On the morning of Sunday 3 October, Russia’s most treasured icon was borne into the Bogoyavlensky Sobor, the Cathedral of the Epiphany, in Moscow. The Madonna of Vladimir, a 12th-century depiction of the infant Jesus resting on the arm of an abstracted Madonna, was delivered to the church by Zil minibus. In spite of his recent heart trouble, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow and All Russia, his great grey beard stirring slightly in the autumn wind, was there to see it up the steps and along the nave of the magnificently painted, glowing interior of the church with which he is most closely associated.

There was the usual desperate crush to get into the confined space of an Orthodox church. An old woman stood guard on a side door, letting in the church’s many retainers and snarling at anyone who tried to slip in with them – mostly women of her own age. A German TV crew was escorted in by a verger, but most people stood patiently outside, crossing themselves from forehead to stomach, right shoulder to left, and bowing swiftly in the Orthodox manner as the choral service was relayed through a vile loudspeaker.

It was a service for peace and harmony. Metropolitan Kyril of Smolensk, the youngest and most political of the Synod, had announced it on TV after the news the night before, as he relayed the Synod’s declaration on the struggle between President and Parliament, which included an anathema – delivered with a narrowing of the eyes – on those who would spill blood. The Patriarch, under whose aegis talks between representatives of the besieged White House and of the President had been taking place, believed that God should be invoked through the intercession of the Madonna of Vladimir – which was why she had been hauled from her resting place in the Tretyakov Gallery and pressed into service again.

Orthodoxy has not recovered its place as the religion of the people. This is not Catholicism in Poland, much less Islam in Iran. In most churches, services are sparsely attended, and usually by old ladies. But where the congregation is large it is varied. The wretchedly poor are there as well as the fashionable and the official. Alexei stood facing the iconostasis, chanting, crossing himself and bowing. He gave no sermon. The point of the service, for patriarch and congregation alike, was immersion in the mystery of the faith.

Outside, a middle-aged woman with a mouthful of gold teeth was trying to rouse a group of bystanders in support of her own opinions, freely bestowed on a young priest. ‘Tell him,’ she implored them. ‘Speak to him; tell him the Church must save Russia, the Patriarch must save Russia.’ Earnest and struggling to get his words in, the priest explained that this was not the Church’s mission. ‘I cannot save Russia. I can only save myself.’ A dignified reply, it seemed, but one which gave rise to great indignation. ‘You hear this? Listen to him! He can only save himself! As Russia suffers, it suffers, on the edge of death.’ This is indeed how the people speak.

Later, on the march to the White House, suffering Russia was again at the centre of things. There were fewer flags than usual: in retrospect it was clear that the project was too serious for mere display. The flags that could be seen had often been in evidence during the previous two years as the opposition to Boris Yeltsin took shape. The Soviet flag was in the majority: plain red (no need for a variety of colours to represent different strands in the nation – this was a Union in which all contradictions, colourful or otherwise, had been resolved) with the little hammer and sickle at the top left. There was a handful of elderly men and women who walked, solitary more often than not, with a portrait of Joseph Stalin on a pole or clasped like an icon to their chests. There was the Andreyevsky (St Andrew’s) flag and the black, yellow and white flag, a reassertion of the right to rule of Imperial Russia.

By their banners and signs, these demonstrators – about ten thousand on the march from Oktyabrskaya to the White House – were defining the loyalty they wished to see embodied in statehood. What united them was not so much a hatred of Boris Yeltsin as a desire for empire. They hated the humiliation of the fatherland; and ‘fatherland’ – otechestvo, from otets, ‘father’ – is what many, unselfconsciously, call it.

These people have plenty of grievances. They are perhaps the most wronged imperialists in the history of the world. They lost an empire precipitately and are quick to believe that their own state, officially non-imperial for the first time in centuries, will also break up. With the exception of the Baltics, the former Soviet Republics that surround it are more badly run than Russia. In many, and the Baltics above all, Russians are not even regarded as citizens. In others they are forced by terror to become refugees. The sight of large states like Ukraine falling apart confirms one view, frequently expressed, that the Union should never have been dissolved, and another, implicit, that it needs Russians to run it. Those who demonstrate for the Union or for empire strike many, quite reasonable, chords.

The march began under the skirts of the greatcoat of the largest statue of Lenin in Oktyabrskaya and moved purposefully down the ten-lane Garden Ring Road which encircles the heart of Moscow. When lines of riot troops tried to block the marchers, they were attacked with stones and sticks and fell back swiftly. Yegor Gaidar, the First Deputy Prime Minister, later remarked that in doing so they displayed passivity and a lack of readiness to do battle. That may be, but there is a more conspiratorial explanation – and such explanations cannot be dismissed easily in Russia – which is that the authorities were pulling the demonstrators onto the punch.

