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Freedom through repression: Yeltsin wanted a 'breakthrough to the future' - but he enlisted the more sinister services of the past

SOON after noon, as T-80 tanks on Kalininsky Bridge hurled 120mm shells at the White House, a fat man with a red beard and red pencil arrived at No 24 Pravda Street in the north-west of Moscow to prepare for the next battle.

He came with a partner, an out-of-uniform soldier armed, unlike colleagues just over a mile away, with nothing more lethal than an ink blotter, an official stamp and a copy of Decree No 1578 signed by President Boris Yeltsin. They demanded a room.

A quick visit to the director secured a small office on the third floor, kindly surrendered by the Repair and Construction Section. By early afternoon they were in business. They had two desks, a steady stream of visitors begging them for help and a freshly printed sign taped on the outside of the brown door: Committee for the Control of Newspaper Publication.

This was the office of Boris Yeltsin's censors. And this was also the nub of Mr Yeltsin's, and Russia's, dilemma: to save democracy he blew up parliament; to preserve freedom he cancelled it; to provide what, at the time of a national referendum six months earlier, he called a 'breakthrough to the future', he had re-enlisted some of the more sinister services of the past.

When the censors arrived, the army was already well on its way to victory. At nine o'clock that morning, Russian television, safely back in government hands after a bloody all-night battle at the Ostankino television centre, had broadcast a pre-recorded message from President Yeltsin. 'This armed mutiny is doomed,' he growled. 'To restore order, calm and peace, troops are moving to Moscow.'

The censors were also on the move. They growled a lot too; made lots of threats. They were bureaucrats, not zealots: they took long lunches, went home early and fussed over petty details. 'One was a total blockhead,' says Sergei Danilochkin, of the political weekly Rossiya. 'The other kept boasting about how he knew all the top Soviet censors. He was very proud of this.'

Whatever their foibles, the two men sent to 24 Pravda Street were still professionals. One was an Information Ministry employee who used to work for Glavlit, the defunct Soviet censor's office closed in August 1991. The other was a military bureaucrat schooled in the pedantic paranoia of another Soviet relic, the Committee for the Preservation of Military Secrets.

Monday was their big day. Their stay, like that of the troops, was brief. By Wednesday they were giving up their office at the Pressa (ex-Pravda) Publishing House, and with it the right to sit in judgement over 72 different publications. Casualties of this engagement, and smaller ones at printing houses all around Moscow, were fairly modest.

Only a few columns of newsprint and not a single life were lost, though there was a particularly tenacious sniper in the building site off Pravda Street. Sevodnya lost an article about chaos in the Kremlin, and an anti-censorship appeal from journalists. Rossiya lost half an economic analysis discussing the chaos that would result from mass unemployment; Nezavisimaya Gazeta lost a report of a protest go-slow in the Kuzbass coalmining region.

The exercise was trivial. It was also unsettling: 'They were just getting going and were a bit rusty. In a week, the system would have worked like clockwork,' says 28-year-old Danilochkin. 'In this country you can restore any part of the old state machinery. This is part of the cycle. People are prepared for repression.'

Print workers slipped back easily into old habits: they would not touch a page until it had been signed by the censors. Editors printed blank spaces stamped with the word 'Censored', and laughed at how the government helped them to sell papers. All the same, they fell into line.

Across Russia, this week has revived one of the great rituals of communism: the collective cringe. Bureaucrats, judges and even journalists are rushing to declare their support for Decree No 1400, the 21 September document declaring Russia's Soviet-era parliament defunct and ordering new elections in December. On Wednesday the head of the Constitutional Court stepped down; on Thursday Mr Yeltsin disbanded the bench; and on Friday, acting chairman of the now defunct top court, Nikolai Vitruk, voiced 'complete support' for his own extinction. The tanks had done their job.

When Mr Yeltsin returned to the Kremlin from his dacha by helicopter shortly after 6pm last Sunday, Moscow teetered on the brink. The world's second greatest military power, with some 10,000 nuclear weapons, risked falling to a rabble of neo-Nazis, communists, monarchists and mercenary adventurers. Albert Makashov, a retired Soviet general, led a bright yellow bus and four hijacked troop trucks, each bristling with guns, in a wild race through the streets of Moscow to the Ostankino television centre. Armoured personnel carriers bearing Interior Ministry troops loyal to Mr Yeltsin arrived only minutes before the convoy and held the studio.

