October '93: A Loss of Innocence

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Russian tends to be more precise with its metaphors than English and I like the way Russians say "out of a blue sky" instead of merely "out of the blue."

That is a good way of describing how the bloodshed of October 1993 burst upon us, all the more so as it happened on two of those blue-skied fall Moscow days when the northern light is so golden it almost has the consistency of syrup.

Oct. 3-4 marked a sudden loss of innocence for the new Russia. Whatever the reasons for the violence -- and I think the blame should be shared equally between President Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet -- a bad precedent was set.

For a while, most of us did not realize that. On a personal level there was the relief and thrill that my friends and I had been through the fire and lived to tell the tale (I did not know the brave British cameraman, Rory Peck, who died at Ostankino on Oct. 3). But even that fine conviction turned to dust in my mouth six years later, when Sander Thoenes, my fellow Moscow Times reporter, with whom I escaped the bullets at Ostankino, was tragically killed by a bullet in East Timor.

And as far as Russia as a whole is concerned, too many of us bottled up our initial shock at the violence and hoped it was the end of something, not the beginning -- after all "the power struggle" was now finally over. But in retrospect, it is clear that Oct. 3-4 took Russia into a new and sinister phase. Specifically, it helped make possible the war in Chechnya a year later. Yeltsin had used violence for political ends once, and he found it easier to do so the next time.

Remember that the death toll of the previous White House siege in August 1991 was precisely three: three young men crushed to death by armored vehicles on the Garden Ring. And that Yeltsin then publicly begged for forgiveness from the Russian people for causing their deaths. In 1993, more than 100 people died and he said nothing.

But back to the golden afternoon of Oct. 3. I was on a Sunday afternoon walk with my friend Sergei, when we crossed the Garden Ring not far from the Pekin Hotel. Suddenly we watched in amazement as a truck full of motley, overcoated men waving red flags and banners, seemingly escorted by an armored car, came past us on the road. It was inexplicable; had the Communists just seized power again? Only later did we learn the bizarre truth: The armored car and the truck were actually on competing sides of the same battle and were racing one another along the busy streets of Moscow.

We went to Sergei's family's apartment nearby and I called my editor, Marc Champion. "All hell's broken loose," he told me. The White House defenders had broken their siege and were heading for the Ostankino television station. "We need someone at Ostankino," Marc said.

I grabbed a notebook from the table by the telephone, and Sergei and I went out and caught a taxi to the war. We arrived at the television center to find Sander Thoenes as well as and an exultant crowd of Supreme Soviet supporters, some carrying riot shields and truncheons they had liberated from policemen earlier in the day. The mustachioed figure of General Albert Makashov ranged around, urging them on in Bolshevik style through a megaphone.

Later the newspapers called this a "coup d'?tat" or a "putsch." It was in the interests of both sides to use this kind of language, but that is not how I remember it. It was not that the White House rebels lacked the intention of doing harm or seizing power -- just the means. In a large crowd I spotted less than a dozen hand-held weapons. It was basically just a particularly menacing demonstration. And if you walked a hundred yards away you met the silent majority of ordinary Muscovites watching from the sidelines, worried and skeptical -- and not for a moment interested in getting involved.

The rebels only posed any kind of threat, because the television station was poorly defended. The Interior Ministry defenders we talked to were frightened and abandoned. Sergei subsequently discovered that there were barely 60 of them, defending Russian state television against an angry mob.

It got dark and at around 7:15 p.m. the violence broke loose. Makashov ordered a truck to ram the glass facade of the television center. Then someone in the crowd threw a grenade and an instant later the defenders of the building poured a fusillade of bullets on us. Gunfire exploded, blue tracer bullets flew above our heads and the whole crowd started running like mad and diving for cover. Perhaps five seconds later, Sander, I and 50 or so other people were crouching behind a wall as the gunfire blazed on. I had lost Sergei and we were only able to confirm to each other that we were okay several hours later. A man called Dima was at my feet, groaning and bleeding from his side. After a while, we managed to hoist him onto a riot-shield and he was ferried to safety.

More than 60 people died in those few seconds of gunfire. The rebels stood no chance of taking the building. I spent the whole night at Ostankino, loitering on the edge of the messy aftermath of the first firefight. A few desperate people occasionally exchanged automatic weapons fire. Belatedly, a line of armored personnel carriers turned up and made Ostankino secure.

As far as I was concerned, this bizarre eruption of violence was now over. But no, the next morning Yeltsin sent in the Taman Division and shelled the White House and its defenders. By the end of Oct. 4 several dozen more people were dead.

I had spent time inside the Supreme Soviet building over the previous two weeks talking to the anti-Yeltsin rebels. They were a nasty and disagreeable bunch, but theirs was patently a lost cause. As far as I am aware, not a single serving Russian soldier went over to their side in two weeks. Another day's negotiations and the parliamentarians would have had to admit their time was up.

The key point is that, although Yeltsin's policies were more enlightened than Makashov's, his tactics were just the same. He took a decision, born of the most brutal political logic: a White House battered into surrender by tank-fire could be deleted from the political landscape. A negotiated end to the siege would allow his enemies a way back onto the political scene.

And so it proved. Yeltsin was triumphant and had two months of parliament-free rule in which he could devise his new super-presidential Constitution. The West -- and most of the Western media -- were absurdly indulgent of what Yeltsin had done.

But of course the bloodshed of Oct. 3-4, 1993, begat a new era and the first new creature of that era was Vladimir Zhirinovsky. And Zhirinovsky begat the new nationalists who begat Chechnya. And Chechnya is still with us, still corroding the decent values that liberal Russia briefly tried to live by in the years 1989-93. The bill for October 1993 came late perhaps, but Russia is paying it still.

Only the dead rebuke Russia's leaders from their graves, silently and vainly asking them to consider that they might have done things differently.

Thomas de Waal reported for The Moscow Times from 1993 to 1995. He is the author, most recently, of "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War."