2023 marked the 30 years since the shelling of the White House in Moscow, at the time of which the first bourgeois-democratic parliament of Russia, the Russian Supreme Council, was meeting. Hundreds of people died in a ‘mini civil war’ on the streets of Moscow. Indeed, this was a civil war between President Yeltsin and parliament.
Today, Russian authorities prefer not to remember the events of 1993, as they fundamentally call into question the legitimacy of the entire system in Russia as it presently exists. In fact, the modern Russian regime, led by Putin, was historically born out of Yeltsin’s 1993 military coup.
The western media also prefers to forget or at least ignore these events, as they do not fit into the imperialists’ mythology about the ‘yoke of communism’ being thrown off through ‘peaceful democratic reforms’.
In fact, the only adequate explanation of what happened in 1993 is a Marxist one. In his work Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution, Ted Grant demonstrated how Russia came to this point. In this article, we shall focus on the events immediately preceding Yeltsin’s coup, the course it followed, as well as the role of the masses in the struggles of those days.
The destruction of the USSR and the army
We must briefly, in broad brush strokes, explain the turning point in history that marked the beginning of capitalist restoration in Russia and the destruction of the Soviet Union.
When Yeltsin ran for the post of chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in 1990, he initially put forward the demand for ‘Russian sovereignty’. The ‘independence of Russia’, given that it was the largest republic of the Union and one of its founding states, automatically meant the collapse of the USSR. In short, Great Russian chauvinism was being mobilised to destroy the Union.
Russia occupied three quarters of the USSR’s territory and represented just over half of its population. It produced 90 percent of the Union’s oil, 80 percent of its gas, and 63 percent of its electricity – energy that was then supplied to other republics at low prices.
Russia produced 58 percent of the steel, employed 70 percent of the scientists in the USSR, and owned almost three quarters of the defence industry enterprises.
However, under the Soviet system, most industry and trade were controlled centrally by the Union government, and the government of the Russian Republic controlled only a smaller part of the economy, mainly light industries. Yeltsin began a struggle to wrest control over the big enterprises, and therefore the Soviet economy as a whole, from the Centre.
The first president of Russia, Yeltsin left the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), proclaimed the sovereignty of Russia, and ceased the transfer of tax payments to the Centre.
On the anniversary of the declaration of this “sovereignty” – an occasion declared a public holiday in Russia – Yeltsin was elected president in a general election. His election partner (and vice-presidential candidate) was General Alexander Rutskoy, a member of the CPSU who belonged to the ‘democratic platform’ faction. In many ways he represented the interests of the enterprise managers, or so-called ‘red directors’.
He received 60 percent of the vote, a clear majority, winning in almost all urban centres. This gave him a mandate independent of the Communist Party and an independent basis for his power.
He set about dividing the USSR’s assets with the other republics, negotiating foreign trade independently of the Centre, and signing treaties of mutual recognition with the Baltic states.
In December 1991, after the failed putsch by the State Emergency Committee (ГКЧП), the USSR was officially abolished in favour of the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS). The CIS had little in common beyond an Olympic team and its collective intercontinental nuclear missile arsenal.
This fragmentation and collapse, being pushed from Moscow, had an enormous effect inside the army.
In 1991, Ukraine declared it was creating its own army, navy and air force, numbering 420,000, and claimed jurisdiction over the Red Army troops on its territory, as well as operational control of naval forces stationed in Odessa.
A battle erupted over possession of nuclear arsenals, Ukraine using those missiles on its territory as a bargaining chip with both the US and Russia. Eventually, with US assistance, Yeltsin was able to consolidate control over this arsenal of thousands of warheads.
Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova also began actively recruiting volunteers for republican militias. Soon they were followed by other republics, which in some instances descended headlong into war with each other, whilst internal wars erupted elsewhere.
It is enough to mention the war in Karabakh, the civil war in Tajikistan, the Transnistrian conflict, as well as a number of interethnic clashes in the North Caucasus to see the monstrous results of capitalist restoration, as the national bureaucracies of the Soviet Union sought to convert themselves into capitalists each scrambling to to grab territory and resources at the other’s expense.
By 1991, there were two million military personnel in the armed forces of the USSR, but the condition within this fracturing army was one of utter demoralisation. A fighter pilot could expect to be paid no more than a streetcar driver. Housing and other conditions were terrible. Many lived permanently in barracks. Tens of thousands of conscripts were ignoring conscription or refusing to serve outside their own republic. By November 1991, nearly 200,000 Soviet soldiers and their families were officially considered homeless. There were even attempts in 1989 to form a trade union in the army.
