Russians are still eager to discuss the nation’s 1993 constitutional crisis, but these events remain relatively forgotten in the U.S.
A man in the uniform leading people away from White House building. Photo: AP
Two decades have passed since the tragic events of the 1993 constitutional crisis in Russia, which involved a bloody standoff between former president Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament.
President Boris Yeltsin disbanded the Parliament on Sept. 21, a violation of the nation’s constitution. In response, rebel lawmakers, led by Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, barricaded themselves in the White House, the building housing the Russian parliament, and voted to impeach the president. The events of those days were marked by the storming of the White House and an unprecedented death toll of 147 people.
For nearly a month, Russian media outlets have been discussing the failed 1993 coup attempt in Russia while denouncing the bloodshed that occurred in Moscow. Yet, their foreign counterparts seem to have forgotten these turbulent times. In fact, the archived issues of the world’s leading newspapers appear to justify Yeltsin’s actions.
Smoke over the White House
During the two restless weeks of September-October 1993, Russian dailies were mostly focused on keeping track of events during the siege of the White House and delivering police reports to the readers. Recalling the events of Oct. 4, Marina Ozerova of Moskovskiy Komsomolets (one of the newspapers popular with Russian readers) says that there was no unanimous popular endorsement of the White House storming.
“Tanks were moving along the Noviy Arbat. They were returning from the White House, above which the smoke was swirling. Some people in the streets were chanting ‘well done’ and ‘hurray’ and were applauding. But some were whistling, spitting, and were shouting ‘murderers!’, ‘traitors!’, ‘damn you!’,” Marina Ozerova wrote in her article on October 4, 2013.
But even twenty years later, the country is still torn between extreme positive and extreme negative assessments of the events of 1993. According to VTSIOM, a polling institution, 51 percent of Russians supported the use of military force to regain control over Moscow, whereas only 30 percent were against it. Today, however, Russians have a different opinion on the issue as only 17 percent of citizens approve of the president’s actions and as many as 69 percent – have a negative opinion.
Gleb Cherkasov, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Kommersant and a prominent Moscow journalist at Gazeta.ru, has recently published an article discussing the two-day press censorship in Moscow imposed by the government during the siege of the White House. According to Cherkasov, the newspaper Segodnya (now defunct) was unable to publish a piece by one of its political reporters, Sergey Parkhomenko, about the low spirits of the Kremlin elites following the siege of the Parliament building. Several other newspapers couldn’t get a written protest against the closure of opposition outlets published, because “censorship didn’t like it.“
Following the storming of the White House on Oct. 4, the newspaper Izvestia published the so-called “Letter of Forty-Two“, an open letter signed by prominent Russian writers and addressed to the society and the president. The signatories expressed their gratitude to the armed forces for the crackdown on the parliamentarians.
“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 a fatal civil war,” the letter read. They demanded that all communist and nationalist parties be banned in Russia, as well as several media outlets that incite hatred and call for violence.
But not everybody in Moscow was happy with the outcome of the standoff. In response to the “Letter of Forty-Two,“ Pravda, a communist daily, published an open letter by three prominent Russian public figures, Andrey Sinyavsky, Vladimir Maksimov and Pyotr Abovin-Yegides. The authors blamed Yeltsin for the atrocities that had happened in Moscow on the days of the constitutional crisis, and labeled him as shortsighted for violating the constitution that brought him to power in the first place.
Democracy with no constitutional basis
Back in 1993, the Western media was giving unique insights into the two weeks of crisis in Russia while providing a broad analysis of the implications they might have. An article published in the Boston Globe on September 22, 1993, two days after President Yeltsin attempted to dissolve the parliament, justified President Yeltsin’s actions.
“Though Yeltsin's arguments for dissolving Russia's Supreme Soviet lack any constitutional basis, neither that vestige of a vanished Soviet state nor Russia's sham constitution from the Communist era - which the deputies have amended hundreds of times - has any democratic validity. Yeltsin can at least claim two legitimating mandates: his direct election as president of Russia and the referendum he won in April with approval from 53 percent of eligible voters,” the author argued.
The author goes on to doubt the legitimacy of the Russian Parliament. In the 1990 parliamentary elections many Kremlin-backed candidates ran unopposed, whereas Yeltsin’s 1991 election was viewed as being democratic in nature.
But issues concerning the effect of the constitutional crisis in Russia on the international community were more acute in the American media. A big debate unfolded in the New York Times regarding the safety of Russia’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons against the backdrop of new instability in the country.
“The specter of civil war in Russia has heightened worries about the safety of military command posts, although Moscow is said to take extreme precautions to guard its nuclear arsenal and related control gear,” it said.
The Washington Post quoted a Pentagon official as saying that, according to a secret report released in Washington, there were no unusual movements of strategic or conventional weapons and that Russia’s nuclear arms were “under positive control.“
Harry Schwartz of USA Today went even further and compared the events of the 1993 crisis to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. According to him, the dissolution of the Parliament threw Russia into a “time of troubles” (or “Smuthoye vremya,” as they say in Russian).
“What makes the current crisis even worse than that of 1917 is the fact that unlike then, Russia today has numerous nuclear weapons. And so have Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - which anti-Yeltsinites want to forcibly reintegrate into a new Soviet Union. In a new civil war, the possibility of nuclear explosions cannot be ruled out,“ wrote Harry Schwartz.
Guardian reporter Veronika Kutsillo was an eyewitness of the events inside the White House. She gave a disturbing account of what the Parliament building looked like when everybody left.
“At dawn tanks rolled in, shooting at the building and forcing spectators to flee... I counted at least five corpses outside parliament. By the end of the day I saw 20 bodies inside the building. Floors were covered with blood and glass. Furniture had been reduced to matchsticks by shells and bullets,” she wrote on October 5, 1993.
One of the most interesting highlights in the coverage of the 1993 constitutional crisis in Moscow came in a New York Times editorial, which discussed President Yeltsin’s decision to cancel guards at Lenin’s Tomb on Red Square. The paper argued that this decision marked the end of the Soviet era as “the two guards... walked into the mausoleum – and into history.” According to the author, no explanation was needed for Yeltsin's decision as it went hand-in-hand with the crackdown on the “militants” who sought to restore the “Soviet Empire.”