Aleksandr Podrabinek: Between Victory and Defeat [an article originally published on 4 October 1993]

4 October 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Originally published in Ekspress-Khronika, 1993, №40/322

Source: Facebook

Thirty years ago events took place in Russia that could have drastically altered the course of Russian history. The opportunity was lost, however. I thought it would be interesting to jog our memories about the events of 3-4 October. I wrote this article in the immediate aftermath and it was published in the Express-Khronika newspaper. It’s a lengthy piece. If ‘long reads’ aren’t your thing, don’t read it. 


The events that have taken place this week are so significant and unusual that it’s hard to assess them all at once, without retaining doubts and guesswork. There is almost no hope that time will dispel the doubts, however. After all, we know how history is created in Russia! 

People on the Streets

One of the biggest mysteries of recent days is the behaviour of residents of the capital. It’s hard to understand how fascination with what’s going on has defeated caution and fear of death. This fear hasn’t even existed – shoot-outs in the streets have been viewed as entertainment. Perhaps we have become so used to being constantly deceived that now too we don’t believe in the gravity of events? On the afternoon of 4 October, there was an intensive exchange of fire on the corner of Novy Arbat (formerly Kalininsky Prospekt) and the Garden Ring Road. Gunmen were installed in the upper floors of a skyscraper (the one that is home to the Arbat Restaurant), troops had taken up position at the intersection, ‘protected’ only by trucks and a crowd of onlookers. At times, the rattle of rounds of automatic gunfire was continuous. A lacklustre exchange of fire continued almost incessantly. Nevertheless, no one killed or wounded was to be seen. It was a bizarre picture – soldiers sat in their trucks (these stretched in a column from the Garden Ring Road to the Embankment), a crowd of the general public packed the intersection that was coming under fire, gunmen fired from the upper storeys, their targets unknown. The impression that there was a theatricality to the events was heightened by the troops’ peculiar attitude to what was happening. They made no attempt to conceal themselves, they didn’t even try to form a chain in the streets to deny pedestrians access to the scene of the gun battle.

The situation appeared more serious outside the House of Soviets and the Ostankino TV Centre. Multiple chains of police officers, OMON riot police and troops cut off virtually all access to the White House both for passers-by and for journalists. Rifle fire near the TV Centre on the night of 2-4 October was so intensive that no one wanted to approach out of idle curiosity. From time to time, an armoured vehicle, firing at everything around it, would drive away from the TV Centre, which was already held by OMON riot police. Everyone fell to the ground, hid behind structures, jumped down below the embankment of Ostankino Pond. Later, the commanders of the Vityaz Special Purpose Police Unit, which had occupied the TV Centre, would explain this with reference to the fact that gunmen under the command of the Supreme Soviet were firing on the TV Centre from the adjacent streets. No doubt this was so although I, having gone fairly close to the TV Centre, didn’t see a single gunman. 

The Strange Behaviour of the Authorities

The behaviour of the authorities belongs to the many oddities of those days. The inexplicable hesitation in suppressing disorder in the run-up to 3 October reached its peak on the night of 4 October, when there were no police or troops left on the streets. Many impressions of those days made me think that to some extent an escalation in the conflict was advantageous to the authorities.

Here is a typical illustration. At 8 pm on the evening of 24 September, the Rossiiskoe Televidenie [Russian TV] news programme Vesti reported that gunmen from the White House intended to go to CIS troop headquarters on Leningradsky Prospekt. Our correspondent Sasha Sadchikov reported back to those of us at the office of Ekspress Khronika at the very same time that some 15 gunmen, armed with submachine guns, had split off from the crowd outside the White House in full view of everyone and headed towards the Barrikadnaya metro station. The attack came about an hour later, killing one police officer and an elderly woman. The authorities had had enough time not only to strengthen the guard around the White House but also to seal off the entire district, seize and disarm the terrorists and avert the attack. Nothing was done. On 2 October, police officers and firefighters gazed with equanimity at the barricades and bonfires in Smolenskaya Ploshchad, making no attempt to put them out or to dismantle the barricades. OMON officers stirred from their slumber only when struck by rocks thrown at them. 

