The pendulum of violence in Russia started swinging 30 years ago, in October 1993

Thirty years since Black October of 1993: Tragedy of Russian parliamentarianism

A major crisis broke out in Russia in the beginning of October 1993. It was the most serious crisis in post-Soviet history. Disagreements between President Boris Yeltsin and parliamentary leaders led to bloody massacre on the streets of Moscow. 

The number of victims of the Black October crisis remains unknown even 30 years after. According to various departments and commissions, the number of victims varies from 124 to 158 people. Witnesses say, however, that hundreds were killed and thousands of others were injured. 

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the 1978 Constitution of the RSFSR was still in force vesting supreme powers on the Supreme Council and the Congress of People's Deputies.

This legal position of the Constitution was at odds with the political realities in which Boris Yeltsin served as president. Disputes over Yeltsin's reforms and methods of privatisation aggravated the conflict between legislative and executive branches of government.

Yegor Gaidar was in charge of economic policy in the Yeltsin government. His decision to liberalise prices in January 1992 led to hyperinflation. Prices increased by 25 times, the population was impoverished. Deputies were opposed to the dramatic change of the Soviet economy to capitalist lines.

On September 21, 1993, Boris Yeltsin signed Decree No. 1400 “On stage-by stage constitutional reform in the Russian Federation.” The decree provided for the dissolution of the Supreme Council and the termination of the powers of the Congress of People's Deputies.

The same day, Chairman of the Supreme Council Ruslan Khasbulatov called Yeltsin's actions a coup d’état and said that parliament was not going to resign. At an emergency meeting of people's deputies on September 22, a resolution was adopted to terminate Yeltsin’s powers and appoint Vice President Alexander Rutskoy as acting head of state.

Rutskoy failed in his attempt to reassign the heads of law enforcement agencies. Defence Minister Pavel Grachev and Internal Affairs Minister Viktor Yerin remained loyal to Yeltsin.

To prevent a forceful dispersal of parliament, Khasbulatov spoke at a meeting of deputies with a call to ensure the defence of the Supreme Council building (the House of Soviets, also known as the White House, was already at the centre of the confrontation in August 1991 during the State Emergency Committee; after reconstruction, the building housed the government of the Russian Federation). 

Thousands of people took to the streets to support the legislative power. 

To disperse the protesters, the government sent riot police and internal troops to the White House. The authorities also ordered to disconnect the building of the Supreme Council from communication systems, water and electricity supplies in order to interrupt the work of people's deputies.

Supporters of parliament (thousands of ordinary citizens) were protesting against the actions of the security forces and erected barricades on the roads to the White House to impede the passage of armoured vehicles of government forces. The situation in the center of Moscow was escalating rapidly. 

The police were forcing the protesters out from Oktyabrskaya Square not to let them gather in large numbers in one location. The actions of the security forces pushed protest leaders to make a column of those who came to the rally and march towards the building of the Supreme Council. More than 100,000 people had gathered on Leninsky Prospekt by noon.

At approximately 13:00, White House supporters started walking towards Smolenskaya Square. Numerical superiority allowed the demonstrators to break through the police cordon on the Crimean Bridge and put the riot police to flight.

When retreating, the riot police sprayed tear gas. However, the gas attack was thwarted because of the wind over the Moskva River.

Tens of thousands of people gathered outside the parliament building chanting “All power to Councils!” and “Yeltsin’s gang - to justice!” Many protesters were holding red flags of the USSR and Russian imperial insignia: St. Andrew's flags and black-yellow-white tricolour flag.

Khasbulatov and Rutskoy addressed the protesters from the balcony with an appeal.

“Storm the Kremlin! - Khasbulatov called. “Yeltsin, the usurper, must be imprisoned today!”

“Young people, combat-ready men! Line up here, on the left side, form squads! - Rutskoy was shouting in the loudspeaker. “We need to storm the mayor’s office and Ostankino (the TV center - ed.) today.”

Rebel general Albert Makashov and nationalist Alexander Barkashov were responsible for the formation of assault troops.

