Six Defiant Days in the Life Of Russia's `Red Republic'
MOSCOW — TUESDAY, Sept. 21: President Boris Yeltsin's evening declaration dissolving parliament and calling new elections did not catch his foes off guard. Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi had been warning for two days that something was up.
The parliament quickly gathered later that night, removing Mr. Yeltsin and replacing him with Mr. Rutskoi. The mood is oddly euphoric. Many believe the president, their archenemy, has badly stumbled. ``I think Yeltsin will sober up and when he wakes up tomorrow morning, he'll be surprised and sorry about what he has done tonight,'' says ultranationalist deputy Sergei Baburin.
Wednesday, Sept. 22: Guns have popped up all around the White House like tulips in spring. A veritable exhibition of Kalashnikov automatic rifles is on display, from the familiar AK-47 to the more modern AK-74. Some are carried by the parliament's own police units. Ragtag ``volunteers'' drawn from extremist groups, wearing anything from Army fatigues to Cossack jackboots, strut outside the building with submachine guns slung over their shoulders.
But the men with the big guns - the Russian Army - have disappointed the White House defenders by either standing aside or backing their enemy.
Thursday, Sept. 23: The parliament has managed to gather enough deputies to credibly hold a session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's supreme body under the old system. In the lobby outside the parliament chamber, tables with neatly printed signs are set up to register the arriving deputies.
Ivan Polozkhov, a small, gray man who who almost defeated Mr. Yeltsin in the 1990 race to be head of the Russian parliament, sits at the registration desk and chats with the two ladies running it.
Outside on the balcony, deputies take the microphone to address the crowd below. A commotion stirs as radicals with their own microphone announce that an extremist group of former Army officers has seized the military headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States across town (two people died in the attack).
The parliament officials on the balcony then try to regain control of the crowd: ``Comrades, stay here. This is a provocation.'' The mob hesitates. Out strides retired Gen. Albert Makashov, a darling of the hard-liners, to calm the crowd. His stomach bulging against his uniform, General Makashov draws the demonstrators back with a flourish of denunciations of the ``imperialist-Zionist conspiracy.''
Friday, Sept. 24: The events of last night have heightened tensions. Interior Ministry troops now ring the building. At a corner window looking out toward the United States Embassy, deputies gather and wonder aloud if they can get out. ``The deputies are afraid,'' one lawmaker says.
By the evening session, nerves are frayed. Some deputies try to push a compromise. The hard-liners strike back, calling for Mr. Khasbulatov to be unseated. The Congress is engulfed in mutual recriminations. Khasbulatov gives up the speaker's chair and sits slumped nearby, as the deputies argue over his fate.
Rutskoi comes to Khasbulatov's rescue, berating the deputies for ``childish'' behavior.
``Can you have at least one session without insulting each other?'' Rutskoi thunders. ``It's the nation that's the loser in all of this, because of the wild political spectacle that we are creating all together.''
Just after 10 p.m. the White House is plunged into darkness as the government cuts off electricity. Deputies feel their way along the walls. But the buffet table is still working, lit by candles.
Saturday, Sept. 25: It is a crisp, bright afternoon. Despite the heavy police presence, the crowds outside the White House are larger today, swelled perhaps by the weekend.
The front of the building is plastered with the odd pastiche of extreme Russian nationalist and Communist imagery that characterizes what some call Russia's ``Red-Brown alliance.'' One popular flag combines it all - an icon image of Jesus on a red banner.
Sunday, Sept. 26: The White House is almost totally under the control now of the most hard-line elements. They sit and wait for an assault by the government, even though the government seems content to isolate and ignore them.
The center of activity is on the building's 13th floor where Vladislav Achalov, the rebel ``defense minister,'' talks of raising divisions to defend the White House. But the people flowing in and out of his office are mostly retired officers or military men who hold deputies' seats, still proudly wearing their braided uniforms.
In the middle of the night, parliament members are told an attack is imminent. They grasp their gas masks but the attack never comes.