The policy of concessions and hesitation (real or imagined) continued and this evidently inspired the communist insurgents. Military detachments were formed in the White House and firearms were handed out. During the afternoon of 3 October, the police suddenly abandoned their position near the White House, not only leaving the way into the building open to people who were still unarmed but also allowing gunmen to leave. This seemed like an invitation to active hostilities in the city. No comments were forthcoming from the authorities about the blockade of the House of Soviets being lifted. The radio reported merely that the police and OMON were moving in formation from the White House, along Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Ulitsa towards Ploshchad Mayakovskogo. In this way it remained uncertain whether they did so in response to an order from their commanders and at what level, or whether it was an initiative by the police themselves. 

By evening, Moscow was unrecognizable. I drove my car all around the city centre. Nowhere were there even the usual police patrols or checkpoints, let alone additional units. There were only occasional traffic police patrol cars. In the evening there were reports of the seizure of the Ostankino TV Centre by pro-Communist forces, and one by one the television channels began to be cut off. Only Rossiiskoe Televidenie, broadcasting from another location, and St. Petersburg Television remained on air. To everyone’s bewilderment, the authorities remained silent. It would have been logical to expect President Yeltsin, Defence Minister Grachev, Interior Minister Erin, and Security Minister Galushko to speak on the only television channel left in Moscow. None of them did. What were they doing that evening, what decisions were they taking? Their silence in those decisive hours testifies to the uncertainty of the situation and their unwillingness to confirm what their ultimate choice would be at such an uncertain time. Who but Defence Minister Grachev should have announced the army’s position? The television reports about troops being moved to Moscow, and then that troops were entering Moscow, hung in the air. The troops halted on the roads into Moscow and on the city’s outskirts. What were they waiting for? Who gave them the order to stop? From the southwest direction, armoured vehicles entered Moscow around 9 pm on 3 October. For how many hours were the troops waiting on Leninsky Prospekt before they moved to the places where pro-Communist forces had clashed with the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and OMON riot police? Meanwhile, at Ostankino the militants were confronted only by Interior Ministry forces – the Dzerzhinsky Division. According to later reports from official sources, the troops entered Moscow around 4 a.m. on 4 October. However, this was not actually the case. For at least six hours at least some of the army formations took no action. The OMON riot police who took part in the clashes near the TV centre testify that the troops never appeared there. So what happened? If it was cowardice and a desire to join the winning side, then the commanders responsible should be named. If it was a question of continuing to play a game of indecision to provoke the Communists to more violence and then respond with harsh measures against them, then this game came at too high a price for those opposing the militants. In that case both the government and the president should at the very least resign.

The rally outside Mossovet

All these oddities require an explanation. This is all the more necessary because civilians were caught up in the events. Speaking at around 10 p.m. on 3 October, deputy prime minister Yegor Gaidar called on Muscovites to come to the Mossovet [Moscow city council building] to support democracy. This call came a few hours after President Yeltsin issued a decree introducing a state of emergency in Moscow, which banned all rallies and demonstrations. The deputy prime minister was thus the organizer of a large-scale violation of the decree. However, of course, this is not the point. It is only a minor curiosity. By midnight, about 8,000-10,000 people had gathered near Mossovet. They organized detachments under the command of retired officers and blocked Tverskaya Street and other roads nearby with barricades. Yegor Gaidar, Gleb Yakunin, Vasily Seliunin, Innokenty Smoktunovsky and other public and political figures of a democratic orientation spoke at the rally.

