Black October, Part 4
Tragedy or Farce?
Thanks for reading what became this unexpectedly long series on the Russian constitutional crisis of 1993. If you missed the beginning and want to catch up: Part 1 gives an overview and sets the stage, Part 2 looks at some of the leading characters, and Part 3 looks at the days of the coup attempt itself. Now, I’m planning to look at the end of the crisis and examine the meaning of the event. Next, I may do a series on the 1948 war and the foundation of the State of Israel, because people seem woefully misinformed about the actual history there, but I also don’t want to contribute more noise to this awful time. We’ll see.
We left off in the early morning of Monday October 4, 1993. Boris Yeltsin and his generals had signed off on a plan to retake the House of Soviets, now the redoubt of the forces of a rebel Russian parliament. According to some sources, the Chiefs of Staff, still reluctant to use its troops against civilians in the capital of their own country, required a good deal of convincing from Yeltsin. Apparently, the president personally assured Defense Minister Pavel Grachev he would take personal responsibility for the fall out.
Hesitation on the part of the military may have been more political than humanitarian. The memory of the bloody Civil War that took place after the October Revolution of 1917 also stuck out in people’s minds: the military leadership hesitated to fire the first shots of what could be a new civil war. Although the momentum seemed to be swinging back to the government from the insurgents, no one was quite sure how things might shake out. In the night, there had been disturbing reports that units from the Army had defected to the side of the rebels. In fact, according to Grachev, it was just a few soldiers. But more had simply left their posts and weapons behind. Mass defection or abandonment of duty by soldiers and police is usually a sign that an actual revolution rather than just a revolt is in the offing.
In the White House, Ruslan Khasbulatov was aware that several columns of troops were rolling into Moscow, but told the deputies huddled within that it wasn’t clear whom they were rushing to aid. Of course, his earlier declaration that they’d taken the Ostankino television complex and were on their way to the Kremlin proved to be overly optimistic. Still, when the tanks and armored personal carriers started rolling into position around the House of Soviets at around 6:45 am, there was some question which side they were on.
Any doubt would’ve been cleared up by 7 a.m, when the troops demanded the surrender of the White House: “This is your last chance, and the only possibility to save Russia and her citizens.” Then, the shooting started. Grachev would later claim that there was not a specific order to fire, but rather that his troops were returning fire from within the building. This seems a little dubious since they developed a specific plan to use force to resolve the crisis. At 9 a.m., Yeltsin finally appeared on television and declared, “The armed fascist putsch in Moscow will be crushed."
A note here on the use of the f-word: Many American political commentators complain about the overuse of the word fascism in the discourse, claiming it is more an expression of emotion than an descriptive label of any recognizable political tendency and that its use confuses more than clarifies. Well, in Russia, the situation is even more confusing: the fascists call you fascist. I’m joking, of course, but the term does require some analysis. Yeltsin had some good reason to use the label: the mélange of extreme nationalism and distorted socialist ideas the National Salvation Front professed could be fairly labeled fascist. In fact, many of its members, either at the time or later, called themselves fascist. And certainly the National Unity group, whose flag had an actual swastika on it, deserved the sobriquet. Many of the demonstrators shouted antisemitic slogans. But at the same time, many of the demonstrators, especially the old Communists, who showed up to protest Yeltsin denounced him and his power grab as “fascist.” For Russians, who either survived the Great Patriotic War or grew up on its myth, the word “fascist” doesn’t evoke a concrete political and historical phenomenon so much as the forces of darkness itself: an almost primeval notion of “enemy.”
At 10 a.m, another call to surrender went unheeded and the Army evidently put into motion its plan: tanks began to shell the upper floors of the House of Soviets. This was to cause panic in the floors below and hopefully encourage the defenders to abandon their posts. Not long after the shelling started, elite counterterrorism units under Yeltsin’s direct control entered the building and started to engage in firefights with the militias inside. In the meantime, curious Muscovites started to gather to see what was going on. Many of them stood on the Novoarbatsky Bridge, intermingling with the troops and tanks firing on the building. Many brought their families and snapped photos, other hectored the troops or cheered the shell bursts, and argued with each other about who was responsible for the violence. The crowds would inch closer to the action and then have to scatter when volleys of gunfire were exchanged. Several bystanders would be killed: it is unclear whether by stray gunshots or the deliberate targeting of civilians.