Such were the conditions prevailing inside the armed bodies of men that constitute the core of the state.
Economic collapse: the path to the October drama
At the end of 1991, a year in which total output had fallen by 15 percent, Yeltsin took personal charge of the ‘shock therapy’ being applied to Russia. These policies included deregulation of prices and wages; the rapid privatisation of land; sharp cuts in defence spending, industrial subsidies and all government spending; and an end to all material aid to the Soviet Union’s former foreign partners.
The removal of most price controls quickly revealed how ‘independent’ the independent CIS states really were. Ukraine and Belarus still retained the ruble as their actual currency and had no choice but to follow Russia’s actions to avoid massive plunder from ‘cross-border trade’. On the very next day, following the introduction of ‘free prices’, bread prices tripled, milk prices increased 50 times over, and butter prices increased by 11 times. At this level of depreciation, ten hours of work at the average wage could only buy four sticks of butter.
Yeltsin turned to western countries for financial assistance – $6 billion in hard currency to stabilise the ruble and $6 billion for the urgent purchase of food and medicine. An eight-fold reduction in domestic arms demand as a result of slashing of budgets, in the words of then-Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Burbulis, “unwittingly pushed our arms manufacturers to export their dangerous products.”
Burbulis begged western entrepreneurs to invest in Russia, but as one columnist for The Guardian put it that year, those hoping to invest in the territory of the former USSR faced problems:
“The problem with trying to buy or create a business in the former USSR is that you don’t know what you’re buying. You also don't know what the tax regime will be. It’s like buying a house in Liverpool and being told that along with the house you are responsible for the development of the entire district of Toxteth.”
By April 1992, food production had fallen by 28 percent, and 90 percent of Russians lived below the subsistence level of 1,500 rubles a month. Wages were kept in check through a punitive tax on businesses offering wage increases, based on the government’s notion that new, private enterprises would struggle to get off the ground if established companies offered pay rises – a method previously used in Poland.
Unemployment was only 100,000, but it would soon skyrocket. To avoid immediate closure as a result of the end of government subsidies, managers of large enterprises lent to each other to stay afloat, thereby undermining the government’s policy aimed precisely at closing many of these businesses. To avoid a catastrophic crisis, many businesses continued to pay workers even though transportation and supply disruptions made production impossible. At that time, this phenomenon was typical for all former Soviet republics. For example, 6,500 people worked at the Frolov textile factory in Tajikistan, but only 2,000 went to work.
The architect of ‘shock therapy’, Yegor Gaidar, refused to ease the policy while inflation reached 300 percent.
In August 1992, the G7 demanded compensation for western aid to Russia in the form of $24 billion in foreign currency reserves, which Yeltsin could not agree to. Instead, he offered Russia's natural resources for sale at cut-rate prices in exchange for the erasure of the former Soviet Union’s $71 billion debt.
Since August 1991, industrial production had fallen by 27 percent. Inflation pushed prices up 16-fold, and real wages fell by 32 percent. Investment in plants and equipment meanwhile halved as a result of the privatisation measures. Unregulated markets and stalls popped up, selling food that was often contaminated, and food poisoning became commonplace. City water supplies often became undrinkable. The cost of medicines and medical drugs became prohibitive. And for the first time since the war, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in Russia.
How the new capitalists got rich
Everything that had once been guaranteed to Soviet citizens was crumbling. Meanwhile, the new class of capitalists was raking it in through looting.
The new capitalists earned most of their money from trading in imported goods, as well as from the legal and illegal sale of state property and raw materials. It was estimated that a third of the oil exported from Russia and half of all nickel was sold illegally. 80 percent of raw materials sent to Kaliningrad never reached their intended recipient.
Meanwhile, most of the profits made this way were spent on imported luxury goods or stashed abroad. An estimated $15 billion in hard currency flowed out of Russia into private bank accounts in the United States and Western Europe in 1992, more than twice the net value of all the aid and loans Russia received from the West in the same period.
Former bureaucrats of the CPSU formed part of the new capitalist class, but did not completely dominate it. Meanwhile, a part of the party bureaucracy was completely excluded from any ‘share of the pie’. For instance, former Deputy General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Vladimir Ivashko received a pension to the tune of a mere 3,500 rubles per month (worth $15 at the time).
