Why Russians prefer to forget 'Black October'

  • Igor Serebryany
  • 5 Oct 2018

A journalist recounts his harrowing experience of 'Black October' and asks why Russians choose to forget the dark episode of Russian history.

Political stand-off between the Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet of Russia concerning the shape of the country's political system. On 21st September President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet. In response, the Soviet impeached Yeltsin. The most important buildings in Moscow (the White House, Town Hall, the Ostankino TV centre) became a site of clashes between civil supporters of both sides of the conflict. T ( Laski Diffusion/ / Getty Images )

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny autumn day in Moscow. Aside from being one of the warmest autumns on record, October 1993 became the hottest month for Russian political history since perhaps the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. 

Just two years prior, the building of the Russian parliament, ‘Supreme Soviet’, also nicknamed The White House due to its snow-white walls, served as a center of resistance against a coup d’etat by communist hardliners. 

History, it seems, would repeat itself. The same building in downtown Moscow would yet again become a base for all political parties, both mainstream and fringe, who disagreed with president Boris Yeltsin’s policy of dismantling Soviet heritage. 

Russian officers negotiating with defenders of the House of Soviets, residence of the Supreme Soviet, on Oct. 4.()

Yesterday’s allies did not become foes overnight. With less than a two-year gap between the coups, this was still out of the ordinary in historical terms. 

When I exited the nearest subway station on the early morning of October 1, 1993, I expected to find myself on another reporter's trip to cover yet another anti-Yeltsin rally. In the two years following the collapse of the Soviet Union I attended them by the dozens.

I expected to find nothing less.

This time, however, the communist-organized meeting rapidly devolved into something that had not been foreseen by Yeltsin himself, let alone the common people. 

Instead of breaking up after venting their anger, grief and frustration, the one hundred thousand-strong crowd broke through police lines and surged towards the White House. 

Whoever provoked the human tsunami avalanche is now forgotten. What is remembered is that it was unstoppable. 

Police deserted their posts and abandoned the streets. Downtown Moscow soon fell to the hands of motley ragtag band of paramilitary companies waving all sorts of flags. The Red Communists, White-Gold-Black monarchists, and Red-Black anarchists, to name a few. 

The winds of civil and the clouds of turmoil had gathered inauspiciously over Moscow that sunny October day. 

Political stand-off between the Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet of Russia concerning the shape of the country's political system. On 21st September President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet. In response, the Soviet impeached Yeltsin. The most important buildings in Moscow (the White House, Town Hall, the Ostankino TV centre) became a site of clashes between civil supporters of both sides of the conflict. T(Getty Images)

By the time I realised that the anti-Yeltsin forces were taking no quarter and done with half-measures, it was already too late to withdraw. I found myself sealed in a square where the White House stood. 

The official flag of the Russian Federation on its rooftop now stood next to banners I had seen in the hands of paramilitary groups only an hour before. 

All kinds of opposition felt themselves rulers that day – at least in the immediate Moscow downtown. 

What happened next was documented by hundreds.

The opposition drove military trucks to the Ostankino TV center, aiming to seize it and announce the overthrow of Yeltsin who  was still unaware of the events taking place in the capital. As a reporter, I also rushed to Ostankino, making it there just in time. 

The first grenade went off the very moment I approached the TV center’s gates. To cut a long story short, I spent the following night hiding in the bushes nearby, praying to God that neither side took me for their enemy’s sniper. 

I was lucky. My report from the “war zone” was published in a local newspaper and I received all sorts of fame in the journalistic community. 

Several thousand people killed that night were not so lucky. 

25 years later, it seems no one in Russia is willing to remember the events of what later came to be known as ‘Black October’. 

Moscow. Russia. Rebels pictured near Ostankino TV center.(Getty Images)

Leonid Polyakov, head of the Political Science Department in Moscow’s Higher School of Economics was inside the Ostankino TV center, the very night I was reporting from the bushes outside the same building. 

The reason why Russian mass media mostly “forgets” about what happened a quarter of a century ago, is glaringly obvious, he says. 

“The events of October 1993 was quite a rare political conflict where neither side was able to claim a victory. Soon after heads cooled down, both pro-government forces and the then-opposition did their best to clean up the mess left by the confrontation. Why? Because neither party felt its cause had been rock-solid right," Polyakov says. 

As often happens in civil wars (even momentary ones like that one), the best solution for the conflict’s participants was to reconcile, rather than fight to the last soldier. 

In Russia, the post-1993 era featured a marriage of convenience, rather than a true reconciliation. 

The thing is, everyone on Yeltsin’s side and everyone on the opposition’s side came from the same cradle. They all knew each other personally, and far too often their differences were personal rather than ideological," Polyakov says. 

For instance, Alexander Rutskoi, who the rebellious Supreme Soviet declared acting president to replace Boris Yeltsin, nursed ill feelings toward Yeltsin because the president had appointed him to supervise the agricultural sector. For the General Rutskoy, this was more than just a personal insult. Such examples were numerous. 

Twenty-five years on, few of those people (who are still alive) can complain about their fate, Polyakov stresses. 

“Just a few years after ‘Black October’, leaders of the anti-Yeltsin rebellion landed in comfortable seats, either in the Supreme Soviet’s successor, the State Duma or in various think-tanks and commercial companies. 

For example, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin's principal enemy in 1992-1993, ended up as a director of a prestigious university here in Moscow.

Even the main force behind the “Black October” anti-Yeltsin drive, the Communist Party, has been shy to present its role in that episode of the Russian history – even though it was still the same leader Gennady Zyuganov. 

Last year, the Communists widely celebrated the 100-year anniversary of what has been known in Russia as the Great October Revolution 

"The Communist party in 1993 and the same Communist party in 2018 have very little in common aside from their name. During the 25 years since, its officials have completely embedded themselves into political structures, and are reluctant to highlight their opposition stances. 

Communist Party officials, like many old people, tend to lean to "'hard earned' comforts rather than shaking up foundations", Polyakov explains. 

“What about Russian president Vladimir Putin? He is in quite an awkward position to take sides,” adds historian of the Russian Academy of Science, Vladimir Lavrov. 

"On the one hand, Putin has been Yeltsin's direct successor and appointee, so he can't publicly express disagreements over any 'mistakes' his predecessor might have done. On the other hand, Putin never concealed his grief over the Soviet Union’s dissolution orchestrated by Boris Yeltsin," Lavrov says. 

In this term, Putin finds himself sitting in two chairs at once, so it is in his best interest to let bygones be bygones. 

"The silence around the 25-year-old confrontation has been mostly due to the inherited aversion of any bureaucracy to any revolution, be it that of the leftists or rightists. In modern Russia, the so-called "system" parties —left-wing, center, right-wing alike— are equally afraid of social unrest. 

This is why none of them has been willing to remind the people that not so long ago some of their leaders called on people to raise arms against authorities", the historian suggests. 

The majority of ordinary Russians may despise their MPs, their governors and politicians for the dismal living conditions of the common people. 

Still, the same majority feels strong nostalgia about the Soviet period, when the grass was greener and the sun was brighter. 

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