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Russian Crisis: Omen of evil written in the sky

THE BLACK smoke rising into the clear October sky over Moscow is writing a warning. It is a warning for the generation of our children, and its message is that the struggle for Russia is not over, that the future of Russian democracy and therefore of world peace will be uncertain for the rest of our lifetimes. The struggle in Moscow, even if it ends in military victory for President Yeltsin, has discharged a terrible and long-lasting poison into the bloodstream of the Russian Republic.

Many people have tried to compare these events, starting with the failed putsch of August 1991, to the years after the collapse of the tsardom in 1917. Then too there were counter- revolutions and risings which failed, coups which melted away after a few hours and a coup - the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 - which succeeded. There was civil war and foreign intervention.

But there is a closer, even more sinister comparison to draw. The birth agonies of this Russian democracy are like the agonies of the new German democracy in the years which followed the First World War. Suppressed in bloodshed, the forces of hatred and rejection waited for 10 years until they could seize control of Germany and plunge Europe into disaster.

In Germany, after November 1918, one upheaval followed another. After a social-democratic revolution came bloody fighting in January 1919, as the new republican government used the right-wing army to put down the Berlin rising of the far left - the Spartacists. Fighting flamed up in one city after another for the next six months. In March 1920, right-wing officers launched a coup d'etat in Berlin, the so-called Kapp Putsch, and there was more killing. Economic and political chaos lasted until November 1923, when the little-known agitator Adolf Hitler, with a group of rebellious officers, tried to start a revolution in Munich. The army barred his way, and the rising collapsed in gunfire.

And then it all seemed to be over. Calm slowly returned, and the Weimar Republic was able to construct an apparently stable, increasingly prosperous and enlightened democracy. The middle and later 1920s were good years in Germany. But the enemies of democracy were only waiting, and at the end of the decade the world slump gave them their chance.

As in Russia now, an empire had been lost and a whole class - the imperial bureaucracy and its officers - had been disinherited. Whole sections of German society refused to accept this loss; they blamed military defeat and the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy on internal treachery - the 'stab in the back' myth.

In consequence, they rejected not merely the new political leadership but the entire new system of Weimar democracy. They nursed the wounds of their bloody defeats in those early years, and made their dead into patriotic martyrs who had borne witness against 'national treachery'. For much of the German middle class, the Weimar Republic continued to feel like an imposition without real legitimacy.

The danger in Russia now is that we are watching the founding of a 'rejectionist' tradition. The blood has been split, and the martyrs are there. As in Germany in the 1920s, the enemies are a chaotic mixture of conservative nationalists, aggrieved old-regime bureaucrats and fanatical fascists whose outspoken racism and longing for a Fuhrer is as venomous as National Socialism ever was. They will continue not only to swear vengeance on Boris Yeltsin, but to regard his republic as a forgery, a sham imposed on the 'true' Russia which existed until Mikhail Gorbachev disarmed it, betrayed its soldiers in Afghanistan and let the great country fall into the hands of plutocrats and criminals.

There may now be years of peace and reform. In a while, these upheavals may seem part of history. But Russia will not be safe. Hitler won power by the democratic process, not by force. If there is, after a time, a period of renewed economic calamity in Russia, the rejectionists may persuade the terrified mass to vote for them.

If the rest of us have not created a strong European security system by then, guaranteeing the independence of lesser countries from the Baltic to the Caucasus, it may be too late to save peace in Europe. All possible help should be given to strengthen the young Russian democracy after this ordeal. But from now on Russia's neighbours must also be vigilant. We have been here before.