Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Comrades Mourn Dead of 1993 Uprising




Flapping their arms against the chill, a small crowd of pensioners gathered beside the White House in Moscow on Friday to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the second October revolution this century.


They carried lengths of ribbon f scarlet to symbolize the Communist Party and inky black to mourn the scores who died, which they tied to every one of the railings around the building where they were holed up during the armed confrontation Oct. 3 and 4, 1993.


The White House, now the main government building, then housed the parliament and was the center of resistance to President Boris Yeltsin. He claimed victory by sending tanks to fire on the building.


"I was in the White House when they started to fire," said a frail old woman in a purple head scarf, who refused to give her name. "There were tanks everywhere, barricades everywhere. Every few seconds a bullet whistled past."


She remembers being allowed out of the building for a few minutes to bring a boiled cranberry drink to the dozens of wounded outside the White House. "They were lying on the pavement on pale pink chalk pictures drawn by school children," she said. "They looked as though they were simply resting. But most of them were dead."


Nearby, another group of 1993 veterans has set up a makeshift shelter outside the White House. The men have been there sharing memories since Sept . 21, the date the confrontation began five years ago.


That was the day the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, the lower house of parliament, holed up in the White House after refusing Yeltsin's order to disband. Although city authorities cut water and electricity to the building, they held out for almost two weeks.Outside, their supporters built barricades out of concrete blocks and metal fence posts against the heavy police presence. On Oct. 3, the stand-off collapsed. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who had declared himself president, and parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov urged Muscovites to storm the television center at Ostankino, just as Vladimir Lenin, 76 years earlier, had led the Bolsheviks in seizing the telegraph, telephone and train stations.


That evening saw a bloodbath at Ostankino, as die-hard opponents of Yeltsin clashed with police officers in riot gear. The following morning, Yeltsin gave Defense Minister Pavel Grachev written instructions to launch a full-blown assault on the White House.


As dusk fell on Oct. 4, the Supreme Soviet gave in. A dishevelled and sullen band emerged from the White House, only to be led away to prison cells. Two months later, on Dec. 12, the first State Duma elections were held in Russia since 1917. At the same time, a referendum was held to approve the new Constitution, which consolidated Yeltsin's position as president.


Volodya Kovalenko, who now works as a guard to a military colonel, is one of the men camping outside the White House for the duration of the anniversary. His army battalion was on its way back from Germany to Kazakhstan in the fall of 1993, and stopped in Moscow along the way.


"It was right in the middle of the coup," Kovalenko said. "We helped to build the barricades to defend Rutskoi and the others."


Four out of the 32 men in Kovalenko's battalion were killed, including his brother, Sasha. Kovalenko himself was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet.


"The official figures put the death toll at 147," he said. "But it must have been nearer 1,500. The hospitals were all full. I know, because I was there."He is joined in his round-the-clock vigil by five other men, although dozens have gathered with them during the days. They are around the corner from the camp set up in June by protesting coal miners.


Behind Kovalenko's campfire stands a memorial for the civilians killed in the 1993 confrontation. "There used to be a wall here," he said. "The graffiti on it said 'Yeltsin, where are the bodies of our children?' They took it down, because it was too shameful outside the government building."


Unlike the leaders of what they call the coup attempt, who were amnestied the following year, Kovalenko served a three-year prison sentence in the Volgograd region for his role in the unrest. "They said we were going to jail for criminal charges, not political ones," he said.


Rutskoi, one of the leaders, was later elected governor of the Kursk region.


Although most Muscovites were too busy coping with the troubles of today to think about the revolutions of yesterday, Viktor Anpilov, far-left firebrand leader of the Working Russia movement, gave a press conference Friday to coincide with the anniversary.


"Today is my birthday," said Anpilov, who played a leading role in the events of 1993.


"Five years ago I spent the day at Smolenskaya Ploshchad, stirring up the emotions of the people. Today I want to dedicate the day to fallen friends of 1993."