Russia's first elected president dissolved its first electedParliament and enforced the dissolution with a murderous cannonade of tank fire. The vice president and Parliament chairman, who correctly pointed out that the president had violated the constitution, were among hundreds arrested and imprisoned.
The Constitutional Court was suspended. The Moscow City Council was forcibly dissolved and other regional councils firmly advised to follow suit. Opposition parties were suspended. Opposition newspapers and a television show were banned.
In short, as American headlines summed up events in Russia last week: Democracy won a major victory.
In a Russia groping its way along a precipice out of the ruins of Soviet totalitarianism, the politics of paradox are currently in ascendancy. President Boris N. Yeltsin uses authoritarian measures in the name of democracy, while the Parliament's authoritarians decry his moves with the rhetoric of democrats.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, an Afghanistan war hero whose political views seem to shift with the weather, started out in politics four years ago with a right-wing, nationalist, imperialist group called Fatherland. Two years ago, he dramatically reversed course, leading a reform faction out of the Communist Party, denouncing KGB bloodshed in the Baltic republics as "gangsterism," garnering 60 percent of the vote as Mr. Yeltsin's running mate and standing by his side during the harrowing three days of the August 1991 coup.
Then, last year, as economic reform began to bite into living standards, he denounced Mr. Yeltsin's economic advisers as "boys in shorts" and reshaped himself as a champion of the ordinary man. This year he accused the presidential team of corruption and appealed openly for the restoration of the shattered Soviet empire.
Parliament Speaker Ruslan I. Khasbulatov's gyrations have been less dramatic. Until 1990 an obscure, market-oriented economist working in a Moscow institute, he was elected to the Russian Parliament and chosen as Mr. Yeltsin's deputy, balancing his boss' gruff practicality with academic smarts. His 1991 book, "Burokraticheskoye Gosudarstvo" ("The Bureaucratic State"), mercilessly dissected the failings of the Soviet system. When the coup came, he was firmly on the side of Mr. Yeltsin.
Having replaced Mr. Yeltsin as Parliament chairman when his patron was elected president, Mr. Khasbulatov gradually shifted allegiances within the divided body. Like Mr. Rutskoi, he was openly skeptical of the shock-therapy tactics advocated by Mr. Yeltsin's advisers. He led the Parliament into a long standoff with the president, whose impeachment he actively sought last spring.
On September 21, when Mr. Yeltsin finally decided to try to end the political paralysis by stepping outside the constitution and dissolving the Parliament, Mr. Rutskoi, with Mr. Khasbulatov's backing, announced that he was president. That was legally correct, since an amendment before the 1991 presidential election set a booby-trap against dictatorship, stating that any president who violated the constitution automatically would be removed from office. When the standoff escalated into physical clashes, the two Yeltsin opponents actively encouraged the fighting, and Mr. Rutskoi actually called on his backers to attack the television center.
Mr. Yeltsin, of course, has had his own metamorphoses. For a decade the tough Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, he offered gushing praise of Leonid Brezhnev at a time when the Soviet leader was a doddering alcoholic. In the mid-1980s, he enthusiastically embraced Mikhail S. Gorbachev's program to "renew socialism," but after his falling out with Mr. Gorbachev's team in 1987 he came to reject socialism altogether. For a time in 1989, a series of embarrassing escapades involving liquor promised to set him on the sidelines of reform, and Westerners and Russian intellectuals labeled him as authoritarian to the core and uncouth to boot.
But Mr. Yeltsin used the 1990 Russian elections to pioneer a new political movement that raised the republics over the tired Soviet Union and junked Communist illusions for market pragmatism. In 1991 he disproved widespread suspicions that he was imperialist at heart with a dramatic defense of the tiny Baltic republics' right to independence. In the August coup, he became an unforgettable symbol of democratic courage.
By submitting his program to voters in a referendum last spring and by promising elections to a new national Parliament and local councils in December and to the presidency in June, Mr. Yeltsin has reaffirmed his stand atop the tank of two years ago. Even his heavy-handed tactics in recent days seem hardly to have tarnished his reputation with Western leaders as a democrat at heart.