Within the House of Soviets, the situation was growing dire. Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, and the deputies were exhausted, after a week of huddling in the building with no power. They were a little shocked that Yeltsin had actually gone through with it. Unarmed counter-terrorism officers tried to negotiate a surrender again. Rebuffed, they returned fully kitted up with all their fearsome tactical gear. Almost like a children’s game, cease-fires would be called and then called off when a sniper would take a potshot. Gradually, the defender’s will to resist was worn down. But the first mass surrender on the parliamentary side were not the hardened militia men. A group of babushkas clutching their shopping bags was allowed to leave the compound under guard. They were likely just Soviet nostalgists, who had joined the protests and then gotten trapped inside the barricades. By 6 p.m., parliament’s shadow ministers of defense, interior, and security gave up. A few minutes after that, Khasbulatov and Rutskoy, who had not 24 hours ago declared he would fight to the death, were lead out of the building by government troops. They would be put on a bus to Lefortovo prison. The fires on the top floors of the White House were left to burn out, leaving behind a charred skeleton.
So much for the coup, but what of the Russian people? Both sides claimed to be fighting on their behalf and with their support. What did they think? The picture is ambivalent. On the one hand, Yeltsin believed he had a mandate granted to him in the April referendum. But polling showed less enthusiasm for his unconstitutional dissolution of parliament: only about 43 percent liked that. And even fewer people approved of the blockade of parliament and its storming, about 20 percent for each. The picture is confused, though: one poll showed 70 percent support for Yeltsin and his decisions. This should be taken with a grain of salt: that poll was commissioned by the government.
Neither side rallied great numbers of protestors to go out into the streets. The pro-parliamentary mob numbered around 10,000, and the pro-Yeltsin counter-demonstration probably was around the same size. This might not sound like small amounts of people, but this is a big difference from the masses who took to the streets in August 1991 to reject the coup attempt. In 1993, these were committed partisans, not the people at large. Struggling under the painful transition to a market society which seem to just reward the unscrupulous and downright criminal, Russians had grown cynical and apathetic rather than mobilized in anger. And they were probably genuinely ambivalent about who was in the right: Neither side had a perfect case, legally or politically, and neither option was particularly appealing. This apathy and ambivalence would become a permanent feature of Russian society. As Richard Sakwa writes, “Whereas the parliamentary side required positive commitment, apathy and neutrality worked to the president’s advantage, but alienation is not a good basis on which to build a political system.” Indeed.
In the aftermath of Black October, Yeltsin moved quickly against the opposition. Under the aegis of the state of emergency, the National Salvation Front was banned along with several other organizations. The NSF newspaper Dyen was shuttered, along with Pravda, the old Communist newspaper, which was considered to be a relatively reasonable voice of the Left. Arrest warrants were issued for the Viktor Anpilov and Ilya Konstantinov.
On October 5, forty-two prominent members of the intelligentsia signed a letter in Izvestia under the headline, “Writers demand decisive actions of the government:”
We have neither the desire nor the need to comment in detail on what happened in Moscow on 3 October. What happened was something that could only take place due to our and your stupidity and lack of concern — fascists took up arms, trying to seize power. Thank God, the army and the law enforcement organs were on the people's side, did not split, did not allow the bloody adventure to develop into fatal civil war, but what if?… We would have had no one to blame but ourselves. We "compassionately" begged after the August putsch not to "take revenge", not to "punish", not to "ban", not to "close down", not to "engage in a witch hunt". We very much wished to be good, magnanimous, tolerant. Good… Towards whom? Murderers? Tolerant… Towards what? Fascism?
They demanded the banning of nationalist and communist groups and paramilitaries and the censorship of their publications. They also called for “Legislation providing for heavy sanctions for propaganda of fascism, chauvinism, racial hatred…” The government didn’t really need the intellectuals’ ideas: they started doing these things immediately in the hours after the coup attempt was put down. Also, despite the call for “heavy sanctions for…chauvinism and racial hatred,” Moscow police took advantage of the state of emergency to round up and deport the Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris that many Muscovites blamed for the crime wave.
Without the meddling of the Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin was able to institute his new constitution. There was to be a bicameral legislature, with a lower house, the State Duma, with 450 deputies, and an upper house like the U.S. Senate, the Federation Council, consisting of two representatives from each of the Russian Federation’s constituent 89 “federal subjects” — its 48 republics, 24 oblasts, nine krais, three federal cities, four autonomous okrugs, and one autonomous oblast. The constitution would also have a very strong executive: the president would have extensive decree-making powers and would be extraordinarily difficult to impeach; it would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber. The president could only be impeached for crimes like treason, and not for constitutional breaches. In Yeltsin’s call for “order,” the stage was set for the president of the Russian Federation to have essentially dictatorial powers.
