All is Well
The Death of Russia
All is Well
Extract from ‘A Continent of Fire’ by James Melfi
All is Well
Extract from ‘A Continent of Fire’ by James Melfi
Those heady days of 1989, 1991. We thought we’d escaped it. Escaped the third and final cataclysm of the Twentieth Century. True, we avoided the Third World War between the nations but we saw the Third World War within a nation. Or more accurately, between the many nations of one doomed country. We watched, unable to do anything, as the ghosts of dead empires rose to damn the living. The scenes just years ago of crowds in jubilation at the dawn of unending freedom of Europe were erased from our minds. Now all we saw were the lonely bodies of emaciated villagers line the streets of abandoned villages slowly hide under the Siberian snow. Just as ‘1914’ and ‘1939’ chill our blood, perhaps it was the destruction of our dreams that made the year ‘1993’ so much more chilling.
Extract from ‘The Unstoppable Tragedy: The Second Russian Civil War’ by Peter Hodges
Contrary to popular imagination, Yeltsin’s overthrow was not the spark that kicked off a wave of Post-Soviet bloodshed, but only the latest in a string of violence. Armenia and Azerbaijan were fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Tajikistan was in the midst of a brutal Civil War, Georgia was fighting an independence movement in Abkhazia that was aided by Russia and Transnistria had just been formed from the Russian intervention in Moldova. And of course, Yugoslavia had already torn itself apart in a wave of ethnic violence that would eerily foreshadow what was to come. At the same time, there were many territorial disputes that seem almost quaint now. Sevastopol was a bone of contention for the Russians in Ukraine, there were Russian troops in the Baltics and Warsaw Pact states and many of those states were trying to join NATO to mixed reception in the US. Perhaps most importantly for the fate of the region, the nuclear weapon question regarding Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan remained unresolved.
But the main thing that the average man on the street thought about was, of course, the escalating economic and social collapse that had swept the Post-Soviet states. The pain in the Warsaw Pact nations was one thing, but for the Soviet states (especially the three core East Slavic states of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) their economies had not only been thoroughly centrally planned practically to the street telephone box, but they had no one who remembered a time when anything but Communism was in charge, unlike the Poles, Hungarians, or even the Balts. Consequently, the pain was increasingly intense as one moved east over the old Communist Bloc, with only the Lenin statues as the Ozzymandias style ruins of the Soviet Empire. Inflation was indescribable, the ordered streets had vanished into a free-for-all of gangsters of all levels of thuggery. The ethnic hatreds that had simmered for decades in silence roared out in a wave of racist attacks on non-Slavic citizens in Russia especially. The class hatreds once extinguished by the equal distribution of misery under Communism was renewed as corrupt privatisation practices left millions of ordinary Russians short-changed while a new class of parasitic oligarchy was founded from the most corrupt recesses of the Communist party and literal criminals. To add insult to injury, the new Oligarchs stored their wealth in Swiss banks and ensured none of it would be invested in the country they robbed from. In 1992 alone, the GDP contracted by an unimaginable 14.5%.
This gave renewed life to both the Communist and Fascist movements inside Russia, and weakened the already decaying support democracy had and needed to function in Russia. The situation is often compared to Weimar Germany in how it fundamentally made Russians lose faith in the concept not just of Capitalism but democracy in general, much like the hyperinflation and political chaos of Weimar Germany reinforced many Germans’ desire for authoritarianism. Like Weimar Germany a thriving free-speech atmosphere pervaded the streets as people were finally able to openly speak their minds without fear of persecution, but this was to be cut tragically short.
The main political warfare in 1993 was between two groups: President Boris Yeltsin and his cabinet (who were seen as responsible for the economic tailspin) and the Russian Parliament. The latter was supported by the banned National Salvation Front, a Frankenstein alliance of convenience between the racist reactionary Right and dictatorial Communist Left. Yeltsin accused the Parliament of being unreformed Communists while Parliament accused him of consolidating power. Both cast themselves as the defenders of a democracy that wouldn’t exist within the year. One of the chief architects of the economic reforms, Yegor Gaidar, was removed from the position of acting Prime Minister by the now resistive Parliament. Smelling blood in the water after the Supreme Court ruled Yeltsin’s attempts to block Parliament unconstitutional, the Parliament attempted and failed to impeach Yeltsin in March 1993, leading to the new Chairman of Parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov to propose a series of referendums to resolve the question of whether the President or Parliament would yield. Despite the results generally going in the direction the Yeltsin camp wanted, the Supreme Court ruled the results to have had an insufficient turnout to be binding.
