Rough ride on the roller-coaster: The second Russian revolution made Boris Yeltsin a hero - but its harsh aftermath may turn him into a villain. Peter Pringle reports from Moscow

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MOSCOW looks quite different from a year ago, when the Communists made their futile attempt to grab back power. The once forbidden trappings of Western life are sprinkled everywhere - huge advertisements, American cars, new hotels, shops, bars, cafes and a pink tram announcing the arrival of Barbie doll.

Old, uncared-for buildings that once merged into a solemn greyness are freshly painted and shine in the sunlight. Street markets and kiosks are jammed full of Western drinks, perfumes, books, magazines, cigarettes and fancy lace underwear. Well-dressed young men and women carry plastic shopping bags announcing the new stores in town: The Irish Shop, the Italian supermarket, the German deli.

Opposite Gorky Park, under the trees outside the Tretyakov art gallery, lie the symbolic casualties of those three August nights when the old comrades failed to dislodge Mikhail Gorbachev and precipitated the second Russian revolution. Huge statues of Stalin, Lenin and Dzerzhinsky rest on each other, the fallen idols of a past no one but a handful of hopeless 'confuseniks' wants to re-create.

If one had any doubts about the unambiguous break from communism, a visit to the Constitutional Court on Ilyinka Street would quickly dispel them. This is where the Communist Party is on trial for being a 'criminal organisation'; where Boris Yeltsin, the second revolution's tough hero, is trying to kill off the party once and for all by persuading Russia's Supreme Court to rule that its activities were unconstitutional. A year ago it would have been impossible; now hardly anyone pays any attention.

Shiny black government Volgas still ferry their important passengers in and out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and around the old Central Committee headquarters in Staraya Ploschad. But this is no longer forbidden territory. Officials of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and executives of Western multinationals shuttle in and out, past the former KGB guards, offering aid and doing deals.

Western diplomats have a word for the unmistakable changes. They call it a return to 'normalcy': the kind of change witnessed earlier in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Abroad, President Yeltsin is praised highly for his stewardship of the August revolution and for his reforms; for introducing shock-therapy price deregulation without riots, staving off strikes with selected pay rises, defusing separatists in the Russian federation with promises of security and prosperity, and for keeping the fragile Commonwealth of Independent States alive, to deal successfully with ethnic tensions in the Baltics, Moldova and Georgia. Another Peter the Great, George Bush called him.

But in the land of the knout, the pogrom and the autocracy of Ivan the Terrible, the task of liquidating the disastrous heritage of October 1917 is a complex and lengthy one. A year is no time at all to dismantle state industries and collectivised agriculture. 'It took eight years for the Bolsheviks to ruin private enterprise in Russia and 12 years to destroy private farming,' says Arkady Volsky, an industrialist and frequent critic of Mr Yeltsin's reforms.

Travel outside Moscow or St Petersburg, north to Archangel, east to Udmurtskaya, south to Voronezh, and the country neither feels nor looks any different. Lenin invariably still stands on his plinth, hammer-and-sickle emblems have not been removed, there is no new paint, hard-faced, unsmiling party officials still bark orders from positions of power at a cowering populace, and the mayor is in charge of everything, even a visitor's hotel booking and return flight.

For all but the tiny membership of the new tinsel class, every day for the 150 million citizens of this vast land is an epic of endurance. They are free to say what they like and buy what they want, but they have no spare money. Seventy-four per cent of Muscovites never buy things in the stores stocking Western goods, according to the polls.

And Russians are exhausted by the process of their revolution. A year ago, in the first blush of freedom, the victors, including Mr Yeltsin, gave them false hopes of quick returns. Rashly, Mr Yeltsin told them life would start improving by September. He set them off on a roller-coaster ride through a series of skyrocketing price rises that he said would grow three to four times, but which went up 17 times, and he gave them a rouble that bounces from 80 to 100 back to 80 and then soars to 160 to the dollar, all within two months.

During a lull in this hectic excursion to the market, people notice or, worse, experience loss of wages - unpaid for lack of cash in government coffers - a dramatic increase in crime and looming unemployment; and they see government officials and a parliament that often appear to be on the brink of throwing in the towel. The May Day placard in Red Square declared that 'Freedom Works', but Russians are gloomier than ever about their prospects.

'If a 'normal' life is spending all day thinking about where I can get enough money to buy this or that - if I can find it - then I have to say it was easier before, much easier,' said a Russian woman friend. Then she added: 'Of course, we don't want to go backwards and we won't, but do you know that Russian men are so tired these days they can't even do sex any more?'

