The role of the masses during the October 1993 Moscow rebellion

Ten years ago this month in Moscow (on October 3 and 4) the “White House” (as the Russian Parliament building is known) was bombed, and hundreds of people were killed. This was the civil war between President Yeltsin and the Parliament (the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation). Today the Russian authorities prefer not to remember those events, not just because of the bloody nature of what happened, but also because what happened back in 1993 questioned the legitimacy of the present Russian system.

Ten years ago this month in Moscow (on October 3 and 4) the “White House” (as the Russian Parliament building is known) was bombed, and hundreds of people were killed. This was the civil war between President Yeltsin and the Parliament (the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation). Today the Russian authorities prefer not to remember those events, not just because of the bloody nature of what happened, but also because what happened back in 1993 questioned the legitimacy of the present Russian system. The Western media also behave in the same way. They prefer to forget about it, or at least not highlight it, because the October 1993 events in Moscow don’t fit in to the mythology about “peaceful and democratic reform in Eastern Europe”. The irony of the situation is that even some “heroes” that defended the Parliament in those days prefer not to be reminded of their role – it could cost them the career they have carved out for themselves within the present Russian bureaucratic apparatus.

Only the Marxists can explain and analyse what happened in those days without feeling any shame and that is what we will try to do. I do not plan to describe the nature of the confrontation between the Parliament and President Yeltsin. This has already been done by Ted Grant in his brilliant work, Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution”. Here what I will try to do is to show the role the masses played in those dramatic days.

The road to October

The conflict between Yeltsin and the Parliament was a conflict between two wings of the Russian bureaucracy that had come out on top during the August 1991 events. Both main leaders of Parliament – the speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and the vice-president Alexsander Rutskoy – had initially stood behind Yeltsin outside the Parliament building (the “White House”). But once they had come to power the former “allies” found themselves in opposing camps. The chaotic and adventurist privatisation, together with all the other pro-capitalist “reforms” within a few months had demolished the Russian economy. Throughout 1992 growing opposition to Yeltsin’s policies came from those bureaucrats that were worried about the condition that Russian industry was in, as well as from the regional leaders that wanted more independence from Moscow. The leaders of the oil-rich republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkiria were even calling for full independence from Russia. Many of those demands were to find their representatives in Parliament itself.

However the problems the bureaucracy was facing were nothing compared to the suffering of the ordinary Russian people. The abolition of price controls led to prices rising in some regions between 300-350 per cent. At a stroke the people lost also all their bank savings. For many pensioners it was an absolute catastrophe, the worst in their lives. Industrial production by August 1993 had fallen by 41.3% compared to January 1990. It was the biggest slump in the national economy in peacetime conditions and the capitalist “reforms” were responsible for this. Tens of thousands of workers in the provinces lost their jobs. Many were going hungry and were barely surviving. We can compare the effect of these capitalist economic reforms in Russia with some of Stalin’s actions in the 1930s. But at least the economy under Stalin was eventually pushed forward. The capitalist “reforms” merely “created owners” as one young Russian “reformer commented.

The Russian masses were confused and disorganised. Nonetheless some of them did try to fight back. Sporadic strikes took place in different regions of Russia, but the workers had no clear political or economic objectives. They were just protesting against the new and terrible living conditions. The old Soviet trade union system collapsed and the union bosses looked for way of cooperating with the regime.

The old Communist Party of the Soviet Union was disbanded in August 1991 under Yeltsin’s orders, without any resistance. The working class had no representatives in the new Parliament. But we know that if the working class is blocked on the parliamentary front, it seeks other ways of struggling. The period 1992-1993 was a period in which new Stalinist parties were emerging. They called for a return to the glorious days of the “Great Leader Stalin” and for the restoration of the Soviet Union within the 1991 borders. This kind of thinking brought them into a close alliance with the nationalist groups. These groups had first supported Yeltsin as the “saviour” of Russia from “Jewish communism”, but later they were disappointed with him. The also did not have a clear economic programme for the working class – the best they could promise was that everything would return to the “good old Soviet days”. For many people living in the terrible conditions of this capitalist nightmare of 1992-1993 this was enough. This alliance of the “Communists” with the nationalists and anti-Semites, alienated many good young people, workers, and intellectual. However there were also many workers rallied to these parties because they couldn’t see an alternative. The strongest of these parties was “Trudovaia Rossia” (“Workers’ Russia”). This organisation, led by Victor Anpilov, a journalist that worked in Nicaragua and Cuba in 1992-199, became a mass party and at its peak it had thousands of members.

The period of 1992-1993 was one of mass demonstrations and protest actions in Moscow. Especially bloody and violent was the May Day celebration in 1993, when the Moscow police clashed with 100,000 demonstrators. On that day one policeman and three demonstrators were killed. But this was merely a dress rehearsal of what was to come.

