Television pictures may suggest 1917, with barricades burning and crowds of armed soldiers swarming the streets. But it is not really like that. In 1917 the factory workers were active and armed: they had lively organisations in each town ready to demonstrate in huge numbers and prepared to fight. In the countryside, peasants were holding emergency meetings of their village assemblies, voting to seize the landowner's holding, and trooping en masse up to the manor house to put their decision into effect. The soldiers were deserting at the front and rushing back either to the village to seize their share of land, or to the town to throw their weight into the struggle there.
The October Revolution was a seizure of power by quite a small number of these soldiers, led by Lenin and Trotsky: without the mass unrest in the background and without the virtual collapse of the Russian state they would never have made the attempt and would certainly not have been successful.
Compared with 1917, the mass of the population today is quiescent, even apathetic. They are weary of ideology and distrust all politicians. Not one factory has come out on strike. It is true that quite large numbers of people were demonstrating in Moscow, both for and against Boris Yeltsin, but by and large they were not organised to fight and did not wish to do so. Mr Yeltsin relied on the armed forces and security services, while his opponents attracted a few discontented, recently demobilised soldiers. Concentrated in strategic places, however, they could be quite effective, as was seen from the way they seized the mayor's office at City Hall and the Ostankino television centre in Moscow on Sunday.
What we are seeing now is the second instalment of what began with the attempted putsch of August 1991. Its defeat, together with the prohibition of the Communist Party and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR, constituted a revolution but a (relatively) peaceful and therefore incomplete one. The old ruling class was shaken up, but not replaced.
August 1991 was a struggle between two factions in that ruling class: one devoted to the Soviet Union as a unitary state and to the Communist Party as its indwelling spirit, and another which had decided that its political interests were best served by a sovereign Russia free from the domination of the Union. The second faction followed the lead of Mr Yeltsin and the democrats, who had widespread public support at that time.
It was obvious, though, that the democrats' victory was far from complete. Many of those who supported Boris Yeltsin in August 1991 distanced themselves from him as it became clear that he wanted to destroy not only the Communist Party but also the Soviet Union, and that he was bent on the kind of economic reform that would make it impossible for Communists ever to return to the kind of power they were familiar with.
The stronghold of Mr Yeltsin's opponents was the Russian Supreme Soviet, or parliament, in many ways a survivor from a past epoch. When the parliament was elected, in March 1990, the Soviet Communist Party had only just renounced its monopoly on politics. Alternative parties and electoral blocs had not had time to form, except in some of the big cities, where the democrats won a few sensational victories. The great majority of deputies, however, were nominated by the party in time-honoured nomenklatura fashion. That did not mean they were all conservative in their views, but there was always a solid bloc, known as 'Russian Unity', consisting of about 300 deputies, who repeatedly tried either to block privatisation of the economy or turn it to the interests of the existing enterprise administrations, that is, the apparatchiks.
They were even more active in throwing Russia's weight around within the former USSR, arousing suspicions that they were trying to restore the old Union to its full glory. This may seem paradoxical, in view of the fact that many of them supported Mr Yeltsin in August 1991, but probably they were not able then to see the full implications of what they were doing. When they did, most of them started behaving as if they had supported the putschists all along.
These deputies laid claim to chunks of Ukrainian territory, they demanded active measures to defend the interests of ethnic Russians living outside Russia, they encouraged the army to project Russia's power within the entire borders of the old USSR. It was with their support that insurgents in the Dnestr region of Moldova broke away lost year and set up their own republic, where the Soviet flag still flies. They applauded when separatists completed a similar coup in Abkhazia, violating a ceasefire that Russia had brokered and guaranteed, in order to detach their region from Georgia. Taken together, these two mini-republics constitute a kind of bridgehead for the 'once and future Soviet Union'.
Deputies in the Supreme Soviet who did not support Russian Unity were far too loosely organised and disparate to put up effective resistance. Alexander Rutskoi, soi-disant President, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet, drifted into the position of identifying with the views of Russian Unity and advancing its cause as the most likely way to defeat Boris Yeltsin.
In their efforts they were greatly assisted by the Constitution they inherited from the Soviet past. That Constitution deliberately failed to draw a clear distinction between the legislative and executive branches of government, since the Communist Party used to act as the driving force behind both. But without the Communist Party this confusion was a recipe for conflict. The Congress of People's Deputies (the larger parliament from which the Supreme Soviet was drawn) was defined as 'the highest agency of state authority', a title that encouraged its members to claim all sorts of powers which no legislature normally exercises. The President was merely 'the highest official of the Russian Federation' and did not have the power to dissolve parliament or to call fresh elections.
All the same, he did so two weeks ago, infringing the law in order to break a political deadlock that was threatening to plunge the country into chaos. He quickly secured the support of the military and security services and used their considerable firepower against the parliament. But to make his victory complete he still needs the backing of regional leaders throughout Russia: he requires them to administer the elections planned for December. Besides, if they become totally disillusioned with Moscow they may refuse to pay their taxes or may even secede from Russia altogether. Last week it emerged that a few vital regional leaders were withholding support.
It was this kind of resistance that forced Mr Yeltsin to begin negotiating with his adversaries and encouraged them to attempt a violent break-out of their siege. What we have been witnessing is the decisive moment in this second stage of the revolution, perhaps even of the whole revolution.
Throughout, the nightmare that Mr Yeltsin has been trying to avoid is civil war. He will know that from 1918-21 Russia was ruled by warlords, loosely allied to Red and White factions. These warlords devastated the country, causing millions of deaths through fighting, famine and disease. And they almost destroyed Russia.
Some of today's potential warlords have nuclear or chemical weapons at their disposal. That is a measure of the seriousness of the situation. We cannot but hope that Boris Yeltsin succeeds in holding the country together. If only his opponents had been able to see that their best hope lay not in armed confrontation, but in taking seriously the electoral challenge Mr Yeltsin was offering them. After all, they had the best organised political party, the revived Communists, and a serious case to put to the people, based on the misery caused by economic reform and the collapse of the USSR. But in times of revolution such prudent counsels seldom prevail.
The writer is Professor of Russian History, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University.
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