Makashov commanded the Volga-Ural Military District, and in 1991 he became a candidate for president of the RSFSR. After solidarity with the State Emergency Committee, he was dismissed from service. Barkashov, a mechanic by profession, a karate trainer, led the far-right Russian National Unity.

Parliamentary militia fighters were armed with an impressive arsenal of special equipment supplemented with firearms from the White House security vault. According to various estimates, there were from 100 to 1000 pieces of small arms in the armoury room of the Supreme Council.

A fierce battle for the Moscow City Hall broke out soon afterwards. After a shootout with the police, members of the parliamentary militia broke through the central entrance and seized the headquarters of the Main Internal Affairs Directorate that was responsible for law and order at the White House.

The assault lasted for about 30 minutes. A red flag was raised over the mayor's office, and the protesters felt that the power was in their hands. 

They got into seized police vehicle and went to the television centre on Academician Korolev Street. Their plan was to seize the propaganda tool and announce a regime change in Russia.

On the afternoon of October 3, Yeltsin was staying at his residence in Barvikha near Moscow. He returned to Moscow by helicopter later during the day and signed a decree introducing a state of emergency. The decree ordered law enforcement agencies to take measures to maintain law and order in the city. In his statement to the media Yeltsin asked Muscovites to support the legitimate government and not to succumb to provocations of the rebels.

White House supporters arrived at the Ostankino television centre at 18:00. They wanted to address the country on live TV. However, the television centre building had been already been surrounded by internal troops by that time. 

Fighters of Vityaz special forces and riot police were sent to guard the television centre. The security forces were armed with 320 machine guns and sniper rifles, 12 grenade launchers, and six armoured personnel carriers. This is evidenced by the State Duma report on the analysis of the events of September 21 - October 5, 1993 in Moscow.

General Makashov addressed the soldiers of the internal troops with an ultimatum: lay down arms in three minutes and leave the perimeter of the building. The demand was not fulfilled, and parliamentary militia trucks started ramming the entrance to the television centre.

Government armoured personnel carriers started shooting at parliament supporters. There were journalists and ordinary onlookers staying near Ostankino at the moment when the battle sparked. Many of them were either killed or injured (according to official data, 46 people were killed and 124 were injured).

After the unsuccessful attempt to seize the television centre, Makashov ordered to return to the White House.

Street fighting subsided at night. The Krasnopresnenskaya embankment remained under the control of the Supreme Council. Presidential forces were on duty in the area of Lubyanka and Old Square. Several divisions were approaching Moscow. Tank columns of those divisions had been used for intimidation in August 1991. However, the leaders of the State Emergency Committee did not dare to use tanks against the White House.

Was there any chance for peace in October 1993?

Rustem Safronov, parliamentary correspondent in 1993-1996:

"Was there a chance for a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the Supreme Council and President Yeltsin in the fall of 1993? Of course, there was. There are times in history when, as Karl Marx put it, "the weapon of criticism" is inferior to "criticism with a weapon." A few days before the bloody massacre, I covered the negotiations that took place through the mediation of Patriarch Alexy, and I can testify that it was the Yeltsinists who took an irreconcilable position. Supporters of the Supreme Council tried to find ways to resolve the crisis peacefully. However, the decision had been made.

"It was obvious that tragedy could not be avoided.

"After demonstrators broke through the blockade around Mir Hotel and the Supreme Council, there was confusion among Yeltsin's supporters. And then, after the Ostankino massacre, when Vityaz fighters were shooting at the crowd of people trying to break into Ostankino with large-caliber machine guns, liberals Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Nemtsov demanded the use of force.

"Boris Nemtsov then said a well-known phrase shortly before the shelling: “…Crush them, crush them, Viktor Stepanovich, there is no time. Destroy them!” 

"The pendulum of violence in the country started swinging. In today's Russia, many political issues are usually resolved by force, but it all started in October 1993.

"The 1993 coup instilled fear in many Russian citizens. Many were led to believe that any reforms could be pushed through by force, despite the resistance of the population. 

"The amnesty that the State Duma (Yeltsin's then new parliament) declared following the October events buried hopes of criminal prosecution of those who unleashed the massacre.

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The storming of Ostankino in 1993
Author`s name Andrey Mihayloff
Editor Dmitry Sudakov