The march reached the White House in mid-afternoon. So swift was the advance that there were little islands of riot police caught in the tide. One bus contained a dozen of them, huddled in the middle behind a protective wall of riot shields as the crowd hurled rocks through the shattered windows. Another was looted to reveal cartons of Wagon Wheel biscuits. A brief give-away party followed, dominated by teenagers.

The police round the building fired in the air and then fell back to watch the crowd rush into the space where longer-term demonstrators had been ensconced for days and where, on the balcony, the Deputies were ready to greet the marchers. It was then that General Alexander Rutskoi, in a dapper suit, his bodyguards holding a flak jacket in front of him, called for an attack on the Ostankino TV tower and the Mayor’s office opposite, to which the riot police had already withdrawn. A colleague from Reuters thought Rutskoi gave orders, when forming armed detachments outside the White House, that ‘only physical’ methods were to be used – that is to say, no guns. But guns were being issued openly and Rutskoi did not object.

Perhaps, by then, he was in no position to do so. A war hero himself, Rutskoi was surrounded by harder men still. General Albert Makashov, a Stalinist who had challenged Yeltsin for the Presidency back in 1991, was a senior commander. General Vladimir Achalov, who had been ready, as one of the few unequivocally pro-Putschist commanders, to attack the White House in 1991, was the Parliamentary ‘minister of defence’. The fighters came from the Dnestr area of Moldova, where they had seen action defending the local Russian population from the army of the state. Others were from the OMON units which had operated in Riga in 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev took a turn to authoritarianism and decided to belt the Balts. Others again were members of the fascist Russian National Unity organisation.

Rutskoi was brought up in an army family and had spent all of his adult life in the military. He was born in 1947 in Kursk, the scene of one of the world’s greatest tank battles. His father, Vladimir, fought in the Second World War as a tank commander and retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Rutskoi himself attended the military flying school named after Marshal Vershinin, the Air Force academy named after Yuri Gagarin, and the General Staff Academy. He was a Deputy Air Force Commander in Afghanistan. Unlike most such officers, he flew missions, was shot down and captured – but swiftly exchanged. By his early forties, he was a colonel and, though promoted to general when he was already Vice-President, he would probably have made it anyway.

In social terms, he is far from being a military conservative. His wife Ludmilla works in one of the best-known fashion houses in Moscow. One of his two sons is studying in a financial institute, which these days usually means a career in private business. In the longer of the two interviews I had with Rutskoi, he was genial, if vague on policy and desperately populist in his sentiments, although he took care to stress that ‘the West would have nothing to fear from me. I want reform, in some ways deeper than what we have.’

This may have been pure garbage. Such talk often is. What was not in doubt was the nature of his patriotism. When Rutskoi first began to turn against Yeltsin (protesting all the while that he was not), he wrote a series of articles for opposition newspapers. One of them, for Pravda, begins with a description of driving past McDonalds in Pushkin Square and feeling, as he saw the huge queue winding round the block, a great sadness that this should be so attractive to his fellow-countrymen.

Beyond his competence in the shark pool of Russian politics, Rutskoi appeared to be a modern Soviet man, increasingly seized of the idea that he could represent those whom Yeltsin had spurned on his way to the top. Not himself an extremist, he nonetheless swayed towards those who were, especially this last year. The party he founded – initially Communists for Democracy, later the Party of Free Russia – was already splitting, unable to keep up with his drive to the nationalist/Communist extreme.

Ruslan Khasbulatov was another kind of man entirely, but he was also a Soviet man. He is a Chechen, from what is now Chechnya. In his autobiographical collection, The Struggle for Russia, he lays some stress on what was a poor and disturbed background: shifted, with most of his people, from Chechnya to Kazakhstan at a young age, and growing up on a collective farm while his father served at the front; then, suddenly (he does not explain how), leaping into the Law Faculty of the élite Moscow State University and subsequently, after a period of activism in the Komsomol, becoming a professor at the Plekhanov Institute.

Khasbulatov is a non-Russian Soviet for whom the Soviet Union had worked well. There are very many like him, especially among the generation for whom Stalin was largely a childhood memory and who made it in Brezhnev’s relaxed times. For him, and numerous other non-Russians, the collapse of the Soviet Union has been bad. They are now without the considerable support of an ideology that was officially (and thus, for much of the time, actually) blind to national differences. Khasbulatov, more than Rutskoi, is a man whose driving impulses are difficult to discern behind the clouds of verbiage. But his own turn against Yeltsin seems, like Rutskoi’s, to derive from a loss of identity within the Union.

