted by a private meeting with Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

"Apparently he was told by some of my business contacts there that I had connections in Washington, and that I knew the President and secretary of state personally. I don't," Feldman said, laughing. "Anyway, he asked to speak to me, and the impression I got was that he wanted me to deliver a letter to (President) Bush. Of what nature, I don't know."

Feldman, who taught at a Soviet university for two years, said he has led about 30 summer sojourns to the Soviet Union since he founded his own tour company in 1978. He said the trips have given him keen insight into the nature of the country and its people, a subject he began teaching in 1964. This last visit, by far the most exciting, also gave him some perspective on the future of the region, he said.

"Basically, the Soviet Union is gone. It doesn't exist anymore," he said. "One sixth of the Earth's surface has come apart before our eyes."

Feldman's agency has another Soviet tour scheduled for departure this week, this one focusing on the country's military history and battle sites. Because the Soviet shake-up appears to have taken a fairly peaceful route, Feldman is confident the participants won't see any military history in the making, but he said they will have to put up with one change in the itinerary--the planned meeting with former Soviet Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev.

"Well, that's out," Feldman said. "He's the member of the junta who hanged himself when the coup collapsed."

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