Russia on the Brink: Ghostly patriot who haunts Boris Yeltsin: Andrew Higgins in Moscow reports on signs that history could repeat itself

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THERE is a ghost - or is it just an imaginary phantom? - stalking the corridors, gilded halls and grubby smoking-rooms of the Great Kremlin Palace where, for the second time in a month, Russia has been brought to the brink.

It belongs to Alexander Kerensky, the dithering patriot who helped topple the Romanov Dynasty in February 1917, only to be overthrown himself seven months later by Lenin's Bolshevik coup.

Kerensky's bones are buried in London's Putney Vale Cemetery. His spirit, though, was in Moscow last week, hovering over a tumultous power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and Russia's Soviet-era parliament.

'In history you cannot rewrite things. You do things once and forever,' Dmitri Volkogonov, a prominent historian of the Stalin era, told the Congress of People's Deputies. 'We must not repeat past mistakes.'

Russia today is haunted by the memory of Kerensky's failure in 1917 for, in many ways, the challenge the country faces is the same: how to build an enduring democracy on the shifting rubble of a crumbled despotism.

It was to address this challenge that Mr Yeltsin appeared on television last Saturday night with a warning of what could lie ahead: 'Russia,' he thundered, 'will not survive a second October Revolution. It will be jump into the abyss.' To counter the threat, he said, it would be placed under 'special rule' until a referendum could be held next month to decide who should rule.

Whether Mr Yeltsin gets his referendum, though, now rests on the drooping shoulders and soggy convictions of the men - and a handful of women - who have gathered for the past two days in the Great Kremlin Palace. They were there, and will return again today, for an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the second such meeting this month.

Nearly 90 per cent of them are former Communist Party members but, they are quick to point out, so is Mr Yeltsin. But unlike the President, who won 57 per cent of the vote in a free election in 1991, they owe their positions to a 1990 parliamentary vote organised by and rigged in favour of the party.

None the less, they too warn against the danger of history repeating itself. Mr Yeltsin's decision to impose rule by decree - later softened to unspecified 'urgent measures' - was condemned by Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliamentary chairman, as 'dangerous step back towards dictatorship'.

Mr Yeltsin's own Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, told the Congress on Friday: 'We are struggling with something that we have been through more than once during the course of our history.'

The parallels with 1917 are legion: the army demoralised and in retreat, from military defeat in the First World War then, from political defeat in Eastern Europe now; the economy ravaged by inflation; the rouble withering against foreign currencies; a schism over how land should be divided; and the stirring of deep resentment in the countryside. But the key issue today, as in 1917, is political legitimacy.

When Kerensky became Prime Minister in July 1917, he had the trappings of power but few instruments to exercise it. Russia was crippled by dvoevlastie: a peculiarly ruinous system of two powers. On one side stood Kerensky and his provisional government, on the other the Petrograd Soviet and other councils set up by the Bolsheviks and their supporters. In theory, Kerensky took decisions while the Soviets merely supervised them. The reality was chaos and paralysis.

There are also two powers now: parliament and Mr Yeltsin. And, for the past year, they have struggled for supremacy, each claiming to be the only true guardian of democracy, each asserting the sole ability to prevent Russia's post-communist democracy from going the same way as Kerensky's post-Tsarist attempt.

Political struggle, whether waged against Mr Yeltsin or Mr Kerensky, is never fair. And this, at least, Mr Yeltsin knows. His strategy, for all its bombast and frequent blunders, is based on a deeper understanding of what went wrong in 1917. Yet there is still no answer to the question put to the Congress on Friday by Yuri Skokov, another erstwhile ally now in opposition.

'We do not know which state we want to build (or) which principles we should be guided by,' he said. 'Neither do we know which system to govern by . . . What are we doing?'

(Photographs omitted)