Bloody Moscow, October 1993

Susan Weissman

THE TRAGIC SPECTACLE in Moscow is not without historical parallels, however imperfect. The bombing of the Russian White House [parliament building—ed.] and the September 11, 1973 bombing of La Moneda [the presidential palace in Chile—ed.] evoked similar images of democratic processes going up in smoke with deadly consequences.

But there the similarities end. In Russia there is no need, as there was in Chile, for the further “mopping up” of the majority of the population who supported the parliamentary process. The supporters for both sides of the Russian governmental crisis were remarkably anemic. In a city of nine million, barely 15,000—Yeltsin’s backers and opponents combined-—gathered outside the White House at the height of the activities of Sunday the 3rd. The explanation for that reveals how little most Russians felt the outcome will influence their lives.

The fact that Yegor Gaidar could not muster an enormous crowd to assemble-for President Yeltsin on October 3 was revealing on many levels. Yeltsin, the legitimate elected president of Russia, was absent from the television screens on the Sunday, the spokesperson who emerged was Gaidar, one of the most hated men in Russia, the butt of popular jokes, the man seen as the architect of the monetarist policy which has painfully impoverished the majority of Russians.

Yeltsin for his part has managed to remain two-faced, promising a transition to the market without its inevitable consequences, mass unemployment or runaway inflation. Why Yeltsin chose Gaidar to speak for him at a most critical moment remains a mystery; it didn’t matter in the end because the crisis was solved by massed troops, not mass mobilization.

When Yeltsin finally appeared on television Monday at the curious hour of 9 am, when most people were already at work, he described parliament as bandits, gangsters, Communists and fascists. As former Party boss of Moscow, he and his own group can be similarly described. Was his broadcast geared more for the Western press?

Both sides, who represent different factions in the former Soviet elite, have leveled at each other charges of corruption, banditry and anti-democratic actions. The Western press tried to portray the internal struggle over the pace of reform and the beneficiaries of the process as a struggle between “democracy” and “hardline Communism.” But for ordinary Russian working people, hying to cope with runaway inflation, plummeting living standards and catastrophic street crime, the government simply doesn’t seem to appreciate their problems. The fight between branches of government is seen as two bands of thieves: Those who want to steal quickly and those who want to steal more slowly.

The underlying dilemma has not been resolved or even addressed. Yeltsin cannot get to the market with his policies, and cannot enjoy the support of ordinary Russians if he takes the steps demanded by the International Monetary Fund: wholesale privatization and the closure of most of the huge unprofitable, uncompetitive industrial enterprises that employ the majority of Russians. Parliamentary leaders Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, on the other side, have no solution other than to move slower and keep the process in the hands of the factory managers and directors.

Neither side can come up with a solution to please the majority. In Poland, the voters have just kicked out the free marketeers, in favor of the old Communists trading under a new name. Could Yeltsin have feared the same might be in store for Russia?

Yeltsin will now rule by decree until new parliamentary electionsare held and a new constitution ratified. Meanwhile the defeated opposition will either disappear or become more entrenched, possibly going underground. They may have to redefine themselves and turn to ordinary workers for support. That would change the face of the battle, since an appeal to the workers would have to be done in a way that appeals to workers’ interests.

Future confrontations may be fought in the name not of a “socially oriented market,” in the confused parlance of yesterday, but of ordinary people controlling their workplaces and their government.

November-December 1993, ATC 47