Forged in Fire

A red diaper baby in Russia witnesses the rise of Vladimir Putin

by Fred Weir

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Russia’s best hope for democracy in our time died, and was buried in an unmarked grave, after a two-day wave of political violence in the streets of downtown Moscow in October 1993. I note this in retrospect, though it was clear to me at the time that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika project, which aimed to create a modern system of divided government based on popularly elected institutions in what had been a monolithic one-party state, was expiring as armed militias supporting the Supreme Soviet, or the parliament, battled it out with police and special forces loyal to President Boris Yeltsin. Both he and the legislature had been freely elected, in 1990 and 1991 respectively, and they had stood together to withstand the ensuing military putsch launched by Communist Party diehards. Following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics just months later, however, they began to quarrel over many details, underlying which was the issue of who would hold supreme power: parliament or the president? No one, not even Yeltsin’s American advisers, took this political gridlock for a sign of healthy democracy.

In September of ‘93, Yeltsin made the first move, ordering the parliament to disband and laying a paramilitary siege around the Russian White House, then the seat of the Supreme Soviet. Journalists were allowed to come and go, and I spent a lot of time inside the building’s cell-like offices, interviewing some of the several hundred beleaguered parliamentarians who had stood their ground, drinking vodka at the surprisingly well-stocked bar (considering that Yeltsin had cut off the building’s water and power supplies), and regarding it as yet another crisis in the ongoing drama of perestroika.

But on October 3, an unseasonably warm, sunny day, a huge pro-parliamentary crowd marched to the White House and slammed through police lines, which evaporated in a bloody melee. The officers withdrew, possibly under orders, but a few opened fire, and for the first time in my life I heard that whining hornet sound Kalashnikov slugs make as they fly through the air. I saw people killed, some torn apart by bullets, others trampled amid crowd surges. Huddled against the White House wall, under a balcony, I tried to scribble notes.

That evening, as the violence spread, pro-Kremlin police fanned out around Moscow to shut down the elected district councils, or soviets, that had been set up in the heyday of perestroika. Boris Kagarlitsky, a frenetically active deputy of the radical, left-leaning Moscow city soviet and a close friend, had spent the day in neighbourhoods like Oktyabrskaya, where a hulking statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin overshadows the nearby Moscow police headquarters, trying to dissuade local pro-parliament activists from engaging in violence. But Kagarlitsky’s name was on a list, and police seized him and handed him over to the security organs, who passed him on to some special cops, who held him for forty hours, beating his back and stomach with rifle butts, until Amnesty International pulled him out. (Kagarlitsky, who spent thirteen months in a Soviet jail in the early ’80s, is the only Russian I know to have been arrested twice, under two different regimes, for exactly the same reason: he is a democratic socialist.)

The next day, a Russian Army armoured division entered Moscow and stormed the White House, setting it ablaze with tank fire. The parliamentary leaders surrendered and were hauled away to prison while other deputies and supporters found in the building were herded into a nearby football stadium for interrogation. Most later reported being beaten; a few were forced to kneel and threatened with a cocked rifle to their heads, in mock execution, sometimes repeatedly.

I knew there had been a fair bit of violence around the Soviet Union’s periphery as the huge state collapsed, but this was the first time I’d experienced, with full adrenaline rush, the way angry speeches can turn into a storm of gunfire. I realized that the potential for it had always lurked just below the surface. I’ve seen a good deal more of it in the years since — it has erupted frequently in Vladimir Putin’s new Russia.

But what is not present today is any struggle over the soul of Russian democracy. That was all settled in the mini–civil war of October 1993. In the weeks that followed, all of the perestroika-era soviets around Russia were forcibly closed down. Yeltsin used his triumph to rewrite Russia’s constitution, vesting the lion’s share of power in the Kremlin and reducing a new incarnation of parliament, the State Duma, to little more than a talking shop. “It was the end of the democratic experiment,” says an older, somewhat more dour Boris Kagarlitsky, and the end of the great hopes Gorbachev had aroused in so many Russians.

Mine must be an unusual story. I came to Moscow over twenty years ago as a correspondent for the Canadian Tribune, the now defunct weekly newspaper put out by Canada’s Communist Party. I was a third-generation red diaper baby from Toronto, and a long-time member of the party. My uncle, trained at the Lenin School in Moscow in the 1920s as an agent of the Communist International, spent many years in the ussr. I’d visited a few times, had studied Russian history up to the graduate level, but never wanted to live there until Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The new general secretary, the party’s first to be born after the revolution, talked unlike any Communist leader since the original Bolsheviks. Suddenly, there was the electrifying prospect of a socialism powered from below, a system focused on creative human potential rather than crop statistics. Optimists could imagine a Soviet Union that might actually compete with the West in ideas as well as nuclear missiles, a non-capitalist society that worked, or at least an example that might be productively debated to replace the albatross hanging around the neck of any Canadian who selfidentified as a socialist. I grabbed the Tribune job as soon as it was offered to me.

When I arrived in Moscow in the fall of 1986, the place was still in Soviet deep freeze. One of the double-edged advantages to being a Communist correspondent was that one got to live, pretty much unsupervised, in regular Soviet housing. (Other foreigners, diplomats, and journalists were kept in special closed compounds and followed around by the kgb.) I recall nearly starving to death in my first couple of weeks because I couldn’t figure out the system of multiple lineups in Soviet grocery stores, or talk my way past the imposing doormen outside so-called restaurants, where the staff were engaged in many pursuits, not many of which involved attending to customers. But having few obstacles to fraternization with the natives, I found it surprisingly easy to make friends, who quickly conjured away those little mysteries for me. Within a year, I married Masha, a graduate student of history, and moved into her family flat in a huge grey tenement across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

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