The beginning of the counter-strike

On September 21 1993 Yeltsin decided it was time to put an end to

his old conflict with his opponents in Parliament. He dismissed the Supreme Soviet and took all power into his own hands, and ruled the country by decree. This was presidential decree Number 1400. Formally, according to the then Russian constitution this was absolutely illegal. According to the constitution, with the dismissal of Parliament, Yeltsin would have had to leave his post and call new elections within three months. It was a first step to establishing a Bonapartist regime in Russia. The Constitutional Court of Russia declared that Yeltsin action was absolutely illegal. On the same day the first few volunteers arrived at the White House and they built symbolic barricades. Some of them came “to defend the constitution”. Others demonstrated not their sympathy for Parliament, but their opposition to the Yeltsin regime. The majority of Russian workers actually ignored these events. They had no interest in protecting this Parliament that had never shown any interest in the workers’ needs. Victor Anpilov wrote in his memoirs: “To our call to declare a strike, to come and support the Supreme Soviet, the ZIL (a car factory in Moscow) replied with abuse: “Yeltsin, Gaidar, Rutzkoy, Khasbulatov? What is the difference? They are fighting for power and we must lose our blood for them?”

On September 23 the White House was surrounded by lines of police. The water and electricity was cut off. The aim of these measures was to expel the Members of Parliament and their supporters from the building. The Vice-President, Rutzkoy, on his own initiative called to the defence of the White House members of the Russian National Unity (RNE) – the Russian nazis! This was a perfect present for the government’s propaganda that used it to present all those defending the Parliament as part of a Communist-Fascist conspiracy. One Communist supporter wrote about it in his memoirs:

“Let us speak about Barkashov’s people (RNE). We all look on them with despair. Yes, they are the most experienced and well-trained units, apart from the Cossacks. But they are fascists. Who among us could have imagined that we would be together with them? They are here – and this makes it possible to declare that we are all fascists. Maybe they are here especially for this?”

On October 3 around the White House there were about 200 fascists together with some other nationalists, but these were overwhelmed by the presence of 300,000 demonstrators. Then members of the Communist youth, anarchist groups, left and Marxist organizations converged on the Parliament building. They clashed with the fascists and distributed propaganda leaflets. The anarchists and some other groups organised the “Victor Serge medical battalion” that helped to look after the wounded.

The general atmosphere changed in favour of the defenders of the Parliament. The masses had no illusions in parliamentary democracy, but they liked much less the prospects of a Yeltsin dictatorship. On September 28 we saw the first bloody clashes between the special police (OMON) and 10,000 demonstrators that wanted to come to the aid of those defending the Parliament building. The police violence enraged the public. This became an important factor over the next two days. The government ordered the sending in to Moscow of police reinforcements from the provinces. Those OMON policemen received instructions that they were “to teach a lesson to those self-satisfied Muscovites”. With shocking brutality they attacked people everywhere – some of the victims had no connection with the parliament and or with the resistance. There were cases of some pensioners who were beaten to death! This repression of the people of Moscow was the same as that meted out by the French police to the students in 1968, and it had the same effect. It rallied them for a mass protest action. On September 30 some first barricades was built.

And what were the “leaders” of the Parliament doing? They were seeking a compromise with the government and until the very last moment they were hoping to make a deal. The negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch as mediator continued until October 2. By this time dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded.

The Rebellion

On October 2, in Smolensk Square special police units opened fire on a peaceful demonstration. About 80 people were killed or wounded on that day. But the next day, October 3, was a day of revenge. More then 50 thousand people arrived in Gorky Park at 2pm to support the defenders of Parliament. There were many nationalists, but the majority were workers, youth and pensioners, shouting communist and left slogans. To give you an idea of the kind of people that were present here is a short dialogue reported from the demonstration:

Journalist: “Hi guys! I am from ITAR-TASS (Russian news agency)
People: “Hi! But later you must write the truth about what is happening here.
Journalist: “That’s my job! Who are you? They are saying there are just lumpens here!
[General laughter]
People: “I am an engineer. And I am a student! I am Worker! I am a technician! I am a student! I am an engineer! I am a scientist! I am a worker! Yes… Just lumpens and homeless!

Viktor Anpilov wrote in his memoirs that the slogans were: “Constitution! Yeltsin in prison! Rutzkoy President! Soviet Union! Lenin! Motherland! Socialism”. There were some nationalist flags, but mainly there were red flags.”