The government attempted to give a legal cover to its privatisation programme by distributing vouchers to all Russian citizens representing a share in the total state property. But people quickly realised they were worthless and often sold them for next to nothing (sometimes for as little as a bottle of liquor).
Others tried to hold out. My own grandfather, for instance – a miner in the north – invested his voucher along with those of his fellow workers in the purchase of the mine where they worked. The result was a kind of workers’ cooperative. But the experiment didn’t last long. Less than a year later, goons representing the interests of the notorious Mikhail Khodorkovsky transparently hinted to the miners that should they persist in refusing to sell their share of the enterprise on the terms proposed by the newly minted bourgeoisie, this could result in a sharp increase in mortality among members of the labour collective. The age of “workers’ self-government under capitalism” turned out to be extremely short-lived…
Foreign investors, however, still showed little interest. The government for its part made no effort to modernise or restructure state-owned enterprises, still hoping that those that privately acquired them would do so instead. However, Anatoly Chubais, the minister in charge of the privatisation program, admitted: “There is no direct correlation between private property and management efficiency.”
And how the new authorities fought against corruption and bureaucratic parasitism! Particularly infamous was the suggestion by Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov that the bribing of officials might be legalised! Although Popov himself protested that he only proposed a system by which officials would legally receive a cut of the profits that their decisions produced for others.
Yeltsin vs. the Supreme Council
Due to the obvious failure of Yeltsin’s ‘shock therapy’, the speaker of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who by that time had come into opposition with Yeltsin, was able to gather a majority of deputies against the president’s policies.
The government became increasingly paralysed. According to Gennady Burbulis, “insidious and cynical revanchists” were strengthening their positions. The head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Filatov, called Khasbulatov a “Bolshevik” and accused him of preparing a coup with the help of “groups of heavily armed Chechen militants.”
Yeltsin appeared increasingly politically isolated. Statements of support from Bill Clinton and John Major only reminded Russians of the “support” that Gorbachev had previously received from the capitalist powers. Meanwhile, there was the threat of possible secession from Russia by regions such as Ossetia, Karelia, Tatarstan and Sakha-Yakutia, not to mention Chechnya, where the power of the new federal Centre had de facto ceased to exist.
In April, Yeltsin and the Supreme Council agreed to test their support in a referendum, which would show the degree of confidence in the President and the Supreme Council. In the referendum, the question of early presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as approval of Yeltsin’s economic policy, were put to the vote. Meanwhile, a vote on the impeachment of the president was already afoot in the Supreme Council. A majority of deputies, although not the two thirds required, voted for impeachment.
In this period, Yeltsin tried to portray the deputies of the Supreme Council as “radical communists”, a view echoed in the western press. But deputies of the Supreme Council had been elected in March 1990, at the same time as Yeltsin himself, and indeed it was the Supreme Council that elected Yeltsin as its leader and opened the way for his election in a popular vote.
In reality, the conflict between Yeltsin and parliament was between two groups within that section of the Russian bureaucracy that gained the upper hand during the events of August 1991. Both main leaders of the anti-Yeltsin parliamentary opposition – Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi – had previously supported Yeltsin. But having come to power, these former ‘allies’ found themselves in opposing camps.
Chaotic and opportunistic privatisation, together with other pro-capitalist ‘reforms’, destroyed the Russian economy in a few months. Throughout 1992, growing opposition to Yeltsin's policies came from those bureaucrats who were concerned about the state of Russian industry, as well as from regional leaders who wanted greater independence from Moscow.
Leaders of oil-rich republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkiria were even calling for complete independence from Russia. Although these threats ultimately proved to be more of a bargaining chip with Moscow, they were taken quite seriously in 1993. About two thirds of the deputies of the Supreme Council were supporters of the restoration of market relations, including well-known dissidents. One could hardly seriously suspect them of communist sentiments.
Following Alexander Rutskoi’s accusations that Yeltsin’s supporters were deeply involved in corruption, an investigation was begun in July into allegations of criminal embezzlement by First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko and Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Poltoranin. In September, Rutskoi was removed from office, and a counter-investigation for corruption was set in motion against him.
