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Russian Crisis: Fears of fascism grow as 'red-brown' allies emerge

MOSCOW - Three dirty flags fluttered yesterday above a wooden platform on the balcony of the White House, from which Alexander Rutskoi proclaimed an armed uprising, writes Andrew Higgins.

More than the angry words that were spoken, they signal the tangled, contradictory strands of Communism and nationalism that form an unstable but dangerously potent 'red-brown' alliance behind the turmoil in Moscow.

When Yegor Gaidar, the architect of radical free-market 'shock therapy' and a hate figure for parliament, went on television last night, he warned of a 'bloody brown curtain' of facism falling across Russia. The iron curtain has been lifted but the spectre that haunts Russia today could prove more malignant.

One flag on the White House balcony belonged to the Soviet Union, dead for three years but mourned by the mostly elderly, deeply bitter people who have milled around outside the White House since 21 September, when Boris Yeltsin declared Russia's Soviet-era parliament dead. A second flag was that of St Andrew, the third the yellow, white and black imperial flag, both of which have been hijacked by far-right groups ranging from monarchists to viciously anti-Semitic facist groups.

One of the most applauded speakers yesterday was Sergei Baburin, a 34-year-old lawyer in the vaguard of efforts to forge a plethora of cranks and splinter groups into a nationwide force. The result is the National Salvation Front, an organisation riven by bitter quarrels between left and right, hit by defections and ordered to be closed by the Kremlin, but united by a shared rage at Russia's descent from superpower to what Mr Rutskoi mocked on Saturday as a 'banana republic'. Mr Baburin, a Communist Party member from 1981 to 1991, is articulate and clever. On his desk in the parliament building he kept an exploded shell from the war in Abkhazia to remind himself, he said, of the tragedy caused by the collapse of Russian power.

Lurking behind Mr Baburin are fascists of a far more brutal and brutish tradition, a tradition of violence and paranoia exploited by Stalin. Its roots long predate Communism, lying in the pogroms of the Tsarist era.

The Communist Party always had an openly chauvinsit wing sharply at odds with the more cosmopolitan and intellectual leanings of its founders. But not until the 1980s, with the emergence of Pamyat - the generic name for various groups in St Petersburg and Moscow - did Russian fascism begin to find its angry voice.

In 1991 it fielded its first presidential candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a militant buffoon whose campaign is best remembered for its promise of cheap vodka. He got nearly 8 per cent of the vote.

While the democratic and dissident groups thrown up by glasnost have mostly withered, extremists and their organisations have flourished. They range from the Union of Stalinists to the Union of Officers, a shadowy assembly of retired officers that has worked for months to stir undrest in the armed forces. Distinctions between left and right blur. They rant, not argue.

'We were silent for three years,' read a painted slogan board carried by a chubby man in his fifties, his black rain coat as grimly sombre as the Brezhnevite communism that made him.

'The Russian people are patient,' continued his message. It ended with an angry blotch of red paint inscribed with letters in black: 'Explosion'. An old woman nearby carried a portait of Stalin. What fires them is not ideas but humiliation and anger.

There were 'communists' too inside the White House, well-fed party apparatchiki elected as deputies in 1990 to serve a country that no longer exists. Many, though, seemed as confused, dazzled and in some cases worried by what was happening. For them a seat in parliament was a sinecure, worth hanging on to certainly but not, despite the heated rhetoric, worth fighting for.

Most of the more than 1,000 members of the Congress of People's Deputies were nowhere to be seen, having either returned to their constituences days ago, their determination shaken by the promise of a two million rouble pay-off for surrendering their seats so that new elections can be held in December. Ironically, it may be their very opportunism that helps saves Russia from the cataclysm of a red-brown triumph.