One senior Yeltsin aide, Mikhail Poltoranin, expressed the general view of the reformist camp when he said that the democrats had wrecked their chances by splitting into four electoral blocs and spending the campaign attacking each other rather than Mr Zhirinovsky's far-right Liberal Democratic Party. 'Fascism is creeping in through the door opened by our divisions and our ambitions,' Mr Poltoranin said.
Leonid Radzikhovsky, a political commentator, questioned whether Mr Yeltsin had achieved anything by crushing the former Soviet-era parliament, led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, in early October and then holding fresh elections. 'Was it really worth it to storm the White House with tanks in order to get Zhirinovsky instead of Khasbulatov?' he asked.
According to Mr Yeltsin's staff, early results in six regions from European Russia to the Pacific coast indicated that the Liberal Democrats had taken 26 per cent of the vote, the Communist Party 13 per cent and the Communist-allied Agrarian Party 8 per cent. In sharp contrast, the pro-presidential bloc Russia's Choice had taken only 12 per cent and the three other reformist groups had fared even worse.
The six regions were Smolensk in the west, Kursk in central Russia, Tomsk in Siberia and Amur, Magadan and Sakhalin in the Far East. All are areas with substantial populations. 'It is clear that the conservative part of parliament will be twice as big as that of the reformers. We have got a parliament that is no better than the old one,' one Yeltsin official said.
Some presidential aides tried to make light of the results, emphasising that voters had endorsed a new constitution for Russia that arms Mr Yeltsin with a formidable battery of executive powers. The turnout was 53.2 per cent, just above the 50 per cent needed to make the referendum on the constitution valid. About 60 per cent of those who voted supported the document.
Yet many Russian politicians argued that the significance of Sunday's voting lay less in Mr Yeltsin's success in the referendum than in the hammering taken by reformist politicians at the hands of the ultra- nationalists and conservative Communists. Apart from Mr Zhirinovsky, victors included Anatoly Lukyanov, the Communist who helped to organise the abortive hardline coup of August 1991, and who won a seat in Smolensk, and Sergei Baburin, an extreme Russian nationalist who won in the Siberian city of Omsk.
Mr Yeltsin made no public comment on the results for most of yesterday, and his silence contributed to the sense of despondency in the reformist camp. It had seemed clear during the campaign that he wanted voters to support Russia's Choice, the group headed by his chief economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar. Yet he refused to spell out his preferences to voters, and some democrats suspected that his real objective was not a true multi-party democracy but a fractured parliament that would be easier for him to dominate, using his extensive new presidential powers.
Gennady Burbulis, who was once Mr Yeltsin's closest adviser, made this point in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia one week before the election. 'As long as there are no parties, there is just the President, with his extraordinary intuition, his wishes, caprices and weaknesses. But as soon as there is a party, the President ceases to be a semi-divine figure,' he said. 'With his intuitive character, Yeltsin understands perfectly well that as soon as such a party is created there is no need for a charismatic President.'
If this analysis is correct, then Mr Yeltsin's strategy has suffered a setback. There must be serious doubts over whether he will risk holding presidential elections next year in which he would face a strong challenge from Mr Zhirinovsky, and he faces another obstacle in that his own constitution prevents him from dissolving the new parliament in the first year of its existence.