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The world was mesmerized by scenes of bizarrely clad Trump supporters breaking into and occupying the Capitol in Washington DC last week that was widely described as an attempted coup d’état.
Parallels were quickly drawn with the attack on Russia’s White House that was home to the Duma’s executive, the Russian parliament, by the late President Boris Yeltsin.
But apart from the fact that both buildings house parliamentary deputies and the occupation was largely carried out by normal people the parallels stop there.
I had arrived in Moscow a few months earlier and was at the very start of my journalistic career. Only 18 months after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Moscow was a very different city to that of today; dark, run down and thinly supplied by the empty shelves of Soviet-era stores. The depth of the potholes in the roads could take an unsuspecting taxi’s wheel off and the Russians you met on the street could easily identify you as a foreigner because of the quality of your shoes.
The storming of the Capitol was driven by politics as Trump continues to claim the election was falsified – a claim without any evidence and widely derided – but the political argument that led to the occupation of the White House was a much more serious clash between the Duma and the president.
Russia is a republic and the president has considerable powers, but in those days so did the Duma and Yeltsin spent much of his first term in conflict with the Duma deputies led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen professor who was the parliamentary speaker at the time, and Alexander Rutskoi, the vice-president.
Their problem was that at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) behest, Yeltsin and his prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, had launched a programme of “shock therapy” that caused hyperinflation and most of industry to collapse. Rutskoi called it “economic genocide,” with some justification, and he and his allies were attempting to halt the programme. Amongst the many effects of shock therapy was that male life expectancy crashed to 56 years and millions of Russians died early.
In September the war of words escalated to the point where the Duma deputies occupied the White House and tried to impeach Yeltsin, and Rutskoi was appointed acting president and sacked all the ministers. Yeltsin ordered the Duma dissolved – for which he had no constitutional powers – and tried to call for a referendum to ask the people which camp they wanted to back. Russia was thrown into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
I was living in an apartment on Novy Arbat at the time behind the legendary Dom Kinigi bookshop, a short walk from the White House, and we used to wander down every day to see what was going on.
In those days there was no fence around the White House and you could walk round to the courtyard at the back where the bulk of the protesters were hanging out and occasionally a deputy would come out and make a speech. The building was surrounded by a cordon of protesters carrying posters, reminiscent of the 1991 tussle in front of the same building where Yeltsin made his historic speech from on top of a tank that ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in December of that year. This time round the standoff was a lot more low key and really not much was happening other than the building’s occupation by the deputies.
But as September wore on tensions were slowly ratcheting up. First the city government was ordered to turn the water and power off, then a cordon of police arrived and tried to stop pedestrians walking in and out of the grounds, trapping those demonstrators and deputies already inside.
The police were pretty relaxed, standing around cadging fags off the demonstrators and not enforcing the cordon particularly thoroughly. My press accreditation was good enough to be allowed through the line, and behind the White House the right-wing Russian National Unity Party had organised a home guard-style defence and brought out their Tsarist-era flag, although no weapons were in evidence yet.
Yeltsin’s efforts to break the occupation were going nowhere and the situation had ended in a standoff, somewhat similar to that between the protesters in Minsk and Belarus’ self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko today. Except the protesters in Minsk have specifically said they will not occupy the government buildings, partly because Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was willing to send a special military unit to quell the protests “if necessary” on August 27 and partly because of the memory of what happened next in Moscow in 1993.
By October 3 the tensions had gone up again and now the police had brought in dozens of water trucks that are used to spray the roads in the summer to keep the dust down and circled them wagon-style around the building to make a much more solid barrier. The police had also started to strictly enforce the cordon but my press pass still allowed me through the lines.
Things were coming to a head and it was becoming increasingly obvious that the police were going to arrive in numbers and break the occupation by force.
That day a large demonstration marched down Novy Arbat to the White House and the police fled. A crowd gathered in the courtyard and Rutskoi came out on the balcony to address the crowd. An aide stood next to him and opened a brief case out of which panels of bullet-proof glass folded which he held up in front of Rutskoi in case of snipers.
Rutskoi addressed the crowd (at that point I had no Russian at all) and suddenly there was activity all around me. Men started appearing out of the White House carrying Kalashnikovs and began climbing into a number of MAZ trucks parked in the courtyard, which left in convoy.