Some believe that the Second Russian Civil War began as early as May 1st 1993, when a joint group of Communist and Far-Right protestors clashed with the police, leading to one policeman being killed. But the events that escalated the disintegration of the Russian Federation could be said to have become unstoppable on September 1st 1993 after another failed attempt to reconcile between Yeltsin and Parliament, as Yeltsin unconstitutionally fired Vice-President Alexander Rutskoy on fraudulent corruption charges and began criminal proceedings. Another attempt to impeach Yeltsin by appealing to the Supreme Court was met with Yeltsin making a televised address on September 21st, where he announced that he had dissolved the Parliament and Supreme Court by Presidential Decree. Needless to say this move was not recognised by Parliament, who declared that Rutskoy was now acting President. Over the next few days, chaos erupted in the streets as Pro-Yeltsin and Pro-Parliament protestors fought it out.
Until October 3rd it was unsure which side would win the stand-off. Parliament was holed up inside a White House that had been disconnected from water and electricity. But one factor that had not been discussed was the military, which continued to bide its time in the shadows, still refusing to declare for either side, though it was fair to say that up until then they were nominally for Yeltsin. This was, naturally, dependent on the country remaining relatively split on the issue and not swinging hard on the side of Parliament.
Unfortunately for Yeltsin, on the night of October 3rd, everyone in the country would know that his time was up.
Extract from interview with Benjamin Rich, aka Bald and Bankrupt
Interviewer: “You’ve made a name for yourself on Youtube exploring Post-Communist Europe. Can you tell us your first experience going to that part of the world?”
B&B: “Well, would you believe it, a bright, barely-able-to-speak-a-word-of-Russian 19 year old me was actually in Moscow in the middle of the standoff between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet.”
Interviewer: “No way! Thank God you got out.”
B&B: “I wasn’t so sure I would. On October 3rd I’d actually snuck out of the hotel after the staff were telling us “Do not go outside, it’s too dangerous”. As you can probably imagine I took it to be a sort of challenge so I got out and went near the White House where they’d built a gigantic barricade with hundreds of men with guns all over the place. They let out a big cheer and I now look back and realize that this was the moment when they were telling the crowd that they had to take the TV centre, as well as the City Council building. I stuck around and kept me head down but, I’ll tell you what, there were a lot of moments where I regretted it. About every twenty seconds or something you heard this loud crack coming from near the City Council building, and I knew that all the talk about snipers was true. There were people just lying dead or nearly dead in the middle of the street that I could see in the distance. Eventually they took the City Council building and then they went heading for the TV centre. That’s when the chaos got really intense and I just decided, right, I’m hunkering down here in this alley, it’s madness to go out into that street. And that’s when I saw something that at the time I didn’t really understand but obviously I look back and think ‘Jesus, I was lucky’, both to say I saw him and that he didn’t shoot me. I look out into the street and I see this chap leading the plain-clothes Pro-Soviet gunmen, shooting down the street and presumably hitting somebody. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but obviously when I saw him on the TV that night, I found out that he was Albert Makashov.”
Interviewer: “You saw Albert Makashov?”
B&B: “Yeah, small world! Before everyone knew who he was, there was 19 year old Benjamin hiding in some puddle that was probably full of some Gopnik’s piss while the fate of the largest country in the world was blowing up just in front of me! It took another hour or two for me to get moving. I managed to sneak back into the hotel without anyone catching on, thank God. The reason actually was, when I came in, all the staff were watching the TV in disbelief. Turns out that just before I got back, they managed to take the TV station and show all the carnage that police and OMON had been dishing out to everybody. Makashov was there, [Alexander] Nevzorov was there, going on about how Yeltsin was a tyrant and slaughtering the Russian people. They had these horrific, unedited pictures of women that got absolutely blasted to bits by the snipers, even showing some of the protestors getting ran over by tanks. I’d just been out in it but thank God I didn’t go anywhere near the TV centre. That would have been far too bloody dangerous. That’s when I sort of realised what I’d gotten meself into.”
