Twenty years ago, on October 3–4, 1993, the conflict between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of the Supreme Soviet spilled into an armed confrontation on the streets of Moscow. Some call these events the “shelling of Parliament;” others maintain that they were about defeating an attempted communist and nationalist coup d’état. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza contrasts popular myths about the 1993 crisis with facts and with its actual chronology.

 

 

According to a narrative accepted by a significant part of the Russian opposition, the constitutional crisis of September–October 1993—the dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet by President Boris Yeltsin—launched Russia’s transition from democracy to authoritarianism and logically led to Putin’s Thermidor. This narrative can indeed seem attractive and in its own way logical (if one accepts the antihistorical approach of arranging past events to suit a political argument), easy to explain, even to international audiences, and, on top of it all, emotionally charged.

The trouble is that this narrative is untrue, and that it ignores not only the historical context but also the actual chronology of the September–October 1993 crisis, as well as the events that preceded and followed it.

The background to that conflict is most often explained as a confrontation between the president and Parliament over economic policy conducted between 1991 and 1993. There is some truth to this argument—the Congress and the Supreme Soviet that were led by “red directors” and the former Communist nomenklatura did indeed block, sabotage, or mutilate the president’s economic reforms, such as when they forced the government to conduct a voucher-based privatization process instead of a monetary one. But disagreements between Parliament and the executive are nothing unusual in a democracy. The real issue is that, unlike what its present-day apologists suggest, the Congress was not a symbol of parliamentarianism and democracy, but the last vestige of the illegitimate Soviet system established after the October 1917 coup d’état. It is not often mentioned that RSFSR people’s deputies’ elections in March 1990 were still held under Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which enshrined the one-party system and established the Communist Party as “the leading and guiding force of the Soviet society.” Eighty-six percent of the people’s deputies elected in 1990 were members of the Communist Party. Vitaly Vorotnikov, chairman of the presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, noted with some satisfaction that never before had the Communists achieved such superiority over nonpartisans in the republic’s legislature.

The Congress was not a symbol of parliamentarianism and democracy, but the last vestige of the illegitimate Soviet system.

With Russia’s pro-democracy movement on the rise in 1990 and 1991, the people’s deputies joined the popular wave, electing Boris Yeltsin as their speaker (with a majority of just four votes), adopting the Declaration of Russian Sovereignty, opposing the attempted hardline coup d’état in August 1991, and granting Yeltsin the authority to conduct economic reforms. But already in early 1992, with the political weakening of the president and the democratic movement, the majority in the Congress and the Supreme Soviet turned into the headquarters of hardline pro-communist forces.

Boris Yeltsin has often been called a strong and decisive leader. Yet during his nearly two-year confrontation with the Supreme Soviet, the Russian president showed a different side, constantly seeking compromises and shying away from conflict-prone decisions. In December 1992, the Kremlin and the Supreme Soviet reached a deal brokered by Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin: Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar would be dismissed, and lawmakers would agree to a referendum on the main principles of a new Constitution. Yeltsin delivered his side of the bargain—Gaidar was replaced by Viktor Chernomyrdin, a protégé of the “red directors.” But the Congress, after initially agreeing to hold a constitutional referendum on April 11, 1993, went back on its word. The deputies were happy with the status quo—the continued existence of Brezhnev’s 1978 Constitution that could be amended anytime the majority of the Congress wished. In 1992 and 1993, Kremlin librarians joked that they never had the up-to-date version of the Russian Constitution, since it was amended by the Congress so frequently. The joke was not funny. That situation had nothing to do with democracy or the rule of law.

 

Ruslan Khasbulatov (left) and General Albert Makashov (right), who led the armed assault on the City Hall and the Ostankino television center.

 

In April 1993, instead of a referendum on a new Constitution, the Congress called a referendum on public approval of Yeltsin and his economic policies. Before that, in March, the extraordinary 9th Congress of People’s Deputies had attempted to impeach the president, but the vote in favor of impeachment fell short by just 72 (with 689 votes needed to impeach Yeltsin, the proposal was backed by 617 lawmakers). Questions included by the deputies on the national referendum (despite the protests of the president and his supporters) were as follows: “Do you have confidence in the President of the Russian Federation, B. N. Yeltsin?” “Do you support the economic and social policy that has been conducted since 1992 by the President and Government of the Russian Federation?” “Should there be early elections for the President of the Russian Federation?” and “Should there be early elections for the People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation?”