In the run up for the elections for parliament slated for December, the state media shamelessly plugged Russia’s Choice, the party that supported Yeltsin’s reforms most strongly. It didn’t really help much: despite cracking down on opposition groups, voters delivered a stunning rebuke of Yeltsin. Russia’s Choice, lead by Yegor Gaidar, the author of “shock therapy” won 62 seats in the State Duma. But it was total overwhelmed by the protest vote that was split between the Communist Party, lead by Gennady Zyuganov, — 42 seats —, and the Liberal Democratic Party, lead by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, — 63 seats. The Liberal Democratic Party is perhaps the most misleadingly named party in the history of politics: it is, in fact, an extreme nationalist and right-wing populist party. It’s leader, Zhirinovsky, was a loathsome, menacing buffoon, whose antics included offering the distribution of free vodka. He had supported the August 1991 coup attempt. He also called for reversing the break up of the USSR and promised the reconquest of the Baltics, Ukraine, Kakazhstan, Turkmenistan, and even parts of Finland. Although he freely engaged in antisemitic invective, he himself was of partly Jewish descent, and Muscovites remembered the beginning of his public career as the director of a Jewish group called “Shalom.” Zhirinovsky and LDP avoided the post-Black October crackdown because he had stayed aloof from the National Salvation Front, displaying the shrewd instincts for self-preservation behind his loutish façade that would ensure his long survival on the Russian political scene.
For the first real election of a new democracy, the turnout was quite meager — 53 percent. Of those, some 58 percent voted in favor of the new constitution. A fairly small portion of the total electorate showed real buy-in to the new system. Again, here’s some strong evidence of the apathy that would come to characterize the general Russian public.
There is a lot more to Russian history in the past 30 years than one event, but it is remarkable how much of the conditions Russia have been a kind of frozen image of the political situation of the October coup. Think about it: Russia today has the trappings of a democracy, but has an overly-strong presidency, willing to use violence and illegal means to accomplish its ends, it has a largely apathetic public, and whatever pressure remains on the government comes from Soviet nostalgists and extreme Russian nationalists. The calls for revanchism towards the old empire are now policy, to disastrous effect. The market reforms of Gaidar impoverished many Russians, embittering them towards Western-style governance, and enriched others, making their main political interest holding onto their often ill-gotten wealth.
Everyone and no one got what they wanted. The coup may have failed in the moment, but over the longer-term it was successful: the plotters wanted a nationalist-minded strongman and they unwittingly created the conditions for it: a strong state and national-socialism as the only real opposition. In exile on St. Helena, Napoleon remarked that in 50 years, Europe would be republican or Cossack. By this he meant it would either be democratic or under the yoke of Russian-style autocracy. In the 18th Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon, Marx quipped that the coup of Napoleon III had accomplished a synthesis: a “Cossack republic.” You might say something similar of the Russian state today, birthed as it was by the conditions of the October coup.
In the 18th Brumaire, Marx also wrote of one of his most famous lines: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Was Black October tragedy or farce? In a way, it’s a farcical replay of Red October, the Bolshevik coup of 1917, which set the stage for far greater tragedy. But the priority gets reversed here, too. It also was a more tragic replay of the August coup attempt of 1991: that seemed to be the birth of a new democracy as the masses and its leaders faced down a military coup. But in 1993, it could be argued that Russian democracy came to its premature end: people who stood together on the barricades of August became enemies and no side was committed to resolving the dire crises of the country without recourse to violence. And no side could really be said to represent much more than a faction or clique: at best, they each represented a very limited mass movement.
Could things have been done otherwise? Could the parties involved have tried to resolve their disputes peacefully and compromised? Maybe. Of course, it’s not good to be overly fatalistic: Politics and history are always contingent, but tragedy always denotes a sense of fate and inevitability. It seems likely that the forces involved would’ve come into eventual crisis, conflict, and resolution in one or way other. In a farce or comedy, the characters are marked by weaknesses and foibles. In this story, there’s certainly plenty of that.
I’ve found that much of the commentary on Black October that currently exists, from both Western and Russian sources, to be terribly tendentious in both directions. Either Yeltsin was a hero who faced down fascists and communists, or Yeltsin was himself the fascist for using force on a duly elected, constitutional body, that was just reacting to his own power grab. Naturally, many would prefer to ignore certain actual facts of the situation in order to give their own spin on it. They downplay the disastrousness of the economic policy, or the truly fascist character of a lot of the opposition to that terrible policy, as well as the many irresponsible and illegal actions of both sides. Both tragedy and farce suggest a lack of good options: in a tragedy, there’s a predetermined, fated outcome, in a farce, everyone involved is short-sighted and self-serving. So, was this a tragedy or farce? It was, like most things, a little bit of both.