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Powerless people take to the streets

THE PRESIDENT summoned them and they came: 50,000 of them, massing beneath the towering walls of the Kremlin, painting with their flags a grey square white, blue and red - the colours of Peter the Great.

They had followed a tortuous route, marching past the symbols of their power, falling in a sombre mood before the greatest of them all, the plinth on Lubyanka Square which once supported 14 tons of bronze. Only the stump of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Communist secret police, lingers as a distant memory of the last time the people of Russia seized their destiny. When Felix tumbled in the aftermath of the failed coup in August 1991, it brought the entire edifice of Communism crashing down, burying the Soviet Union in the rubble.

Or so it was thought. The people who trudged through the slush yesterday, chanting 'Yeltsin, Freedom, Russia', were led by a banner depicting a Neanderthal creature armed with a hammer and a sickle. It read: 'Warning - They're Back'.

And they were, moving in a straight line from Gorky Park to the Kremlin, under their nostalgic red flags, usurping the slogan of East Europe's revolutions: 'We are the people.' In their crowd of up to 20,000, Communists and nationalists mingled with ease, sustained by a common conviction that Russia was in peril; Boris Yeltsin was selling out their country to the the West. They screamed for Mr Yeltsin's arrest and called for a return to Soviet power.

The two crowds, separated by rows of buses and a phalanx of policemen, never came into contact, and seemed almost unaware of each other's existence. Their attentions were fixed on the goings-on at Congress.

Russia's fate was once again being decided by a few hundred men inside the Kremlin, and the people were feeling like extras on a giant movie set. 'So what are we supposed to do now?' a woman asked in frustration as news of Congress rejecting Mr Yeltsin's compromise for early elections filtered out. Nobody had an answer.

The spell was broken only when their hero appeared on the podium, punching the air and flashing the victory sign. He was looking fit, unlike the previous night when he seemed devastated by the death of his mother. 'I submit to the will of the people,' Mr Yeltsin pledged.

Those in front applauded, those on the other side of the cordon booed, and the deputies in Congress carried on passing their amendments regardless.

(Photograph omitted)