Last Stop: Russia
The sun had set and darkness rolled over Russia.
It’d been three hours since we crossed the country’s northwestern border–hours spent deep inside the West Siberian taiga forest. The constant chug, chug, chugging of the engine had lulled me into a semi-hypnotic state, leaving me numb to the sensations of the train’s forward movement.
Down the tracks, a small town emerged from the shadows of the trees. It was the first village we’d come to since passing over the border, so we’d be disembarking and registering at the customs office. Our passports would be checked and stamped, maybe our picture would be taken, maybe a few questions would be asked. “Just a formality,” our guide assured us.
With a bump and a jerk, our car came to a complete stop beside the station’s platform. Deathly cold outside, snowflakes hung, suspended, in the thin air, insulating and isolating people from one another. Solemn faces obscured by frosty clouds of breath stared out from under layers of heavy clothing. On the ground, remnants of footprints were carved into the snow, ghostly evidence of travelers who’d passed through this lonely depot before me.A line formed in front of the customs office and I dutifully found my place at its end. As I shuffled along I noticed an English language newspaper lying on a bench. Its headline read:
September 28, 1993: Bloody Clashes Ignite Between Special Police and Anti-Yeltsin Demonstrators. Interior Ministry Seals Off Parliament Building, Erecting Barricades.*
Once again, Russia had found itself swept up in drastic social and political change, and tensions were at a breaking point. During the past week, control of the government had shifted several times between the old Soviet guard and the new Russian Federation, with each side pushing the boundaries of their offices in an attempt to take control.
On September 21, one week prior to my arrival, President Boris Yeltsin had declared the governing body, the Supreme Soviet, dissolved, and announced a constitutional referendum and plans for new legislative elections. The next day deputies from the Congress of People convened to impeach Yeltsin and two days later Yeltsin countered with a June 1994 date for Russia’s second presidential elections. Following this move Congress announced a March 1994 date for simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections, preceding Yeltsin’s date by three months.
That’s when the fight turned deadly.
Members of Congress barricaded themselves inside the Parliament Building, prompting Yeltsin to cut off their electricity, hot water and telephone service, and send in the military. Demonstrators on both sides fought in the streets and four days later, September 28, the day I read the headline, marked the first day of casualties. Three days after that, on the first of October, the Interior Ministry estimated that six hundred armed men had joined in with the opposition and it reports claimed dozens of people had been killed and hundreds wounded. This development initiated an attempt at negotiations that went on for two days without any outcome.
During this time top opposition leaders approached the military brass to ask for their support. They realized that without the backing of the armed forces their cause would be lost. A solid plan, one would think, but, as has often been the case in Russian history, they overlooked the lower rank and file and soon found themselves without the support of the masses. The generals, deciding they couldn’t afford to take a chance on the shaky leadership of the pro-Soviet groups, sided with Yeltsin. He quickly implemented his military offensive, lining up ten tanks in front of the building and firing at the top floors in an effort to force the rebels into a smaller space on the lower levels.
This show of force intensified the situation and on October 3, Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the White House that developed into armed conflict. Opponents of Yeltsin successfully stormed the police cordon around the White House and by noon the next day, elite forces entered the building, occupying it floor-by-floor. Within hours the popular resistance in the streets had been completely suppressed, except for occasional sniper fire. It was the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since the October Revolution in 1917 when the Russian Empire fell to the Bolsheviks and officially became the Soviet Union. Reports put the “Second October Revolution’s” death toll at only 437 wounded, but some sources claim up to 2,000 had died.
We were in Moscow for five days and on one particularly cold night my friends and I took the subway over to the Parliament Building. We walked up and down the sidewalk behind those tanks as they sat poised and ready to fire at the occupied state building. It was quiet that night and in the distance, closer to the building, we could hear Russian voices rising in protest, this time calling for the death of communism.
I had many wonderful experiences during my stay in Russia: visiting ancient cathedrals and beautiful palaces, attending world-renowned ballet performances, but the most fascinating aspect of my trip was being witness to Russian history repeating itself. As I stood in the lonely depot and read the newspaper’s headline I wondered if the stamp I’d receive on my passport would represent the same country two weeks later when I left Russia.
*The headline I use here represents actual headlines of the day.
Video news coverage of the event: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkPfUnwyFsI