Russian Crisis: Sang-froid conceals emotional turmoil

THE CAT woke me at dawn, howling. I had been sleeping fitfully, dreaming of the Second World War. When I got up, I realised a great battle on a scale not seen here since that terrible struggle against the Nazis was going on around the White House about a kilometre from my 15th- floor flat behind Old Arbat Street.

Out on the balcony, I could hear the crash of heavy guns and the rat-tat-tat of small arms as clouds of black smoke drifted across the early-morning sky. On the balcony above, a neighbour was saying to his wife: 'Oh my God, they have gone completely mad. Think of the poor people who live near the White House.'

I was deeply shocked, as any Westerner of the post-war generation would be at such events. But out on the street, Russians were making their way to work with an apparent phlegm that was truly astonishing. War was raging on New Arbat Street parallel to the Old Arbat where we were walking. 'What's your reaction to this?' I kept asking passers-by and got answers such as 'Fairly negative', 'It's not very pleasant, is it?' and 'Well, what can we do? Life must go on.'

On the edge of Novy Arbat Street, down which armoured personnel carriers were racing to the White House, I stopped to buy hot bread. In the queue behind me, two young women were talking animatedly.

'Look what I've just bought,' said one, showing the other a bottle of Western deodorant.

'Oh, that's nice; let's have a sniff.'

Helicopters were clattering overhead, shells were exploding in the city, and these women were talking about deodorant]

But then Natalia Vladimirovna, a secretary in a construction firm, made me realise the show of sang-froid masked emotional turmoil. 'This is very frightening,' she admitted, tears springing to her eyes. 'I am frightened for my children and for myself, a little. I think we are approaching civil war. It horrifies me, as a woman, as a mother, as a human being.'

'It's disgusting,' said Asta, a doctor. 'Our rulers are unable to sort themselves out and innocent people are suffering.'

While many Russians maintained a front of indifference to what their 'dreadful' leaders were doing, others were unable to contain their curiosity and began congregating as close to the White House as it was safe to stand. None tried to persuade forces loyal to Boris Yeltsin to stop attacking parliament in the way crowds had tried to win over tank crews taking part in the coup attempt two years ago.

That led television commentators to conclude that most citizens supported the President. Many indeed did, such as Lena, a student, who had a radio tuned to the BBC World Service glued to her ear. 'The best thing we can do for Yeltsin is stay calm but if he calls us out to help him, I for one will go.'

Others were less sure. Farkhat, an Azeri trader who had closed his kiosk for fear it would be wrecked, said he thought Communism might be returning. Would this be good or bad? 'Well, it might not be so bad. I have higher education but I can't earn enough working as a scientist. You don't think I enjoy working in a kiosk, do you?'