Until the shock of the television pictures from Moscow over the last two days, Alexander Kabakov's portrait of Moscow in smoking ruins, patrolled by bands of armed thugs, seemed merely a provocative fantasy.
In his 1988 novella, "The Defector," the Russian writer had peered ahead five years and painted a grisly portrait of the future. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, and Russia was swiftly following the same path, torn by ethnic, religious and territorial civil war. Groups with such names as the "Left Communists" of Siberia and the "Social Fundamentalists" of Turkestan fought for the rubble of empire.
Most incredibly, Moscow itself was in chaos. Men of uncertain politics, carrying Kalashnikovs, terrorized the citizens, singling out Jews and intellectuals for particular torment. The new dictator, an army general who tried to cover up his Communist past, rode to the Kremlin each day aboard a white tank.
At the time of publication, the Communist Party was firmly in control of the 15 Soviet republics.
Mr. Kabakov told interviewers apologetically that his book was a warning of what might happen if reform failed, not a prediction. But as the years passed and the empire crumbled, much of Mr. Kabakov's book took on a prophetic quality.
Only his portrayal of the capital remained completely at odds with reality. In the midst of political upheaval, Moscow remained a metropolis of 10 million people where babushkas scolded children for going hatless in chilly weather, security guards at Czarist palaces chewed out tourists for walking on the grass, and traffic cops ticketed drivers whose cars were dirty.
Order a talisman
Even as street crime ballooned toward U.S. levels, "poryadok," the Russian word for "order," was a potent social value and a talisman against violence.
Then came Sunday's battle for Moscow's television headquarters and yesterday's bloody military assault on the Russian White House. With Russians firing on Russians in heavy-caliber gun battles in the heart of the city, a new threshold was crossed, and even the darkest visions of the Russian future no longer could be ruled out.
"When you see all these people charging through the streets fighting the police, it's just hard to believe it's Moscow," said Rudy Lentulay, a professor of Russian at Goucher College and the Johns Hopkins University who has visited Moscow about 10 times. "You just never thought you'd see that."
Americans following events from a distance might miss the watershed feeling the shooting has for those who have spent time in Moscow in recent years and been impressed with its persistence in non-violence.
After all, in a number of non-Russian republics, the threshold of major civil disorder was crossed several years ago.
Island of peace
From abroad, it is easy to lump together the carnage in Georgia or Azerbaijan or Tajikistan with the cacophonous politics of Moscow and Leningrad. But with the exception of a few ethnic skirmishes among the mountain people near its southern border, Russia itself has remained astonishingly peaceful through all the cataclysmic political change of the past five years.
True, during years of tumult that saw the collapse of Communist Party rule and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, Russians with an apocalyptic cast of mind often predicted disaster. Some suggested that the government was plotting attacks against the people.
Others, quoting the poet Alexander Pushkin on the fierceness of Russian mobs, expressed fears that a demonstration might spin out of control.
In advance of big pro-democracy demonstrations outside the Kremlin early in 1990, frantic activists reported worrisome rumors: Troops were on the move outside Moscow.
Hospitals had been placed on alert for large numbers of wounded. The rumors were proven false. Crowds estimated at 200,000 demonstrated with hardly so much as a stubbed toe.
In March, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was warned by the KGB -- falsely -- that democratic activists had a plan to assault the Kremlin, climbing the walls with hooks and ladders. Mr. Gorbachev responded by banning demonstrations and deploying 50,000 troops across the city.
Tens of thousands of Muscovites defied the ban and marched anyway, but the worse of the resulting clash was a few scuffles along police lines.
Even during the August 1991 coup against Mr. Gorbachev, when tanks and troops occupied Moscow and the possibility of large-scale violence loomed, fewer people were killed than in an average weekend on the streets of Baltimore.
Three young men died after they confronted a tank they mistakenly believed was moving to assault the Russian White House.
By then, of course, all along the Soviet Union's southern rim, ethnic disputes had erupted in serious bloodshed. Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Abkhazians, Georgians and Ossetians, Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks -- pair after pair of re-emerging nations and tribes took up arms.
In Moscow, television viewers were horrified at shots of mayhem, but the guerrilla fighting and atrocities felt distant.
The level of violence seemed powerfully influenced by culture, with some republics far more susceptible than others. Mass movements for independence in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania angered and frightened substantial Russian, Polish and Belarussian ethnic minorities, but virtually no violence resulted.
In Russia, too, political fury seemed to vent itself in the chanting of demonstrators, the high-pitched debate in the newspapers and on TV, and the elections of 1989, 1990 and 1991.
When the shooting finally broke out Sunday and yesterday, reporters described a striking number of curious onlookers, as if Muscovites could not quite comprehend what was happening to their city.
As the fierce firefight went on Sunday night around the broadcast facilities in the Ostankino neighborhood, a shaken commentator on Radio Russia pleaded again and again with residents of the area not to yield to curiosity.
"This is not a game," he said. "These are real bullets. Do not go outside under any circumstances. Stay away from your windows."
Scott Shane was The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991. His book on the role of information in the Soviet Union's collapse will be published next year.