To find an appropriate analogy for the revolutionary situation in Russia, Americans can look at the 1780s, when regions debated whether to submit to central power, or the 1860s, when North and South struggled for the American future. During the Civil War, public figures dramatically shifted allegiances, and democratic principles were sacrificed in the name of preserving the union. Lincoln offered the West Point graduate Robert E. Lee field command of Union forces; Lee, though he opposed the break-up of the country, chose instead to lead the Confederate army. Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, the requirement that the government justify in court a person's incarceration; Chief Justice Roger Taney denounced this assault constitutional rights, and many labelled Lincoln a dictator.
The fact was that two social and economic forces, larger than any individual, were at war, and they drew people with them. Ambivalent people were forced starkly to take sides. Ends were used to justify unfortunate means.
Today, a similar titanic battle is taking place for Russia's future. Underlying one side is market entrepreneuralism, which brings falling living standards, unemployment, inflation and a huge gulf between rich and poor -- but also freedom, integration in the world and perhaps the ultimate possibility of Western-style prosperity. Standing against it is the old Soviet industrialism, with its huge, military-oriented plants, associated with national isolation and police control -- but also with political stability, the security of guaranteed employment and the deep-rooted Russian value of egalitarianism.
Like powerful magnets, these forces of economic change and economic inertia attract politicians to them. Mr. Yeltsin and many of those around him -- notably the gung-ho market reformer Yegor Gaidar, whom he had dropped and now has brought back -- stand for entrepreneurialism. Over the past year or so, Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov have sided increasingly with old-guard industrialism.
What Mr. Yeltsin labelled a "communist-fascist rebellion" was partly just that, a freakish outburst by a motley collection of extreme nationalists, die-hard imperialists, psychotics and gun nuts. But at its foundation was the discontent of millions of Russians impoverished by hyper-inflation and infuriated by the nouveau riches who cruise by in their Mercedes.
Entrepreneuralism may offer the only road forward, since the old factories cannot much longer be protected from the global economy. But many of those suffering from the transition can be expected to retreat from their pain to the verities of Soviet culture as they are recycled by politicians.
In the wake of Russia's first taste of large-scale domestic violence since its own Civil War of 1918-1921, there is considerable reason for nervousness. The allegiance and unity of the military decided this conflict for Mr. Yeltsin, but a great deal appears to have depended on the personal loyalty to the president of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.
There were separatist grumblings from Siberia and the Far East during the crisis. What if a charismatic leader, fed up with Moscow politics, decided to declare independence for the resource-rich region, establishing ties to Tokyo or Seoul? What if the Far East military district backed him? The unimaginable horror of Russian army units fighting one another has itself helped preserved military unity during the crises of 1991 and 1993, but that is no guarantee for the future.
Elections offer some hope for strong, democratic government. But with no new constitution to replace the much-amended Soviet text that Mr. Yeltsin has trampled, nothing delineates the size or powers of the parliament to be elected in just two months.
The rift between president and parliament runs through society, and in the coming months it is likely to grow deeper rather than heal. A newly elected parliament could prove as recalcitrant as the old in resisting economic reform, and it would have greater legitimacy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Yeltsin has set the precedent that an elected legislature can be sent packing, unconstitutionally and at gunpoint, merely because it rejects the president's program. A future president, not necessarily Mr. Yeltsin, may be tempted to resolve Russian political gridlock with similar firepower.
But the most serious danger of the coming months takes the form of yet another paradox. Some of the biggest battles of president and parliament were over the money supply: Mr. Yeltsin, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and Western benefactors, sought to restrict the printing of rubles; the parliament and central bank printed paper money to meet the payrolls of the country's industrial dinosaurs and stave off their bankruptcy.
Having triumphed over his opponents, Mr. Yeltsin and his team are likely to clamp down on the money supply, forcing hundreds of archaic factories into bankruptcy. Such a development could create an army of unemployed workers, impoverished and hostile to reform, who could provide considerable muscle to whomever inherits the mantle of industrialism from Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov. Mr. Yeltsin's victory ultimately could strengthen the hand of his opponents.
Russia stood last week at the threshold of catastrophic internal bloodshed but did not cross it. But the specter of civil war will haunt its paradoxical politics for some time to come.
Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent for The Sun from 1988 to 1991.