While Yeltsin was on vacation, the Central Bank announced the withdrawal of banknotes issued in 1993. This move threatened to drive Russia’s rapidly impoverished working population into penury, and gave additional strength to the opposition to Yeltsin. The political crisis reached its climax in September 1993.
By August 1993, industrial production had already fallen by more than 41 percent compared to January 1990. ‘Reforms’ aimed at producing a new capitalist class had produced the largest economic contraction in peacetime. The violence and speed of the collapse has few parallels in human history. Tens of thousands of workers in the province lost their jobs. Many barely survived starvation.
The fight heats up
The Russian masses were confused and disorganised. However, some attempted to fight back. There were sporadic strikes in different regions of Russia, but the workers lacked clear political or economic goals. They were simply protesting against the new terrible living conditions. The old Soviet trade union system collapsed, and union bosses began looking for ways to cooperate with the regime.
The old CPSU was dissolved in August 1991 on Yeltsin’s orders without any real resistance. The working class had no representation in the new parliament. But we know that if the working class is blocked on the parliamentary front, it will express itself in other ways.
The period 1992-1993 saw the emergence (and, in general, the peak) of new Stalinist parties. Their call was for a return to the perceived ‘glory days’ of the ‘Great Stalin’ and the restoration of the Soviet Union to its 1991 borders. It was a nostalgic Stalinism without a clear economic programme for the working class, beyond promising to turn back the clock to ‘Soviet times’. The main thing that flowed from this stance of restoring Russia to its ‘glory days’ was one of Russian nationalism, which drew the Stalinist parties into close alliances with right-wing nationalist groups. The latter had initially supported Yeltsin as the ‘saviour’ of Russia from “Jewish communism”, but had later become disillusioned with him.
This is how the notorious ‘red-brown’ bloc was born. Despite offering nothing material to the working class, such were the terrible conditions amidst the capitalist nightmare of 1992-1993, that it could nevertheless attract a certain layer.
But this alliance of ‘communists’ with nationalists and antisemites alienated many youth, workers and intellectuals. Nonetheless, many workers joined these parties because they saw no alternative. The strongest of these parties (at least in Moscow) was Labor Russia. Led by Viktor Anpilov, a journalist who worked as a correspondent in Nicaragua and Cuba, the organisation became a mass party between 1992 and 1999 and, at its brief peak, had hundreds of thousands of members.
The period 1992-1993 also saw mass demonstrations and protests in Moscow. The May Day demonstration in 1993 was particularly bloody and violent, when Moscow police clashed with thousands of demonstrators. One police officer and three demonstrators were killed that day. But this was just a dress rehearsal for upcoming events.
The beginning of the coup
On 21 September 1993, Yeltsin ‘dissolved’ the Congress of People’s Deputies – an act that he had no constitutional authority to carry out. Elections were set for 12 December.
This was Presidential Decree No.1400. Formally, according to the constitution of the time, this was an absolutely illegal act. According to the constitution, Yeltsin would have to leave his post and call new elections to the presidency within three months of dissolving parliament. This was the first step down the road towards the establishment of a Bonapartist regime in Russia. [To read more on the Bonapartists character of the regime that evolved subsequently, read Russia: the nature of the Putin regime]
In response, parliament voted to impeach Yeltsin, appointed Alexander Rutsky as president, and initiated a series of parliamentary debates. The Russian Constitutional Court declared Yeltsin’s actions illegal, and on the same day, the first volunteers arrived at the White House and built symbolic barricades. Some came claiming they were there to “defend the constitution”, whilst others demonstrated not in sympathy for parliament, but in opposition to the Yeltsin regime. Most workers, however, simply ignored these events. They were not interested in defending parliament, which showed no interest in their needs.
On 23 September, the White House was surrounded by a line of police. Water and electricity were cut off to ‘smoke out’ the deputies and their supporters from the building. Vice President Rutskoi, on his own initiative, called on members of Russian National Unity – Russian Nazis – to defend the White House! This was a gift for government propaganda, which used it to portray everyone defending parliament as part of a communist-fascist putsch. Many, not without reason, perceived the presence of Russian National Unity members among the White House defenders as a deliberate provocation.
To put things in perspective, however, it should be noted that on 3 October about 200 fascists gathered around the White House along with some other nationalists. But they were only a small fraction of the 300,000 demonstrators gathered there. Members of the Komsomol, Workers’ Democracy group, anarchist groups, as well as other left-wing and Marxist organisations pulled up to the parliament building. They clashed with the fascists and distributed propaganda leaflets. Anarchists and some other groups organised the ‘Victor Serge Medical Battalion’, which helped care for the wounded.