The readiness of Muscovites to defend democracy is worthy of respect in every way. However, it is unclear how Gaidar planned to defend democracy with the help of unarmed Muscovites. No weapons were issued to those gathered. If the militants of the Supreme Soviet had rushed from Ostankino or from the White House to Mossovet, then against their assault rifles, grenade launchers, machine guns, and three armoured personnel carriers wrested from the OMON riot police, Muscovites could have displayed only their unarmed bodies and hatred of communism. The number of casualties would have been huge, and the blame for this would have fallen largely on Gaidar. Thank God, this did not happen. I think Gaidar realized the pointlessness of this rally from a military point of view. It would not have been possible to stop the Communists by a readiness to sacrifice. Perhaps the probability of an attack on the rally at Mossovet was not very high, but even a small chance would have made such a rash appeal to Muscovites unjustifiable. It cannot be said that those gathered were overly enthusiastic about the speeches they heard there, but they expressed support, supported Yeltsin, and were ready for action. People had gathered to help defend democracy. The speakers, who spoke first from a truck and then from the balcony of Mossovet, at the end of their speeches thanked those who had gathered for coming. Gaidar was especially heartfelt in his thanks. It was as if the people had gathered there at the personal request of the speakers, and not to defend a cause they considered right! That’s when I realized why they had called people to this rally. The ambitious speakers needed an audience, grateful listeners, with whose help they could create an aura of heroism for themselves, an aura of fighters for democracy. The risks to which the organizers of the rally subjected its participants were only of secondary importance.

The next day was not good at all. By the evening there were no more than a thousand people left on the square in front of Mossovet. From 11 p.m. the curfew began. The same speakers once again thanked those who had gathered and asked that they go home. Some had come from out of town and it was too late for them to make the journey back. ‘You’re the ones who called us here. Why did you do that?’ they shouted up at the balcony from below. Those on the balcony were silent. Only high-ranking democrats and officials hurrying to a meeting with Commandant Kulikov were allowed inside the fencing surrounding Mossovet. The orators had gone, as had their need for unarmed hotheads ready to defend democracy.


If you ask a person on the street whose side they are on, they’ll most likely answer that they’re on the President’s side or that of the Soviets. But ask them what the actual difference is between the positions of these two sides and what this means for Russia and it’s doubtful you’ll get an answer. The differences are not so perceptible, and the person on the street assesses the reasons for the confrontation absolutely correctly – a struggle for power. Politicians are judged not so much by their concrete actions as by their ideological declarations and their behaviour before the public. One can argue about whether this is good or bad, but it is so. The reasons for the dramatic bitterness of the two sides lie not only in the politics, but in universal human relations. For example, I can’t shake the thought that the decisiveness shown by Yeltsin on 21 September had less to do with the disruptive role of the Supreme Soviet than with the rudeness of Ruslan Khasbulatov, now with regard to the President himself. ‘If he thinks he’s one of the guys, then let him be one of the guys, and not get involved in government administration,’ said the speaker in so many words a few days before Yeltsin’s Decree No. 1400 of 21 September.

The bitterness of many deputies, not only the Communists, over the crackdown on the parliament can be understood. They were betrayed and dealt with treacherously. They all – the deputies and the President – played by shared rules. They played for a long time. The President swore on the Constitution, argued over legal amendments, introduced bills, recognized the legality of the Constitutional Court and state structures. Then, when he understood that he could not win, he said: ‘I am not playing,’ and kicked all his partners out! This step is formally defined unambiguously – betrayal, deception, political cynicism. Treachery always stinks, whatever its proclaimed goals. The goals may be good, but the means are bad.

The same applies to the deputies who joined the presidential team after Yeltsin’s decree. That Yeltsin’s decree was unconstitutional, no one challenges, even Yeltsin himself. Honest politics consists in following the norms and rules, which the politician himself has publicly accepted. The changing of these rules out of political expediency – this is dirty politics, and we are witnessing it today. Of course, politicians make allowances for themselves, justifying themselves with phrases like ‘politics is a dirty business.’ However, the business is neither dirty nor clean in itself, but it is what people make it. Considerations of expediency are also unconvincing – a good thing should not come from bad. Apart from the unimportant moral tinge, the presidential position also has clear pragmatic minuses. The lightness with which the President and his ‘democrats’ hold their own promises foretells unhappy times in the near future. They will just as easily disperse a genuine parliament if they cannot persuade it and do not want to obey. A precedent has been created, and situations in politics often repeat themselves. Another danger exists in that all the voters who took the elections and the parliament seriously were also deceived. Another time, they may not believe in either the idea of parliamentarism itself, or in the democrats, who, having promised to defend the interests of voters at party congresses and in the Supreme Soviet, abandoned their mandates as soon as the executive demanded it of them.

