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Fri Oct 4, 2019, 07:51 AM

26 Years Ago Today; Tanks shell the Russian White House during the Russian Constitutional Crisis


Tanks of the Taman Division shelling the Russian White House on October 4, 1993

The constitutional crisis of 1993 was a political stand-off between the Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament that was resolved by military force. The relations between the president and the parliament had been deteriorating for some time. The power struggle reached its crisis on 21 September 1993, when President Yeltsin aimed to dissolve the country's legislature (the Congress of People's Deputies and its Supreme Soviet), although the constitution did not give the president the power to do so. Yeltsin justified his orders by the results of the referendum of April 1993. In response, the parliament declared the president's decision null and void, impeached Yeltsin and proclaimed vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy to be acting president.

On 3 October, demonstrators removed police cordons around the parliament and, urged by their leaders, took over the Mayor's offices and tried to storm the Ostankino television centre. The army, which had initially declared its neutrality, stormed the Supreme Soviet building in the early morning hours of 4 October by Yeltsin's order, and arrested the leaders of the resistance.

The ten-day conflict became the deadliest single event of street fighting in Moscow's history since the Russian Revolution. According to government estimates, 187 people were killed and 437 wounded.

Siege and assault

Supreme Soviet session, September 21, 1993

On September 21, Yeltsin declared the Supreme Soviet dissolved; this act was in contradiction with a number of articles of the Constitution of 1978 (as amended 1989–1993), such as, Article 1216 which stated that:

The powers of the President of Russian Federation cannot be used to change the national and state organization of the Russian Federation, to dissolve or to interfere with the functioning of any elected organs of state power. In this case, his powers cease immediately.

In his television appearance to the citizens of Russia, President Yeltsin argued for the decree nr 1400 as follows:

Already more than a year attempts were made to reach a compromise with the corps of deputies, with the Supreme Soviet. Russians know well that how many steps were taken by my side during the last congresses and between them. […] The last days destroyed once and for all the hopes for a resurrection of at least some constructive cooperation. The majority of the Supreme Soviet goes directly against the will of the Russian people. A course is taken in favour of the weakening of the president and ultimately his removal from office, of the disorganization of the work of the government; during the last months, dozens of antipopular decisions have been prepared and passed. [...] Lots of these are deliberately planned to worsen the situation in Russia. The more flagrant ones are the so-called economic policies of the Supreme Soviet, its decisions on the budget, privatization, there are many others that deepen the crisis, cause colossal damage to the country. All attempts of the government undertaken to at least somewhat alleviate the economic situation meet incomrehension. There is hardly a day when the cabinet of ministers is not harassed, its hands are not being tied. And this happens in a situation of a deepest economic crisis. The Supreme Soviet has stopped taking into account the decrees of the president, his amendments of the legislative projects, even his constitutional veto rights. Constitutional reform has practically been pared down. The process of creating rule of law in Russia has essentially been disorganized. To the contrary, what is going on is a deliberate reduction of the legal basis of the young Russian state that is even without this weak. The legislative work became a weapon of political struggle. Laws, that Russia urgently needs, are not being passed for years.[...]

For a long time already, most of the sessions of the Supreme Soviet take place with the infringements of the elementary procedures and order... A cleansing of committees and commissions is taking place. Everyone who does not show up personal loyalty to its leader is being mercilessly expelled from the Supreme Soviet, from its presidium. [...] This is all a bitter evidence of the fact that the Supreme Soviet as a state institution is currently in a state of decay [...]. The power in the Supreme Soviet has been captured by a group of persons who have turned it into an HQ of the intransigent opposition. [...] The only way how to overcome the paralysis of the state authority in the Russian Federation is its fundamental renewal on the basis of the principles of popular power and constitutionality. The constitution currently in force does not allow to do this. The constitution in force also does not provide for a procedure of passing a new constitution, that would provide for a worthy exit from the crisis of state power. I as the guarantor of the security of our state have to propose an exit from this deadlock, have to break this vicious circle.

At the same time, Yeltsin repeated his announcement of a constitutional referendum, and new legislative elections for December. He also repudiated the Constitution of 1978, declaring that it had been replaced with one that gave him extraordinary executive powers. (According to the new plan, the lower house would have 450 deputies and be called the State Duma, the name of the Russian legislature before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Federation Council, which would bring together representatives from the 89 subdivisions of the Russian Federation, would assume the role of an upper house.)