It seemed that the general situation had changed in favour of the defenders of parliament. The masses had no illusions about parliamentary democracy, but the prospects for Yeltsin’s dictatorship were no less repulsive. On 28 September, the first bloody clashes took place between riot police and 10,000 demonstrators trying to come to the aid of the defenders of the parliament building.
The violence by the Ministry of Internal Affairs outraged the demonstrators, and became an important factor over the next two days. The government ordered reinforcements from the provinces. Provincial riot police were instructed to “teach the snickering Muscovites a lesson”. They attacked anyone they could get their hands on with shocking brutality – some of the victims had no connection to Parliament or to the resistance. There were even cases of pensioners being beaten to death. On 30 September, serious, rather than merely symbolic, barricades were now erected.
But what were the leaders of parliament doing at this time? They were looking for a way to make a deal with the government, hoping to conclude an agreement right up to the very last moment. Negotiations mediated by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church continued until 2 October. By this time, dozens of people lay dead, and hundreds more had been wounded.
Rebellion and massacre
On 2 October, special forces units opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Smolenskaya Square. About 80 people were killed and wounded that day. But the following day was the real moment of retribution. More than 50,000 people came to Gorky Park at 2pm to support the defenders of parliament. There were many nationalists among them, but the majority were workers, youth and pensioners shouting communist slogans.
Viktor Anpilov wrote in his memoirs that the main slogans were: “Constitution! Yeltsin on the bunk! Soviet Union! Lenin! Motherland! Socialism!”
People knew about the massacre that had happened the previous day and were filled with anger. They spontaneously decided to head to the building of the Supreme Council. Police and army cordons were waiting for the demonstrators at the Crimean Bridge, but they did not expect such a massive flood of people. The ranks of the police were crushed. Some, trying to escape, threw shields and helmets, and even abandoned their cars. Others begged for mercy, and some even joined the people. The masses’ humane treatment of their enemies contrasts starkly with that of the government.
The demonstrators continued to move towards parliament, but suddenly some Yeltsin supporters opened fire from the nearby Moscow City Hall building. The demonstrators immediately launched an assault. Yeltsin’s flag – the flag of the White Army and Nazi collaborators – was lowered and replaced with the red flag. A few minutes later, the column reached the White House and was met by those defending the parliament building.
On 3 October, the troops retreated before the anti-Yeltsin demonstration, which broke through their cordon and managed to take control of the Moscow City Hall. The stage was set for a decisive test of loyalty. Which side would the remnants of the Soviet army take? The demonstration was a pretext for a further violent assault on the parliament building, this time using tank fire.
This was the decisive moment. Yeltsin and his supporters were demoralised. The army wavered. Some small detachments arrived at the parliament and joined those who defended it. Many local legislative assemblies also declared their support for the Supreme Council. Yegor Gaidar, a man hated by most Russians for his ‘reforms’, called on ‘democracy supporters’ to come and defend the president in the streets. But the Moscow bourgeoisie did not have the courage to resist the mass uprising. Only a few hundred people from the middle classes and the ‘golden youth’ came to Tverskaya street to “defend the president and democracy.”
But there was a problem for the defenders of parliament: it was their own leadership. The goal of the parliamentary leaders – Rutsky and Khasbulatov – was not a political revolution. They either wanted power for themselves, or at least a tolerable compromise with Yeltsin. They categorically refused to distribute weapons to the masses – even though there were about 5,000 Kalashnikovs in the White House.
The Stalinists, even the most militant of them, were not ready to lead a mass movement. They presented themselves as the “defenders of the Soviet Union” and believed that it would be enough to replace the ‘bad’ Yeltsin with the ‘good’ Rutskoi, and the old USSR would thus be restored.
There was no revolutionary leadership. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Gennady Zyuganov, behaved in his characteristic manner. Even before the direct clashes of September-October, the CPRF leader had already demonstrated his worth.
During the May Day clashes initiated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Zyuganov and his associates, who found themselves near the scene of the battle, fled like cowards through the Neskuchny Garden, located next to Leninsky Prospekt where the events were taking place. He later publicly stated that the opposition “does not want an escalation of violence”, and deplored the growing “anti-police and anti-riot-regiment” sentiment among demonstrators.
