Contrary to my habit, I have to begin with the information that concerns me personally. The subject obliges. An inevitable question: what did this writer do on October 3-4, 1993? The answer is: I was at work in the office of the newspaper Segodnya whose position I shared. Despite my critical attitude to political violence, President Yeltsin and his entourage, it was clear that he must be supported.
How? Against parliament! How could we dare? The point is there was no parliament in Russia at the time. There was the Supreme Soviet, a rudiment of Soviet power, and the presidency, an institution of new democratic statehood. This detail is important, for it shows fundamental differences between the 1993 crisis and other political conflicts in Russia.
All these conflicts are, of course, clashes of clans and groupings inside the elite. It is a struggle for power which does not derive from a social contract in Russian political culture, has (let me philosophize a little) autonomous ontological status, and does not depend much on what is known as its social stronghold. Power is the stronghold of the entire society, not the other way round.
The social structure of this society is determined, above all, by the degree of proximity to the authorities. There can be no self-sufficient social status. Therefore, no middle class in a full-fledged sociopolitical and socio-cultural sense of the word can ever emerge in Russia. It is inherent in the middle class to depend on the authorities as little as possible in comparison to other social groups – so who will allow this to happen?
Every time clans come into conflict a concerned citizen has to choose which side s/he should sympathize with. And, for the sake of precise self-identification, one must compare the actions of various clans with something great, which these clans never ponder over.
October 1993 was the apex of a conflict that had lasted since the days of Gaidar’s reforms. The latter immediately showed that consolidation of the elites was impossible. They also showed that the main paradox of that period was wealth of the country and dire poverty of the population. This provoked redistribution of nobody’s property that cost nothing. It is totally wrong to call the 1990s nouveaux riches thieves. They were raising nobody’s property from ruins. I am not the first to say that UKOS went through zero capitalization.
The followers of Yeltsin and Gaidar tend to portray them as priests in white attire. It is not true, of course. In all probability, Gaidar signed an unlawful permission to export nonferrous metals, which helped Sobchak and Putin enrich themselves. So what? The great reformer Witte also had the reputation of a corruptionist. But Gaidar was orientated to Western-style democracy and supported by the new governmental institutions, while his adversaries clung to the rudiment of Soviet power and stooped to a political alliance with the fascist organizations that existed in Russia at the time.
The latter fact was the grounds for many to support Yeltsin or at least observe political neutrality.
The details of those events are well known but are deliberately distorted sometimes. It must be recalled that the horrible and nightmarish shelling of parliament, where opposition fighter established themselves, occurred after the attempt to seize the Ostankino TV center. Having abandoned the killed and wounded, the rebels came back to Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment, where they sang and danced, hoping to launch a new attack in the morning. But the troops loyal to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief were moved into Moscow at night.
This news calmed those who had gathered in front of the Moscow City Hall and were ready to take up arms to defend the president, as they did in August 1991. It was Gaidar who called on people to come to Tverskaya Street. Nobody knew this was the last time the president’s government was turning to the people for help. The 1996 election campaign was a totally different case. Since October 1993, the government and the people have had a separate existence. Admittedly, not only the government should be blamed for this, but it is a totally different subject.
Soviet power was formally and legally put an end to in October 1993, even though force was used. This was a great historic achievement which failed to further develop in the right direction. As before, politicians have been interpreting politics as conspiracy of the elites against the populace (the term is not mine). But the elites restructured and had their property redistributed peacefully, when many attributes of democracy remained intact. In the first years of the 21st century, the elites rallied together on the basis of the monopoly of one clan’s power. From then on, democracy was of no need.
This could be the end of the story were it not for quite a natural question about the connection between the events in Moscow and the situation in the former Soviet republics. An attempt to look into this will make it possible to get a better idea of domestic political problems.
The main participants into the events did not focus on relations with neighbors. Of far greater importance was the preservation or seizure of power in the country. And redistribution of property in Russia was also high on the agenda. The rebellious Supreme Soviet ratified the Bela Vezha Agreement not because it was aware of its historic importance but because it understood that it was no longer possible to hold sway and grab property on the former USSR scale.
We must admit one more thing to which historians and political scientists do not pay much attention but which had a fatal effect on the further destiny of Russia and the still-inexistent Russian nation. The groundwork for Putin’s current doctrine was laid immediately after the collapse of the USSR, well before the October crisis. Such things as aggressive policy towards Georgia and Moldova, support for local separatists, and failure to recognize the sovereignty of former Soviet republics occurred in 1992. In the spring of 1993 Tajikistan delegated to Russia’s border security forces the authority to guard the border with Afghanistan and China. This was done by the people who came to power in Dushanbe thanks to Russian military assistance.
In February 1993 Gazprom cut short the supply of gas to Ukraine for 24 hours, which was a precursor to Putin’s gas wars ten years later. In 1992 Moscow seriously treated the Crimea as a likely hotbed of separatism.
Yeltsin and his inner circle performed a historic exploit by liquidating the USSR, but they offered no new concept of Russia’s and Russian people’s development in a new state. They ignored this altogether. The same also applies to the intellectual elite. As a result, the policy towards the former Soviet republics began to be determined not by Russia’s national interests, which were never spelled out, but by the pretensions of various business groups, with the uniformed services ruling the roost.
And October 1993 changed nothing in this respect.
Officially, the October events left at least 157 people dead and 384 wounded. The rumors of mass-scale executions and burials, particularly at the neighboring stadium (like in Chile), were never confirmed.
Levada Center has conducted a poll about the current attitude of Russians to those events. More than a third of the respondents (35 percent) do not think that either Yeltsin and his team or the Supreme Soviet members with Ruslan Khasbulatov at the head and Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi were right. Asked “Who do you think was right on October 3-4, 1993?” most of those polled said “neither of the sides.” Eleven percent sided with the Supreme Soviet and seven percent with Yeltsin.