20 Years Ago, Russia Had Its Biggest Political Crisis Since the Bolshevik Revolution

A look back at October 4, 1993, when Russia came to the brink of war during intense protests against Yeltsin.
Russian tanks leave the White house parliament building area October 5, 1993. (Viktor Korotayev/Reuters)

MOSCOW — It brought Russia to the brink of civil war and resulted in the worst street violence in Moscow since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

Twenty years ago on October 4, months of political conflict climaxed when President Boris Yeltsin ordered the army to shell and storm the country's legislature.

Yeltsin had disbanded the parliament, the Supreme Soviet, on September 21 and called new elections. But under the leadership of Yeltsin's chief rivals, Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, rebel lawmakers barricaded themselves in Moscow's White House -- the building housing parliament -- and voted to impeach the president.

When Khasbulatov and Rutskoi incited armed gangs of anti-Yeltsin protesters to attack the Ostankino television studio, the nerve center of Russia's broadcast media, and the Moscow mayor's office, Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and ordered the military assault on the Supreme Soviet.

Here's a look at some of the key players in these events, that in many ways set the stage for the course Russia took over the next two decades.

The President: Boris Yeltsin
He was the unlikely hero of Russia's perestroika-era democratic movement. In the late 1980s, Boris Yeltsin transformed himself from Communist Party boss to populist firebrand. This metamorphosis climaxed with the iconic image of Yeltsin standing on a tank and facing down a hard-line coup in front of the Moscow White House in August 1991 -- which precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union and catapulted Yeltsin into the Kremlin.

But by the spring of 1993, the luster of those heady days had worn off.

Russia's post-Soviet economy was mired in crisis as Yeltsin's market reforms, known as shock therapy, were increasingly unpopular. Yeltsin performed well in an April 1993 referendum on his rule. But as the summer wore on he found himself increasingly in conflict with the legislature, the Supreme Soviet, its speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and his own vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi.

With gridlock and confrontation paralyzing the country, Yeltsin on September 21, 1993, signed "Decree No. 1400," which dissolved the legislature and set elections for a new bicameral parliament for December.

The president claimed the move was necessary in order to carry out needed economic reforms, establish a market economy, and prevent a return to the Soviet past.

When legislators barricaded themselves in the Moscow White House and impeached Yeltsin, he ignored them and cut off electricity, phone service, and hot water to the building.

Clashes broke out between police and anti-Yeltsin protesters, who set up barricades in the capital. When demonstrators attacked the Ostankino television tower, the nerve center of Russia's broadcast media, and the Moscow mayor's office, Yeltsin ordered the Interior Ministry to declare a state of emergency.

And in the early hours of October 4, Yeltsin reportedly ordered Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to have his troops shell and storm the White House. By midday, troops loyal to Yeltsin had managed to secure the building and arrest the rebel lawmakers.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Defence Minister Pavel Grachev (right) share a laugh after a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow in 1994. (Gennady Galperin/Reuters)
 
Three months later, a new constitution was approved in a national referendum, giving the president enormous powers that the office maintains to this day.

Yeltsin won a second term as president in 1996. His health deteriorated and the Kremlin became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, turning power over to his prime minister and chosen successor, Vladimir Putin -- who has since used the powers of the presidency to steer Russia in a more authoritarian direction.

Yeltsin died in 2007.

Sergei Filatov, the president's chief of staff in October 2003, reflected on the crisis in a 

recent interview
 

"Most important, of course, is in that fight with the opposition all contact was lost between the president and the parliament. Confidence between each other was completely lost. And most importantly, there was strong interference in the efforts to carry out economic reforms."

"It wasn't just Yeltsin who had the sickness. We all had that Soviet, imperial mentality, where strength will always better solve the problem as opposed to negotiations and compromise. It was a sickness of Yeltsin, it was a sickness of Gorbachev -- it was a sickness we all had. It wasn't an accident that we always supported the forceful option in solving this or that issue, which means that we didn't grow up to the level of ability to solve issues by peaceful means."

"We survived that time and we should have learned something from it, but unfortunately we didn't learn anything. For the last 20 years, we've acted with the same methods -- without agreement, attention, or understanding of public opinion and all actions are used by the authorities, which constitutionally can use their power to preserve a normal state for society. But it's not always good. If we're headed to a democratic society, we need to change our methods of managing the country and the methods of interaction with elements of power."