This, as much as the attack on the White House next day, saved Mr Yeltsin. It also saved the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, the man responsible for a catalogue of bungling earlier in the day: police cordons that simply collapsed; riot squads that turned tail; confused orders about the use of force. When the time came on Wednesday for Mr Yeltsin to honour his friends, Mr Yerin alone was made a Hero of Russia.

The Kremlin for much of last Sunday was paralysed. Mr Yeltsin was canvassing regional military commanders by telephone. His Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, led a meeting of the military collegium, an assembly of top generals, in the Defence Ministry on Arbatskaya Square. The generals dithered, worried about backing the wrong side and distracted by fears that a crowd of demonstrators might overrun the premises.

By dawn, though, the military was firmly on his side; tanks from the Kantemirov Division had driven 70km from Naro Forminsk and, minutes after the start of Mr Yeltsin's 9am television address, took up battle positions in front of parliament. 'The armed mutiny of communists and fascists in Moscow will soon be put down,' Mr Yeltsin warned. 'The Russian state has the force to do it.'

There was no doubt he would win, though Alexander Rutskoi spent the morning on one of the few phones left in the White House, pleading with friends in the air force for help. A handful agreed. They came on foot, not in MiG fighters, and most were promptly arrested.

Eleven days earlier, Mr Yeltsin had taken a stroll in Pushkin Square. Flanked by his ministers of the interior and defence, he had declared: 'There will be no bloodshed, I can tell you.' On Monday morning, with blood already flowing, he had to explain what had gone wrong. 'We were not ready for war,' he said glumly.

The speech, as much as the chatter of machine guns and thunder of 120mm shells outside the White House, marked a terrible, irreversible turning point. It buried the hope, enunciated eight years earlier by Mikhail Gorbachev and battered repeatedly but never quite lost, that Russia could reform itself peacefully.

This week's bloodshed stirred despair rather than anger. Few challenged Mr Yeltsin's decision to use force. According to a poll in Argumenty i Fakty, 78 per cent of Muscovites support it. An editorial summed up the grim mood: 'Enough illusions. We have no democracy, no parliamentary spirit, no Constitutional Court, nor many other attributes of a civilised state.'

What to put in their place? How to hold together a Russia spread over 11 time zones and split into 20 semi-autonomous republics and more than 60 regions? 'We are in a state of shock,' says Dmitri Ostalsky, editor of Sevodnya. 'But some important problems have been solved. Opposition to economic reform has been removed. The problem of the regions has been removed too. They are frightened.'

Russian politics for the past year have revolved around a single issue: new elections. Thanks to the Kantemirov 4th Guards Tank Division, they will now be held, probably in December. But there is a risk that the new parliament, the 450-member State Duma instead of the 1,000-plus Congress of People's Deputies, will merely repeat the drama.

Mr Yeltsin dismissed the Congress as a communist-era creation irreparably tainted by the circumstances of its election in 1990. The danger is that similar charges of illegitimacy may be made against the new legislature. Russia's biggest party by far, the reconstituted Communist Party that claims to have 600,000 members, has been banned. So have a host of smaller parties, and left- and right-wing opposition papers. Any victory by Mr Yeltsin's allies would be highly suspect. A survey in August suggested that democrats, who won about one-third of Congress seats in 1990, would be lucky to do even that well in a new poll.

This is Mr Yeltsin's problem: he has routed his principal opponents, destroyed their citadel, the White House, but like every other Russian leader who sought to impose change from the top, he finds the people slipping away and the political order slipping backwards.

As the battle reached its climax last Monday, Konstantin Zatulin, co-chairman of Entrepreneurs for a New Russia, issued a statement: 'Yeltsin should leave, freeing his place for someone who can really carry out reform, without placing the country each time in front of catastrophe. Now there will be plenty of people who wish to turn the prayer for peace into a call for execution and revenge.'

(Photograph omitted)