20 years under Putin: a timeline

The twentieth anniversary of the crisis of September–October 1993—the conflict between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet—is being widely discussed in the media. Historian Alexander Yanov, a scholar of Russian nationalism, offers his perspective on these events.



Radio Liberty recently broadcasted a program under the title, “Was the shelling of Parliament in 1993 the funeral of democracy?”

No doubt every reader has his or her own opinion on this subject. I, too, have mine. But first let us address the name of the radio program, in which all the key words that are used are obviously incorrect. First of all, there was no “parliament” in Russia in 1993. Such a parliament could not have existed without the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet. A parliament is an organ of a democratic state, which Russia in 1993 was not. For this reason, it would have been impossible to bury it.

The legislative branch of government, which in a democracy is called a parliament, shares power equally with the other branches: the executive and the judiciary. This system is referred to as the separation of powers, and no democratic state can exist without such a separation. The Soviet state denied this separation on principle as a bourgeois prejudice, incompatible with the “socialist democracy.” The Supreme Soviet was created under the slogan “All power to the Soviets!” and did not formally give up power until 1993. For this reason, the Soviet never recognized itself as one of the branches of government. Faithful to the principles of its historic predecessors, it considered itself the only authority.

Therefore it is understandable why the Supreme Soviet, formed by the Soviet Constitution, insisted to the end that there was no need for a new Russian constitution. It was enough to patch up the old one. I witnessed this reluctance firsthand. Before moving from Ann Arbor to New York, I kept a weighty folder with transcripts of the Supreme Soviet’s meetings (they were published in individual issues each week). Unfortunately, I threw them away, as they were an extra burden. But anyone can check my memory in the library: at the time, the Soviet talked about anything but the separation of powers. What does this mean?


Question on Question

One may ask why I have gotten hung up on procedural details if today, 20 years later, the dispute in question is not about them. The dispute is over whether Boris Yeltsin had the right to arbitrarily eliminate a parallel branch of government and arrange for it to be shelled (by tanks!) in the center of the capital. I'll answer this question with a question: What would you have done in his place in a situation in which the archaic Supreme Soviet, which never for a moment considered itself a “branch of government,” overthrew the elected president, appointed its own puppet president, and appealed to the armed forces of the country to return to the “constitutional” (i.e., Soviet, for there was no other constitution in Russia in 1993) order? The Supreme Soviet was ready, in other words, to get the country back to the state of the late Soviet Union—only with Rutskoi instead of Gorbachev at the helm. There only remained to capture the television center and declare to the city and to the world that Soviet power had returned—and what was not possible for the incompetent putschists in August 1991 was now doable for the “patriots” on this fateful night.

I was not in Moscow on that night, but I was glued to the TV screen. I saw every detail of what was happening through the eyes of reporter Judy Woodrow (now an anchor for CBS). I saw as Yeltsin’s helicopter landed in Red Square and he walked with his heavy, slow steps in the dark to the Spasskaya Gate, and I heard as Judy kept saying, with a tear, as if burying a friend: “Oh my God, he does not know yet that it's over.” I, like the others, did not know what would happen, but I was breathless with despair. I wanted to cry (and maybe I was shouting): “Hurry up, damn you, do something—you were able to do the impossible in that August!”

The Supreme Soviet was ready to get the country back to the state of the late Soviet Union—only with Rutskoi instead of Gorbachev at the helm. There only remained to capture the television center and declare to the city and to the world that Soviet power had returned.

That was the atmosphere of that night. A sea of ​​heads rose high around the Yuri Dolgoruki monument on Tverskaya Street. Gaidar called on the people to resist the return of Soviet power. Probably these were the same people who came in August 1991 to the White House. But the crowd could also be found at the White House—and they were armed. The police fled. Barkashov’s Blackshirts took over the show. They set upon the town hall nearby. And suddenly, out of nowhere, buses and trucks emerged. General Makashov called on an armed mob to storm the television center. A fight began. Guards fought back.


The Year of Premonitions and Confidence

Anyway, everyone saw these events. They would be interpreted later and in different ways, but I cannot complain; the CBS cameramen knew their business. Let’s focus, however, on a different story.

