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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Black October Still With Us

As expected, the Russian media marked the 10th anniversary of "black October" with a flood of articles and television specials. We were bombarded with stories about "the way it really happened": eyewitness accounts from the defenders of the White House, interviews with the officers who stormed the building, the reminiscences of politicians and personal accounts from people who lived through the crisis. Reams of official memos, orders and resolutions were published. Although these documents frequently contradict one another, they give us an accurate overall picture. We now know for certain where the armored personnel carriers and the snipers were positioned.

Yet all this information only made it harder to see the forest for the trees. For all the details, press coverage of the anniversary told us nothing new about the political issues at stake in the conflict between the Supreme Soviet and the people surrounding President Boris Yeltsin.

Parliament argued that privatization would lead to the wholesale plundering of state property and the rise of powerful oligarchic groups, while the majority of Russians were consigned to crushing poverty. The deputies maintained that a modern economy could not be created in a situation where the laws of the land were summarily ignored. They railed against corruption in the bureaucracy. While economists tied to the Kremlin explained away the country's deepening economic and social crisis as "temporary difficulties" that were to be expected during the "transitional period," the leaders of parliament insisted that we were dealing with systemic problems.

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What goes around comes around, as they say. Back in 1993, the media were unstinting in their criticism of the defenders of parliament. Now they are repeating the deputies' concerns about divisions in society, oligarchs and corruption almost word for word. Four years of economic growth have finally given the lie to the arguments put forward by the apologists of neo-liberal reform, who blamed the calamities of the 1990s exclusively on declining production. The reformers had a hand in that decline, to put it mildly. Yet they assured us that when the reconstructed and "market-oriented" economy once more began to grow, Russia's problems would somehow solve themselves. The recent run of economic growth makes clear that the people were sold a bill of goods. The structural problems produced by the economic policies of the 1990s have not been solved. In fact, economic growth in many ways has deepened the contradictions that are tearing the country apart.

Russia was subjected to a grandiose social experiment whose results exactly matched the predictions made by skeptics at the very beginning. This is why critics of the Kremlin's policies were not just muzzled, but destroyed politically. Parliament's insistence on heeding public opinion and its stubborn refusal to sacrifice democratic and legal "formalities" clearly hindered the ruling elite as it handed out the wealth of the Soviet Union to a chosen few. But the worst part is that the architects of the government's neo-liberal policies themselves understood perfectly well that much of the criticism they were facing was, in fact, correct. It was therefore not enough to silence the critics; the political order had to be changed so that when the disastrous consequences of their "reforms" became clear, it would be impossible to "revisit the results of privatization."

The well-known journalist Akkram Murtazayev has observed that while the oligarchs were busy robbing the country, "the government stood lookout." The government had one job to do -- to make sure that society didn't stop the robbery -- and it managed its job very well. The opposition was broken, but in society something much more important was broken as well: the people's confidence in their own strength, their respect for their own dignity, their belief in democratic institutions. In the final analysis, this was the main goal of the 1993 coup with all its excesses. It will take a generation at least for us to overcome the consequences of "black October."

Yeltsin left the current leadership a country that was poor but not proud. Everyone today realizes that the system was badly built, but no one is trying to fix it. We have no political force equal to the task. The redistribution of property could still happen, of course, but not in response to the demands of citizens who believe they were wronged. Today, redistribution would amount to little more than a settling of old scores among accomplices to the heist they called "privatization." This is the crux of the conflict between the oligarchs and the siloviki that has split apart the ruling elite.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.