Yeltsin claimed that by dissolving the Russian parliament in September 1993 he was clearing the tracks for a rapid transition to a functioning market economy. With this pledge, he received strong backing from the leading powers of the West. Yeltsin enjoyed a strong relationship with the Western powers, particularly the United States, but the relationship made him unpopular with some Russians. In Russia, the Yeltsin side had control over television, where hardly any pro-parliament views were expressed during the September–October crisis.

Parliament purports to impeach Yeltsin as president
Rutskoy called Yeltsin's move a step toward a coup d'etat. The next day, the Constitutional Court held that Yeltsin had violated the constitution and could be impeached. During an all-night session, chaired by Khasbulatov, parliament declared the president's decree null and void. Rutskoy was proclaimed president and took the oath on the constitution. He dismissed Yeltsin and the key ministers Pavel Grachev (defense), Nikolay Golushko (security), and Viktor Yerin (interior). Russia now had two presidents and two ministers of defense, security, and interior. It was dual power in earnest. Although Gennady Zyuganov and other top leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation did not participate in the events, individual members of communist organizations actively supported the parliament.

On September 23, the Congress of People's deputies convened. Though only 638 deputies were present (the quorum was 689), Congress purported to impeach Yeltsin.

On September 24, an undaunted Yeltsin announced presidential elections for June 1994. The same day, the Congress of People's Deputies voted to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections by March 1994. Yeltsin scoffed at the parliament-backed proposal for simultaneous elections, and responded the next day by cutting off electricity, phone service, and hot water in the parliament building.

Mass protests and the barricading of the parliament
Yeltsin also sparked popular unrest with his dissolution of a parliament increasingly opposed to his neoliberal economic reforms. Tens of thousands of Russians marched in the streets of Moscow seeking to bolster the parliamentary cause. The demonstrators were protesting against the deteriorating living conditions. Since 1989, the GDP had been declining, corruption was rampant, violent crime was skyrocketing, medical services were collapsing and life expectancy falling. Yeltsin was also increasingly getting the blame. Outside Moscow, the Russian masses overall were confused and disorganized. Nonetheless, some of them also tried to voice their protest, and sporadic strikes took place across Russia. The protesters included supporters of various communist (Labour Russia) and nationalist organizations, including those belonging to the National Salvation Front. A number of armed militants of Russian National Unity took part in the defense of the White House, as reportedly did veterans of Tiraspol and Riga OMON. The presence of Transnistrian forces, including the KGB detachment 'Dnestr', stirred General Alexander Lebed to protest against Transnistrian interference in Russia's internal affairs.

On September 28, Moscow saw the first bloody clashes between the special police and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. Also on the same day, the Interior Ministry moved to seal off the parliament building. Barricades and wire were put around the building. On October 1, the Interior Ministry estimated that 600 fighting men with a large cache of arms had joined Yeltsin's political opponents in the parliament building.

Storming of the television premises
Soviet leaders still did not discount the prospect of a compromise with Yeltsin. The Russian Orthodox Church acted as a host to desultory discussions between representatives of the parliament and the president. The negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch as mediator continued until October 2. On the afternoon of October 3, Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the White House, and the political impasse developed into armed conflict.

On October 2, supporters of parliament constructed barricades and blocked traffic on Moscow's main streets. On the afternoon of October 3, armed opponents of Yeltsin successfully stormed the police cordon around the White House territory, where the Russian parliament was barricaded. Paramilitaries from factions supporting the parliament, as well as a few units of the internal military (armed forces normally reporting to the Ministry of Interior), supported the Supreme Soviet.

Rutskoy greeted the crowds from the White House balcony, and urged them to form battalions and to go on to seize the mayor's office and the national television center at Ostankino. Khasbulatov also called for the storming of the Kremlin and imprisoning "the criminal and usurper Yeltsin" in Matrosskaya Tishina. At 16:00 Yeltsin signed a decree declaring a state of emergency in Moscow.

On the evening of October 3, after taking the mayor's office located in the former Comecon HQ nearby, pro-parliament demonstrators and gunmen led by General Albert Makashov moved toward Ostankino, the television center. But the pro-parliament crowds were met by Interior Ministry units and special forces who took positions in and around the TV complex. A pitched battle followed. Part of the TV center was significantly damaged. Television stations went off the air and 62 people were killed, including Terry Michael Duncan, an American lawyer, who was in Moscow to establish a law firm and was killed while attempting to help the wounded. Before midnight, the Interior Ministry's units had turned back the parliament loyalists.

