The old woman gave a bag of apples to the conscript patrolling outside her apartment building on Nikonovsky Lane. Then she darted back into her booth on the ground floor to continue her own watch for potential terrorists.

"Come in," she invited me. "I'll put the kettle on."

Zoya Konstantinovna Baruzdova explained that she had been guarding her building, in the booth paid for by fellow residents, since 1996, when thieves broke in and stole cooking oil and sugar--commodities that poor Russians can ill afford to lose. So when a wave of terrorism swept Moscow recently, Baruzdova was the obvious person to take responsibility for additional house security.

"I'm not afraid of the terrorists," the pensioner explained to me. "Anyway, if anything happens, I can rely on that young lad out there to save me."

Clearly, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was correct when he said "misfortune brings people together." After last month's nighttime bombs, which demolished four apartment buildings, killing nearly 300 people as they slept in their beds, this is the new spirit of unity here.

Now, as Moscow punishes Chechnya for the bombings it blames on the separatist territory's Islamic militants, Russia's squabbling politicians have put aside their differences, and normally cynical citizens have united behind the government. The effect may be temporary, but, bearing in mind that the cohesion of postwar Soviet society was artificial, it is probably true to say that Russians--and certainly those in major cities--are more united today than at any time since they resisted the Nazis. The question is how they will use this newfound national solidarity.

After nearly a decade of bungled reform, there is nothing Russia needs more than a reason to stand tall. But if finding an enemy is the prerequisite for a sense of common purpose then the country may be doomed to repeat its tragic history.

I can understand the Russians' emotional reaction to the bombs, two of which were set off in working-class suburbs of Moscow and two in the southern towns of Buinaksk and Volgodonsk. The Moscow bombs left my friends and neighbors terrified--terrified to go out, lest there were explosions in public places, and even more terrified to stay in their own homes. After fear came the natural, defensive reaction of anger.

That anger was strong enough to bring Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his arch-rival, Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, together in emergency talks in the Kremlin. Even more astonishingly, it moved the normally obstructive state Duma, the lower house of parliament, to give carte blanche to the government to fight terrorism. Putin's angry response caused his popularity rating to soar.

One would have to be very cynical to believe, as some conspiracy theorists have suggested, that the Kremlin might have manufactured the whole emergency for its own dark purposes. It is true, however, that the situation has had a beneficial side effect for the government.

Overnight, the embarrassing scandal about whether Russian money was laundered through the Bank of New York was forgotten. Focus in the Russian media changed to covering the rescue teams combing the rubble, and the desperate relatives searching for their loved ones in hospitals and morgues.

Luzhkov, who allowed survivors to jump to the top of the years-long housing queue and move into brand-new flats, won kudos in Moscow. The political future looks even brighter for the tough-talking Putin.

When Yeltsin appointed him in August to be the latest in a string of prime ministers, many Russians looked upon the former KGB operative with pity and contempt. Endorsement from the unpopular Yeltsin was supposedly the kiss of death for any aspiring politician.

Now, having caught the public mood and conveyed a tougher image than his thoughtful predecessor, Sergei Stepashin, Putin is among the three politicians said by opinion pollsters to have a realistic chance of winning the presidency.

Putin is a stickler for discipline. Discipline and alertness, discipline and alertness, these are the watchwords being drummed into Russians to encourage them to strengthen their own security.

We are all learning to live with that reality. In Ryazan, the Federal Security Service went so far as to plant a dummy bomb in a high-rise building. Terrified residents, including pregnant women, frail old people and invalids, were evacuated in the middle of the night. The citizen who had spotted the "bomb" won a medal. Only the next day were the residents told that the drama had been a training exercise. The message that Russians are expected to take away from all this is that the security forces cannot be expected to do everything, that members of the public should be watchful, too.

Nobody wants another blast. Indeed, if some vigilant citizen had tipped the police off to strange men renting commercial storage space and carrying sacks of what looked like sugar into the buildings that were destroyed, perhaps the explosions could have been prevented.

Following Putin's lead, police have given instructions that every apartment building should now have a starshaya or "house senior" like Baruzdova. In practice, not all residents have organized themselves but many buildings have a busybody, self-appointed or accepted by the lazy majority, who watches for "strangers" and warns the police of suspicious activity. The seniors tend to be pensioners with time on their hands and are often, although not always, women. Yet there is something sinister about reviving the Stalin-era methods of using informers.

"There is a foreigner living in there," I heard a man's voice say in the corridor outside my flat, seconds before the doorbell rang on the day after one of the Moscow bombings. I opened the door to Sergei Bocharev--the local uniformed constable--and a criminal investigator in a leather coat whom I didn't recognize. They asked to see my passport and a copy of my rental contract. Luckily, my landlady is not among those who evade taxes and refuse to make written agreements with her tenants. My passport was also of the right kind--British. The police saluted and left.

The police have been giving a harder time to the thousands of immigrants from the Caucasus--not only Chechens but also Dagestanis, Azeris, Georgians and Armenians--who live in Moscow. It would be racist to say that all ethnic Russians are racists, but many despise these dark-haired, swarthy people, whom they call "blacks." Hatred stems in part from the fact that the southerners dominate the trade in fresh fruit and vegetables, which poor Russians, long undernourished on a diet of potatoes and macaroni, cannot afford.

Ever since the bombs, the whole Caucasian community has become suspect, rather as the Irish in England were mistrusted during the terrorist campaigns of the IRA. I lived in London then. I remember perfectly pleasant Englishmen suddenly frothing at the mouth when the subject of Ireland came up. "We should nuke them," they used to say, just as many decent Russians advocate an atomic solution to the problem of Chechnya. At the root of this bluster is fear. That is understandable.

What is worrying is that emotion is becoming the basis for policy. For example, Luzhkov has ordered all "guests" (who only hold temporary residence permits) to re-register if they wish to stay in Moscow. In Soviet times, citizens were required to have a propiska, or residence permit, and the number of permits for Moscow was limited. But the new Russian constitution guarantees citizens the right to live wherever they choose. The mayor's requirement to re-register is just the propiska system by another name.

My husband, Costya, was not at home when the police visited our apartment. He was glad; he comes from St. Petersburg and does not have a residence permit to live here. As an ethnic Russian, he probably would have had to pay a small fine if the police had caught him.

Already, some 20,000 Caucasians have been refused re-registration and told to return to their places of origin. They have been warned that if they do not leave voluntarily they will be forcibly deported. My Azeri neighbors have disappeared. I presume they have taken the train to Baku, without waiting for a ride in a bus with a police escort.

Emotion is also propelling Putin toward a new, all-out war with Chechnya. Russian troops are fighting on the northern lowlands as Chechen civilians stream out to refugee camps in neighboring regions. Putin has held talks with Chechen politicians in exile, suggesting that Moscow intends to impose a puppet government if and when it controls sufficient Chechen territory.

Misfortune is coming to Chechnya. And misfortune will bring people there together, too. The Russians will find themselves in a fight to the death with Chechen guerrillas, who will cast aside their differences in defense of their homeland. The body bags will start coming back to Russia. And what then of Russian unity?

As always, when the majority is enthusiastic, a few dissident voices whisper. "Our unity is the unity of idiots," said Vitaly, a Russian friend, whose 18-year-old son has been conscripted. "It is the unity of people whose own children are not in danger of being sacrificed at the front."

I am helpless to reassure him. I have lived here for nearly 12 years, time enough to feel a sense of deja vu--and to know that if anything can go wrong in this long-suffering country, it usually will.

Helen Womack is a freelance journalist who works regularly for the Independent of London, the BBC and the Moscow Times. She has lived in Russia almost continuously since 1985.