Whose Coup? Whose Democracy?

David Finkel

“I BELIEVE THAT one of the main lessons of the events of September and October,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, “is what we have learned about the total moral collapse of Western political elites.”

Kagarlitsky spoke by phone with Suzi Weissman on October 8, for a radio interview broadcast the following day on KPFK in Los Angeles. Although still clearly feeling the effects of severe beatings he suffered in detention at the police station a few days earlier, the Russian socialist activist and elected member of the Russian city soviet (council) dissolved by Yeltsin expressed his outrage at the support of Western governments for Yeltsin’s massacre at the Parliament.

“Even for those of us who never had extreme illusions regarding Western democracies, it’s kind of striking how hypocritical and basically undemocratic Western leadership is. This is a matter to be discussed by the Western public. For the first time in history that I know of, their leaders not only support a dictatorship and a coup d’etat—which happens often—but support it publicly. They’ve supported Pinochet in Chile, the South African and South Korean dictatorships, but at least they never made public statements about Pinochet as a ‘democrat.’

“We will never forget and never forgive that, I assure you. And even people who are absolutely not socialist say that there is tremendous frustration with the West inside Russia, the bitterness of people feeling that they were betrayed and that the West is against any democratic progress in Russia.”

While exact figures on arrests are obviously unavailable, Kagarlitsky believed that around 3000 people had been taken in. He expressed particular concern about the possible fate of prisoners who do not have the international contacts to generate the pressure that forced his release.

What Happened?

It will be a long time, if ever, before a full accounting of the events of October 3-4 is compiled. From what is already available in eyewitness accounts and interviews transmitted through electronic bulletin boards and networks, a picture begins to emerge that is shockingly, if not surprisingly, at variance with the conventional story of Yeltsin’s forces waging a defensive democratic struggle.

We in the West awoke October 3 to news reports and cable TV footage of “hardline” rioters smashing through undermanned police lines, breaking the siege of the parliament building and following Rutskoi’s instructions to storm the television stations. There are strong suspicions as to why the police presence that Sunday was so apparently thin.

In a report titled “Obviously a Provocation of the Government,” written October 6, reporter Mikhail Tsovma claims the chaos of October 3 and subsequent days was “exactly what Yeltsin was looking for when he started his coup d’etat [with the declaration dissolving parliament—ed.] on September 21, and there are clear signs that he or at least somebody from his team were the people who worked hard to reach this result.

“Communist fighters and ‘snipers’ somehow leaked through the lines of police and troops surrounding the White House … Gunfire is heard in various districts of Moscow, but it is quite likely that as occurred in Moscow’s northern suburb of Otradnoye the evening of October 5, policemen are just firing their guns into the air. What is it if not an outright provocation designed to make people believe they need more law and order?

“Even the English-language periodical Moscow Tribune, which seems to believe unquestioningly the stories about Communist snipers, published material revealing how the forces of order were too reluctant when dealing with the rioters on October 3 during the classes on Oktyabrskaya and Smolenskaya Square. ‘We’ve got other goals. We have other orders,’ a police officer is reported to say when asked why at least 120 police had done so little to stop 40 rioters, when the clashes were just beginning” (John Helmer, Moscow Crisis: The First Spark, Moscow Tribune, October 5).

Tsovma’s report and another written the same day by Laure Akai also suggest that the first civilian deaths were shootings not by “Communist’ snipers but by government troops. Akai’s account (“Bloody Monday. Yeltsin Provokes Violence to Justify His Political Repression’) is an eyewitness to some of these incidents. On Sunday evening, Akai and two Mends, standing outside the Mayor’s building across from the White House, found themselves surrounded by Yeltsin’s troops when:

“We witnessed a woman near us take out a pistol from her pocket and begin shooting in the air. It seemed entirely strange to us and we weren’t sure who she was or what she was shooting at There was so much going on that surely few people noticed. Then she slowly walked to the blown-out first floor windows of the Mayor’s building. We watched very intently because we thought she might be a communist or a nationalist (though she was too well dressed) and might try to shoot one of the soldiers. Instead she started to talk to one of them and entered the building from the side.”

Later, as Akai and companions walked toward Garden Ring Road, “soldiers were trying to get us to run and create some hysteria … Suddenly guns started firing down the Garden Ring Road. We ran through an archway into a courtyard. We couldn’t go any further because there was fire into the courtyard (which) could only have come from the troops that we had passed and who were trying to create a panic less than five minutes earlier.”