The year 1992, midway between August 1991 and October 1993—between, in other words, Coup d’Etat #1 and Coup d’Etat #2—is directly related to our topic. Not only because the reforms started this year and I was in Moscow, but also because it was the year when the gloomiest liberal premonitions surprisingly coincided with a perfect confidence in the victory of the future putschists.

Many people might remember these premonitions. That is because in the summer of 1992, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev publicly acknowledged that “for Russia, the last Weimar year is coming to en end.” The leading columnist of the Moscow News commented: “I ​​do not think that the conclusion of Andrei Kozirev, whose interview with Izvestiya for some reason made ​​a splash, was sensational, but for every thoughtful observer, it is obvious that what is happening now in our country is similar to Germany of 1933, when the democrats sided with the nationalists.” The young American analyst, now U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul said: “Inflation is no longer the Russian enemy number 1; fascism is.” Those were the premonitions.

Less well known is what happened on the other side. I know this only because I then had the chance to talk with some of the characters in the upcoming “shelling of Parliament”: Zhirinovsky, Prokhanov, Baburin, and Kurginyan (I still have the tape on which I recorded the interviews). And what they said in 1992 was really the same as the liberals’ premonitions. Kurginyan said, “In March and April of 1993, the national liberation movement will be in power.” Zhirinovsky said, “In March, Russia will have another political regime; the patriots will come to power.”

What was this different regime that all my interlocutors predicted so confidently? What could “patriots” have actually brought Russia under the guise of the conflict between the “branches”?


The Laboratory of the “Russian Idea”

The main ideologist of the two coups (past and future), Alexander Andreyevich Prokhanov, explained this to me in 1992 quite frankly. Here's a snippet of our conversation.

Prokhanov: What was done to us was a crime! Knocking on the head of an authoritarian empire’s democratic institutions—we were blown up, we were destroyed.
Yanov: But the same thing happened with Japan, I said, and nothing exploded.
Prokhanov: No, it wasn’t the same. In Japan, democracy has been under the control of American bayonets.
Yanov: But what do you do if there are not these bayonets?
Prokhanov: Give us, the Russian nationalists, immediate access to all the echelons of power, politics, and culture. And then we will control all this sullen, sealed-in mass of national energy—that soon will turn into explosive energy and become a national fascism.
Yanov: I did not say it, but you said that the “national energy of the Russian population” is a wild, brown energy. Do you really have confidence that “a thin coating of educated patriots,” as you call yourself and your friends, could cope with such energy? What guarantees that you who have this wild energy will not find more appropriate, “uneducated,” let's say, Nazi leaders who are stronger than you, and then they will see you as a liberal?
Prokhanov: As soon as they destroy the thin coating of Russian culture, the Russian monster will come out, the Russian fascism, and all this disgusting, shortsighted, devilish democratic culture will be swept away.
Yanov: You repeat yourself, my friend.

Since this duel lasted for more than two hours, I will not bore the reader with further details. And even without them, I think it is clear that Prokhanov was not a fascist, as Moscow liberals thought. He was a player, reckless and risky. And he sought power: tough, authoritarian, imperial—But traditionalist power. He could not stand democracy. He despised Khasbulatov and his deputies; he was sure that there was no one on whom they could rely apart from him and his “patriotic” crowd. But for some time, he was willing to tolerate their constitutional fuss. He knew who the boss in the house was. He was guided by the “national ideology,” a kind of Putin-like “state of civilization.” By what, “in our slang, we call the “Russian idea.”


Defenders Against Fascism?

So now we have visited the other side of the barricades. By visiting the laboratory of the Russian idea, we now know better how Russia would have looked if Yeltsin hadn’t decided to “shell Parliament” in 1993. Yes, it would resemble today’s Putin’s Russia, but with a very important difference. In 1993, the danger of fascism was real. The gloomy liberal premonitions didn’t just come out of nowhere; Prokhanov himself was afraid of the “Russian monster.” His trump card, the “thin coating of an enlightened patriotism,” was not a very reliable defender. Empirically, if you will, the proof of that came during the Congress of Civic and Patriotic Forces on February 8–9, 1992.