The people knew about massacre that had taken place the day before and were full of anger. Spontaneously they decided to move to the Supreme Soviet. At the Krimsky Bridge the police and army cordons were waiting for the demonstrators, but they had not expected such a mass movement, and thus the police lines where crushed. Some policemen tried to escape and threw down their shields, helmets and even abandoned their vehicles. Others asked for mercy and some even joined to people. It is important to remember that the masses treated their enemies very humanely.

The demonstrators continued to move towards the parliament, but then some of Yeltsin’s supporters opened fire from a nearby building of the Moscow municipality. Immediately after this attack the demonstrators stormed. the municipality, arrested the policemen and gunmen and seized their weapons and equipment. Yeltsin’s flag, the flag of the white army and the nazi collaborationists, was pulled down and replaced by the red flag. Within a few minutes the column had reached the White House and was greeted by those who were defending the Parliament building.

It was a crucial moment. Yeltsin and his supporters were totally demoralised. The army wavered. Some small units arrived at the Parliament and joined those who were defending it. Many local leaders also declared their support for the Parliament. Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister, Igor Gaidar, a man who was hated by most of the Russian people because of his “reforms” called on the “supporters of democracy” to come and defend the President in the streets. But the Moscow bourgeoisie did not have enough courage to face the mass uprising. Only a few hundred people from the middle classes and the “gilded youth” turned up at the Tverskaia – “to defend the President and democracy”.

The problem was one of leadership. The dream of the leaders of Parliament – Rutzkoy and Khasbulatov – ­ was not a political revolution. They either wanted power for themselves or at least a good compromise with Yeltsin. They categorically refused to give any weapons to the masses – even though there were about 5000 AK rifles in the White House.

The Stalinists, even the most militant among them were not prepared to lead the mass movement and presented themselves as “defenders of the Soviet Union” and thought it would be enough to replace the bad Yeltsin with the good Rutzkoy and thus the old USSR would be rebuilt immediately. There was no revolutionary leadership. The masses acted spontaneously and this was sufficient for the movement to begin but it was not enough to gain the final victory. The leaders were pushed by the masses and emboldened by them but those same leaders had no idea how to lead the masses to victory. Stalinism had not trained them how to do this. All it had taught them was how to make coalitions with “progressive” nationalists and bureaucrats. In the end the position of the army became crucial. Many officers and ordinary soldiers had no sympathy for Yeltsin, but the supporters of the Parliament did not send any agitators to the barracks and agitated only among military that were already close to them. Rutzkoy, as a former general, appealed to his ex-colleagues. But many of the generals were deeply involved in the corruption of the Yeltsin regime and didn’t want any changes. They promised help to the Supreme Soviet, but at the last moment they moved over to Yeltsin’s side. There was also the role played by the special police and the special units of the Ministry of the Interior – professional paid killers – who would have had no chance against the army, but they were prepared to shoot on the unarmed people with great pleasure.

In the evening of October 3, using captured vehicles and buses the people moved to the Ostankino TV centre. They went not with the intention of taking over the building, but simply to demand that the TV authorities give them the opportunity to express their opinions. The building was protected by a special police unit, the “Vimpel”. In the beginning the Vimpel only had 20-30 men stationed at the Ostankino TV centre, but the masses lost time in negotiating with them (again showing the peaceful nature of the demonstrators) and police were able to use the time to bring in reinforcements, including professional soldiers.

At 7.10pm the “Vimpel” policemen opened fire on the people below. Among the crowd there were only a handful of people from the so-called “Officers’ Union” (a nationalist organisation of former Soviet Army officers) who were carrying kalashnikovs, and they returned fire. The others – demonstrators, ordinary members of the public, journalists, children – tried to escape but they where attacked by armoured vehicles from behind. The people had no chance against the 14.5mm heavy machine guns. The numbers of those killed and wounded rose dramatically as each minute passed by. The special police also shot at the medical personnel and the ambulances that were trying to evacuate the wounded. Two foreign journalists from the French TV – Peck Rori and Danken Terry Mickel – were also shot. The shooting around the Ostankino building lasted all night.

At the same time in Leningrad (now known as Petersburg) hundreds of students converged on the local TV station to declare their solidarity with the Supreme Soviet. The pro-Yeltsin mayor of the city, Anatoly Sobchak, sent hundreds of policemen and Ministry of the Interior solders to protect the building. In the provinces around Moscow militant communist activists disarmed the police and took the power in some small towns. They kept these positions for a few days even after the Supreme Soviet had fallen.

In the early hours of the morning of October 4 Yeltsin finally made a deal with some of the generals and got an agreement to send some units into the city. About 5-6 o’clock in the morning they arrived at the White House. The people defending the White House who were still manning the barricades were absolutely sure that these units had come in response to Rutzkoy’s call and so at first they greeted the troops. But within just a few seconds they understood their mistake. Tanks and armoured carriers opened fire on the people without any warning. Those that survived this first attack escaped back into the Parliament building. Hundred of people, including women and children rushed into the building. Within the next few hours tanks arrived in front of the building and started to bomb the Parliament.