In the panic flight that followed, Akai witnessed firing from windows into the courtyard as well as guns fired toward surrounding buildings. “It occurred to me that the only people who could be firing into the courtyard at ground level were Yeltsin’s troops … The TV reported sniper fire in several areas of the city and claimed this was done by opposition rebels on the loose … But after hearing more and more people report unusual incidents, and incidents similar to mine, I’m beginning to wonder.”

Poul Funder Larsen, a Swedish journalist whose reports appear in the European monthly International Viewpoint, also filed stories by electronic mail that day. It was, Larsen stated, “Boris Yeltsin’s coup d’etat on September 21, outlawing the democratically elected parliament and suspending the constitutional court, that opened this Pandora’s box;” and then, “the political adventurism and total miscalculation of the relationship of forces by Alexander Rutskoi and the leadership of the Supreme Soviet triggered off the disaster.

“Drawing on the parliament’s armed defenders—a rag-tag ‘army’ of Afghan veterans, extreme nationalists and hardline Stalinists—they organized impromptu militias to attack the office of the Moscow Mayor and the TV center at Ostankino. This was an insane gamble and a break with mass-based, democratic forms of struggle, a fact which was immediately seized and utilized by Yeltsin.

“Though it seems clear that the forces stationed at the TV center were the first to open fire at the approaching militias, there are no excuses for the tactics adopted by the parliamentary leadership. In turn it was used to legitimize Yeltsin’s slaughter at the White House, (which) was not made for any military reasons—as the defeat of Rutskoi was obvious even before the bombardment began—but for political ones: to exterminate the leaders of the opposition and send an unmistakable message to regions and parts of the armed forces inclined to side with the parliament.”

The Beating of the Prisoners

This was the climate in which Boris Kagarlitsky and many others came under arrest A report by Kirill Buketov and Renfrey Clarke supplies many of the details (Clarke is Moscow correspondent for the Australian Green Left Weekly).

When arrested around 11 pm on October 3, three “Party of Labor Ian independent socialist political initiative—ed.] leaders, Alexander Segal, Boris Kagarlitsky and Vladimir Kondratov, had just played a role in preventing a further attack on a television and radio station at Shabolovka, to the south of the city center. Segal is press secretary to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, Kagarlitsky and Kondratov deputies to the now-abolished Moscow City Council.”

Segal explained that a report reached them at the Krasnopresnensky Regional Council building that “a futile and bloody attempt might be made to storm the television and radio center at Shabolovka It was necessary to go immediately to the Oktyabrsky regional council and try to prevent pointless bloodshed.”

Going to the White House to find transport, the three found a military officer who pointed out a militia vehicle packed with people (unarmed) heading for the Oktyabrsky council. “We got in and headed off,” said Segal. “We eventually arrived at the Oktyabrsky regional council, and in talks with the deputies there, we explained why there was no point in blood being spilt.”

They were standing outside the building afterward when a vehicle drove up and, said Kagarlitsky, “out of it jumped a group of men in civilian clothes with bullet-proof vests and automatic rifles. With them was a militia colonel in uniform. They immediately began beating us. Then they drove us to a nearby militia station. When they saw from our documents that Kondratov and I were deputies to the City Council, there were more blows. One of them ran constantly at me from various parts of the room and hit me in the head with all his strength.”

The following day the prisoners were transferred to the 77th Militia Station, apparently because that’s where the vehicle in which they had traveled from the White House the night before had come from. “They’d simply abandoned the ye-hide and fled when the shooting started around Ostanidno,” said Kagarlitsky, “someone had commandeered and used it to carry away the wounded, and eventually it finished up at the parliament building.”

At the police station the driver “was subjected to a ferocious beating and forced to make a statement that he’d hijacked this vehicle at our instigation.” Later, in the interview with Sun Weissman, Kagarlitsky gave this driver’s name as Leonid Ilyushin and said he feared the man was still in prison and in severe danger.

After the beating of the driver was complete, Kagarlitsky, Kondratov, Segal and other detainees were again repeatedly and heavily beaten in an attempt to gain false confessions. Word finally reached the outside world after a criminal prisoner, appalled by the beatings, was released and telephoned Kagarlitsky’s wife. Soon a flood of phone calls began descending on the militia station, some from as far away as Japan, and a team from the television program “The Individual and the Law” arrived to interview Kagarlitsky.

Afterward the beatings resumed—with some prisoners suffering injuries from broken arms to rib, kidney and lung damage. Most were released October 4, but “One of them still had not contacted relatives several days later, leading Segal to fear the worst.”

That, in a microcosm, was Day One of the new Russian democracy, Boris Yeltsin style.

November-December 1993, ATC 47