MOSCOW -- They were the unlikeliest band of defenders imaginable.
Down along New Arbat Street toward the White House, the parliamentary building that has become the symbol of resistance to President Boris Yeltsin, some 30 newly minted members of a "volunteer defense unit" came marching behind a man in a tattered olive-green uniform carrying the red communist flag.
They were dressed in parkas and overcoats. Some carried briefcases, as if they had been vacuumed off street corners where they stood waiting for buses. Their new colonel, a man in a fiendish black beard, cast a steely gaze of appraisal over them and said:
"We need three commanders. You, you and you" -- he selected three men at random -- "you're the commanders."
One of the chosen looked doubtful. "What's my rank?"
"You'll be a -- umh -- captain." The new commander looked satisfied as onlookers tried to restrain their titters.
Thus was the "defense" of the White House organized late last night, after a series of violent assaults by right-wing demonstrators shattered Moscow's calm and sent Mr. Yeltsin's forces into temporary retreat. By the time this unit of anti-Yeltsin irregulars had been recruited, signs of the president's control of the area around the building were nonexistent, but speculation that the president would prepare an "answer," such as a tank assault, was rife.
The nature of the "defenders" demonstrated, however, that an army loyal to the president could have taken the building easily, if not without bloodshed. And a look at the crowd suggested that if Yeltsin's hand was stayed it might have been out of sympathy for the unfortunate gathered at the site in the illusion that they were in control.
Although news services and television crews were reporting that thousands of parliamentary supporters had massed by the White House in the exultation of victory, a visit to the site revealed them to be a group of elated but extremely uneasy individuals lacking virtually any leadership.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, whose exhortations had inspired some of them to attack the police cordon around the building and penetrate the Moscow mayor's office -- a stronghold of Yeltsin support -- across the street, was absent from view. Right-wing leaders had assembled at the Ostankino television compound north of the city, the evening's prize catch, where a ferocious battle was going on.
In the White House courtyard strolled young men carrying automatic weapons; barriers at each end of the yard were staffed by guards brandishing metal shields captured from routed riot police earlier in the day and now proudly displayed as trophies.
But for the most part the victorious throng resembled a smaller group of supporters that had passed the time in front of the building for the previous 12 days: the elderly, disenfranchised, aimless and easily stirred.
For the first time in almost two weeks they were no longer hemmed in by concertina wire and squads of troops and riot police, and they were being told that they had won the battle.
"We do not want to see the traitor Yeltsin as our leader," said retiree Vladislav Korotkov, who quickly slid into another standard complaint among the nationalists: "We do not want a Jewish government in Russia. Let them go to Israel and command there!"
Most of those at the White House, and across the street at the Moscow mayor's office seized by the crowd yesterday afternoon, seemed to be thunderstruck by their supposed victory, like people who have received a great fortune in currency they do not recognize. And they were unnerved by the thought that Mr. Yeltsin might finally be provoked enough to take a decisive step against them.
A commander of uncertain seniority stood on an outdoor balcony, putting out calls for supporters with various professional qualifications to gather at assigned spots in the area.
At one such place ambled a unit of drivers, those who could make use of the vehicles abandoned by government troops surprised and overrun by demonstrators that afternoon.
"We need people with drivers' licenses and knowledge," he said. "Real professionals."
About 35 people, some swaying precariously under the influence of alcohol, nodded in agreement. "The job will be driving government cars, trucks and buses -- to Ostankino," he said, naming the site of the television station.
"Buses? I don't know how to shift the gears on a government bus," one professional driver said.
His neighbor gave him an elbow. "It's OK," he whispered. "Don't you know? Government buses all have automatic transmissions."