The verdict from Russian voters was unambiguous. An overall majority of those who took part in the referendum—58.7 percent and 53.0 percent, respectively—expressed confidence in Boris Yeltsin and his economic reforms. Just over 50 percent of the voters rejected the idea of early presidential elections, while two-thirds—67.2 percent—backed the idea of holding early elections for Parliament. The people of Russia said “yes” to Boris Yeltsin and “no” to the reactionaries in the Supreme Soviet.

The president’s mistake was not that he signed Decree #1400, but that it was delayed by five months.

Yet the results of the referendum were all but ignored by both camps. Yeltsin continued to seek compromises and, despite calls from many of his supporters, refused to dissolve the Soviet Parliament—which, having received a mandate from the voters, he had every moral and political right to do. For its part, the Supreme Soviet declared the vote on the last two questions invalid (in the interpretation of the deputies and their allies in the Constitutional Court, those questions needed to achieve a majority of all Russian citizens, not of the ones who voted), while the results for the first two questions were declared politically irrelevant. Vladimir Bukovsky called the referendum “Boris Yeltsin’s hollow victory.” The conflict between the president and the Soviets went on. It was only on September 21, 1993, with his Decree #1400 that dissolved the Congress and the Supreme Soviet, that Boris Yeltsin finally decided to cut the Gordian knot of dual power that was doing such damage to the country. The president’s mistake was not that he signed that decree, but that it was delayed by five months.

A popular myth has it that the September 21 decree directly led to the shelling of the Moscow White House (seat of the Supreme Soviet) on October 4. Such a version of the events can only stem from ignorance or deliberate misinterpretation. Even after he had, it seemed, made the final decision, Yeltsin continued to seek compromise with his opponents. The government did not use force after the “White House defenders” spilled the first blood on September 23, when members of the Officers Union led by Stanislav Terekhov (“assistant to the defense minister,” according to the Supreme Soviet) conducted an armed raid on the military command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, killing a policeman and an elderly woman who looked out of her window. Nor did it use force after Supreme Soviet leaders began handing out weapons (including automatic weapons) en masse to their supporters.

The romanticized image of the “defenders of Parliament” has little in common with the actual composition of the crowds that gathered during those days by the Moscow White House and engaged in skirmishes with police on the streets of the city. They included members of communist and nationalist organizations, Stalinists from the Working Russia movement, fascists from the Russian National Unity group, militants from Transnistria and Abkhazia, and former operatives of the Soviet Riga OMON. Demonstrators by the White House chanted slogans against “traitors, Yids, and foreigners,” while monarchist symbols were displayed alongside communist ones. The eclectic political array was completed when the Soviet red flag and the black, yellow, and white flag of imperial Russia were simultaneously raised above the White House.

The confrontation entered its second week. No storming of the White House was attempted. On the contrary, on October 1, talks between the opposing camps began at the St. Daniel Monastery under the auspices of Patriarch Alexy II. In the early hours of October 2, the representatives of both sides (Sergei Filatov, Yuri Luzhkov, and Oleg Soskovets on behalf of the president; Veniamin Sokolov and Ramazan Abdulatipov on behalf of the Supreme Soviet) concluded “Protocol #1,” which provided for the gradual lifting of the blockade and the restoration of electricity to the White House, as well as the accounting and storing of unauthorized weapons that were being held in the building. But the deputies annulled the protocol on the same day, declaring that the requirement to account for the weapons was illegal and accusing Sokolov and Abdulatipov of “exceeding their authority.” Yuri Voronin, deputy speaker of the Supreme Soviet and a member of the Communists of Russia group, was named the new White House negotiator. The St. Daniel Monastery talks were scheduled to resume on October 3. The so-called “zero option”—that is, simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections—was considered the most likely outcome.

Shortly before 4 p.m. on October 3—around the time the talks at the monastery were supposed to restart—Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov addressed their supporters from the White House balcony. “Young people, battle-ready men! Form ranks here, in the left section; today we must storm and take over the [Moscow] City Hall and Ostankino [television center],” commanded the vice president. “I call on our valiant warriors to bring troops and tanks here in order to storm the Kremlin with the usurper, former criminal Yeltsin!” declared the speaker. “Yeltsin must be locked up in Matrosskaya Tishina [prison] today; his corrupt clique must be locked up in a dungeon!”

By ordering armed militants to storm peaceful civilian institutions, the leaders of the Supreme Soviet violated Russian and international law.