I will stipulate immediately – I do not identify with such voters in any way: I did not participate in the elections and did not vote, believing all of it to be a farce and an unworthy game of parliamentarism. I do not feel myself cheated, but what should those who sincerely voted in the elections, believing that they really elect their representatives, feel? Especially if they did not vote for the democrats who are winning today? They were just cheated! Sincere resentment for the fraud moved many supporters of the White House, many deputies. They, of course, have grounds for this.

The President and the Opposition

All discussions about a clean politics could be considered scholastic, if it were not for the dramatic events of 3-4 October for which one of the psychological reasons, I think, is outrage at the disregard for the rules of the game. The outrage of many deputies at the president’s betrayal of the Russian Constitution is clearly not fake, not feigned. And nothing can be said – betrayal is betrayal.

But what should have been done? Was it necessary to put an end to Soviet power? Of course! The positive effect of this successful anti-Soviet intervention is obvious, especially now that the destruction has already reached the local soviets [councils] in Moscow. The Communists have been deprived of the last reliable stronghold of totalitarianism in Russia.

But there is also a negative effect from what has happened. This consists above all in the fact that the current executive power is no longer restrained by any opposition – neither from the right nor from the left. Back in the first years of ‘perestroika,’ the democrats, with the support of Academician Sakharov, for the most part rushed into government without taking care to create an effective opposition. The Communist opposition seems, thank God, to have been defeated. But the executive branch is indivisible, isolated and unpredictable.

At turning points in history, strategic miscalculations can be more easily seen than at any other time. Today is such a moment in the history of Russia. Today we can see how much the country needs a genuine opposition formed on a platform of human rights. Not a ‘spiritual opposition’ of wretched national-communists, not a ‘centrist opposition’ juggling with ideas and balancing between those who are stronger.

Today, the government is left without an opposition, and this is very dangerous. The recent events in Moscow are a case in point. It was necessary to destroy the Soviet regime, in the final resort, even in the way it has now been done. But it should have been done not by a president who took his oath to the Soviet Constitution but by a leader or movement standing outside, not recognising, Soviet power. At the critical moment, there was no such leader or movement. It is not known whether Yeltsin would have ceded power to such an opposition, thereby giving it the opportunity to crack down on the Soviets, but if that had happened he could have avoided the charge of betrayal. Moreover, Yeltsin has now lost, in terms of logic, not only the possibility of acting in accordance with the laws and the Constitution (after the crushing of the Soviets, this would be ridiculous), but also in accordance of any legal framework at all. It was inevitable that an end had to be put to the Soviet regime, that is obvious today as never before. But it should have been done not by those who treated this power as their own. Then by whom? Today there is essentially no one. This is the tragedy of the current situation and bears the seeds of future civil conflicts. (It is sad that we wrote about this in Ekspress-Khronika back in the days of the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, using almost the same words, and we were accused of extremism from all sides).

One more chance

Despite the absence of a democratic opposition, until recently President Yeltsin still had one more opportunity to hand over power to those who, possibly, might be able to lead Russia towards the rule of law and democracy. This opportunity remains even now. It is the convening of a Constituent Assembly, ready to establish the foundations of a new system of law and statehood in Russia.

It is not apparent that Yeltsin wants to use this opportunity. Instead, he is making plans to create yet another caricature parliament, whose upper house, the Federation Council, will have unelected members, appointed by who knows who. Elections to the lower house – the State Duma – are supposed to be held as early as December, that is, hastily, any old how, without a proper electoral campaign, with a weak press and virtually no opposition. However, this is a topic for another time.

Today we may note with sadness that the collapse of Soviet power was accompanied by casualties that probably could have been avoided; that what we see is a country that remains in a state of emergency both in the literal and metaphorical sense; and that victory over pro-Communist forces is far from guaranteeing the victory of democracy.

And we may note, with genuine relief, that the emergency measures adopted have not all been of the worst kind; that there are still opportunities for a favourable outcome from the current situation; and that not all hope has yet been lost.

Translated by Melanie Moore, Simon Cosgrove and Alyssa Rider

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