Boris the Conqueror: A year ago he was battling for survival; tomorrow he drops in at Chequers en route for a summit with President Clinton. How did the Russian President pull it off, asks Andrew Higgins

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It was a year ago that the lights went out. Boris Yeltsin, engaged in the most perilous battle of his career, literally pulled the plug on foes holed up in the White House on the banks of the Moscow River. The entire building fell into darkness.

The White House has since been lavishly refurbished by Turkish workers, the main lobby fitted with a cash dispenser by a Moscow bank, the grounds enclosed by an elegant cast-iron fence, the floors replaced with parquet from Switzerland - an extravagance that cost Mr Yeltsin his social affairs minister, Ella Pamfilova, who resigned in disgust. The building also has a new name: instead of the House of Soviets, it is the House of the Government of the Russian Federation.

Russia's parliament, reborn and renamed under the terms of Mr Yeltsin's tailor-made constitution, opens its new session next month across town in what used to be the headquarters of the Soviet Central Plan, where Turks have also been busy redecorating.

Tomorrow Boris Yeltsin arrives in Britain en route for a summit with President Bill Clinton and a speech to the United Nations in which he is expected to announce a new initiative on arms control. But this weekend will be spent quietly in the English countryside, as a house guest at Chequers, an establishment his interpreter might explain as the British Prime Minister's dacha.

Mr Yeltsin is an aficionado of such retreats. He regularly takes refuge outside the Russian capital. When he does, Russians get jumpy. The coup against his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, on 19 August 1991, found Mr Yeltsin at his dacha near Moscow (Mr Gorbachev was himself resting in the Crimea). He was there again at the violent denouement of his showdown with the Soviet-era parliament, the Supreme Soviet, last October.

It is not that Mr Yeltsin plans it that way, rather that events in Russia keep defying even the best-made plans. For Mr Yeltsin the most disturbing proof of that axiom was the result of last December's parliamentary elections: having crushed a hardline uprising on the streets of Moscow two months before, Mr Yeltsin watched powerless as Vladimir Zhirinovsky humiliated the reformist Yegor Gaidar and other Yeltsin allies who had stood firm when Moscow teetered on the brink of counter-revolution. Persistent rumours about Mr Yeltsin's health and drinking habits compounded the feeling that the once triumphant reformer was drifting helplessly as ultra-nationalists ascended to power in parliament.

Yet now Mr Yeltsin seems to be enjoying the fruits of Russia's unpredictability. After a year of tumult that brought tanks to the streets of Moscow, something even the Nazis did not achieve, an eerie calm has taken hold of Moscow's political life.

Part of the calm is due to the political calendar. The lower house, where Mr Yeltsin's Communist and nationalist opponents have the loudest voice, has been in recess since July. It returns to what it calls work - political fights lubricated by a stream of bombast - on 5 October.

Yet the calm is not entirely due to timing. Mr Yeltsin's opponents have found it harder to maintain the pitch of their attacks on the president. The ultra-nationalists are like a pack of dogs which have barked but not yet bitten, at least not hard.

Mr Zhirinovsky, who has repeatedly predicted the collapse of the Government this autumn, will be among those barking loudest. He left on his holidays with a characteristic fit of bravado: 'Our party is the only unsullied girl, the only virgin among dirty prostitutes. We will not go out in the street and will not let them rape us, we will keep our virginity to victory.'

But this is precisely Mr Zhirinovsky's problem: having entered parliament, he and his acolytes in the Liberal Democratic Party have lost the prerogative of righteous outsiders. They too are now soiled by their participation in Moscow politics.

More fundamentally perhaps, the appetite of Russians for political turmoil of the most dramatic kind has waned. To mark the anniversary of Mr Yeltsin's declaration of war against the old parliament last September, Rabochaya Tribuna, a hostile newspaper, published a front-page photograph this week of troops dozing in a field in front of a row of tanks. The caption read: 'Let the soldiers get some sleep.'

The message, that people do not want further conflagrations involving the army, is one that Mr Yeltsin's opponents can ignore only at their peril.

It is also a measure of how Russia's political horizons have shrunk from the earlier hopes that reform would sweep away the old regime to a narrow focus on avoiding catastrophe. Russian politics, with all their unsatisfying muddle and compromise, have become what Russians like to call 'civilised', in other words ordinary.

A few months ago everything was very different. Moscow abounded with apocalyptic visions. Fascism, Mr Gaidar said, was stalking the land. Alarm bells rang louder when the most prominent pro-western reformers left the government of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister. Boris Fyodorov left his post as finance minister in a huff, predicting hyper-inflation and a possible return to a diktat economy.

But when Mr Yeltsin reports to John Major tomorrow, and to President Clinton and the United Nations next week, he will be able to report unexpected successes as well as eliciting sympathy - and seeking more money to shore up the economy. Secessionist fever in the provinces, hyper-inflation and heated disputes in Moscow over the most basic rules of the political game have all subsided. That the country and its economy are still standing might not add up to a new dawn. But at least the long, scary night that seemed to be descending only a few months ago has been averted.

What Russia's government stands for exactly is, at best, unclear. But far from debauching the country's money as feared, it has presided over a steady fall in inflation. The August rate was 4.per cent, the lowest monthly level since Russia's price liberalisation in January 1992, although Andrei Illarionov of the Institute for Economic Analysis credits not the government's monetary policy, which has been less than stringent, but a curious 'paradox' in the way money circulates in Russia, or its so-called velocity. Russia, he says, defies the traditional formulas. He also predicts a new inflationary surge before the end of the year.

Another paradox has blunted the panic over the collapse of Russia's industrial base. Hundreds of factories are effectively broke; the working week has been slashed in many places to four or fewer days; workers complain of unpaid salaries. But how to square such gloom with a 10. per cent increase in consumption and an 18. per cent rise in household real income?

According to Richard Layard, a London School of Economics professor and adviser to the Russian government, part of the answer is a steady decline in the relative importance of industry in the total economy. It now accounts for only 40. per cent of total national production. 'Look around and you won't see anything in a state of total collapse,' says Professor Layard, 'There is every reason to believe the production slump is coming to an end.'

But such matters are unlikely to excite President Yeltsin. The system he has constructed, with the president firmly at its centre as a modern-day tsar, leaves little time for detail: he has signed some 1,900 separate decrees since the start of the year, according to his Kremlin administration.

When Mr Yeltsin last visited England he took a tour of the sites in London. At St Paul's cathedral he paused at the spot where Winston Churchill's coffin had stood during his funeral: 'A wonderful man,' said Mr Yeltsin. 'One of my heroes.'

Against his own instincts - which can still lead him to play the buffoon, as in Berlin last month for the exit of Russian troops - Mr Yeltsin may perhaps be remembered and thanked for making Russian politics not heroic, but more ordinary. It will be a great achievement. It will also stop him being interrupted at the dacha.