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Notes from the picket lines

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IMAGINE a stately house made of stone, whose classic 18th-century lines are clean and pure. Its elegant moldings are painted white, but the paint is peeling. Its gentle wash of pastel green is splotched with dark patches of decay. Around a corner, chunks of plaster and wooden boards lie scattered on the ground: One whole wing has been demolished to make room for a subway entrance. But the site has been silent for several days; demolition has not gone forward, and work on the subway is at a halt. A group of young men and women stopped it by cordoning off the house. Now they rotate the watches of a 24-hour patrol to make sure work does not start up again. This house is in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad. It belonged to Andrei Delvig, a good friend of the poet Pushkin. The demonstrators sing ballads to pass the time and recite poems using microphones donated by the Communist Youth League.

In Moscow, plans for a vast encircling highway, like the Beltway in Washington, threatened a whole historic neighborhood. About 30 houses built between the 15th and 19th centuries were to be destroyed - old buildings even more precious in Moscow than in Leningrad, whose center is largely preserved.

Then, the night before wrecking was scheduled to begin, citizens from around the city gathered at the first house on the list. They put up a fence and hung it with poetry and articles from Pravda. When the bulldozers came crawling in at dawn, the people literally stood in their path. The bulldozers ground to a halt.

Until now, picketing was absolutely unheard of in the Soviet Union. Only given a really new atmosphere could a group of Muscovites even think about staging such a startling protest of government policy. Its initial success was equally surprising. Later, as the movement gathered momentum, its leaders challenged the chief architect of the State Commission for the Preservation of Historical Monuments to a debate (and got it televised). By all accounts, he did not appear in very good light, showing neither a flair for long-term strategy nor expertise in the details of construction techniques. In the meantime, plans for the highway have returned to the drawing board, and for the moment at least, the historic buildings are safe.

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