WHEN the leaders of the October uprising against President Boris Yeltsin were freed in February under an amnesty declared by the new Russian legislature, Alexander Rutskoi emerged from prison a seemingly defeated man. Mr. Rutskoi, a former Afghan war hero and President Yeltsin's running mate in the 1991 presidential polls, appeared to have reached the end of his political career.
But a mere three months later, he bounced back, scoring a political triumph by being reelected head of the Free Russia Party, a party that had been at odds with him at the time of the uprising.
And now, following a period of relative quiet, Rutskoi is at it again. Last week, healthy and clean-shaven (the tangled beard from his prison days replaced by a moustache), Rutskoi returned to public life as head of the new, rightist Derzhava (Power) Party. At his first news conference since his release, he announced that he still considers himself vice president and that he will run for president in June 1996. ``When the democratic press questions me about my health, I answer them in a few words,'' the former hero, whose plane was shot down twice over Afghanistan, told reporters. ``Don't get your hopes up.''
Mr. Yeltsin appears capable of keeping his grip on power until the new elections. But a slew of presidential hopefuls have begun to emerge from the shadows - some of whom are the most vociferous opponents of his reform policies.
Potential contenders include ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who along with Rutskoi has demanded earlier elections; Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky; and possibly Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, head of Russia's 14th Army in Moldova.
Yeltsin has refrained from endorsing any candidate, but last week he hinted that Boris Nemstov, the reformist mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, was ready to serve as Russia's next leader.
Rutskoi, who wants his party to be the foundation of an opposition movement against Yeltsin, earlier this year joined a political bloc with other anti-reformers, such as Communist Party leader Mr. Zyuganov and radical nationalist Sergei Baburin.
But now he says uniting the opposition is useless. ``The opposition should have a single leader, a program, and a shadow Cabinet, while members of the present opposition cannot resolve a single question together,'' he told the Echo Moskvy radio station on Monday.
Once Yeltsin's right-hand man, Rutskoi became his enemy last year, after the president overrode the Soviet-era Constitution and dissolved the largely Communist-dominated parliament on Sept. 21.
It was Rutskoi who ordered supporters to storm the mayor's office and Ostankino television center, which led Yeltsin to send in tanks. After 140 people died, a chastened Rutskoi was led out of parliament in handcuffs and sent to prison along with the former parliament speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov.
Mr. Khasbulatov, for his part, returned to politics last week in his native Chechnya, the semiautonomous Russian region that declared itself separate from Russia in 1991 and has been engaged in an increasingly bitter war of words with Moscow.
Rutskoi has been fighting lately to be reinstated in the military, which ousted him following the October events. But he claims his political views have stayed the same since he was elected vice president.
He supported Yeltsin during the 1991 failed coup, but last week, in keeping more with his October sentiments, he congratulated Valentin Varennikov, one of the dozen coup plotters charged with treason. Mr. Varennikov was the only one to reject amnesty, going through with a trial that cleared his name.
Though Rutskoi has resisted aligning himself with Mr. Zhirinovsky - and vice versa - his views are eerily similar to those espoused by the Liberal Democrat chief, who has advocated restoring the Russian empire by reclaiming Finland and the Baltic states.
``I am for the rebirth of Russia within the borders of the Soviet Union, but only through the free will of the people,'' Rutskoi told reporters. ``Russia has the possibilities to live without the others. But I'm not sure the others could live without [Russia's] natural gas and other resources.''
Like Zhirinovsky, Rutskoi is busy these days touring Russia to boost his popularity. But while the slow, plodding Rutskoi may share some of Zhirinovsky's political views, he has none of the charisma that endears the ultranationalist to those who consider themselves victims of reform. And he bristles when opponents try to compare him to the man many call a fascist.
When asked why he had been seen at a gathering of people wearing swastika armbands, Rutskoi replied that they were only ``runic symbols.''
``Fascism is not popular among Russians,'' he said defensively. ``Even people who are called fascists have done nothing like the German fascists did.''