Black October: Russia’s Second October Revolution

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On 4 October 1993, President Boris Yeltsin broke all political conventions, declaring a state of emergency in Moscow and instructing the Russian army to bombard the White House – home of Russia’s parliament (the Supreme Soviet). Barricaded inside were the nations’ parliamentarians who, after a protracted row over constitutional reform, had decided to impeach the President and install Alexander Rustkoy, his deputy, in his place. Clashes between the military, police forces and protestors led to an official death toll of 148, thus making this the most violent Russian protest since the arrival of the Bolsheviks, 66 years earlier. Why had Russia’s President felt compelled to mobilise the army against his own legislature?

The roots of the political conflict during Black October can be traced back to the consequences of similar anti-Yeltsin protests in the summer of 1991. Dissatisfied with Yeltsin’s support for economic liberalisation and independence from the Soviet Union, communist hardliners had attempted an unsuccessful coup to remove the president from power. Relations had been breaking down for some time between Yeltsin and the key players in Black October, notably Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet. The question of how Russia arrived at Black October is thus a question of how these differing factions fell out.

The answer has much to do with Yeltsin’s programme of economic reform. On 2 January 1992, using sweeping executive powers granted to him in the wake of the Communist coup of 1991, Yeltsin enacted his policy of ‘shock therapy’, a rapid and unregulated opening up of the Russian economy and selling off of state-owned assets. The unintended consequences of this policy were enormous. High inflation incited by the reforms was counteracted with deflationary tax rises and spending cuts, pushing Russia into an extended depression, exacerbated by a credit crunch that forced the closure of many industries.

The situation was so dire that the resource-rich provinces of Tatarstan and Bashkiria made calls for full independence from Russia. Sensing the harm caused by these policies, the vast majority of senior figures in the Supreme Soviet turned against shock therapy and as a result fell out with Yeltsin. Rutskoy went so far as to label the scheme “economic genocide.” Yeltsin, however, remained determined to press on with his reforms, placing him on a collision course with the Supreme Soviet.

The powers of decree granted to Yeltsin in 1991, which gave him the constitutional basis for such radical reform, were set to expire by the end of 1992. Without these, he would no longer be able to implement his controversial policies and he would be entirely reliant on the Supreme Soviet who took a perverse pleasure in frustrating such reform. Initially, Yeltsin attempted to bypass this blockage by appointing the architect of shock therapy, his economic advisor Yegor Gaidar, as Prime Minister. However, he was blocked from doing so by the Soviet – a visible symbol of the split that had occurred at the top echelons of the Russian administration.

A compromise was reached in which moderate reformer and Gazprom boss Viktor Chernomydin would take over as Prime Minister, and a referendum was scheduled for April 1993 to decide on whether Russia would adopt a new constitution in replacement of the 1978 Soviet one. Yeltsin’s powers were to be extended until the referendum. Despite this uneasy accord, the legislature continued to erode Yeltsin’s control over his government by unilaterally changing the date of the referendum, gradually removing the emergency powers he was supposed to keep until the vote, and, with the encouragement of Khasbulatov, defeating his bills in parliament.

This uneasy status quo inevitably collapsed on 20 March, when Yeltsin declared the establishment of a ‘special regime’ until after the referendum. After this move was legally found to be unconstitutional, Yeltsin backed down and narrowly won his impeachment trial by 72 votes. Crisis had barely been averted; Russia would not be so lucky again.

The long-awaited referendum was finally held on 25 April, and Yeltsin won the confidence of the country and backing for constitutional reform by a wide (albeit disputed) 2-to-1 margin. Far from resolving the crisis, however, further gridlock ensued because of the inflexibility of the Supreme Soviet. Proposals such as the dissolution of the Soviet and its replacement with a bicameral (two chambered) Duma were rejected out of hand by a legislature unwilling to end its own existence. 

At the same time, with Yeltsin on holiday, a series of decrees were passed reversing the reforms and numerous government figures were attacked on charges of corruption. This was a move straight out of Rutskoy’s playbook, who had begun using his role as head of an anti-corruption council to accuse key members of Yeltsin’s circle of this in late 1992. The newspaper Isvestiya summed up the situation particularly eloquently: “the President issues decrees as if there were no Supreme Soviet, and the Supreme Soviet issues decrees as if there were no President.” The animosity continued to grow in September 1993, when Khasbulatov denounced Yeltsin as an alcoholic, and his legislature rejected the second attempt to appoint Yegor Gaidar to the government, this time as First Deputy Prime Minister. The conflict that had been brewing for the previous 18 months was now at a tipping point.

The immediate catalyst for intra-governmental tension spilling over into the largest protests since 1917 came on 21 September, when Yeltsin unilaterally dissolved the parliament. This was both in revenge for their rejection of Gaidar and in a last-ditch attempt to bring about new parliamentary elections. Yeltsin justified this decision by his overwhelming victory in the referendum. However, Khasbulatov later described it as a plot to overthrow the existing system of presidential-parliamentary power sharing and immediately barricaded himself in the White House along with the other legislators. The parliamentarians impeached the president and installed Rutskoy, recently turfed out of his Kremlin office, as Acting President.

Spurred on by this action, the people of Moscow took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction at a Yeltsin regime which had overseen the halving of the Russia’s GDP since 1989. Despite Rutskoy’s appeal to the army to bomb the Kremlin, and Yeltsin’s barricade of the White House, no decisive action was taken until 3 October, when a coalition of Communists, Anarchists, Monarchists and anti-Yeltsinists broke the police lines outside the White House and stormed the building in support of the legislators trapped inside. The assembled mob then proceeded to launch attacks on the Mayor of Moscow’s Office and the Ostankino TV station, from where they planned to announce the overthrow of Yeltsin to all of Russia’s citizens.

This proved to be the final straw for Yeltsin. The next day he consolidated the support of the previously neutral army. With the army on his side, shelling of the White House began. Subsequently, General Grachev was ordered to storm the building and arrest all those inside. By midday, the rebellion had been quashed and control over the premises had been secured. The Second October Revolution was over.

The legacy of Black October can still be seen in Russian politics to this day. Although the rebels were ultimately released in a 1994 amnesty, their cause was a completely lost one. A new constitution was ratified on 12 December that handed over sweeping powers to rule by decree over to the president and form the basis of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic control of the country to this day.

Russian Communists commemorate failed 1993 revolt – France 24

Who Was Who? The Key Players In Russia’s Dramatic October 1993 Showdown –

20 Years Ago, Russia Had Its Biggest Political Crisis Since the Bolshevik Revolution – The Atlantic

Why Russians prefer to forget ‘Black October’ –