24 HOURS IN AN OCTOBER REVOLT
by Michael Hammerschlag
Sunday began as a respite from the political circus; I needed a break, and it was a sunny warm day (rare in Oct, we had had a week of freezing and snow) so I went to a palace estate. After, I met a girl at McDonalds and was going to go dancing at a new club. "Something is happening at the White House... Yeltsin has declared a state of emergency," she said. Tensions had been ratcheting upward since Yeltsin's coup against the Congress and Constitution in the name of democracy. From Tuesday to Saturday, thousands of AYF (anti-Yeltsin forces: communists, nationalists, neo-nazis, conservatives, and people troubled by his actions) had been doing battle with OMON riot police near metro station Barricadnaya, trying to reach the sealed off White House, where even journalists were denied access. Every day the police used more and more force, and pitched battles erupted on the Garden ring as AYF's tried to close the main Ring Road with barricades. Everyone was tired: police and soldiers who went days without decent sleep; parliamentary deputies, who had no electricity, water, clean clothes, real food; protesters who waged battle while the populace remained apathetic. On Wednesday, in the underground passageway near McDonalds, OMON police chased and beat protesters who had taunted them, including innocent bystanders. A guy in a suit buying a candy bar at a kiosk was clubbed to the ground from behind. My friend, 5 seconds behind me, was gassed.
When we arrived at 9pm, it was spooky. The police and barricades had disappeared, and crowds were freely milling around the White House. It didn't make sense. On the way, a water or gasoline tanker truck burned as an ominous portent, people strolling by 25 ft from it, until an explosion drove them back... to 50 ft.. Russians are incredibly blasé to danger. When cars come barreling at them, people will nonchalantly clear them by inches. 3 trucks loaded with AYF "soldiers" were roaring off to attack the Ostankino television center, which Vice President Rutskoi had urged them to do several hours before. A Reuter's woman was talking into a cellular phone, alone, which I thought imprudent. The mood was strange and dangerous, but I had no idea what had happened that day. Big crowds of AYF's (10,000) had marched along the Ring Rd. 2 miles to Octybryskaya Square, where they first overran police forces, then returned, and again overran government troops near the old Arbat. Then they broke through the police at the White House, who largely stood aside, many running and surrendering their weapons. At Rutskoi's encouragement, the rebels commandeered trucks and rammed through the front of the Mayor's City Hall, a 30 story modern skyscraper. Here there was the first gunplay of the confrontation, and people had been killed. Rutskoi had given a fiery speech and thousands had already left for the TV center. I had blundered into a war.
A minute later, trying to record some hammering sounds, a communist babushka (grandmother), the fearsome powerful machines that used to be the backbone of this country (they really are a different species bred by Stalin), screamed "What's he got in his hand, a gun?", and I was seized, first by 2 babushkas, then by 100 of the rabid crowd, who ripped my pockets, broke my flash, and wouldn't let me go for 5 minutes until they explained how mad they were about "Clinton's support of Yeltsin". Yeah, it was all my fault. Rattled, I left for the Ostankino tower, one of the tallest structures in the world, with a restaurant at about 1000 ft. level. On Novy Arbat, 10 people were rocking an enclosed bus stop bench back and forth, till it toppled over, almost impaling them on 3’ spikes pulled from the ground. Changing subway lines near Red Square, a pro-Yeltsin crowd, urged out by a TV address by Yegor Gaider, marched to Old Square (Government buildings) to show their support. For the next 10 minutes I marched with 3-4 thousand democrats cheering for Yeltsin through the center of the city, heartened by the sounds of freedom. Thousands more had blocked Tverskaya St., the way to the Kremlin, and kept a weaponless vigil in front of the City Hall. Then I went on to the Ostankino tower, under siege since 7pm. A friend from Houston had just moved into an apartment overlooking the tower, where we camped out, listening to a war: heavy and small arms fire in bursts lasting up to 10 minutes, continuing through the night. Sometimes tracer bullets laced the sky. I phoned friends and journalists, collecting information. A photographer for Time Magazine had gone in on the first wave and gave me the scoop. First the AYF's had milled around and given speeches, then decided to penetrate the building. Armed with 200-250 Kalashnikovs, a rocket propelled grenade and a mortar, they repeatedly rammed trucks through the door. When they blasted it with the RPG , the OMON troops inside finally opened fire on everyone outside, including journalists packed around the door, blithely filming. A NY Times photographer said it was chaos, with everyone firing everywhere. A British cameraman, Rory Peck, was killed, his videocamera and light shining up blindly into the night. 2 other TV cameramen: Russian and French were fatally wounded. 3 other journalists were seriously wounded, including a New York Times photographer hit in the chest. A young American lawyer from Baton Rouge, Terry Duncan, pulled wounded to safety.. until he was shot in the head. All night warriors, journalists, and wounded huddled in a little underground passageway between the two buildings of the Telecenter. After doing a radio feed for Radio South Africa, I was torn between approaching the fighting and staying put. It was night, a lousy time to approach a pitched battle between entrenched forces, I had no video camera, or even very fast film, no idea of the layout of the battle, and the gunfire never stopped for more than a couple of minutes until 7am. What I could do was get myself killed. Cowardice and caution won out: I stayed put. At 7 I set out for the telecenter 1/2 mile away. In dawn's light old women went along their business with their wheeled bag carts, heedless of the mini-war that had raged all night. Expecting dozens of bodies, I was shocked. There were none outside. Studying the CNN raw footage a week later, ambulances were pulling people out from 8-12PM during lulls in the fighting, and groups of spectators watched crouched only 50 ft. from the battle. Looking like something out of the Empire Strikes Back, APC's poured tracer bullets into the first floor, trying to dislodge the AYF's who'd captured it.