The whole world was able to watch this on CNN TV. They were fed with reports and pictures of this glorious “new Russian democracy”! Hundreds of Moscow bourgeois stood on the banks of the Moscow river to watch the bombing of the Parliament building. In the previous nights these very same bourgeois had been noted for their total lack of bravery. Now protected by the tanks they proceeded to humiliate and beat the prisoners that had been taken. They shouted, “Communists, you are finished!” As we can see the bourgeois mob has not changed since 19th century France. The irony of the situation was that the troops in their hurry to smash the movement that was defending the Parliament even beat some of those bourgeois who were applauding them and some were also shot by government troops. But again this is also typical of such situation, going right back to the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

In 3.13pm the Parliament capitulated. Hundred of prisoners, including the MPs, where put on buses and taken to prison. Rutzkoy begged for mercy and showed his gun full of oil, which meant he hadn’t used it! But his begging did not save him from being ridiculed. Some of Yeltsin’s commanders humiliated him and told him that a “real general” would not end up in prison for three times. (Rutzkoy as a former military pilot had twice been captured by the Afghan mujahideen and imprisoned). However, some of the defenders of the White House managed to escape through the Underground communications.

Moscow was now under the rule of white terror. The city was occupied by army and special police units. The previous day Yeltsin had declared martial law in the Moscow territory. Some terrible scenes were witnessed in and around the Parliament building. The army and police hunted down Soviet supporters and in many cases shot them on the spot. In 1995 a Russian Duma commission that looked into these events showed that in the White House basements mass executions had been carried out. The army shot both the able and the wounded including women and teenagers. Cases of rape and robbery were also confirmed. This was not Chile in 1973; it was Moscow in 1993! The majority of victims were young workers between the ages of 16 and 25.

According to the official information during those days 149 people died. This number is grossly underestimated and is nowhere near the real figure. On October 7, even the pro-American “Radio Liberty” reported that about 1012 people had been killed and many more had died later in the hospitals. The “Voice of America” reported that many bodies of those who had been defending the Parliament building had been cremated during the night without any registration. To this day no one really knows the real number of victims. Some have estimated that it could have been close to 2000 people.

After the Rebellion

In the following few days after the rebellion had been crushed, all the main Soviet, Communist and Nationalist leaders were imprisoned and all the opposition press was closed down. The right-wing press and the “intelligentsia” were hysterically shouting, “Smash the reptiles” (Razdavit gadinu) and calling for the establishment of a regime of terror. But Yeltsin’s position was not as strong as it may have looked. The conflict within the bureaucracy had not been solved even after the bloody victory of Yeltsin faction. There was the important element that the army remained divided. Some layers among the masses were in a state of shock, some were angry and saw Yeltsin as a usurper. They clearly demonstrated what their views were in the elections to Yeltsin’s new parliament – the Duma. The KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), the party led by Gennady Zyuganov got a majority. (Zyuganov himself was not arrested on October 4, because he had managed to escape from the Parliament building the day before it was bombed).

Faced with this situation Yeltsin had no alternative but to declare an amnesty for all political prisoners. He now depended even more on the army general, and this was to later push him into launching the Chechen adventure. For many special units the 1993 Moscow events were merely a “training” session for the bloody Chechen nightmare.

The former Soviet leaders, Khasbulatov and Rutzkoy, found their place within the new regime. Rutzkoy even became governor of the Kursk region and became well known as a virulent anti-communist. He even banned the May Day rally in his region!

The Stalinist leaders of Trudovaia Rossia and the RKRP (Russian Communist Workers’ Party), once they were released from prison, found an unpleasant surprise. The masses abandoned them and shifted their support to the KPRF which ended up with strong parliamentary presence. Today those parties look more like pensioners’ sects than genuine political organisations.

The October 1993 events were an important turning point in the transition of Russia from a deformed workers’ state (Stalinism) to a capitalist state. The Soviet system in 1993 was in no way the same system that had been set up in 1917 by the revolution. It was more like a Parliament of MPs and not delegates elected democratically by the workers. And yet the nascent capitalist class could not even tolerate this deformed Soviet. The forces that were at play in October 1993 were those of a transitional period of transformation – the bureaucracy, the proletariat, the army, the petit-bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia. The nascent Russian capitalist class was still too weak in this period to play any significant role in those events. The working masses of Russia suffered a terrible defeat in 1993. But they also received an important and bloody lesson and a precious experience. But as Lenin pointed out, without such lessons and experience there can be no final victory.