Russian Crisis: Past is blasted out of present

MOSCOW - The fat gold fingers of the White House clock stopped dead at 10.04, preserving, more or less, the moment a tank parked on the edge of Kutuzovsky Prospekt sent countless car alarms into a tizzy, put hundreds of sparrows to flight and launched Boris Yeltsin's blitzkrieg on forces bent not merely on stopping Russia's clock but turning it back altogether.

The noise was horrific, a deafening but strangely mellow, rounded boom, a sound not even Hitler managed to bring into the heart of Moscow, his Nazi armies having halted a few miles from the city centre, a spot still marked with a rusty metal and stone memorial on the way to Sheremetevo Airport. The monument to yesterday's battle is far more imposing, a great black scar in the heart of the city.

The last time anything like a tank battle could be heard in Moscow was on the night of 30-31 October 1917, when, caught off guard by the news five days earlier of a revolution afoot in Petrograd, Moscow Bolsheviks sought to make up for lost time by firing artillery at the ancient walls of the Kremlin.

And so the tank thundered and the walls of the White House shuddered, separated from the tank cannon by only a short slice of the Moscow River, Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment and 100 yards of trampled landscaping. A white piece of cloth hung from a handrail on the steps leading up to what, until yesterday, was the grand, columned and red-carpeted entrance to the House of Soviets, better known to Muscovites and, courtesy of Mr Yeltsin's very different victory from the other side of the river two years ago, to the world, as the White House. On the cloth was a message: 'Army, Save the People'. It was soon to be snatched away by sprinting paratroopers.

So isolated, crazed and, after Sunday's surge of demonstrators, intoxicated with the possibility of victory had they become inside the White House they actually believed their own rhetoric. The Narod - the mythical 'people' in whose name Communists and fascists have killed so many - were supposed to rise up; the army to defend them, and their enemy, Mr Yeltsin, flee in disgrace and shame.

But the Narod had a different script. From across the river, we watched the devastation from a roof littered, by noon, with sweet wrappers, green glass bottles and other quotidian refuse of the spectators, who clambered through an attic door to gape and giggle at the battle raging only a few yards away. Only the occasional burst of sniper bullets seemed to spoil the fun. A daredevil on a motorbike stirred hoots of approval, as did the steady crackle of machine-gun fire near the American embassy, the angry tongues of flame and the boom, boom, boom of the tanks.

Russian television took the matter more seriously. Fought over with bloody ferocity the night before, it broadcast snatches from Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov, the 16th-century tsar whose reign ushered in the 'Time of Troubles', a precedent turmoil that still haunts the country.

Soon there were four tanks lined up on Kalininsky Bridge pounding away. Fires raged on the 13th floor, consuming room after room, windows turned into ugly black holes. The White House slowly became black. It was on the 13th floor, on the morning of 22 September, the day after Mr Yeltsin went on television to dissolve parliament, that Vladislav Achalov, a tubby Afghan veteran in camouflage fatigues and a mad sense of mission even bigger than his belly, began his duties as Russia's new 'defence minister', a position recognised by no one other than himself, and a one-eyed psychopath with a huge gun, a handful of cranks, veterans of Afghanistan, Abkhazia and other wars of empire and after, and a photo-copied sheet of paper referring to a resolution the night before by a dissolved parliament and a fictitious president, Alexander Rutskoi. They were comic. But they were armed. General Achalov and everyone else on the 13th floor vowed: 'We will fight to the end.'

In this, at least, they were honourable. And the wreckage left by their twisted honour will scar Moscow and Russia perhaps more than even they imagined possible. But the corpse of one rebel found yesterday at Ostankino television suggests some planning: his pockets contained the receipt for a bespoke coffin ordered only a few days ago.

(Photograph omitted)

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