With winter approaching, Russian life, as always, has a certain foreboding, and this year no one expects revolutionary relief from the hardships. Fewer than 20 per cent of Muscovites - those with the best chance of economic advancement - feel they will ever be rich. And they don't feel there is anything they, or Mr Yeltsin or anyone else, can do about it quickly. Only 3 per cent consider their involvement in politics would change things.

So weary and disillusioned have they become that almost three-quarters of the population appear willing to set aside the gains of glasnost for a firm, even authoritarian rule. Then, at least, they would feel that some order was being imposed on all the uncertainty.

ON THE anniversary of the coup, Mr Yeltsin, the master puppeteer, seems ready to oblige. Besides keeping his ability to rule by decree, he is seeking to disband the old parliament, packed as it still is with party hacks, a strengthening of his veto, a right to call a referendum and a free hand in forming advisory and auxiliary government structures - including the appointment of special local representatives. It reminded Kommersant, the business weekly, of the old Communist Party power structure, from the Politburo to the network of local party secretaries.

Mr Yeltsin's tilt to the right and his creation of a new conservative-weighted Security Council, with sweeping powers for setting the political agenda, is seen by liberals as his 'quiet summer coup' - an abrupt end to the early cracking pace of radical change set by his chief economist, Yegor Gaidar, and his young team.

But Sergei Stankevich, a key Yeltsin adviser, protests at such a charge. The new council, he said, was set up as a reaction to the 'deep crisis we are in . . . when we should have effective instruments to deal with it.'

Charged with becoming authoritarian, Mr Yeltsin replies: 'I am a staunch opponent of any kind of dictatorship, but I support a strong democratic state.' But still people wonder. In private sessions with officials, he bullies, harangues and uses rough language, like an old Communist. He appears to have been persuaded by the captains of the inefficient Soviet enterprises to support them - after vowing to let them die. The revolution is at a junction, awaiting instructions from its leader to take a new track.

In preparation, Mr Yeltsin has introduced an unexpected name among his key advisers. Yuri Skokov, a 53-year-old former defence plant manager who was an official in the last Communist Russian government, now heads two new key committees - the Security Council and a civilian board that oversees all military appointments.

Last November, Mr Yeltsin rejected Mr Skokov as his economics supremo, and chose instead the young radical monetarist, Mr Gaidar. At the time, the move was seen by Mr Yeltsin's key supporters in the Democratic Russia movement as evidence that the Russian leader was prepared to make a clean break with the past, and bring in an entirely new team.

Many are asking, whose man is Skokov? Yeltsin's, or someone else's? An industrialist's, perhaps? An army general's? As secretary of the Security Council, Mr Skokov is its effective head and in a position to set the political agenda, if Mr Yeltsin permits it.

Still, the immediate pressure on Mr Yeltsin comes from industrialists outside government. They want Mr Gaidar out. An autumn offensive has already begun. There is no shortage of predictions, from the industry captains, of riots and strikes. They point out that the energy and transportation sectors are in crisis, and a strike in either could cripple the country. Privatisation of agriculture is going too slowly and that of property too fast, they say.

'The policy ignores the mentality of the Russian people, who have been told for decades that private property is awful,' says Arkady Volsky, leader of the Civic Union, the most powerful coalition opposing Mr Gaidar.

When the Supreme Soviet returns in October, the first measure on the agenda is expected to be a no-confidence vote against Mr Gaidar, who in the absence of Mr Yeltsin's support would have to resign. If so, he would have lasted almost a year - six months longer than than he originally expected.

Mr Yeltsin would then have to replace him - perhaps with Mr Skokov, who will then have to show his true colours, or perhaps with Mr Volsky. Such a government would almost certainly be forced into renegotiating the strict credit conditions - reducing inflation and the budget deficit - imposed by the IMF. One of the new industry managers in Mr Yeltsin's cabinet, Vladimir Shumeiko, talks openly already of the need to readjust the deal. Mr Yeltsin's image abroad would suffer, and so, probably, would his fading popularity at home.

The problem, say Western economists, is that giving credits to inefficient industries simply postpones the day when the plants have to close. Mr Yeltsin and the Russian people face a period of gloom which not even the tinsel of Tverskaya Street nor the business bustle on Pushkin Square can dispel, perhaps for a generation. It will be a severe test of the Russian people's legendary patience.

(Photograph omitted)

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