Nervous young soldiers on the 15 APC's ringing the buildings screamed at me to get back, cocking and aiming their machine guns. TV people who worked in the building got the same treatment. the road was strewn with shattered buses and trucks that had ferried the AYF's from the White House and a blood trail ran hundreds of feet along the sidewalk. Among the crowd were AYF's, returned to survey the damage. A 40 year old , Boris, said many of the 2-4000 AYF's were kids, 15-16 year old, including some who carried the Kalashnikovs. It was well organized, with people coming from other areas in commandeered buses, he said. "Less than 100 soldiers held off 5000."
In reality it was worse: the elite "Knight" detachment soldiers raced the AYF's to the Telecenter, actually driving in formation with them and waving to them on the Ring Rd. at 5pm. They arrived only 30 seconds before and only 25 took up positions in the Olympiad studio building. Had they lost the race and the rebels taken the center intact, they could have broadcast their message to the entire nation, and possibly prevented the government retaking of the White House; in which case it might now be President Rutskoi, not prisoner Rutskoi. The Olympiad center was destroyed, the front of it smashed in, and had been occupied on the first floor, while soldiers defending it from within.
For 2 hours, we weren't permitted to approach the building, as ambulances took out bodies and wounded. But other things were happening. The assault on the White House, which was inevitable after this, had begun; tanks rolling into position from 6:30 am. I returned to the apartment, forced to take a huge detour because of closed streets, did another S. Africa radio report, and collapsed for an hour. After rising I did a radio report for the local English station, and hustled off to the White House on the other side of the city, on the way wandering into Detsky Mir (Children's World-a toy and sports store), where a silent somber crowd was watching CNN, wincing as tank shells slammed into the White House. This Congress was stupid, recalcitrant, unrepresentative-- a dinosaur from a vanished empire and era--but they were a legally elected body. I couldn't help wondering how I'd feel if the President did this to the US Congress, something AYF's asked me many times in the last 2 weeks. In a country without real laws or justice, the President was destroying the only other branches of power, and the only checks on his power (within a few days the Supreme Court, City Council, and City Soviets across Russia would also be dissolved).
Emerging from the supposedly closed Metro Smolenskaya, the Ring Road was lined with dozens of tanks and APC's and a crowd of thousands pressed forward into police barricades on Novy Arbat Pr. A sniper started shooting from an 11 story building across from Arbat Restaurant and the crowd fled back in a panic. Heavy machine guns pounded the sniper's position (there were 4 snipers in that position that took the soldiers till the next morning to clear out). Kids approached soldiers with tentative hopefulness-- they weren't going back to the past, that chapter was ending by fire and steel. Heading down back roads, I and a dozen other erstwhile historians clambered through a derelict building and emerged onto Novy Arbat, where a flock of smashed and burned vehicles lay: an armored car on it's side, a bus with smashed windows and doors was full of people, watching the action as if at a ball game. A crowd was staring at something below ground level to the left, when a guy in a flak jacket approached them waving a '45 an a loose way, ordering them away. AYF or Government, I never knew. Kept 1000 ft. back for a week, for the final assault, the government let thousands crowd around the White House, even between it and the shattered Mayor's bldg (which had been retaken in the morning), as bullets whizzed overhead.
