From the bowels of the President Hotel, once reserved for the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, a shadowy team of operatives works behind doors guarded by armed men.
They are led by a former KGB general who has taken a key role in President Boris Yeltsin's bid for reelection, according to officials familiar with his campaign.
Gen. Georgy Rogozin, deputy head of the Kremlin's security service, stays out of the limelight. But his presence at the nerve center of Yeltsin's campaign symbolizes a tightening cloak of secrecy around Russian government affairs that critics say is threatening many of the democratic victories won by glasnost, the Soviet policy of openness.
The cloak is being woven by presidential decrees, governmental regulations, and legislation that have surreptitiously screened off wide areas of official life from public view over the past few months.
The trend is all the more striking after the unprecedented freedoms that marked the Soviet collapse in December 1991, when officials and journalists delighted in shattering the silence that had dominated much of Soviet life for decades.
Their actions sparked hope that Russia was developing into an open society along more Western lines. But recent developments cast doubt on such hopes, clawing previously public information back into the classified zone.
At the heart of this trend is a little-noticed edict, No. 1203, signed by President Yeltsin on Nov. 30 last year. It sets out "a list of information classified as state secrets." Its 87 clauses cover such expected areas as military production and security-service operations. But they also extend to issues that would be considered legitimate public concerns in many countries, such as the design of nuclear-power stations.
The edict also elevates apparently innocuous information to the level of "state secret." For example, the "volume of import and export freight shipped between the Russian Federation and CIS states," the independent nations that emerged from the Soviet Union, is now secret and may not be published.
'Slightly against the law'
Among the ministries and government agencies listed as responsible for keeping state secrets is the Environment Ministry, despite a 1993 law on secrecy that specifically prohibits the government from classifying any information regarding public health or the environment.
"The presidential decree goes slightly against the law, but nobody questions this, nobody wants to go to battle," complains Alexei Yablokov, chairman of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, who also works as an adviser to Yeltsin's Security Council.
Other recent government ordinances illustrate the tendency toward shielding information. On March 15, Nikolai Yegorov, Yeltsin's chief of staff, issued a regulation that henceforth no Security Council staffer may talk to a journalist without prior approval from his boss.
And on Feb. 8, a resolution signed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that the new secrecy regime covers even information that had previously been in the public domain.
"It is forbidden to reproduce previously published data on the position of triangulation points and geographical landmarks" if any government agency decides they should be secret, the resolution said.
And to judge by another peculiar order from Mr. Chernomyrdin, secretiveness about Russia's topography and resources may have reached the point of deliberately misleading foreign investors.
Hard-to-find gold mines
An order released on March 23 this year decreed that all topographical and cartographical information given to potential investors in gold and silver mines in the far eastern region of Magadan should be based on 1963 data.
Geographical data prepared 30 years ago by the Soviet authorities, at the height of the cold war, was routinely distorted in order to deceive outsiders, officials have since acknowledged.
Even the past is not immune from the gathering mood of concealment, as American scholars working in Russian historical archives have found.
Files that had been open for inspection in recent years are now closed, "and when you go to Moscow now, the same files are no longer available," says one American historian.
"The Russian archivists now describe the period of 1991 to 1994 as 'the years of anarchy' when anybody could get anything they wanted," says Prof. Alexander Dallin of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a noted scholar of the Soviet Union. "Now they are reestablishing law and order."
Stanford's Hoover Institution, which in 1992 signed a $3 million contract to microfilm 25 million once-secret documents from the Soviet Communist Party archives, has suffered particularly badly from this trend.
Last December, Rosarchiv - the government body in charge of the documents - informed Hoover that it was canceling the contract. It was just a few days after the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) passed a law on "the international exchange of information" specifying that the export of archival material was subject to limitations.
After a protest, Hoover regained limited access to the archives for six months. Negotiations are continuing on the contract, but Hoover officials are not hopeful about regaining full access to the archives.
The restrictive law, which has yet to be approved by Yeltsin, prompted Rosarchiv director Rudolf Pikhoia to resign.
"The law was a manifestation of trends in society that had become clear by the end of 1995," he explains.
Professor Pikhoia retained his position on the government commission responsible for declassifying former Soviet Communist Party documents, however. That commission, he says is "more and more confronting situations where the law, such as the law on state secrets, is inapplicable in practice" because of security service objections.
The commission's efforts to declassify party documents about the persecution of Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, for example, have run into objections from the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB. The FSB says that the documents reveal operational methods. The documents remain classified.
Back to tea leaves
Meanwhile Kremlinology, the old art of "reading tea leaves" to figure out what was going on in the Soviet government, is being revived as the governmental decisionmaking process grows murkier.
General Rogozin, for example, the head of Yeltsin's shadow campaign team, normally runs a secret analytical center organized by his boss, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, who runs the Kremlin security service.
General Korzhakov, often described as one of the president's closest advisers, clearly has influence on policy far beyond security issues. But nobody outside the closest Kremlin circles knows just how he wields this influence - nor how many of the government's important decisions are made.
The early post-Soviet days are long gone, when policymaking was relatively transparent, accompanied even by some public debate.
Russian democrats, rallying around Yeltsin for next month's presidential elections despite their misgivings about his autocratic manner, describe the trend toward secrecy as a response to the rising pro-Communist tide in Russian society as a whole.
If Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov wins the election, they worry, government secrecy will only deepen.
But it is Yeltsin's administration that has created the mood, critics point out, and it is the current government that is to blame for "the social cost of indiscriminate secrecy in terms of public cynicism," says Steven Aftergood, an expert in government secrecy at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
"Openness leads to greater openness, secrecy leads to greater secrecy," warns Mr. Aftergood. "This is very important to which way the country is going to move in the future."
*Staff writer Daniel Sneider in San Francisco contributed to this report.