Amidst the October clashes, on the night of 3-4 October, the CPRF leader fled the White House and gave a television broadcast calling on Muscovites to stay home and “not give in to provocations.” If there is one constant in this world then it must surely be cowardice and tendency to betrayal on the part of the leaders of the CPRF.
The masses acted spontaneously. This was enough to start the movement, but not enough to secure a final victory. The leaders were pushed and inspired by the masses, but those same leaders had no idea how to lead the masses to victory. Stalinism could teach them nothing on this point. All they could take from it was how to build coalitions with ‘progressive’ nationalists and bureaucrats.
In the end, the question of to whom the army would prove loyal became the decisive factor. Many officers and ordinary soldiers had no sympathy for Yeltsin. But supporters of parliament failed to send agitators to the barracks, agitating only among those troops already stationed nearby. A former general himself, Rutskoi turned to his former colleagues, but only after much doubt, by which time it was already too late.
Many generals were themselves deeply involved in the corruption of the Yeltsin regime and were not interested in a change of course. They promised help to the Supreme Council, but at the last moment they went over to Yeltsin’s side. The special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs also had their role – professional killers who would have no chance against the army, but who were ready and willing to shoot the unarmed people with great pleasure.
On the evening of 3 October, people moved to the Ostankino television centre in captured cars and buses. They did not go with the intention of seizing the building, but simply demanding the opportunity to express their opinions on air.
The building was guarded by the Vympel special forces detachment. At the beginning, Vympel only had 20-30 people stationed at the television centre, but the masses lost time in negotiating with them, once again showing the peaceful yet naive character of the demonstrations. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, meanwhile, was using this time to bring in reinforcements.
At 7.10pm, Vympel fighters opened fire on the people below. Among the crowd were a handful of individuals from the so-called ‘Union of Officers’ (a nationalist organisation of former Soviet Army officers) armed with machine guns. They returned fire. The rest – demonstrators, ordinary members of the public, journalists, children – attempted to escape, but they were attacked by armoured vehicles.
The people never stood a chance in the face of 14.5mm heavy machine guns. The number of killed and wounded grew sharply every minute. Special forces also fired at medical personnel and ambulances that were trying to evacuate the wounded. Two foreign journalists from a French broadcaster were shot dead. The shooting around the Ostankino building continued throughout the night.
At the same time, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), hundreds of people gathered at the local television centre to declare their solidarity with the Supreme Soviet. The mayor of the city, Anatoly Sobchak, sent hundreds of policemen and soldiers of the Internal Troops to protect the building. In the Moscow region, communist activists disarmed the police and seized power in some small towns. They held these positions for several days, even after the fall of the Supreme Council.
Early in the morning of 4 October, Yeltsin finally reached an agreement with the generals and obtained consent to send military units into the city. Between 5-6am they arrived at the White House. Those still on duty at the barricades were sure that these units had arrived in response to Rutskoi’s call, and therefore they welcomed the troops at first. But after a few seconds, they realised their mistake.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers opened fire on people without warning. Those who survived the first attack fled into the parliament building. Hundreds of people, including women and children, broke into the building. Over the next few hours, tanks from the Kantemirovsky division approached the building and began shooting at the parliament.
On Monday 4 October, Muscovites watched this attack in much the same way as others watch a Formula One rally – and not only Muscovites. The whole world could watch events unfold on CNN. Western viewers were fed reports and footage of the glorious victory of this new “Russian democracy”! Hundreds of newly enriched bourgeois stood on the banks of the Moskva River, watching the explosions at the parliament building. On previous nights, these same ladies and gentlemen were not so brave.
At 3.13pm, parliament surrendered. Hundreds of those arrested, including deputies, were put on buses and taken to prison. However, some defenders of the White House managed to escape through underground networks.
Moscow was now under the rule of the coup regime. The city was occupied by the army and special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The day prior, Yeltsin had declared martial law in Moscow. The army and units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs hunted down supporters of the Soviet regime, and in many cases shot them on the spot. In 1995, a State Duma commission investigating these events found that mass executions were carried out in the basements of the White House. There is also evidence of executions on the territory of the Presnya stadium close to the White House. The army shot both healthy and wounded, including women and teenagers. Cases of rape and robbery have been confirmed. This was not Chile in 1973 – this was Moscow in 1993.