The first tank blast had hit Khasbulatov's office just as Yeltsin made a TV address at 9am, "a nice touch", said Lee Hockstader of the Wash. Post, who had been watching the action from grandstand seats in the Ukraine Hotel across the Moscow River, where most tanks were stationed. Peering out the windows, 2 other guests were killed. The boat shaped White House was burning out of 10 windows of the 11th floor, and another fire had started on its end, though only 10 tank rounds hit it. Rutskoi had made a panicked telephone call to Supreme Court head Zorkin, "You've got to help us, they're going to kill us all. " Shoulda thought of that before, Al. Negotiations had gone on for the last 3 days between the Patriarch, Parliament, and Government, and almost reached a settlement, screwed up by Khasbulatov's henchman. Red tracer machine gun fire floated impossibly slowly along arcs and angles, looking for all the world like cheap fireworks. Return fire erupted from a lower 3rd floor window and was immediately returned, the bullets whizzing 20 ft. over the crowd, who were attentive and sometimes rowdy. Then 100-150 White House police were surrendering, and I penetrated the lines with a TV crew to shoot some close-ups (even other TV people were kept back). As we were pushed back into the crowd, an APC with a large Russian flag and a bus roared off and the crowd broke into cheers while soldiers unloaded their weapons into the air. On the bus were Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, on their way to the infamous Lefortovo prison. Then tracer fire started behind us (from the crowd, it seemed) and floated directly overhead in a long arc towards the bridge. If anyone tried to respond to that, they would shoot into the crowd... considering the Russian penchant for irresponsibility, not unlikely (when you cross a street here, cars speed up and swerve at you). A bullet pinged about 10 ft to the right, a television-show ricochet, but infinitely more deadly sounding, and we backed up 5 ft.. All day people had been doing that--backing up a few ft. after someone near them was hit, then moving forward again. In a crowd of hundreds you feel safe: someone else will get hit, not you. Also, after a long while in this country, you're so fatalistic, you don't care. At least a dozen spectators paid the ultimate price for their entertainment. The video showed a motley pile of 20 bodies laid out by the White House.
As darkness fell, it was becoming very dangerous. Many in the crowd were AYF who had fought in battles here the day before. If they fired at the soldiers in the dark, government troops probably would shoot into the crowd. I went up to the deck of the Mayor's building which the AYF's had looted for 15 hours; barely visible Yeltsin troops peering out ominously through the shattered facade. A soldier started screaming and charging the 10 people on the deck, yelling for them to get off, which we did.. in a crouching run. The fighting had died down and I left the burning White House, charred to the top, walking through the empty Arbat spot that had an explosion of sniper fire a few minutes later (I later discovered). Having exclusive photos, I took my film to Reuters in the Radison Slavansky across the river. Reuters photogs told of racing into the Myezh hotel as plate glass windows disintegrated around them and the person behind was wounded. It, along with Tass News Service, Interfax, and Moscovsky Komsomolets Magazine had been attacked. They couldn't develop B+W, the best shots, but I waited for the C-41 films at a CNN TV near the entrance. In a fitting ending to the night a businessman, like a disoriented pigeon, walked full-force through an 8 x 10 ft. heavy glass pane without breaking stride, shattering it. He could have been decapitated, but he received only a scratched nose. Hopefully Russia can be as lucky. An 11pm curfew was in effect, so I hustled home after 40 hours with 1/2 hr sleep. It had been 24hrs of a 48hr war.
The final official* death toll was about 150, 62 at Ostankino, and at least 6 journalists (9 wounded); hundreds and hundreds had been wounded; defiantly stupid Russian spectators shot in the stomach who vowed they would do it all again. The big question was whether it was a set-up, whether Yeltsin intended for such a denouement in order to liquidate his enemies: from the beginning Int. Ministry troops didn't try to control the crowd, they had no tear gas or water cannons, they were extremely thinly spread (though there were thousands more troops in the city), they didn't try to block the crowd from reaching the White House with trucks (although they had an hour and had used that tactic many times before), they crumbled suspiciously fast before the crowd, they told reporters they had orders to not stop the crowds, trucks were abandoned in front of the White House with the keys in them, nobody made an effort to block the convoys to Ostankino from 4 to 10 pm, and Yeltsin was suspiciously absent on the day before his final ultimatum to surrender. It is the Russian way: to give your opponents enough rope to hang themselves, or wait till they touch the rope,.. and then shoot them. Then again, many in the military and Interior Ministry supported the AYF's, or may have been waiting to see who won before committing themselves. 200 Int. Ministry troops and 4 APC's went over to the Rutskoi side. In the end... it doesn't matter: it was necessary, it worked, the people supported it, and Russia's the better for it (as long as Boris is around). Applying Western standards here doesn't work: it's a wild place: uncivilized, brutal, recalcitrant, and no one knows that better than Russians.
Enormous problems face Yeltsin and Russia in building a new society, but he is a man a heroic decency and courage. Russians have no word for "is", only "was" and "will be", which is why they've been pathologically obsessed with dead heroes or fanciful fantasies. On Thursday, Lenin's Tomb was stripped of its honor guard for the first time in 70 years and they are going to bury him in St. Petersburg. Russians are finally learning to live in the present.
Michael Hammerschlag is a political commentator for Moscow Guardian, Moscow News, and Moscow Tribune; a correspondent for Radio South Africa and KING-AM Seattle, and has spent 17 months of the last 2 years in the CIS and Soviet Union.