Archive for October 2013
When a projectile hit the White House, I was on the 24th floor of the Moscow State University main building – the most imposing of the city’s seven Stalin-esque skyscrapers. A dorm room shared by two Bosnian Serbs and two Germans turned out to be an ideal vantage point to observe the standoff between government troops and militants defending the Russian parliament.
One of the Germans was called Kermit. It was his real name – I had seen his passport. Moscow was a stopover on his bicycle journey to Indonesia. Only his bicycle was stolen the day he arrived, so he got stuck.
Kermit and the other German, called Mike, were desperate to get to the scene. “It’s history in the making, I can’t miss it!,” Mike exclaimed peering out of the open window. In the distance one could make out the tanks moving around the Russian parliament building.
The Serbs were badly depressed. “Why wherever I go THIS happens,” said Vlado who was the Serbian Tetris champion. He and the other guy, Zelko, had both deserted General Mladic’ army in Bosnia and fled to Belgrade, feeling unable to shoot at their school friends across the frontline.
Zelko actually synchronized his escape with a Muslim friend in the opposite trench, so he was proud he didn’t tip the balance in enemy’s favour. He was from Srebrenica. He would have probably had to take part in the massacre of Muslim civilians had he stayed.
They helped me to cool down the Germans by talking about the war in their country as I was observing a civil war unfold in my own.
In the middle of our dispute, the historic shot was made. As if taking its final breath, the White House released a huge cloud of papers while a black circle was rapidly expanding around the gap made by the gunshot. It was a gorgeous sight – the last of the Soviets taking its last breath.
At that moment I felt good. Not particularly happy about tanks shooting at the parliament, but relieved that my army defends me against the fascist gang which had come close to seizing my city. I had defended the White House in the democratic revolution of 1991. This time, I thought, the democratic government should defend me.
As for the parliament – which is a grand word for this ridiculously disorganized body formed before the USSR collapsed – I had few regrets about it. Especially after its leadership sought protection from right- and left-wing extremists who had fought in bloody regional conflicts on the fringes of the former USSR. All they wanted was more war.
The People’s Congress of Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was elected in March 1990, when all parties, apart from the CPSU, were still outlawed and non-existent even as illegal organizations. Opposition candidates had virtually no access to national TV or newspapers. Open opposition to Communist ideology was still a punishable crime. Although elections in Moscow and St Petersburg were really competitive, elsewhere around the country there was no alternative to candidates vetted by local party committees.
This parliament outlived the country it was elected in by two years. The Soviet Union was long gone, but Supreme Soviet was still there. It’s lifespan was wasted on arguments about the procedure and grotesque spending projects, which the MPs were putting forward although they knew that the government had barely enough money to avert famine. In a gesture of outright lunacy that parliament adopted two annual budgets with 100% deficit envisaging all sorts of spending which the government could never feasibly deliver. As a result, Gaidar’s reformist government was toppled and the era of crooks and thieves began with the advent of Chernomyrdin.
I had always wondered why Yeltsin had not dissolved the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet back in 1991. He had so much more legitimacy in both legal and moral terms. But then again, I wasn’t a fan of Yeltsin. I couldn’t grasp this idolization of a former Communist party functionary because I though the whole point of the 1991 revolution was about toppling the Communist government. For me it was a battle of two evils, of which Yeltsin was evidently a lesser one.
I find it ridiculous when people say that Russian democracy was destroyed at that moment. The Supreme Soviet embodied everything that is alien to democracy and the rule of law. It discredited parliamentary procedure and I was not surprised when disenchanted voters turned to Zhirinovsky in 1993 Duma election having watched this joke of a parliament for two years.
In its final months it became the symbol of a very real prospect – that of a Yugoslavia-style civil war. Plans were being cooked up in various quarters for invasions into Crimea and northern Kazakhstan while wars were already raging in Abkhazia and Transnistria. Yugoslavian butchers Karadzic and Mladic became role models for disenfranchised KGB types and freakish political activists. These were the forces that assembled in the sieged White House and for a few days they had indeed succeeded in turning Moscow into Sarajevo.
In my opinion, there was one good thing about this dark and awkward moment in Russia’s history. It was when people, Muscovites first and foremost, rejected civil war. Its specter was never seen again on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities. One might argue that this scare of an upheaval is the only thing that keeps Putin going up until now. But that’s a totally different story.