That Congress was organized by the “defectors” from the democratic movement, Viktor Aksyutchits and Mikhail Astafyev. On their part, it was a bold step, because in the eyes of the “patriots,” they—yesterday's democrats—appeared, of course, as “Jewish Masons.” But they believed in “enlightened patriotism” and that they somehow could manage to separate the traditionalist patriots from the Blackshirt savages and the red ichthyosaurs.

I was in the Russia movie theater for the opening day of the congress. At the entrance, “unenlightened patriots” were agitated, raising a forest of posters that intended to expose the “Democrat-Zionists” who were trying to ride in on the coattails of the “patriotic” movement. They shouted to delegates: “You were cheated!” “You were lured into a Yid’s trap!” But stalwart Cossacks, at that time still an exotic novelty in Moscow, guarded the cinema with whips, and the “unenlightened” did not dare to storm the doors.

However, had they been allowed admittance, they would not have found any such trap inside. The same newspapers were sold there as were sold in all other “patriotic” gatherings, including Russkoe vosrkesenie (“Russian Resurrection”) with its motto “One People, one Reich, one Fuehrer!” and the same pamphlets, including the Handbook of the Black Hundred Patriot. A huge poster was stretched across the entire lobby that read, “I'm sorry, crucified Russia!” In short, I found myself in the standard “Blackshirt” rally. The “unenlightened” felt at home there.

We know how Russia would have looked if Yeltsin hadn’t decided to “shell Parliament” in 1993. It would resemble today’s Putin’s Russia, but with a very important difference: in 1993, the danger of fascism was real.

The proceedings of the congress confirmed this impression. The audience met with silence the organizer’s speeches. The hall perked up only when Rutskoi came to the stage. The vice president was called upon to testify that the gathering was not composed of some obscure “Jewish Masons,” but of the country's supreme “patriots,” who were ready to lead a movement of “enlightened patriotism.”

Rutskoi spoke, although badly and inconsistently. Those who wrote his speech apparently did not count on a tense, electrified audience that was expecting a call to arms rather than academic descants. The hall was bored—but only until the speaker used an expression that was seemingly innocent for the “enlightened patriot” crowd: “national chauvinism and Blackshirt extremism must be left in the past. They have no place in a democratic movement.” And then the audience burst into thousands of stomping feet. People protested against the insult inflicted on them. In vain, the terrified Aksyutchits and Astafyev darted across the stage, appealing to the raging audience: “Respect the vice president of Russia!” At that moment, the crowd didn’t look like Prokhanov’s “thin coating of Russian culture” but more like angry lions facing Christian virgins in a cage. There was shouting from the audience: “Read such speeches in Tel Aviv!” “Go to the synagogue!” “Judas!”

They did not let Rutskoi finish. He left mid-sentence. More precisely, he escaped. That is how this historic experiment ended. Prokhanov’s defenders of the country against fascism—the “educated patriots”—were no different from the “uneducated” in the Ostankino.


Not for the Fainthearted

Not everyone knows that there were actually two attempts to storm the Ostankino. The first occurred on June 12, 1992. The crowd then demanded airtime on TV. “But,” the leaflet announcing the event added, the organizers did “not rule out the direct election of the president of the USSR.” When the guards did not let the crowd into the television center, in the blink of an eye, a tent city grew up around it. I will here note that in the same Radio Liberty program I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the American journalist said that the buses that appeared next to the White House for Makashov’s expedition into the Ostankino on October 4 were Yeltsin’s provocation to order that the armed “patriots” be fired upon. “Where else would they come from?” the journalist asked. And for some reason, no one asked him where the tents, portable toilets, and other paraphernalia that appeared during the siege of the television station on June 12, 1992, did come from. Keeping in mind that the most popular slogan of the rally was “Hang Judas Yeltsin!” it hardly seems reasonable to suspect him of sending them as provocation. But where, then, did the tents come from? From those same well-wishers that sent the buses?


Militants from Alexander Barkashov's "Russian National Unity" by the Moscow White House. October 1993.