We quickly flagged down a gypsy cab and followed the trucks around the Garden Ring and up Prospekt Mira. It soon became clear that we were headed to Ostankino, the home of Russia’s national broadcaster and the TV tower that dominates Moscow’s skyline in the north of the city.
Rutskoi had called for his supporters to take over the TV stations and call on the entire country to rise up and take control of regional government.
At this point I should point out this is a textbook example of iniating a coup d’état.
However, the police had got wind of Rutskoi’s plan (there were almost certainly undercover agents in the crowd at the White House) and the OMON and special forces also raced to Ostakino, arriving a few minutes before Rutskoi’s men and taking up position in the foyer of the building and windows on the floors above.
By this time it was early evening and the sun had just gone down. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the start of the road that leads to the TV tower, where a bus had been overturned and pushed across the road. (That bus was left for years in the courtyard of the cultural museum on Tverskaya as a reminder of the October events).
A crowd of people were cowering behind the bus as a firefight had broken out between the OMON and Rutskoi’s men. You could hear the rat-tat-tat of Kalashnikovs coming out of the darkness from under the trees ahead but could see nothing. The temptation was to go around the bus to get a closer look. My colleague at the Daily Telegraph, Marcus Warren, later explained to me why freelancers are in much more danger in warzones than staffers, as it is the freelancers that go round the bus because of this urge, while the staffers stay at the back or in their offices and watch the events on TV.
The situation got rapidly more dangerous. First someone started firing a machine gun with tracer bullets over the bus. You could see streams of bullets flying overhead in what was probably a move to prevent more reinforcements moving up into position outside the TV tower.
Then I started to hear a “ziiiiip” sound around us. My Spanish colleague Angela Alonso was the first to realise what was happening and hit the deck: snipers had worked their way round to the side of the bus and were now starting to fire into the crowd sheltering behind it.
By this time the ambulances had started to arrive. Groups of men were appearing out of the darkness under the trees carrying the wounded, who were bundled into the waiting ambulances and driven off at high speed, sirens wailing.
Dozens of people were killed that night at Ostankino – the official death count was 46 dead – including British cameraman Rory Peck, who was a freelance war reporter working for the German station ZDF. The Frontline Club in London by St Mary’s Hospital was founded in Peck’s memory by his colleague Vaughan Smith and today has some Peck’s memorabilia, and that of other war correspondent freelancers killed in action, on display on the cabinets in the clubroom.
At this point we decided things were getting too hairy and walked back down the road to find another car to take us home. What shocked me later was how unafraid I felt during this whole experience. It was my first time under fire, but with bullets flying around you, you become so pumped up by adrenalin that you don’t feel fear. I was seriously considering walking around the bus but only common sense (and the lack of a serious streak at that point) were what stopped me. I should have been terrified.
Shelling the White House
On the night of October 3 Russia was at a tipping point. Things could have gone either way. Rutskoi had failed to take Ostankino but the streets could have been flooded with fighters in the morning and a serious uprising that would have led to widespread street fighting throughout the capital could have started in the morning.
It didn’t happen, as in the small hours of the morning the gravel-voiced General Alexander Lebed, who had command of a tank brigade barracked just outside Moscow, came down on the side of Yeltsin.
Svetlana Ivanova, my later landlady of my apartment on Kutuzovsky Prospect, the eight-lane spoke road that leads to the White House, recalled that night: “We were woke very early in morning, about four I think, to the sound of tanks driving down the road to the White House.”
As the sun came up Lebed had stationed five tanks on the bridge overlooking the White House and troops and more tanks had taken up position on the embankment facing the building on the opposite side of the Moskva.
Then they opened up, sending shells into the upper floors of the building to minimise casualties but to disorientate the defenders of the White House, who were mostly on the lower floors. The building quickly caught fire.
The people from the picket from around the building took refuge on the embankment under the bridge, but they were still exposed to the snipers. According to the official report 147 people were killed and another 437 wounded. Unofficial sources put the death count far higher. It was the bloodiest violent conflict since the 1917 revolution.
We didn’t go down to the White House that day, despite the fact you could clearly hear the shelling going on just down the road. The occupying forces of the White House started shooting back, but used the tunnels under the building to take up positions on the rooves of the surrounding buildings and began indiscriminately to shoot anyone on the street. At the same time, Lebed’s snipers took up position on top of the “Heineken building” on the opposite bank and shot back, also targeting pedestrians.
