From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The attempted coup in Russia last month ended in bloodshed. But all the problems raised by the action have been left unresolved. This report from a Russian socialist looks at the deepening crisis and the various options for the ruling class
This was far from a straight repeat of August 1991.
Then the coup was led by a fraction of the bureaucracy which clearly stood for a slower pace of market reform and a crackdown on the workers’ movement and on independence movements in the various nationalities.
The Yeltsin camp was distinguished by a greater optimism about the market, greater agreement over tactics for stopping the break up of the empire, and unity behind Yeltsin as a popular figure who could guarantee social peace during a period of painful reforms. Thus in August 1991 Yeltsin stood together with Rutskoy, Khasbulatov, Sterligov and other figures who led the counter-coup against him on 3 October.
The relative harmony among the victors of 1991 broke down swiftly after the start of ‘shock therapy’ five months later. But rather than defend a clear position, Yeltsin accommodated to his opponents all along the line.
He backed off from radical market reforms in the summer of last year. He brought into his administration figures from the ‘centrist’ industrial lobby such as Lobov, Soskovets, Chernomyrdin and Hizha, all of whom are open supporters of state intervention in the economy.
Yeltsin relied from the very start on conservatives such as Skokov to spearhead his policies in the former Soviet republics. Rutskoy himself marshalled the attempted invasion of the Chechen Republic in November 1991. Yeltsin’s use of troops in Georgia and Moldova gladdened the heart of every Russian chauvinist. He caved in to the nationalist right on Yugoslavia, the former USSR, and conversion of the arms industry.
Finally, Yeltsin’s waning popularity in the country prompted other figures to challenge him for the leadership. Yeltsin tried to concentrate power in his own hands, while his opponents looked in the main to parliament for support.
Thus the split in the ruling class that flared up again when Yeltsin banned parliament in October was not an ideological one. It was not a division between radically different sets of ideas, between ‘Communist’ parliament and ‘democratic’ government, between dinosaurs of state owned industry and thrusting free marketeers, between Russian nationalists and supporters of independence and self-rule.
On the contrary, it was a straightforward power struggle between people who wanted to look after their highly privileged positions, under threat because of the crisis. Yeltsin even offered parliamentary deputies their flats, wages and privileges for another two years. He also made great efforts to recruit deputies into his new administration.
Yeltsin attempted a similar trick in March this year when he announced ‘special rule’ and suspended parliament’s authority. But it ended in stalemate. Such a stalemate was on the cards again by the end of September. Yeltsin had been forced to make concessions, turning on the electricity for parliament while attempts to find a compromise solution were stepped up through the intervention of the church.
But the deciding factor which tipped the scales towards civil war was the existence in Moscow of a mass movement demanding a military crackdown: the ‘red-browns’, so called because they number both old style Communists and fascists in their ranks.
The leaders of this movement are not anti-market – they are simply in favour of using the army to solve the crisis. Over the last two years they have organised mass demonstrations in Moscow to try and push the army to take action.
Only days before Yeltsin suspended parliament, both Rutskoy and Khasbulatov made a sharp turn towards this force, agreeing, for example, with their call to resurrect the Soviet Union.
The numbers of red-browns turning out to support parliament were relatively small. But at about 4 p.m. on Sunday 3 October a medium sized demonstration broke through flimsy police lines. As the demonstrators marched towards the White House – Russia’s parliament – there were scenes of hysteria within, the exhausted inhabitants having lived on their nerves for nearly a fortnight.
On this wave of euphoria Rutskoy and Khasbulatov were finally pushed into a bid for power. Rutskoy called for ‘all able-bodied men and youths’ to arm themselves and take the television centre and the Kremlin ‘by storm’.
This was an attempt to do what the putschists had failed to do in August 1991. Parliament’s military leaders – generals Achalov and Makashov – backed the 1991 coup. Makashov put down the mass movement in Yerevan in Armenia in 1988, while Achalov led Gorbachev’s invasions of Baku in 1990 and Vilnius a year later.
Parliament even turned to fascists for support. Russian National Unity, a Nazi outfit with several hundred members in Moscow, played a leading role in the fighting. Its blackshirted fighters with their swastika emblems, trained in the wars on the Dnestr, in Abkhazia and Yugoslavia, flanked Makashov and led the storming of the town hall.
But it would be foolish to see this as a Nazi uprising. Rutskoy and Khasbulatov calculated on a major split in the armed forces: the Nazis were just pawns in the game. And the calculation was not far wrong. For several hours the government was paralysed. Two independent reports confirm that the Kremlin was virtually empty until the fighting broke out, and there were scenes of chaos as the government assembled.
Yeltsin’s address was read by a newsreader, and not by Yeltsin himself, prompting questions about his condition at the time. Leading Yeltsinites contradicted each other on television: mayor Luzhkov called on people to stay at home, while Gaidar begged them to come out in support, apparently to help persuade the army to go in.
Grachev, the Minister of Defence, admits that the military was unprepared. He and his ministry had been silent for days before the fighting, pointing to tensions and splits within the officer corps. Many tank drivers were being used to harvest carrots and beetroot and had to be recalled from the fields. One tank division had to be brought in from 200 kilometres outside the city. As the rebel forces headed for the television centre, the army raced to catch up: at times the armoured vehicles of both sides were neck and neck in the middle of the road!
