MOSCOW -- A thin gray line of police wavered, then faltered, then fell on a bridge next to Gorky Park yesterday afternoon, unleashing an anti-Yeltsin crowd hungry for blood. And blood inevitably flowed.
From that moment, nothing -- not scores of police, barricades of trucks or rolls of razor wire -- could stop the angry crowd from reaching the blockaded Russian parliament in support of its standoff against President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Within an hour, hundreds of policemen were fleeing for their lives or being beaten and captured at their posts around the parliament building, known as the White House. The streets were controlled by young men, swaggering about with iron bars, captured police batons, riot shields and even Kalashnikov rifles.
By nightfall, an unknown number of people had died and tanks were rolling toward Moscow.
The day had begun with splendid promise. After a week of cold wind, rain, snow and little sunshine, yesterday was bright and fresh. The warm sun sent families strolling -- and anti-government demonstrators gathering.
Just before 2 p.m., a ring of perhaps 300 police stood with riot shields in hand around October Square, where an enormous statue of V. I. Lenin stands, his arm raised toward the future, his eyes gazing toward the bridge next to Gorky Park.
The mixture of police and Interior Ministry troops -- mostly young recruits -- had been ordered to prevent large crowds from gathering.
"Maybe they'll see so many police and go somewhere else," one policeman hoped.
At a bus stop, a knot of elderly men and women sat, haranguing each other. "You men are all cowards," one of the women said, urging the men to take up arms to support the parliament. "If you're not brave enough, you'll be cleaning their [Yeltsin's] toilets."
The men were angry at Mr. Yeltsin, embarrassed by the women and uncertain. "We should just kill everyone in Moscow," one said. "Then we'd be done with this."
Suddenly, at 2:30 p.m., an angry crowd of perhaps 2,000 people marched down Leninsky Prospekt from Gagarin Square, where a giant monument to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin dwarfs all who pass.
They were angry and aggressive, and the air fairly crackled around them. They were led by Vitaly Urazhtsev, 49, a former army officer, member of the breakaway Parliament and chairman of a conservative Army officers' group called Shield. Viktor Anpilov, another deputy and head of the hard-line communist party, Working Russia, also charged ahead.
The police, having orders only to prevent a crowd from gathering, did nothing but watch as the demonstrators turned left from Leninsky and poured down the Garden Ring road a half-mile away toward the Crimean Bridge over the Moscow River.
As they walked, more protesters poured out of the subway and from nearby alleys, mostly middle-aged people, their faces aglow with pride and anticipation.
"Soviet power," they shouted, "Rutskoi is president," referring to Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who had been barricaded in the White House since Sept. 21, when Mr. Yeltsin signed a decree dissolving the legislature.
Perhaps five busloads of Interior Ministry soldiers and police were parked next to the bridge, on the other side of the street from Gorky Park.
They quickly took up positions across the bridge, forming a cordon of just more than 100 shield- and baton-bearing men. As the crowd approached, an officer warned them to stop.
For a moment, they halted. There was an ominous quiet while Mr. Urazhtsev asked the police to let them pass.
Then, suddenly, the assault began.
The crowd screamed in rage and pelted the police with metal rods, bricks and stones. "Fascists, murderers, you sold yourselves for dollars," they shrieked.
The police line buckled as the fearsome crowd bore down on them. The crowd pinned some policemen down, pulling off their bulletproof vests, seizing their shields. The police fled down steps leading to the river embankment. The frenzied crowd threw bricks and stones after them and even whacked them with their own shields.
The police appeared woefully unprepared. They weren't even carrying tear gas. Two shots rang out, apparently fired by the demonstrators. No police reinforcements had followed the crowd from October Square.
Ambulances took away several injured police officers, and the survivors stood in small groups, smoking. Most were in their 20s, their faces flushed and sweaty.
"We were just trying to keep order," said Igor, at 29 one of the older police officers. "We can only hope for peace."
The 4,000 demonstrators marched on unimpeded to Smolenskaya Square. They were joined there by about 2,000 more. Emboldened, they quickly overran two lines of police and stormed over a barricade of trucks and buses, lashing away with metal rods, throwing bricks and stones.
They left a trail of smashed cars and broken glass. Police firing semi-automatic rifles in the air failed to deter them.
As the shouting crowd approached the White House a half-mile away, deputies and assorted paramilitary defenders inside rushed out with guns to greet them.
Some tear gas apparently was fired, but it was too little, too late. The crowd overran police before water cannon could be fired.
They seized army trucks, stuck red Soviet flags on them, and smashed one into the first floor of the Moscow mayor's office across the street from the White House.
Men with submachine guns ran throughout the mayor's building, taking prisoners and sending office workers fleeing. In the confusion and terror, numerous paramilitary men were running around waving guns.
About 20 young Interior Ministry troops, draftees 18 to 19 years old, had been guarding one entrance of the mayor's building with nightsticks and riot shields. They came under a hail of stones and were quickly overwhelmed and rounded up.
One of the attackers said the young men had defected to parliament's side. The young men, some of whom had only been drafted four months ago, described themselves as prisoners of war to a reporter.
"We weren't armed," one 18-year-old said. "What could we do? We don't know what will become of us now. We just want to go home."
A Russian driver for BBC radio was beaten when someone heard him listening to an English-speaking voice on his portable radio.
Kids with clubs were swaggering everywhere.
The police weakness was not easily explained. Either ineptitude prevented sufficient numbers from being deployed or the police commanders were giving Mr. Yeltsin a reason to retaliate with tanks.
Elderly men were rushing toward the subway station. "We're going to the television tower," they said, smiling. A bloody battle followed there.
Iona Andronov, a conservative member of parliament, proudly told a reporter that Americans were getting their comeuppance.
"You put all your eggs in one basket," he said scornfully. "I think you have now lost this Yeltsin. Your policies in setting up this tyrant have failed."
He said the parliament was holding numerous police officers as prisoners in the basement of the White House. "I saved one from being beaten to death," he said.
Inside the White House, parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov strode through a corridor on his way to open a session of parliament. He looked stern but excited. A man waving a pistol in the air marched in front of him. Men with machine guns surrounded him.
Outside, 69-year-old Anastasia Klimova walked slowly off, happily bearing a large bus window.
"I've come here because I support the law," she said. "For a Soviet person, it is unbearable to watch the president violate the law. If the president violates it, anyone might follow his example."
It was growing dark, and no police officer could be seen on the streets of Moscow. Guns were firing, and more blood would flow.