Armed brigades began forming near the twentieth entrance of the White House. Within an hour, Supreme Soviet supporters under the command of their “deputy defense minister,” General Albert Makashov, stormed the Moscow City Hall building adjacent to the Parliament. Faced with an armed offensive, police officers who were guarding City Hall did not put up any resistance. The doors of the building were smashed by seized police vehicles. The Soviet red flag was raised over the captured City Hall. An hour later, supporters of Rutskoi and Khasbulatov—including some 3,000 militants under Makashov’s command, armed with small weapons and grenade launchers—drove in buses and seized military vehicles to the Ostankino television center. There, around a thousand supporters of the Working Russia movement had already gathered, armed with construction equipment and truncheons seized from the police in an incident earlier that day, when a crowd of Supreme Soviet supporters broke through police lines near the Krymsky Bridge; three armored vehicles that had been seized after the storming of City Hall were also at the site, red flags flying over them. The attempted storming of Ostankino began with a truck breaking through the glass doors of the building. All television channels broadcasting from Ostankino went dark. The only channel still on the air was RTR, whose studios were situated at the reserve Shabolovka television center.

By ordering armed militants to storm City Hall and the television center—both peaceful civilian institutions—the leaders of the Supreme Soviet violated not only Russian, but also international law. As Vladimir Bukovsky emphasized at the time, “[Yeltsin’s] opponents did not make political mistakes—they committed criminal acts.”

“The people who call themselves defenders of the White House have used force, provoked bloody disturbances, massacres—and thus forfeited any right to call themselves defenders of the law, of democracy, and of the Constitution,” Grigory Yavlinsky said during an emergency RTR broadcast in the early hours of October 4, 1993. “Today, Yeltsin Boris Nikolaevich must use all the means at his disposal . . . to stop the use of force by fascist, extremist criminal groups, who have assembled under the auspices of the White House. . . . For the sake of the future, we must remove the violators from our streets, from our squares, from Ostankino, and throw them out of our cities.”

 

During the assault on the Ostankino television center.

 

What happened next is well known. The so-called “shelling of Parliament” on October 4 (blanks were fired at the empty top floors of the White House) was the tragic reckoning for the prior indecision and incoherence, for the president’s unwillingness to remove the last vestige of the Soviet system earlier, after his referendum victory in the spring of 1993. The “shelling” thwarted a civil war, which was already underway in Moscow and which threatened to engulf the rest of the country, and prevented the seizure of power by political forces in comparison to which Putin’s authoritarianism would have seemed like a stroll in the park.

A snap poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation on October 4, 1993, showed that 72 percent of Muscovites sided with President Yeltsin, with 9 percent supporting the Supreme Soviet.

It is absurd and grotesque to present the actions of the Russian president in October 1993 as a “coup d’état” or to compare them to those of General Pinochet’s junta, which abolished political freedoms in Chile and established a military dictatorship. Indeed, the opposite is true: by putting down the armed rebellion by communists, nationalists, and various other radicals, some of whom dreamt about restoring the Soviet Union, others about a nationalist dictatorship, and all of them about stopping Russia’s movement toward democracy, Yeltsin safeguarded the existence (for a few more years) of civic freedoms, multiparty pluralism, democratic elections, and independent media.

The “shelling” prevented a civil war and the seizure of power by forces in comparison to which Putin’s authoritarianism would have seemed like a stroll in the park.

On December 12, 1993, Russia held its first multiparty parliamentary elections since November 1917. That vote was won by the opposition. The elections in December 1995 resulted in an even more anti-Yeltsin Parliament, which, in the spring of 1999, fell only 17 votes short of impeaching the president. The fate of those who were defeated in October 1993 is telling. A number of former people’s deputies, including those actively involved in the confrontation (such as Sergei Baburin, Yuri Voronin, Nikolai Pavlov, Nikolai Kharitonov, and others), became members of the new State Duma. Also elected to the Duma was General Albert Makashov, whose work in Parliament will be remembered mostly for his promise to “take ten Yids to the underworld.” The leaders of the rebellion, who had called for forming armed squadrons and storming the Kremlin, were released from prison under a parliamentary amnesty in February 1994. In 1996, Alexander Rutskoi was elected governor of the Kursk region; in 1999, he was among the co-founders of the pro-Putin Unity Bloc, now known as United Russia. Ruslan Khasbulatov also faced no hurdles in attempting to return to national politics: in 1999, he ran for the State Duma from the Khabarovsk region but received only 5.85 percent of the vote.

There is no doubt that the fate of Boris Yeltsin’s supporters would have been very different had the other side won in October 1993.

Boris Yeltsin made many mistakes during his presidency. Among them was his refusal in 1991–1992 to conduct lustrations and hold a Nuremberg-style trial of the communist system and the KGB, which would have helped Russia to overcome its totalitarian past; the war in Chechnya; and, of course, his choice of a “successor” in 1999. Quashing the attempted armed rebellion in October 1993 should not be included on this list.

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