The crack ‘Alpha’ troops used to storm the White House had no plan of the underground tunnels beneath it, because the relevant KGB officer had disappeared. Many of the armed rebels later escaped by this route.
The panic intensified when the television centre stopped broadcasting at 8 p.m. We now know that the building had not been stormed: the head of broadcasting either feared for his own skin if Yeltsin were defeated, or he didn’t want the population to witness government troops firing into the crowd outside.
A host of other details point to the conclusion that Yeltsin’s victory was not pre-planned. The shambles that preceded it indicated his fundamental weakness and the deep splintering of the Russian ruling class.
The fact that Rutskoy and Khasbulatov turned to forces waving the red flags of the old dictatorship condemned them in the eyes of the population. But the mood was not that of 1991, when people felt they had an ideal to fight for.
This time numbers on the barricades were very small. Those who were there just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. As EmKa, Moscow’s popular Yeltsinite daily, put it, ‘People came [to fight the putsch]. But not out of love for Yeltsin and Gaidar, but out of contempt for Khasbulatov, Makashov and Anpilov [the coup leaders].’
Yeltsin knows that his victory is fragile and that the population is reaching the end of its tether. He was also under pressure from the army, who are increasingly convinced that the politicians cannot cope and that the military can do a better job. Therefore they opted for strong arm tactics, not a jot less brutal than those of their opponents.
In contrast to 1991, when the crowds controlled the streets for days after their victory, Yeltsin banned all meetings and demonstrations. Under the two week curfew a staggering 100,000 people were detained: about 1 percent of Moscow’s population. In shocked tones Yeltsinite commentators reported on systematic beatings and the racism of the troops.
Some 6,000 people from the Caucasus were thrown in gaol and forcibly deported for not having a residence permit. Leaked documents show that the police and troops were specifically told to target Russia’s ‘blacks’, confiscate their property and boot them out. There were cases of pogroms of Caucasus traders in which the police were assisted by crowds.
Yeltsin introduced the strictest censorship. Major newspapers came out with blank spaces where there should have been critical articles pointing to the mistakes, splits, weaknesses and hesitation in the government and the army. After all his rhetoric against ‘Bolshevik methods’ and the need for press freedom, Yeltsin has been made to look like a hypocrite.
Newspaper headlines asked: Is this a war on the opposition or a war on the population itself? There is deep, bitter cynicism about the events. Everyone knows that it was Yeltsin who called for ‘restraint’ and ‘forgiveness’ after August 1991, allowing his opponents to keep their positions. The trial of the 1991 putschists has been a farce, and they are all likely to get off scot free.
Yeltsin himself appointed the October rebels. Judging from newspaper reports, people are widely convinced that Yeltsin will compromise again and buy off the opposition with big salaries and sweeteners, so that the whole filthy business will start over again. The old ties of privilege and wealth mean that new elections in December can only produce a corrupt parliament once again.
Every Russian knows that censorship means Yeltsin has something to hide. Where were his troops for 16 hours while the Nazis rampaged through Moscow? Why did Gaidar call for people to come out on the streets to face a hail of bullets? If the situation was under control, if the opposition was really an isolated minority, why the call to the barricades? Why didn’t Yeltsin himself make an appeal?
Yeltsin’s position has been strengthened for the time being. But the underlying problems that led to the latest coup attempt remain untouched.
The army has arrested a handful of ringleaders. But the opposition to Yeltsin among the bureaucracy is still in place. Clearing them out would demand a class policy of uprooting the bosses and disbanding the KGB and the army, which would naturally mean booting out Yeltsin and his thugs as well.
The government is already split. Gaidar has threatened to resign over plans for monetary union with Kazakhstan. Two ministers – Shakhrai and Shokin – have set up a political party representing the regional bureaucracy against Moscow. Shakhrai has also threatened to resign.
Yeltsin’s plans to produce a tame parliament are backfiring. His handpicked Federation Council, which consists of regional leaders and was due to become a Russian ‘House of Lords’, has rebelled, forcing Yeltsin to call elections to this upper chamber. Opposition in the country is also reflected in the fact that big private business interests have opened a new television channel openly hostile to Yeltsin.
Yelstin’s government looks likely to go on the offensive. Gaidar is already promising that there will be no concessions to the population and that economic reform will be speeded up: this means the first bankruptcies and quickening unemployment. The recent freeing of the price of grain will soon send people into shock and anger when they go to get a loaf of bread. Yeltsin can no longer scapegoat parliament and the local soviets: all the blame will be heaped on him.
The results of Yeltsin’s policies are now there for everyone to see. It is unlikely that the apathy and despondency that has gripped the country for the last two years will continue: every day since the fighting there have been queues for newspapers, something I haven’t seen for two years.
The tension in Russia has been cranked up several more notches. The weakness of the ruling class means that large scale workers’ struggles such as those that swept the Ukraine in June remain a real possibility. On the other hand, the army has been given a boost: we can expect to see it play a greater role in Russian politics.
Last updated: 1 March 2017