Of course, taught by bitter experience, Rutskoi did not go to the Ostankino. General Makashov did. General Filatov, who accompanied him, later said with satisfaction: “People do not ask for bread anymore. They demand machine guns.” What for? Eduard Limonov explained: “We all are going to die, without a doubt, if we do not rise immediately to the national revolution.” For today's reader, it is difficult to imagine what was going on then in the Ostankino. Fortunately, Marina Hazanova left detailed notes of these “Patriot Games.” Her notes are long; one scene will be enough to reprint here:

“On both sides of the entrance [to the TV center] stood two rows of fellows; some of them were not standing firmly on their feet. They introduced themselves as representatives of the Russian Party. Each incoming and outgoing of the television station crew was addressed as “Yid.” While I was there, a girl of obviously Slavic appearance tried not to go through the gauntlet, but jump directly to the outside. No such luck; the party members held hands and drove the blue-eyed beauty through the entire corridor, crying “Yid!” Most went through the gauntlet in silence, trying not to look up. I stood there for half an hour and didn’t hear anything but “Yid, hit the road to Israel!” On my question, “What would you do if you don’t get the airtime on TV?” they answered unequivocally: “We’ll smash all the Yids.”

So let’s ask Limonov: What was this? The beginning of the “national revolution”? Or it was the embryo of Prokhanov’s “Russian monster”?


Two Confrontations

I write about the events of 1992 in such detail so that the reader will not be left with any doubt: I do not share the generally accepted theory that in Moscow in that tragic 1993, just one confrontation took place: between the president and the Supreme Soviet. No one argues that such a confrontation happened, but I think that this clash represented only the outward, superficial side of what was going on. If the generally accepted version is correct, then whatever decision Yeltsin made ​​then, the Supreme Soviet still would have won: now, 20 years later, the country has come back, albeit in a different form, to the same archetype of the Soviet autocracy that it then defended.

Yeltsin won the decisive confrontation: the “national revolution” failed. He saved Russia from fascism.

However, I proceed from the assumption that in 1993, another deep confrontation took place: between the president and Prokhanov’s “Russian monster” —and that Yeltsin won this decisive confrontation. The “national revolution” failed. As shameful and humiliating as today’s xenophobia is, it is nothing compared to what was happening in the Russia movie theater or in the Ostankino in 1993. That is inconceivable to imagine happening today. Yeltsin nipped the “Russian monster” in the bud. And he saved Russia from fascism.

I anticipate possible objections—Jewish emigration, riot police, OMON, a jump in oil prices, and the relative well-being that descended in the country—and a thousand more explanations for the disappearance of the “Russian monster.” But no one can erase from the history books how Barkashov’s Blackshirts, the symbol of the “Russian monster,” who were ready at night to celebrate their victory, in the next morning cowardly put their tails between their legs and ran through the sewers from the White House. Limonov will never write again what he wrote then.

In conclusion, I will provide a brief account of what preceded the “shelling of Parliament.” In 1993, the first issue of the Day, which was then the headquarters of the “national revolution,” opened with the editor’s New Year's words: “The year in which we enter will be remembered as the year of victory, physical, in the flesh, because we have already achieved the moral victory.” And indeed, as Zhirinovsky, Kurginyan, and Prokhanov promised, most of the Supreme Soviet voted to impeach the president on March 28. Alas, in the absence of a two-thirds majority, without which the impeachment was invalid, 72 votes were not enough. They had to agree to a referendum. And here they were certain of victory: the people were behind them. In the words of the familiar defector Mikhail Astafev: “Yeltsin won’t win the referendum, even if his supporters try to rig the results of the voting.” Alas, again, they confused the people with the crowd of “patriotic” activists. Yeltsin won the referendum by “a knockout,” in the words of Sergei Adamovich Kovalev.

Then they moved on to blackmailing. The Supreme Soviet insisted on the economic measures package, which was obviously unacceptable to almost all the major economists of the country and was seen as a counter-reform. Yeltsin responded with decree #1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. The Soviet responded with coup number two. The rest is known. It remains to repeat the question posed at the beginning of this article: if you were in Yeltsin’s place, what would you have done in this situation?