Black October, Part 2
A reader had asked me to record a kind of mini-podcast of my first Black October piece, and I said I would give this a shot. I did, but I found it extremely awkward and time-consuming to read aloud. It required multiple takes as I stumbled over words and I just don’t feel like editing it all together. On top of that, I already am on one podcast and don’t feel like doing another. Moreover, and more pretentiously, I’m a writer, not a radio broadcaster: I don’t want to contribute more to the death of literacy and attention-spans by providing digestible nuggets. I’ve already made sure these come in fairly easy-to-swallow form already: less than ten-minute long segments, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask you to try to read a little bit. It’s good for you. Sorry.
I have to apologize for something else, too: this was meant to be a one part, a and then a two part series, now it will be at least a three parter. Turns out there was a lot more to this than I originally thought. I also think since this history is not well-known in the West, it’s worthwhile to try to do it well. Now, I know a lot of you subscribe more for the commentary on contemporary events and topics than these historical deep dives, but don’t worry, that’s also coming.—
In Part 1, we looked at some of the structural and ideological features that led to Black October, the bloody denouement of the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, but I think t’s also worth taking note of the major personalities involved.
First, there is Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the Russian Federation’s first president. Yeltsin was born in 1931 in the Ural region of Russia to a family from the well-to-do peasant class known as “kulaks.” If you know anything about the Stalin era, that term will immediately jump out to you: The kulaks were targets of repression under Stalin’s agricultural collectivization campaign. Yeltsin’s grandparents were stripped of their farm and the family had to work in one of the collective farms that replaced the old system of privately owned land. His grandfather, Ignatii, was sent in to exile. His father, Nikolai, was sent to a labor camp for three years. Despite his family’s history with the regime, Yeltsin joined the Communist Party in the early 1960s, during the Krushchev thaw, out of what he described later as a sincere belief in the socialist ideal. There’s no reason to doubt Yeltsin on that account, but it’s important to note that the Party was the only game in town: if you were an ambitious young man with thoughts of a career, you become a Communist or you were nothing.
Yeltsin worked his way up through the party structures and gained a reputation as a very honest and hardworking manager in the Urals’ vast industrial combines. His probity and dedication gained him a job at the forefront of Gorbachev’s perestroika reform program: in Moscow, he would show up to do unannounced inspections, dressed down and fire corrupt officials, and fielded complaints from citizens. This made him something of a populist hero to ordinary Muscovites and formed the basis of his political reputation and career.
But Yeltsin also had personal struggles: his alcoholism is famous and is a bit cruelly still made fun of today. But he had were other troubles, as well. After a heated Politburo meeting, where Yeltsin demanded accelerated reforms and then came under violent denunciation from the rest of the central committee, he had a nervous breakdown and stabbed himself with a pair of scissors. Some sources refer to this as a possible suicide attempt. Mikhail Gorbachev had Yeltsin committed to a psychiatric hospital, which, in the Soviet era, was as much a punishment as a treatment, where he was forcibly injected with drugs. Then Gorbachev dragged from the hospital to go in front of the Central Committee again to apologize. This experience made Yeltsin intensely bitter and resentful of his old boss. Some even consider the break up of the Soviet Union to be the result of this vendetta, a product of Yeltsin’s desire to break and humiliate Gorbachev. For his part, Gorbachev’s guilt over the episode may explain his later toleration of Yeltsin. Great historical changes can’t be reduced to the characters of a couple individuals, but it seems reasonable to conclude Yeltsin learned a bitter lesson from this episode and it fueled his uncompromising attitude towards his political opponents.
Then there were Yeltsin’s former allies and his principle antagonists in the October crisis: Ruslan Imranovich Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Vladimirovich Rutskoy. Khasbulatov was born in 1942 in the area then known as the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, now known as the Chechen Republic. At the age of two, Khasbulatov’s entire family was deported to Central Asia during Stalin’s forced population transfer of the Chechens and Ingush people. This act, now widely recognized as a genocide, was intended to collectively punish the Northern Caucasian peoples for their largely imaginary collaboration with the German invaders. Like Yeltsin, despite Khasbulatov’s family’s terrible history with the regime, he joined the Communist Party as a young man and became a noted economist, with a particular focus on the capitalist West.
