Watching for something to believe in

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IT IS two o'clock in the morning, drizzling and cold: another night at the barricades for the hardest of Boris Yeltsin's hard-core foes. Encamped on muddy ground at the back of the Russian parliament building, they have two spluttering campfires, one bottle of cheap vodka (nearly empty) and a guitar (out of tune).

It is the third night of their vigil, started after President Yeltsin popped up on television on Sunday evening. Viewers had been promised a choice between the latest instalment of My Second Mother, a Mexican soap opera, or Sophia Loren: the Story of Her Life. Instead, they got an angry tirade from the President.

Mr Yeltsin's fury, though, is nothing compared with the rage of his enemies. There were a few thousand of them on Sunday, hurling curses and waving red flags outside the White House, symbol of Mr Yeltsin's own triumph during the August 1991 putsch but since seized by his opponents. The crowds have now thinned to a few hundred during the day. By night, only the truly committed - and truly crazy - remain, along with a few sodden bits of paper bearing the slogans of the day's demonstration: 'Yeltsin = Hitler', reads one pasted to the base of a lamppost.

In their own way, though, the night-time protesters - no more than a few dozen in all - say a lot about what Mr Yeltsin is really up against. Also a lot about why, if parliament doesn't impeach him or sabotage his plans for a popular vote, he could win.

For all fervent anger of the shivering huddle, there is little agreement on what they are angry about and even less on what should be done about it. Inessa Yanova, a spindly bag lady in yellow coat, has spent three nights in the rain because she is fed up with trying to survive on pounds 3 a month. 'Yeltsin is killing us. He is killing the people.' But nor does she think much of Ruslan Khasbulatov, Mr Yeltsin's arch-rival in the power struggle convulsing the country's political elite. 'They are all the same. They pig themselves and go on holiday. The people are hungry.'

Alexander Tupolov interrupts. The problem, he says, is not food, but pride. 'Russia has never lost a war. We have won every battle we fought. We beat Napoleon. We beat Hitler. Why don't we fight now?' He is 17 years old. Several others nod in agreement. 'No,' shouts another young man in an army surplus coat, 'the problem is the Jews.'

And so it goes on. But who do they support? I ask eight different people: each says something different.

Three are communists, though they disagree on which faction they like best. One supports the Russian Communist Party, a second the Union of Bolsheviks, a third a non-existent group he is planning to form himself. Two are anarchists. 'Only anarchy can restore order,' says Alexei Ivanov, a 21-year-old factory worker. 'I don't want chaos. I want anarchy. There is a difference.' Another young man, Viatcheslav, has no political views aside from rabid anti- Semitism. He has memorised a list of what he says are the real Jewish names of Mr Yeltsin and his aides. He hates communists too ('Lenin was a Jew').

Next is a Kazakh with matted beard and torn coat. He worships Stalin, whose greatness, he says, is proved by two facts: he drank only dry wine in moderation and built lots of railways and kept tickets cheap.

The last is the best dressed and most articulate of the group. 'I'm not a communist. I'm not an anarchist. I'm not a Stalinist.' So what is he? 'I'm a monarchist.' He almost makes sense. 'The important thing is not who should be monarch but the institution of monarchy.' Three nights of arguments around the campfire help him to explain why: 'We disagree on everything, you can see that. Russians needs something they can believe in.'

Mr Yeltsin would probably agree. His hope, though, is that they will believe him before they believe what is said in the mud behind the White House. So long as he doesn't delay another soap opera or programme about Sophia Loren, they might.