MOSCOW -- While government troops and rebels stalked each other through a hellishly darkened and rubble-strewn White House yesterday, the bitter truth occurred to Ruslan I. Khasbulatov.
Muttering against his arch enemy, Boris N. Yeltsin, the chairman of the parliament exclaimed, "I never thought he would do this. Why isn't anyone coming to help us?"
It was one of several moments of strange calm in a day that generally alternated between deadly confusion, anxiety and terror, as the huge parliament building -- known as the White House -- was being pounded by tanks and machine-gun fire.
For 11 hours yesterday, the rebels trying to hold out in the parliamentary headquarters were at point-blank range, staring into the numerous and hefty guns wielded by the government of President Yeltsin.
Windows were blasted, fires raged, and furious assault troops worked their way up from below.
Inside, furniture was smashed, and bodies and blood were everywhere.
Russian television last night showed scenes of government soldiers cautiously inching their way up staircases, kicking down office doors and barely flinching at the enormous roar of gunshots in small, enclosed places.
The White House, which consists of a 19-story tower sitting on a 6-story base, is a labyrinth of narrow, dog-leg corridors, half-staircases, and hallways that don't quite lead anywhere.
The layout and the darkness only intensified the uncertainty and disorientation of both those storming the rebels' citadel and those defending it.
Veronika Kutsillo, who was inside and wrote an account for Reuters, caught Mr. Khasbulatov in that reflective and uncomprehending moment.
Elsewhere, she said, to add to the unreal nature of the day, children aged 11 to 15, dressed in the uniforms of the old Soviet youth organization, the Komsomol, kept watch at windows for troop movements.
Vyacheslav Terekhov, a correspondent for the Interfax news agency, was in the building when the attack began, at 7 a.m. yesterday.
He was relaying information to other Interfax reporters, outside the building, by means of a small radio.
Rutskoi wanted out
Late in the morning, as he described it afterward, Alexander V. Rutskoi, the former vice president and the rebels' putative leader, had already decided he wanted to negotiate his way out of the fix he was in.
He approached Mr. Terekhov and asked him to leave the building under a white flag and take a message to Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom Mr. Yeltsin had named as his vice president two days ago.
Mr. Terekhov radioed ahead to his colleagues, to be sure that the government forces would not try to shoot him as he walked out of the White House through Entrance No. 20, on the northeast side of the building.
But his problems came before he even made it to the door.
Dawdling as he walked downstairs, to give the message about his mission plenty of time to get through, Mr. Terekhov came upon a large group of soldiers in the building's lobby. It turned out they were government troops, having already seized the basement and first floor.
"They took me for a spy," he said. "They aimed their guns at me and told me to lie down."
When he tried to explain his mission, he said, they became "inexplicably" angry, and one soldier hit him hard enough on the back that he fell over.
Gun to his head
They pressed their guns up against his neck and head, he said, screaming at him to tell them about the number of rebel fighters on the floors above.
Finally, an officer -- "comrade lieutenant" -- told him to go down to the basement and persuade a crowd of frightened people there to leave. They refused.
He came back upstairs and was forced to lie down again, with his hands behind his head. He and about a dozen others were told that if they moved they would be shot.
"Some of us prayed," he said. "Others cursed."
At 1:30 they were ordered out of the building.
But in the meantime Mr. Khasbulatov had decided that Mr. Terekhov must have been killed, and said so to another Interfax reporter, who then spent an hour stumbling through the dark, rubble-choked corridors, dodging rebel gunmen, looking in vain for his colleague's body.
Not long afterward, two Italian reporters, Paolo Valentino and Enrico Franceschini, managed to sneak into the White House.
They found government troops on the first floor, and then a "no-man's land" on the second and third, with Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov on the fourth.
They said there was no particular effort to keep a fight going between the first and fourth floors.
"The scene is bizarre," said Mr. Valentino. "It's hard to tell who's in charge of what."
Two parliamentary leaders, Oleg Rumyantsev and Sergei Baburin, "seemed very nervous and very scared," he said.
"There were long moments in which there was no fighting," said Mr. Franceschini. "I had the feeling they were waiting to decide what to do."
Mr. Rutskoi asked them to take a message out saying he would surrender if he received a guarantee of safety from a Western ambassador (which in the end he did not receive).
"He looked scared and he looked like he very much wanted to leave," said Mr. Franceschini.
The scene outside was in some ways as disordered as that inside. All day, as Mr. Rutskoi looked for a way out, crowds gathered nearby, often moving right under the barrels of the big tanks that were periodically firing at the White House.
Of course it was dangerous, said Alla Grigoryeva, 50, a musician.
"But it would be more fearful to stay at home," she said, "and listen to the sound of the tanks going along Kutuzovsky Prospekt, and helicopters flying, and loud explosions that shake the glass in the windows."
But she said the real reason she came out was to find out what was going on. The press had been just too one-sided, she said. And her conclusion? "Our politicians have outlived themselves. We need new ones."
For the families of deputies inside, there was no such certainty.
Alexander Pavlov's wife, Galina, said last night she hadn't talked to her husband for several days, and had no idea what had happened to him.
Mr. Baburin's mother, Rima, said she had heard he had been taken prisoner, "but we don't know where he's been taken to or what will become of him."
Even though Mr. Baburin is a vehement anti-American, she said there was only one way in Moscow yesterday to find out what was really going on -- by listening to Radio Liberty.
If you would like to hear Sun reporter Kathy Lally describe the scene in Moscow, call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service. You will need a touch-tone phone. Call 410-783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Then use the four-digit code 6190. Sundial is free in the local calling area.