According to official information, 149 people died in those days. This figure is greatly underestimated and a far cry from reality. On 7 October, even the pro-American Radio Liberty reported that about 1,012 people had died, with many more dying later in hospital. Voice of America reported that many of the bodies of those who defended the parliament building were cremated overnight without any registration. Until now, no one knows the real number of victims, with some estimates putting it as high as 2,000 people.
The true birth of a ‘new Russia’
The arrest of the Supreme Council and the Congress of People’s Deputies on the orders of an anti-communist president was a clear indicator that the class nature of the state had changed. The struggle represented a clash inside the bureaucracy. On the one side stood Yeltsin and that section of the bureaucracy determined to plough ahead with ‘shock therapy’, backed by western imperialism which was out to plunder the old planned economy. On the other side stood a section of the bureaucracy blocking Yeltsin’s plans, having become alarmed at the economic collapse and wishing to apply the brakes.
When Yeltsin and his gang successfully defied the State Emergency Committee, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in 1991, it only proved that the deformed workers’ state had ceased to function. But the state had not yet been completely captured and secured under the control of the bourgeoisie. The various wings of the government were at an impasse, with the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Supreme Soviet and the Constitutional Court increasingly opposed to Yeltsin’s decrees. The class position of the state had yet to be clarified and outlined.
When Yeltsin defied the constitution and issued a decree dissolving the Supreme Council and the Congress of People’s Deputies, he provoked a test of the class nature of the state. And the state arrested and imprisoned his opponents, which at that moment had become a block to his programme of capitalist restoration. The economic programme of the deputies did not differ in essence to Yeltsin’s, and the dispute took place around questions of the pace and scale of reforms rather than their fundamental direction. Nevertheless, for several days, this clash became the focal point for opposition above all to the consequences of capitalist restoration, and a focal point of mobilisations on the streets of Moscow by ordinary people, workers and youth. But the demoralisation of the working class over the preceding years was so heavy, the differences between Yeltsin and parliament were so unclear, and the leadership so lacking, that most workers stayed home. Yeltsin won the day, and thereafter, the pro-capitalist reforms stepped up a gear.
Having secured control of the state and jailed his political opponents, Yeltsin put forward a new constitution, which was put to a vote alongside the 12 December Federal Council and State Duma elections. This new constitution gave the president enormous powers, including the power to appoint the prime minister.
However, Yeltsin’s position was not yet as strong as it might have seemed. Even after his bloody victory, the conflict within the bureaucracy was not yet resolved. Importantly, the army remained internally divided. Some sections of the masses were in a state of shock, others were outraged and saw Yeltsin as a usurper. And they clearly expressed their opinion in the elections to Yeltsin’s new parliament, the Duma. The majority of votes in opposition to the Yeltsinists were divided between the CPRF and the right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). As early as the 1995 elections, the CPRF took a majority.
Faced with this situation, Yeltsin had no choice but to accept the Duma amnesty for political prisoners. Isolated from the masses, he became ever more more dependent on the state apparatus.
Former opposition leaders Khasbulatov and Rutskoy found their places under the new regime. Rutskoy was later elected governor of the Kursk region and became famous as an ardent anti-communist during his tenure, even managing to ban the May Day rally in his region.
The Stalinist leaders of Labor Russia and the Russian Communist Workers’ Party received an unpleasant surprise after their release from prison. The masses abandoned them and switched their support to the CPRF, which eventually emerged with strong representation in parliament. Today, these parties are more akin to ageing sects than real political organisations. Moreover, they have degraded to the point of being in extreme solidarity with the bourgeois regime against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
The events of October 1993 marked an important turning point in Russia’s transition from a deformed workers’ state to a bourgeois state. The parliamentary system of 1993 bore no relation, of course, to that created by the 1917 revolution. It was more like a bourgeois parliament than a democratic body of workers’ power. Yet the emerging capitalist class could not tolerate even this ‘Soviet’.
Despite the fact that the bourgeoisie was still too weak to play any significant role in the events of October 1993, the working masses of Russia suffered a terrible defeat. But they also learned an important and bloody lesson and precious experience. Without such lessons and experience there can be no final victory.
Remembering these events and learning from them for us, modern communists, means remembering where the modern Russian state arose, as well as how the communist movement of that period contracted the destructive ‘red-brown’ disease that still plagues it. All this is the legacy of Yeltsin’s 1993 coup. A heritage that we must destroy and bury!