The Speaker: Ruslan Khasbulatov
An economist of Chechen origin, Khasbulatov was a close ally of Yeltsin's in the waning days of the Soviet Union. He was elected to Soviet Russia's Congress of People's Deputies in 1990 and backed Yeltsin in his resistance to the failed hard-line coup in August 1991.

After the Soviet break-up, Khasbulatov was elected speaker of the Russian parliament, the Supreme Soviet, where he quickly consolidated his power.

He also began to fall out with Yeltsin over policy differences, most notably Yeltsin's pursuit of so-called shock therapy to establish a market economy. This quickly escalated into a bitter power struggle between the two men and their supporters.

In September 1993, Khasbulatov publicly denounced the president as an alcoholic and called for his resignation. After Yeltsin's decree dissolving the legislature, Khasbulatov gathered rebel lawmakers in the White House, where they voted to impeach Yeltsin.

Addressing supporters from the balcony of the White House, Khasbulatov urged them to storm the Kremlin and imprison "the criminal usurper Yeltsin."

 

Former Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov (second from left) and former Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi (third from left) are arrested in Moscow on October 4, 1993. (Reuters)

After the storming and shelling of the White House on October 4, Khasbulatov was arrested. In 1994, the newly elected parliament, the State Duma, amnestied him as well as other leaders of the anti-Yeltsin resistance.

He has left politics and teaches economics at the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Moscow.

Khasbulatov indicated that he believed his position in the fall of 1993 has been vindicated by subsequent events: 

"The Supreme Council introduced the concept of separation of powers. There was a Constitutional Court, we had jury trials. All the democratic institutions were represented in this system."

"An unconstitutional, criminal decree was issued on September 21. But before that, the executive branch had devised a plot to overthrow the existing political system. On September 21, they began implementing that plot through a military coup."

"The only option we had left was to launch an impeachment procedure, in accordance with the constitution and to submit both the presidential decree and our decision for consideration by the Constitutional Court. Need I remind you what the Constitutional court decided? The Constitutional Court, under the leadership of Valery Zorkin, who is still the court's chairman, ruled that Yeltsin's decree was illegal and that parliament had the right to impeach him."

"Yeltsin and his entourage committed a grave crime against the state. This should be the subject of a new parliamentary investigation. We need a new commission to investigate it, without any haste, and bring this issue to a close."

"Yeltsin received support when he shelled the parliament, but do you see what kind of constitution we have now? It's not just a constitution, it's a super-constitution. Nobody has any power in our country except the president. You can't even sneeze without his permission. And that is a direct consequence of what happened back then."

The Vice President: Aleksandr Rutskoi
A decorated Afghan war veteran, Yeltsin chose Rutskoi as his running mate in 1991 when he successfully ran for president of the Soviet Union's Russian republic.

Like Khasbulatov, he was on Yeltsin's side during the failed August 1991 coup. And like Khasbulatov, he fell out with Yeltsin and his team after the Soviet collapse. He was particularly critical of the team of young economists, including Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, whom Yeltsin turned to to spearhead his economic reforms.

As head of an anticorruption council, Rutskoi famously claimed to have "suitcases of kompromat," or incriminating materials, on Yeltsin and his allies.

In September 1993, after Yeltsin evicted Rutskoi from his Kremlin office and had the door sealed, Khasbulatov gave him an office in the parliament building.

After Yeltsin dissolved parliament and the rebel lawmakers voted to impeach him, Rutskoi was sworn in as "acting president." Speaking with Khasbulatov from the balcony of the White House on October 3, Rutskoi called on protesters to storm the Ostankino television station and Moscow mayor's office, setting off the chain of events that led to the shelling of the White House.

Rutskoi was arrested together with Khasbulatov and other leaders of the rebellion and charged with inciting mass disturbances. He was freed in an amnesty the following year.

Rutskoi formed a nationalist political party, Derzhava, and in 1996 was elected governor of Kursk Oblast, serving until 2000. He has since left public life.

In an interview, Rutskoi said

 

"For 18 years we've been given a series of lies about the events of 1993. But in the past two years the seeds of truth have begun to sprout. I strongly support this for two reasons: not to settle scores with anyone, but to let people know the truth about these tragic events so they're never repeated. Because it's a fratricidal war."

"This is purely a principled position: so no one would ever think and no one would ever say that I cast aside Yeltsin from his chair and rushed to power. I wanted just one thing: that economic reforms were not in the interests of a list in 'Forbes' [magazine] but in the interest of the population. Tragically, I was right -- this was the consequence of the privatization: the impoverishment of the population was total -- we lost our industrial, agricultural, and military capacities."

"When it's said that there was a constitutional crisis, there was no such thing. All Yeltsin's legislative initiatives were, in accordance with the constitution, introduced and decided on in the Congress of People's Deputies."

The Defense Minister: Pavel Grachev
As Yeltsin's standoff against Khasbulatov and Rutskoi careened toward violence, the role of the army became increasingly vital.

As a career soldier, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev rose through the military ranks and became head of the Soviet paratroopers in 1990. He backed Yeltsin during the failed hard-line coup of August 1991 and, according to some press reports, even 

warned him of the plot ahead of time.

And Yeltsin rewarded him handsomely. After the Soviet break-up, Grachev enjoyed a meteoric rise, becoming defense minister in May 1992.

And as the constitutional crisis of 1993 unfolded, Grachev again demonstrated his loyalty to Yeltsin, ordering his troops to shell and storm the White House. Footage taken at the time showed Grachev 

praising his troops for saving Russia from a civil war. 

Just weeks after the storming of the White House, Grachev was made a member of Yeltsin's powerful Security Council and decorated with an award for "personal courage."

But in the coming years he would be dogged by allegations of corruption, earning the moniker "Pasha Mercedes." Grachev's reputation additionally suffered when Dmitry Kholodov, a 27-year-old journalist at the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets," was killed by a booby-trapped briefcase after publishing a series of articles on corruption in the Defense Ministry.

In the halls of power, Grachev also became part of the so-called party of war, a group of advisers -- including presidential security chief Aleksandr Korzhakov, Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Mikhail Barsukov, and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets -- who persuaded Yeltsin to launch his disastrous military campaign in breakaway Chechnya.

Grachev was fired in July 1996, shortly after Yeltsin won a second term in the Kremlin, in a move seen at the time as a purge of Kremlin hard-liners. He worked as an adviser to Russia's state arms exporter until 2007.

Grachev died in September 2012 at the age of 64.

The Interior Minister: Viktor Yerin
Just as with the army, the role of the police and Interior Ministry forces was central to how Yeltsin's conflict with the parliament played out.

Interior Minister Viktor Yerin was a career police officer, a veteran of the Afghan war, and a Yeltsin loyalist.

On October 1, in the midst of the standoff, Yeltsin promoted him to the rank of general and, afterward, awarded him with the title "Hero of the Russian Federation."

Yerin was forced to resign as interior minister in June 1995 after a failed attempt to rescue hostages taken by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev in Budyonnovsk, in southern Russia. He served as deputy head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) until 2000 and has since faded from public life.

The Bodyguard: Aleksandr Korzhakov
Aleksandr Korzhakov was Yeltsin's chief bodyguard, confidant, and reportedly, his drinking buddy.

A career KGB man, Korshakov hailed from the security agency's 9th Division, which was tasked with guarding high officials. In the 1980s he was assigned to Yeltsin when the future president was a rising party star who had just been named first secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, essentially the capital's mayor.

When Yeltsin was removed from office after criticizing the slow pace of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, Korzhakov stuck with him. And as Yeltsin became a rising star in the perestroika-era democratic movement, Korzhakov was by his side.

And when Yeltsin got to the Kremlin, Korzhakov became head of the powerful Presidential Guard Service, wielding enormous behind-the-scenes influence.

Some observers say it was Korzhakov who ultimately convinced Yeltsin to shell and storm the White House. After the crisis of October 1993, Korzhakov's influence grew. Together with Grachev, he reportedly persuaded Yeltsin to send troops to breakaway Chechnya in 1994.

Korzhakov was fired in July 1996. In 1997 he published a memoir of his Kremlin years, "Boris Yeltsin: From Dusk 'Till Dawn,'" in which he lambasted Yeltsin's entourage. He served as a deputy in the State Duma from 1997 to 2011.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Tom Balmforth contributed from Moscow and Glenn Kates from Prague.

Presented by

Mikhail Sokolov and Anastasia Kirilenko are reporters for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  

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