Interviewer: “What was the reaction from everyone at the time?”
B&B: “It was madness. I have no idea how much of the staff were on Yeltsin’s side before those scenes were being played on every TV from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, but afterwards? No, everyone in the hotel just looked absolutely disgusted. I knew then that this wasn’t going to end well for him, and unfortunately little did I know or anyone know that those horrors on the TV were going to look absolutely tame compared to what was about to come.
Extract from ‘The Unstoppable Tragedy: The Second Russian Civil War’ by Peter Hodges
The military had been noticeably quiet in the midst of the carnage in Moscow. That all changed on the night of October 3rd, just hours after the footage of the chaotic slaughter outside the Ostankino TV centre was being played on loop with no censorship. Yeltsin’s orders to block the signal, and even to bomb the station using the air force were ignored. Rutskoy, a former military man, soon found the military swinging to Parliament’s side and offering to remove Yeltsin. The mood in the White House (most certainly not the American one) was restored. The army had, of course, not sided out of some humanitarian concern over the protestors but in loaning themselves out like mercenaries to the highest bidder - after the footage of the bodies went out, Yeltsin’s stock had crashed to zero. The army now sided with the only group that could guarantee them something. As General Pavel Grachev drove a tank under a white flag to the Parliament to publicly proclaim the army’s loyalty to parliament, he pledged to fight the corruption that he practically defined. "All is well, all is well," he assured. As the army now publicly sided with Parliament, and the Pro-Yeltsin protestors vanished into the night, knowing it was now a lost cause, the writing was now thoroughly on the wall for the man who led Russia out of dictatorship.
As midnight struck, the rats began to flee the ship. Anatoly Chubais, considered the ‘mastermind’ behind the privatisations, sped off from the Kremlin in his car to the airport before Grachev had even finished speaking. Yegor Gaidar had left Moscow even before that in case something like this happened. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the official Prime Minister after having been Gazprom’s leader, was more muted but decided to fly beyond the Urals to friendlier ground. One by one, the cabinet left Yeltsin, until there was only one: Alexander Korzhakov, his old bodyguard. But even Korzhakov would go in the wee small hours of the morning, as Yeltsin sat alone, shattered but unmoving in his semi-inebriated state. As Korzhakov would write in his autobiography, “One curtain as another was pulled open, a tragic rise and fall, followed by what was simply a fall. Though I felt pity for the man before me, pity as he tried to relive 1991 all over again, I could not help but have more pity to the millions who had been let down by his corruption, his greed, his failure to live up to the hopes and dreams of millions of Russians. And if I’d known what all his failures would lead to, I would have stayed in the Presidential Office as it all came crumbling down, both to die before I saw what became of my country, and to gain the pleasure of watching him die.”
On the morning of October 4th 1993, tanks began to fire on the Kremlin, the intention of Rutskoy and the moderate members of Parliament had been simply to get Yeltsin to come out. However, while they insisted on a more moderate approach, Grachev told them that it wouldn't be necessary and that a few sharp blasts of the tank shells would make him come out. But Yeltsin would not come out, despite the repeated unbelievable scenes of shells slamming into the centre of what was the world’s co-equal premier superpower. It was then that smoke began to billow through the windows. Realising what was happening, a few panicked staff tried to return to the building to convince Yeltsin to come out and surrender, but were held back by soldiers assuming they were trying to aid him in some fashion. By the time the seriousness of the situation was realised, it was already much too late. While it is often alleged that Yeltsin was too inebriated or asleep at the time the fire consumed him, we can never know this for sure, though it did feature in various propaganda stories in the war to follow from many sides. But even if it was true that Yeltsin had perished in such a way, the utter tragedy of a man who risked his life to bring democracy to the Soviet Union, that let the Balts and Ukrainians find their independence, that brought the only form of political freedom that most Russians had ever known in their lives, albeit for a tragically brief moment, is more important than any sneers about what he didn’t do.
With the death of Boris Yeltsin died Russia’s last chance of becoming a normal democracy. Though many prayed that the violence would now finally relinquish, it was unimaginable how wrong they would be. Though there were so many stages and parties that's it’s almost impossible to say definitively when the war began, most historians are in general agreement: The moment the first tank’s shell slammed into the Kremlin, the Second Russian Civil War Era began.