The buildings around the White House get their nicknames from the huge advertising billboards on their rooves and at the time the Heineken was home to the many German diplomats who worked at the embassy further down the embankment and up the hill at Mosfimovskaya. Behind the Heineken building is the “Kutzovsky ghetto”, where most of the international news bureaus were housed in Soviet times and are still housed there today.
A friend of mine, Akhim Luther, lived in the Gazprom building that is next door to the White House on the same side of the river. A young German entrepreneur who had come to Moscow very early on to represent his father’s electronics firm, he went on to his balcony that overlooks the White House to see what was going on. However, as soon as he appeared a storm of bullets and machine gun fire poured through his window as the White House defenders clearly thought he was a sniper. He threw himself back inside the room and crawled away to the back rooms of his apartment.
A pair of young British para-legals were less lucky. They went up to the roof of their building on the other side of the White House from the Gazprom building, also to get a better look, but one was hit by a sniper bullet and she only survived thanks to an emergency blood transfusion after the Russian staff at her office took her to hospital and donated the blood that saved her life.
The fighting went on for about three days. A curfew was imposed at sundown and it was still dangerous to go anywhere near the White House. The snipers spread up the Novy Arbat and for years afterwards the upper floors of the building on the corner of Novy Arbat and the Garden Ring road, the main ring road in Moscow, was pockmarked with bullet holes from a sniper battle, until it was finally repaired in the boom years of the noughties.
But bizarrely life in the rest of the city carried on as normal. Down on Tverskaya, the Oxford Street of Moscow, the shops and cafes were open and people went about their business as normal, although the occasional explosion could be heard in the distance.
The night of October 4 we went to Bely Tarakan (White Cockroach), a very cool private bar set up by a bunch of impoverished actors from one of the theatres for people to hang out and drink cheaply. Although the actors couldn’t make any money from the theatres they made a nice income from the bar and went on to open a string of famous bars, including Krisis Genre, Vermel, Bedny Ludy and, most famous of all, Propaganda, which is still going.
Rumours were flying at Bely Tarakan: the government had fallen; the borders were closed; Yeltsin had fled; Rutskoi had been arrested. No one knew what was happening. The morning felt like a long while away and the next day was a completely unknown entity. It was exhilarating in a way, but more than that it made me realise I had never faced a day where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next and couldn’t even guess. Our friends in the bar didn’t seem too phased. Their life was already hard, so political chaos didn’t really make any difference to them.
In the end it was all over fairly quickly. Successfully keeping Rutskoi’s people out of Ostankino meant the insurrection died out fairly fast. The ringleaders of the White House’s occupation were quickly arrested, but they were amnestied within a year once Yeltsin had consolidated his position, and Khasbulatov went back back to teaching.
The main result was Yeltsin changed the constitution in December, giving the president vastly increased powers. But even that didn’t bring his showdowns with the Duma to an end and as time passed he became increasingly erratic. The government remained in constant budget crisis, which led to the notorious loans-for-shares privatisations in 1995-96 and Yeltsin suffered some sort of heart attack between the first and second round of the presidential elections in 1996, disappearing from the stage entirely in the run-up to the second vote. Russia’s economy then crashed in 1998 thanks to the spill-over effects of a currency crisis in Asia the year before.
It wasn’t until Putin took over in 2000 that things really started to change. The “economic Putin” put through a raft of reforms, including a flat rate tax for individuals and companies that set the stage for a boom. The “political Putin” finally made use of those extended presidential powers and rapidly crushed the oligarchs, removed the corrupt governors from the upper house of parliament, took direct control of the media and began a long campaign to tighten his control.
Ironically Russia flourished. GDP growth in 2000 was almost 10% despite the predictions of a return to hyperinflation and widespread poverty. Putin’s recovery has been attributed to oil, but the oil prices didn’t start rising from a low of $15 in 2000 for several years, but when they did the economy boomed.
In the West Yeltsin is hailed as a democrat and a blessing, which Putin is demonised as an autocratic demagogue, but the Russians that lived through the events of 1993 and the following years see it the other way round: Yeltsin’s era was full of chaos and conflict, whereas Putin’s era has been about stability and the creation of a more or less normal life. The irony is that Yeltsin’s attempt to dissolve Parliament and his use of force was clearly illegal under the Russian Constitution and was a constitutional coup that answered Rutskoi’s attempt at a coup d’état.