When broadcasting resumed late in the evening, vice-premier Yegor Gaidar called on television for a meeting in support of democracy and President Yeltsin "so that the country would not be turned yet again into a huge concentration camp". A number of people with different political convictions and interpretations over the causes of the crisis (such as Grigory Yavlinsky, Alexander Yakovlev, Yuri Luzhkov, Ales Adamovich, and Bulat Okudzhava) also appealed to support the President. Similarly, the Civic Union bloc of 'constructive opposition' issued a statement accusing the Supreme Soviet of having crossed the border separating political struggle from criminality. Several hundred of Yeltsin's supporters spent the night in the square in front of the Moscow City Hall preparing for further clashes, only to learn in the morning of October 4 that the army was on their side.

The Ostankino killings went unreported by Russian state television. The only independent Moscow radio station's studios were burnt. Two French, one British and one American journalist were killed by sniper fire during the massacre. A fifth journalist died from a heart attack.[44] The press and broadcast news were censored starting on 4 October, and by the middle of October, prior censorship was replaced by punitive measures.

Storming of the White House
Between October 2–4, the position of the army was the deciding factor. The military equivocated for several hours about how to respond to Yeltsin's call for action. By this time dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded.

Rutskoy, as a former general, appealed to some of his ex-colleagues. After all, many officers and especially rank-and-file soldiers had little sympathy for Yeltsin. But the supporters of the parliament did not send any emissaries to the barracks to recruit lower-ranking officer corps, making the fatal mistake of attempting to deliberate only among high-ranking military officials who already had close ties to parliamentary leaders. In the end, a prevailing bulk of the generals did not want to take their chances with a Rutskoy-Khasbulatov regime. Some generals had stated their intention to back the parliament, but at the last moment moved over to Yeltsin's side.

The plan of action was proposed by Captain Gennady Zakharov. Ten tanks were to fire at the upper floors of the White House, with the aim of minimizing casualties but creating confusion and panic amongst the defenders. Then, special troops of the Vympel and Alpha units would storm the building. According to Yeltsin's bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, firing on the upper floors was also necessary to scare off snipers.

Burned facade of the White House after the storming

By sunrise on October 4, the Russian army encircled the parliament building, and a few hours later army tanks began to shell the White House. At 8:00 am Moscow time, Yeltsin's declaration was announced by his press service. Yeltsin declared:

Those, who went against the peaceful city and unleashed bloody slaughter, are criminals. But this is not only a crime of individual bandits and pogrommakers. Everything that took place and is still taking place in Moscow is a pre-planned armed rebellion. It has been organized by Communist revanchists, Fascist leaders, a part of former deputies, the representatives of the Soviets.
Under the cover of negotiations they gathered forces, recruited bandit troops of mercenaries, who were accustomed to murders and violence. A petty gang of politicians attempted by armed force to impose their will on the entire country. The means by which they wanted to govern Russia have been shown to the entire world. These are the cynical lie, bribery. These are cobblestones, sharpened iron rods, automatic weapons and machine guns.

Those, who are waving red flags, again stained Russia with blood. They hoped for the unexpectedness, for the fact that their impudence and unprecedented cruelty will sow fear and confusion.

He also assured the listeners that:

Fascist-communist armed rebellion in Moscow shall be suppressed within the shortest period. The Russian state has necessary forces for this.

By noon, troops entered the White House and began to occupy it, floor by floor. Rutskoy's desperate appeal to Air Force pilots to bomb the Kremlin was broadcast by the Echo of Moscow radio station but went unanswered. He also tried to have the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin call the Western embassies to guarantee Rutskoy's and his associates' safety - to no avail. Hostilities were stopped several times to allow some in the White House to leave. By mid-afternoon, popular resistance in the streets was completely suppressed, barring occasional sniper fire.

The "second October Revolution", as mentioned, saw the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since 1917. Police said, on October 8, that 187 had died in the conflict and 437 had been wounded.

Some claim Yeltsin was backed by the military only grudgingly, and only at the eleventh hour. The instruments of coercion gained the most, and they would expect Yeltsin to reward them in the future. A paradigmatic example of this was General Pavel Grachev, who had demonstrated his loyalty during this crisis. Grachev became a key political figure, despite many years of charges that he was linked to corruption within the Russian military.


At the time, the powerful images of tanks shelling one of their primary government buildings left me speechless...

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