Out of Russia: Bolsheviks, too, had genius for slapstick

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MOSCOW - There were candles last time too. But the buffet was perhaps better at the Taurida Palace in Petrograd, home to Russia's first freely elected parliament until a beefy Bolshevik sailor tugged at the sleeve of Viktor Chernov, the chairman, and announced in January 1918: 'We have orders. Anyway you cannot stay here any longer. The lights will be turned out in a minute. And the guards are tired.'

They slogged on for a few hours more but finally decided to call it a night. Mr Chernov and his colleagues went home for a nap and a change of clothes. How Alexander Rutskoi must envy them. Padding around the cold, dark and spooky corridors of the White House in a track suit, a machine-gun in hand for the benefit of the television cameras, the Afghan War hero and self-styled president of Russia complains his wife cannot deliver clean underwear or socks.

Going home to get them in 1918, though, was a big mistake. When they returned the following day the doors of the Taurida Palace were locked and posted with a patrol of Bolsheviks with machine-guns. Two artillery pieces completed the modest but sufficient show of force. 'Thus,' Mr Chernov would write 30 years later after being hounded into exile in New York, 'ended Russia's first and last democratic parliament'.

If the Bolshevik guards were tired in 1918, imagine how exhausted those sent by Boris Yeltsin must be. And cold. It snowed in Moscow this week, enough to kill any lingering hope that autumn had not yet surrendered to winter. Troops wear green jungle camouflage - about as conspicuous as you can get in the middle of Moscow at the end of September. But the interior ministry is now testing a new urban camouflage: blotches of grey and black on a background of sludge slate.

Machine-guns, armoured vehicles and rolls of razor wire have choked off all supplies: rations in the White House are down to lumps of hard cheese and oily salami on stale bread. So dark is it inside that deputies use their fingers to work out the menu's crust du jour - a sort of culinary braille.

Mr Yeltsin's foes make much of the parallels with 1918: 'Yeltsin killed our second chance. It is the second time that our parliament has been destroyed, the second time in 1,000 years that Russia has got tyranny instead of democracy.' Sounds plausible. But consider the speaker: Iona Andronov, a bilious, talented propagandist who made his name attacking America's 'sham democracy' as New York correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He now heads parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, or at least sleeps on a cot bed vacated by its former chairman, who has defected to the Kremlin. He has penned an Appeal to Parliaments of the World.

When Lenin shut down the Constituent Assembly that was it. Mr Yeltsin promises elections: for parliament in December, for himself next June. All will depend on whether and how he keeps this pledge. But parallels there are between the first act of Bolshevism and what Mr Yeltsin portrays as its last gasp: the Russian flare for burlesque. When A J P Taylor wrote an introduction for John Reed's classic Ten Days that Shook the World, he was chided for not being reverent enough.

He pointed out how, contrary to Reed's breathless account, Lenin kept issuing orders for the start of the revolution and nothing happened; how many colleagues thought Lenin was mad and how Reed spent much of his time talking to fellow hacks. The British Communist Party, which held the copyright, did not like this and ordered it changed. A J P Taylor refused. No introduction.

Moscow today presents a similar challenge. The issues are huge, the risks terrifying. The waiting, though, can seem endless. And shining through it all is a genius for slapstick. One liberal legislator explained with glee that because the Moscow River runs next to the White House and because there is no electricity to work pumps, Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Rutskoi will soon be swept away in a smelly torrent: 'Very soon the water will start pouring from the toilets.'

I can almost believe it. Utterly lost and without a torch, I spent my last night at the White House with a colleague trying to escape.