Having taken the Mayor’s office without much of a fight – most of the bullets went into the air and the troops trotted off fairly smartly, leaving the Mayor’s staff to their fate – the demonstrators headed for Ostankino, some five kilometres away. This was, of course, a modern revolt in which it is natural to seize the TV station. In this case there was particular reason. Ostankino, which broadcasts both Channel One, the old Soviet TV network still beamed into the former Union, and Russian TV, has been explicitly pro-Yeltsin. It is run by Andrei Bragin, a former Deputy promoted to the post by the President a year ago. Amiable and liberal, Bragin is a purely political appointee. Ostankino’s chief anchor-woman, Valentina Sorokina, interlards her newscasts with encouragement for the President and pejorative references to his enemies.

Russian journalism has changed hugely in the past three or four years. It is diverse, acid and often courageous. But the independence of the media remains precarious. The main TV and radio stations are funded and controlled by the President. The papers are subsidised, though now business is realising the advantages of owning newspapers and has bought up a number of new and old ones. Pravda is sponsored by a millionaire Greek Communist.

Free Russian journalism is in part a product of the democratic forces led by Yeltsin. Journalistic cynicism is shallower in Russia – to the credit of its journalists – than it is elsewhere, but there is no shortage of it, especially among those who have worked at close quarters with Yeltsin and his entourage. In the end, however, most journalists protected Yeltsin, partly because he was their paymaster, but also because he was their protector against a return to authoritarian practice and a submissive press. Most TV and radio journalists are themselves liberals. When the chips were down, as they were for the Ostankino people, forced off the air as the demonstrators invaded their building, they clustered around the President. Professionally reprehensible, this may nonetheless be a tactic that safeguards the development of pluralism in the longer term.

Yet it seems less excusable in the aftermath of the attack on the White House by the President’s forces. The exercise itself was brutal; the more so since, anxious to minimise their own losses, the attackers bombarded the vast building at close range for hours from the safety of their tanks. Before and after the building was taken, the police were rounding up the instigators of the demonstration and – on the evidence of Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow City Deputy known here for his writings, and himself briefly arrested – were beaten mercilessly for confessions. Yeltsin decreed the closure of newspapers and parties, some of them extreme, some of them not.

For some politicians and commentators, such as Ken Livingstone or Bukharin’s American biographer Steven Cohen, these developments confirm the view that Yeltsin is a dangerous man incapable of compromising with a Parliament whose legitimacy was at least comparable to his own and which was, in the main, concerned to oppose an economic programme that had begun to go badly wrong, reducing living standards disastrously. In this view, the legitimate opposition to the Presidency was stifled even before it was slaughtered.

I think this perspective is wrong, not because there are no facts to support it – there are many – but because it assumes an equivalence of Western and Russian political institutions. Russia is still struggling to find the road to reform on which a country like Poland – where the return of a (social-democratised) former Communist Party can be received with calm – is relatively firmly set. The institutions of state in Russia are rather like the parties themselves. Whether they are called liberal democratic, social democratic or just democratic, they are aspirations rather than solid formations. The battle, as the events of 3 and 4 October showed very clearly, is for the very definition of statehood, not for the respective functions of President and Parliament, or for the shape of the economic programme.

Meanwhile, these latter issues, of immense importance, cannot be properly addressed and debated because the political forces in Russia have not settled down to the task of considering them sensibly. Political debate, party formation (and splitting), the taking of positions, even argument about the constitution itself – all are conducted in a kind of irresponsible space where anything can be said by anyone, contradicted by the same person the next day, rediscovered and reasserted on the third.

One-man rule is already the order of the day in Russia and will continue to be so. It will be arbitrary and, in many cases, cruel. But it offers the best chance of constructing Russia in the form – as Russians say – of a normal state: one with many imperialist urges and regrets, but with the official aim of confining itself to its borders. By so decisively opposing those who waved different flags and spoke for a restoration of empire, this particular form of power has ruthlessly established itself as Russian, and Russian only.

Before his assault on Ostankino, General Makashov appeared on the Mayor’s balcony, hailed by his briefly victorious fighters. As he did so, one of them hauled down the red, white and blue tricolour behind him. Those of us below waited to see what would be raised in its place. Nothing was: to choose one flag over another would have been to fragment the imperialist coalition. Now it has been shattered, the best we can hope for is a democratic autocrat. Since the reinvention of Russia, there has been no one and nothing else on offer.

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