Russians Remember “The Day Democracy Died”

The Russian White House after being shelled by tanks in 1993, screenshot from YouTube.

The Russian White House after being shelled by tanks in 1993, screenshot from YouTube.

The three words Thomas Hobbes used to describe life—”nasty, brutish, and short”—eloquently sum up the two-week constitutional crisis that wracked Moscow twenty years ago. President Boris Yeltsin disbanded the Supreme Soviet on September 21, 1993, removing one of the Soviet system's major vestiges in one fell swoop. The Supreme Soviet, led by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, barricaded itself in Moscow's White House in response, voting to impeach Yeltsin, and drumming up support for armed, anti-Yeltsin gangs to attack the Ostankino Television studio.

Yeltsin's reaction, of course, was one for the history books. On October 4, 1993, he ordered troops to open fire on the Supreme Soviet, embroiling the city in what was reportedly “the worst street violence Moscow experienced since the October Revolution of 1917.” In an atmosphere marked by political tumult and an economic crisis, Yeltsin brought a swift and violent end to the battle with the country's legislature. While some Russians cheered Yeltsin's actions, others worried for the fate of their nascent democracy. This month, twenty years later, much of the chatter on the RuNet criticizes Yeltsin's decision to fire on the White House, characterizing the moment in post-Soviet history as a turn for the worse.

Politician and analyst Vladimir Milov wrote [ru] on Ekho Moskvy's blog:

Удивительно, как 20 лет пролетели со дня трагических событий 3-4 октября 1993 года… Но я читаю сегодня отзывы о тех событиях от сторонников Верховного совета – изобилующие фразами типа «узурпатор Ельцин», «расстрелянный парламент», «растоптанная демократия.»

It's amazing how twenty years have flown since the tragic events of October 3-4, 1993… today I read several pieces written by the Supreme Soviet's supporters, which were teeming with such phrases as “Usurper Yeltsin,” “parliament shooter,” and “trampler of democracy.”

Facebook user Pavel Pryanikov commented [ru] on what Russia could have been if the events of October 1993 had played out just a little bit differently:

Долго думал, на что была бы похожа сегодня Россия, победи тогда, в 93-м Верховный Совет. Сначала на ум пришла Испания. Но вряд ли – при всех гримасах патернализма Испания всё же имеет корни в европейской цивилизации.Наверное, современная Россия была бы похожа на современные Чили или Уругвай, “вторичную Европу”, тяжко переживающие тоталитарное наследие и сегодня. Но современные Чили и Уругвай всё же будет повеселее той страны, у которой главные друзья Каддафи, Ким Чен Ын и Эмомали Рахмонов.

For a long time I've thought about what Russia would be like today if the Supreme Soviet won back in '93. The first parallel that occurred to me was Spain. But that scenario is unlikely—for all of its paternalist antics, Spain still has roots in European civilization. Probably modern Russia would have been similar to a modern Chile or Uruguay, “a subsidiary Europe,” which still suffers greatly from its totalitarian legacy today. But modern Chile and Urugay will still shine a bit brighter than a country that has such great friends as Qaddafi, Kim Jong Un, and Emomali Rahmon.

Chief editor of Dozhd Television's online portal, Ilya Klishin, raised the importance [ru] of Yeltsin's decision twenty years ago as a bad precedent for democratic development. It is not coups or violence that produce institutional change, he says, but rather free and fair elections, independent media, and a transparent judicial system:

Во всей дискуссии по 1993 году главная польза состоит в том, что поколение двадцатилетних — а ведь тут битва идет именно за их умы, сороколетние все давно для себя решили […] Что на честных выборах побеждают те за, кого голосуют, а не те, кто нам нравится. Что в свободной прессе говорят то, что считают нужным, а не то, что нам хочется. Что в справедливых судах, выносят вердикты по закону, а не по нашему желанию. Заумно говоря, более широкая демократическая идентичность пробивается из кокона более узкой либеральной.

In all of the discussions about 1993, the main thrust is our generation of twentysomethings—and yet here it is a battle for their minds, as the fortysomethings already long decided this for themselves […] It's that in fair elections those who win are those who get votes, not those whom people like. It's that a free press says what it considers necessary, not what we want to hear. It's that just courts reach verdicts according to the law, not according to our wishes. To put it more abstractly, a broader democratic identity breaks out of the cocoon of narrow liberalism.

Livejournal user borko [ru] claims to have been shot during the 1993 shelling of the Supreme Soviet. Writing on his blog, he shared the story of Otto Pol, another survivor of the shootings, as well as some of Otto's photographs (warning: graphic material):

Я приехал в Москву, чтоб найти правду и разрешить свои сомнения, но обнаружил, что стране, а также самим выжившим в октябрьских событиях не удалось сделать ни того, ни другого.

I came to Moscow in order to find truth and resolve my doubts, but instead I found that the country and the survivors of the October events have failed to do one or the other.

Meanwhile, writer and political dissident Eduard Limonov posted [ru] a mordant free-verse poem about Yeltsin's decision and its repercussions:

Сегодня пасмурная дата.
День смерти российской Демократии.
В этот мрачный день, двадцать лет назад, преступный Ельцин расстрелял из танковых орудий Российскую Демократию.

Русские плохо вдумываются в эту дату.
Подумать только, в столице европейского государства, из танков, расстрелян был парламент страны.
Такого злодейства последние века себе никто не позволял. Даже самые дикие правители народов.
Нужно бы когда-нибудь вышвырнуть его прах с кладбища, где он там лежит, поскольку упырь и злыдень.
И СССР убил.

Today is a gloomy day.
The day Russian Democracy died.
On this dismal day, twenty years ago, that criminal Yeltsin shelled Russian Democracy using his tanks.

Russians don't think enough about this day.
Just imagine—in the capital of a European state, our country's Parliament was shot up by tanks.
For centuries, no one had dared to commit such an outrage. Even the most savage national leaders.
Sooner or later, we ought to toss out his ashes from the cemetery he's in, the nasty old ghoul.
Plus, he killed the USSR.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.