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Russians still divided over 1993 autumn crisis in Moscow

October 02, 2013, 14:51 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, October 2 (Itar-Tass) - Russia’s political turmoil of 20 years ago (the September-October sanguinary political standoff in the centre of Moscow), when the country was just one step away from civil war, still divides the public at large. The then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, first issued a decree to disband the national legislature - the Supreme Soviet. In a short while, on October 4, the white marble parliament building overlooking the Moskva River came under tank gunfire from a nearby bridge. The whole world still remembers the day-long live coverage of that tragedy from the US television network CNN, whose cameras were planted on the roof of a hotel building across the river, and the crowds of idle onlookers who had come to see the violent crackdown on the citadel of Russia’s legally-elected top body of representative power.

President Yeltsin and his team clashed with a group of firm opponents under Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi and Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov. The two camps adhered to irreconcilable views on how the reforms of the country’s economy should proceed. Also, power ambitions on both sides were blown out of proportion.

Direct clashes occurred between the Supreme Soviet, which had promptly armed itself after President Yeltsin’s decree disbanding it, and the backers of the authorities in the Kremlin. The attempt by Vice-President Rutskoi’s suporters to storm the Ostankino television centre and the shootout that followed claimed 46 lives. The crackdown on left another 101 dead.

Instead of the Supreme Soviet, abolished in December 1993, a new composition of parliament was elected. It was called the State Duma. The name had existed back in Tsarist Russia.

The Public Opinion fund in 1993 published results of a survey indicating that 50 percent of Russians then supported the president’s dissolution of parliament.

Twenty years after, at the end of September 2013, the Levada Centre pollster has asked the respondents who was right and who was wrong in the October 3-4 1993 bloodshed in Moscow. This time, a tiny seven percent offered the late first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, their support. Eleven percent of the polled believe that the Supreme Soviet and its supporters were right, 18 percent share the very vague statement that “both were right to a certain extent.” Thirty-five percent said that both were wrong and 29 percent remained undecided.

What is the reason for such a drastic change in the people’s attitude to the events of the recent past?

The events of autumn 1993 were proceeding at a galloping pace. Yeltsin was determined to push ahead with western-style economic reforms. The Supreme Soviet was for a smooth, gradual modernisation. The confrontation lasted for two years, from the very moment Yeltsin had been elected president in 1991. Back in 1992, before the open clash between the two branches of power, Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Poltoranin used the media to probe into the possibility of disbanding the national parliament because Yeltsin saw it as a hindrance to steering the country out of the crisis.

Rutskoi and Khasbulatov both angrily criticised the team of “young reformers” under acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. "Kids in rose-coloured pants" was one of the most derogatory terms Gaidar and his fellow reformers earned in those days.

Gaidar was a firm advocate of the shock therapy economic concept. Aleksei Mikhailov, currently deputy editor-in-chief of the online periodical, was among his opponents. Mikhailov believes that the violent crackdown on parliament had become inevitable in the autumn of 1991 because the selected configuration of economic reforms was disastrously wrong.

In the early 1990s, Mikhailov worked at the Russian government. “Gaidar and I existed in parallel worlds... We were unable to hear each other... Gaidar failed to cope even with the easiest part of his programme - the promise to curb prices. Gaidar failed because his government had been politically weak. He was the one who had freed prices so the opposition’s attack against reforms hit Gaidar first and foremost.

As long as the outcome of the confrontation remained unclear, the then Russian elite was faced with a stark choice about which side to support.

Federation Council member Vitaly Ignatenko, in those days Itar-Tass director-general, has recalled the events of 20 years ago especially for this story."Who else was to be backed in those circumstances? Of course, the Kremlin and Boris Yeltsin, who in that situation just could not afford to let Supreme Soviet members use military force to establish a pro-Communist regime. Where would have Russia been today but for Yeltsin’s vector directed towards economic reform?

Ignatenko believes that the people’s current indifference to the events of October 1993 is not Yeltsin’s fault. “It is a result of the following years and the 1998 default and the economic turmoil. Quite a few politicians have made careers in the hectic 1990s. Some of them are still in the position of shaping public opinion, including that of the events of 20 years ago.”

Rudolf Pikhoya, in 1993-1996 the chief of Russia’s State Archive Service, has told Itar-Tass in an interview that “The massive support for Boris Yeltsin in 1993 has dissolved by now because that autumn entailed sky-high inflation and the war in Chechnya. Society gradually developed the feeling everything that was happening around was devoid of any sense, because every new change merely made life worse.”

The country’s former chief archivist believes that in the middle of the 1990s, Russia began a systematic revision of moral benchmarks. “In those years, the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats had a majority in the State Duma. The people who in 1993 had issued calls for storming Ostankino and the Kremlin were amnestied and became parliament members. Rutskoi was even elected a regional governor.

Pikhoya also points to one quite remarkable circumstance. “The Yelstin regime is now under the fire of criticism both from his traditional opponents and the Liberal Democrats, who in 1993 were on Yeltsin’s side.”