MOSCOW — Russia's best-known judge greets visitors to his apartment in a bright blue warm-up suit and the unhurried manner of a man on vacation.
In fact, Valery D. Zorkin has been ill and out of work for a month--a victim of the bloody two-day showdown between President Boris N. Yeltsin and the conservatives in Parliament.
When that battle ended Oct. 4, at least 142 people were dead and Parliament was no more. Its mammoth headquarters, the White House, was blackened by fires from an army tank assault and its chairman was in prison.
Three days later, with far less drama, Yeltsin swept aside the other rival branch of Russia's democracy with a stroke of the pen, branding Zorkin's Constitutional Court a "weapon in the political struggle" against him. The judge went into seclusion.
In a 2 1/2-hour interview Tuesday night, his first since then, Zorkin denied taking sides. He detailed his behind-the-scenes efforts to head off the bloodshed and blamed extremists in both camps for resisting. For all his trouble, he said, two Yeltsin aides made vague threats against him and his family, until the pressure wrecked his health and forced him to resign as court chairman.
"We became hostages of radicalism in the struggle between two powers," he said. "Neither the president nor the Parliament could find enough bravery to sacrifice their ambitions. . . . On the president's side they accused me of being politicized. I think I was just a mediator. But they do not want to forgive me even for that."
Perhaps more than anyone else, Zorkin symbolizes the hopeful start and tragic crash of post-Communist Russia's constitutional order.
Created in October, 1991, his 13-member tribunal quickly did what no other had done under czarist or Communist rule. It declared presidential and legislative acts illegal and managed to reverse them.
But as Parliament stiffened against Yeltsin's free-market reforms, the constitution--drafted in the Leonid I. Brezhnev era but much amended--proved too flawed and contradictory to settle their feuds. As constitutional custodian, the 50-year-old Zorkin, a bookish legal scholar in Communist days, tried mediation but found himself on shrinking middle ground.
In the interview, Zorkin admitted it was a "mistake" to have paid more attention over the months to Yeltsin's transgressions than to lawmakers'. But he insisted that, when Yeltsin dissolved Parliament on Sept. 21, the court had no choice but to rule it an "anti-state coup." That judgment drove lawmakers to impeach Yeltsin and recognize Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi as acting president.
Yet even as Yeltsin tagged him a partisan, Zorkin quickly offered his own solution. His office in the court became a nerve center for the forces of compromise--leaders of Russia's scattered regions and moderates from both rival camps.
Zorkin's proposal was simple: Lawmakers would cancel their impeachment vote and disband for the Dec. 12 parliamentary elections set by Yeltsin; but a president would be elected the same day, not six months later as Yeltsin offered.
Seated in the study of his one-bedroom apartment, in a high-rise near the 1980 Olympic rowing canal, the judge opened his diary and read from a chronology of his peace efforts. They appear to have been more intensive and promising than was reported at the time. For example:
Sept. 24--He met in the barricaded White House with Rutskoi, Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov and lawmaker Vladimir Isakov. "I told them, 'You are being nearsighted. You are pushing for a confrontation.' Isakov walked away. Khasbulatov was silent. But Rutskoi accepted the compromise."
Sept. 29--Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei M. Shakhrai came to Zorkin's office and said they were ready to consider his plan, which had been backed by regional leaders.
Oct. 3--Chernomyrdin summoned Zorkin to his office at midday and said Yeltsin had accepted the plan "in principle" and wanted to discuss details. But by evening the violence had started. Parliament forces, guns in hand, were attacking the state TV broadcasting center and the mayor's office.
"All this leads me to believe that there was a peaceful option supported by some people around the president," Zorkin said. "That option would have isolated the Parliament. Instead, Yeltsin chose to isolate it with barbed wire."
Among those pushing Yeltsin to an extreme solution, Zorkin said, were Economy Minister Yegor T. Gaidar and presidential chief of staff Sergei A. Filatov.
"Filatov called me the next day and said the blood spilled at the White House lies on me," Zorkin recalled. "He said, 'You put the country on the brink of civil war.' "
The court met, and other judges reported threats of unspecified harm from the Kremlin. "Their condition is your resignation," Zorkin recalled one judge telling him. "If you do not think about your family, think about ours."