Khasbulatov was a key ally of Yeltsin’s during the collapse of the Soviet Union and as a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federative Soviet Republic one of the main drivers of Russia’s establishment as an independent country. Still, despite his Chechen roots, he firmly opposed the further devolution and independence of Russia’s constituent republics. In August 1991, he stood alongside Yeltsin on the balcony of the the House of the Soviets, also known as the “White House,” in their moment of triumph over the Soviet hardliners’ putsch attempt. But when Khasbulatov was elected as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, effectively “speaker of the house” of parliament, in October 1991, his relationship with Yeltsin deteriorated. Partially this was the result of a sincere difference in views: Khasbulatov, who had a degree in economics from the prestigious Moscow State University, grew increasingly skeptical of Yeltsin’s neoliberal economic reform program. But partially his opposition was due to the fact that he turned parliament into his personal power center and wanted the soviets to become the sovereign of Russia. Instead of allowing the body to become a forum for free debate and the formation of different political parties, he used the powers of his office to distribute resources, like foreign trips and limited office space, to reward his allies and punish his opponents, whipping the chamber into a centralized opposition to the presidency.
Facing down the putsch with Yeltsin and Khasbalatov during August 1991, was Aleksandr Rutskoy, Yeltsin’s vice president. Born in 1942, Rutskoy was a Hero of the Soviet Union, that is to say, he received the highest possible state military decoration for his service during the war in Afghanistan. There, as a an a pilot of an attack aircraft, he flew 428 combat sorties, and was shot down twice, once by a Pakistani F-16 when his plane veered over Pakistani airspace. The leader of the “reformist” Communists for Democracy group, Rutskoy was proposed as running mate by Yeltsin’s advisors perhaps as much for his dashing mustache as his ties to the old Soviet military-industrial establishment and appeal to the lingering conservative sentiment of the Russian public. Rutskoy’s connections with the military came in handy during the coup attempt of 1991: his calls to old buddies prevented a blood bath and wilted the putsch. But Rutskoy’s temperament proved to be problematic for his new role. Sent to negotiate gas prices with the government of newly-independent Ukraine, Rutskoy grew impatient and reminded his interlocutors that Russia was a nuclear power. His counterparts reminded him that Ukraine, which had not relinquished its nuclear weapons yet, was one as well. He also made a number of threats in regards to the Black Sea fleet docked at Sevastopol and Russia’s historical claim to the entire Crimean peninsula. It’s not fair or accurate to try to lay the blame of the Russia-Ukraine war at Rutskoy’s feet—again, there were bigger forces at work—but suffice it to say this was not a propitious start to relations between the two countries.
Rutskoy and Yeltsin first clashed over how to deal with the restive region of Chechnya. Sent down to deal with the Chechen leadership, Rutskoy again did not distinguish himself as a diplomat: he barked at them and called them “bandits.” The military-minded Rutskoy suggested a state of emergency and martial law to crush the rebellion. Yeltsin went along at first, but parliament revoked the state of emergency. Yeltsin obeyed. Rutskoy believed he caved and still advocated a harder line on Chechnya. The former Soviet Air Force colonel was not taking to liberalism. Then, in response to the economic reforms, Rutskoy migrated over to parliament’s side and away from his old pro-democracy Communist Party faction. When Rutskoy labeled the reform program, “economic genocide,” it was at the Congress of Civic and Patriotic Forces, a gathering of the “national-patriotic” movement. Other grievances aired at the Congress were about Russian claims on South Ossetia and Crimea. Some of Rutskoy’s old Communist supporters did not particularly appreciate his new nationalist turn. And some saw even darker shadows. “I think the Vice President has lost his authority by appearing here,” one attendee of the conference told The New York Times. “This smells of National Socialism.”
Anyway, this feels like an appropriate place to stop. Until next time.