Thirteen Years Later

Wednesday was the 13th Anniversary of Boris Yeltsin’s military suppression of the Supreme Soviet. On October 3-4, 1993, Yeltsin sent tanks to the White House, which is located on “Free Russia Square”, to shell the rebellious parliament led by Alexandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov. The incident was a mess of events. Yeltsin decreed to disband the parliament, the parliament voted to impeach Yeltsin in defiance. Pro-parliament municipal leaders then barricaded themselves in the Ostankino television studios. There is no doubt that Yeltsin’s move can be considered undemocratic. But at the time, it was justified as a way to prevent the Communists and Nationalists from reversing “democracy.” This was the logic that the Clinton Administration used when it gave its full support to Yeltsin’s use of force, a move that cost 123 lives. The direct result was the creation of a strong presidency in the Russian Constitution that Putin now enjoys.

A small demonstration was held outside of the Ostankino studios on Tuesday to commemorate the events. Unfortunately, the act of memory went unnoticed.

That doesn’t mean that there is no memory of the incident. According to polls conducted by the Levada Center and All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), Russians have disparate, even confused views on what happened 13 years ago. The first interesting statistic is that 61 percent of those polled think that Yeltsin use of the military was a mistake, while only 19 percent think that his actions were justified. In 1993, only 30 percent and 51 percent respectively held these views. At the same time, most believe that neither side was right in the conflict. What is more, there seems to be a collective amnesia about the events. In a poll conducted in 2003, 51 percent of respondents had no opinion or couldn’t remember the events; 72 percent said they forgotten who headed the Supreme Soviet. 7 percent simply gave incorrect accounts of events. Such amnesia isn’t surprising and we shouldn’t expect Russians to have no less a short term memory than people in other places. However, what is now remembered and how it is remembered is still interesting.

As Alexei Levinson from the Levada Center told Kommersant, the public’s collective memory about the events in 1993 have become intertwined with those from 1991. The reasons for this is nothing less that a nostalgia and reevaluation of the Soviet Union and its collapse:

The collective consciousness has formed a positive myth about the USSR, and this defines attitudes to the events of 1993: they have merged with the August coup attempt, and are regarded as one stage in the deliberate destruction of the USSR. Revealingly, when asked about the chief causes of the 1993 events, 28% of respondents attribute them to “the irresponsible policies of Yeltsin and his associates,” while 35% attribute them to “the general collapse of our country, initiated by Gorbachev.”

It’s equally revealing to note that current assessments of the first coup attempt in August 1991 are strikingly similar to assessments of the October 1993 events. Citizens don’t regard either side in the coup attempt as being right or wrong, and don’t see any historical context: 27% of respondents describe the events of 1991 as a tragedy that destroyed our country, 7% describe them as a democratic revolution, and 53% describe them as just another incident in the struggle for power.

Kommersant concludes that this is because “Russian citizens have simply decided to forget all the convoluted paths of their country’s history from the second half of the 1980s to the end of the 1990s; it’s all been overshadowed by one enormous myth about a Great Country. Not that they remember much about that country either.”

I think that there is something to this but still it seems insufficient. Kommersant is oversimplifying things here. The 1980s and 1990s appear as a muddled haze to most Russians because in their eyes there are very little good things to remember. The late 1980s and 1990s are not associated with democracy as many do in the West, but with chaos, decay, crime, and instability. Currently there is a growing nostalgia among Russians for the, albeit moribund, stability of the 1970s. Yes, the Soviet Union was stagnant then, but it was still a great and independent country. The same can be said now. Despite what anyone says about Putin, even poor Russians prefer Russia now than what it was when Yeltsin was lobbing shells at the White House. Plus Putin has made it acceptable to appreciate the good things that came out of the Soviet system without being shamed and without it meaning you necessarily want the USSR’s return.