MOSCOW -- The flames that left the Russian White House a blackened ruin branded the hearts and minds of all who stood before them.
The army officer who impetuously answered the call to defend the White House, the commander of the neighborhood police station forced to choose between duty and politics, the previously carefree young firemen ordered to work under sniper fire -- a convulsion of history brought them all together.
Those fearful hours transformed them, and yesterday found them still shaken, wondering how Russia could possibly survive what these ordinary people had seen and done. The events of the last days passed before them again and again, etched against fierce, bright flames.
An officer's call
Capt. Alexander Cherbakov, a 31-year-old Russian army officer, was home taking care of his 3-year-old daughter Sunday afternoon when the television news reported that Alexander Rutskoi, vice president of Russia, was calling on all loyal officers to defend the Russian White House against President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Captain Cherbakov kissed his wife and rushed to obey. Last night, he sat in his apartment, nursing a wounded comrade, waiting for police to arrest him, his career certainly ruined, and probably his life.
The mistake burns painfully and deeply. "Rutskoi shouldn't have listened to parliament," he said sadly. "Parliament could only talk and talk and take no action. He should have listened to himself. That was the mistake."
From time to time, Captain Cherbakov sponged the burning face of his young friend with a cool cloth. Vadim, 26, lay on the couch suffering from shell shock. When the first powerful tank shell hit the front of the White House, it blasted Vadim through the air, and flying glass cut his hands unmercifully. "I felt so light, like a bird flying," he said quietly.
Vadim, who asked that his last name not be used, also had heard Mr. Rutskoi's appeal. Like Mr. Cherbakov, he was more pro-Rutskoi than anti-Yeltsin. Both follow the black, yellow and white flag of the Monarchists. For them, Mr. Rutskoi, a decorated Air Force officer, represents God and country.
Both are fiercely anti-Communist. Vadim was dismissed from the army in March 1991 for anti-Communist behavior.
Arriving at the White House on Sunday evening after demonstrators had broken through cordons and sent police running for their lives, the two men were issued pistols and submachine guns and posted on the first floor in the front of the building.
After a sleepless night, they were alarmed but not despairing when they saw tanks and troops surrounding them in the early morning light.
"We were sure the army would support us," Captain Cherbakov said. "With one tank of our own we could take control."
The first volley from the tank struck their position with horrifying force, sending legislators and elderly men, women and children, a whole motley assortment swept inside the White House in the fever of the moment, running for cover.
"Until the first shots, we could not believe they would do that," said Vadim.
The tanks and assault troops battered all day -- no one watching could comprehend how those inside could do anything but flee in terror.
"Some panicked; some didn't," Captain Cherbakov said. "They trusted us. They believed we would save them."
Guards shepherded the unarmed ceaselessly from floor to floor, room to room, as the tanks took their turns, firing on one side of the building and then another.
"Rutskoi was with us always," said Vadim. They never saw Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of parliament and its political mastermind.
Mr. Rutskoi, they said, was certain the army would arrive at any moment. They waited all day. They were sure the tanks outside were operated by renegades offered a high price to do Mr. Yeltsin's work.
The army, of course, had arrived early that morning. The soldiers never flinched, remaining loyal to Mr. Yeltsin.
By late afternoon, Mr. Rutskoi's defense minister issued the order to surrender. Captain Cherbakov and Vadim marched out, hands up. At the local police station -- the Barricade Station -- they were searched and questioned. The riot police tore off their shoulder patches in contempt. The men were grateful that the police did their job without comment.
Three hundred people were sent to the Barricade Station -- there was no room for them all in the tiny lockup. So the police confiscated their documents and sent them home to wait.
Captain Cherbakov recalled walking down the White House steps for the last time. "I paused and crossed myself before the place where I had carried out my duty to the end," he said. Then he turned around for a final look at the White House. The scorched, battered marks of a vicious assault astonished him. "Oh, ho ho ho, Sashka," he whispered to himself. "You didn't waste your time here."
Vadim was told that the Monarchist flag still fluttered outside the destroyed building. "Thank God," he said, "Thank God."
Lt. Col. Vladimir G. Chasovnikov is chief of the Barricade police station, named for barricades workers put up in an unsuccessful revolution in 1905.
He is also a member of the district City Council in the same Krasnopresnensky neighborhood. His fellow councilmen voted to support the parliament in its battle against Mr. Yeltsin; when some legislators were kept out of the White House by one of Colonel Chasovnikov's cordons, they set up an alternate headquarters in the Krasnopresnensky Council Building. Colonel Chasovnikov chose to skip the meeting when the vote was taken.
"It's difficult to say which side I take," he said. "My professional work and my council work don't coincide."
Colonel Chasovnikov had only one special order, he said, holding up a piece of paper with a large red exclamation point written on it. That was to maintain public order.
"The coup of August 1991 finished in a much better way," he said, settling down at his desk after his first real lunch in two weeks. "The situation was much clearer then. You could understand it."
Afterward, Moscow celebrated a great victory, and Colonel Chasovnikov received a watch from Mr. Yeltsin with engraved thanks.
This time, scores of people were killed and wounded in his district. Colonel Chasovnikov watched, uncomprehending, as the White House -- the jewel of his district -- burned.
As he watched, Colonel Chasovnikov understood more clearly than ever where duty and politics coincided. "We kept order as best we could," he said. He found himself searching and questioning fellow legislators.
"We did our duty," he said.
'Pale and beaten'
The young men of the adjacent fire station, drafted and assigned to fire duty, had watched over the last days as other 19-year-olds -- drafted into police service -- had marched off to contain the crowds marching in support of parliament.
"We saw them go off, and we saw them come back," said Sergei Ovshinov, 19. "They were pale and beaten -- young guys just like us."
Mr. Ovshinov's company fought the blaze on the 15th and 16th floors of the mayor's office, across from the White House. As they tried to quench the flames, snipers fired at them. They kept working. "It's our job," he said. "What else could we do?"
But it was a blaze like no other. Two weeks ago, he would have described himself as oblivious to politics. Now he is firmly pro-Yeltsin.
"How could we be otherwise after hat we have seen?" he asked. "Police, young men like us. Beaten for no reason. What else can we do now but think about politics? We can remember every detail -- and we see it against flames."
Small crowds gathered last night, staring at the White House. The blackened swatches, the blinds flapping out shattered windows, could not but arouse powerful images of an enormous, blazing struggle. Here the Russian president had fired tanks at the Russian parliament.
"Can Russia survive this?" Vadim had asked earlier. Finally, he answered himself. "We have to forgive each other. We have to forget."