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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Were We Really That Naive?

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What October events?" My friend Alexei, a Muscovite born and bred, looked at me blankly when I told him I had a piece to write for the tenth anniversary of that momentous occasion. "Oh, you mean when Yeltsin pounded the parliament." He shrugged dismissively. But for the small army of foreign journalists who lived through that time, October 1993 stands as a major landmark.

It had been just two years since the last major upheaval, the farcical coup attempt that ultimately put an end to the Soviet Union and signaled the political demise of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The new Russian Federation seemed a land of limitless possibilities. President Boris Yeltsin was a hero, who had defied the tanks in August 1991 in the name of freedom and democracy. Those who opposed him, the recalcitrant old guard, were doubtless on the fast track to history's trash heap.

Those intrepid foreigners who lived in Moscow were suddenly rich -- Yegor Gaidar's "shock therapy" had sent the ruble into a dizzying downward spiral and the greenback was king. Twenty-something expats, who were barely off the dole at home, could afford the high life in the "Wild, Wild East." The Russian population, tied to the "wooden" national currency, was not so fortunate.

The social costs were fearsome -- in my first years at The Moscow Times we had brain surgeons and rocket scientists working as drivers, since their professions no longer paid enough to feed their families. Savings were wiped out overnight. One friend of mine, Sonya, wryly recounted how she finished a book in 1993 that she had signed a contract for three years earlier. "I was to be paid 6,000 rubles," she said, "with which I was going to buy a new car. When I got the money, I used it to purchase a kilo of tomatoes."

This was the background to October 1993: Social upheaval, rampaging discontent, and a political battle between Yeltsin, who wanted to push forward, and his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, aligned with the chairman of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov, who blamed the Western-looking government for the people's woes.

The foreign press largely cast the struggle in Manichean terms. Yeltsin, of course, was the brave white knight battling the darkness.

"Were you really that naive?" asks Alexei. Looking back at the things we said and wrote, I would have to say that yes, we were.

I have fragmentary images of that September. It had been unusually cold, and the 500th anniversary of the Arbat had been accompanied by rain and sleet. I had been assigned to interview Bulat Okudzhava for the occasion, and I can still see the great bard tramping through the snow on his Peredelkino lawn in bed slippers as he came out to welcome his guest.

Mstislav Rostropovich had played the 1812 overture on Red Square, enormous crowds nearly trampling each other in their eagerness to see the great maestro who had been unceremoniously rejected by his homeland decades before.

In late September, Yeltsin announced his suspension of the Supreme Soviet and the city turned into a battleground. Barricades dotted the Garden Ring and the stubborn deputies refused to disband, holing up in the White House despite the fact that the water and electricity had been cut off.

October arrived in a warm, golden haze, making it a lot more comfortable for the crowds milling around the parliament. There were campfires and songs, accompanied by vodka and fistfights. In 1991 crowds had gathered around the White House, then the Russian Federation building, to defend Yeltsin. Now they were there to protect those inside against him. A popular joke of the time ran: The government has devised a new question for the passport questionnaire. "Were you a defender of the White House? And if so, in what year?"

Inside the building, the increasingly beleaguered deputies held their own vigils. Correspondents who managed to sneak in told of candlelit sing-alongs, accompanied by the stench of overflowing toilets and unwashed bodies.

I went with friends to Kolomenskoye on Sunday, Oct. 3, to enjoy the mild fall weather, and watch families braiding red and gold leaves into enormous crowns for children and dogs. Few seemed troubled by the political stalemate in the center. But when we came back into town in late afternoon, we noticed the crowds on the Garden Ring. "We're taking Ostankino!" one participant shouted in answer to our questions.

Television footage shows a spittle-spewing Rutskoi on the balcony of the White House, exhorting supporters to storm the Kremlin -- a proper Lenin at Smolny.

Over 100 people died that night in the fracas at the television tower. I ended up at home, watching the news, once the embattled Ostankino had managed to establish coverage from a remote location. I tried calling my family in Boston, to let them know that I was all right. The response from my befuddled parents was: "That's fine, honey, but can you call back later? The Red Sox are in the playoffs!"

Oct. 4 was a black day for Russia, as tanks fired on the White House while crowds cheered. By evening it was all over, the deputies had been routed and the forces of good had triumphed once again.

Moscow was still a battle zone, however. Snipers lurked on rooftops, and one friend and I spent a few tense moments crouched behind a car in an insane attempt to get to our favorite restaurant, the Tren-Mos, for dinner that evening (it used to be right across from the Moscow swimming pool, now the Church of Christ the Savior). Alarmingly, the restaurant was open and we were far from the only ones in it. Who goes out to dinner during a war?

For weeks there was a curfew, and I remember crazy "curfew parties" where we all stayed the night, drinking and talking, waiting for the ban to lift at 6 a.m. I am ashamed to say so, but it was an exciting time to be young, footloose and free in Moscow.

Now, 10 years older and a century more disillusioned, I am not quite sure why it all happened.

Yeltsin, the folk hero of 1991, the strongman of 1993, descended to buffoon status just a few years later, destroyed by illness and drink. The voucher privatization and loans-for-shares auctions made billionaires of the few and cynics of the many. It would be difficult to find more than a handful of Russians today who can say the word "democracy" without a wince or a grimace. Even relatively progressive Muscovites talk with more than a hint of nostalgia about the old days, when "people were much more honest."

For foreign journalists, Russia is just another story, no longer the center of the universe. Moscow news has to battle for column inches and airtime with the more pressing coverage of war and terrorism.

From the vantage point of 2003, it does seem that October 1993 was just an episode, not the decisive battle we thought at the time. Forces much more powerful than the hapless Khasbulatov or the rabid Rutskoi were arrayed against the new republic: the talented and ruthless young financiers, out to grab the nation's resources; the desperate politicos, determined to hold on to power, whatever label it bore; the armies of aid workers (whose ranks I have since joined), sprinkling dollars and wisdom, in the firm belief that democracy and wealth would be the next crop.

So what was accomplished in October 1993? To paraphrase the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai's famous comment on the French Revolution: It's much too soon to tell.

Jean MacKenzie, who worked at The Moscow Times from 1992 to 1999, is regional development director for IREX, Central Asia.