Forged in Fire

A red diaper baby in Russia witnesses the rise of Vladimir Putin

Courtesy of Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/Corbis
Courtesy of Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/Corbis

Russia’s best hope for democracy in our time died, and was buried in an unmarked grave, after a two-day wave of political violence in the streets of downtown Moscow in October 1993. I note this in retrospect, though it was clear to me at the time that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika project, which aimed to create a modern system of divided government based on popularly elected institutions in what had been a monolithic one-party state, was expiring as armed militias supporting the Supreme Soviet, or the parliament, battled it out with police and special forces loyal to President Boris Yeltsin. Both he and the legislature had been freely elected, in 1990 and 1991 respectively, and they had stood together to withstand the ensuing military putsch launched by Communist Party diehards. Following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics just months later, however, they began to quarrel over many details, underlying which was the issue of who would hold supreme power: parliament or the president? No one, not even Yeltsin’s American advisers, took this political gridlock for a sign of healthy democracy.

In September of ‘93, Yeltsin made the first move, ordering the parliament to disband and laying a paramilitary siege around the Russian White House, then the seat of the Supreme Soviet. Journalists were allowed to come and go, and I spent a lot of time inside the building’s cell-like offices, interviewing some of the several hundred beleaguered parliamentarians who had stood their ground, drinking vodka at the surprisingly well-stocked bar (considering that Yeltsin had cut off the building’s water and power supplies), and regarding it as yet another crisis in the ongoing drama of perestroika.

But on October 3, an unseasonably warm, sunny day, a huge pro-parliamentary crowd marched to the White House and slammed through police lines, which evaporated in a bloody melee. The officers withdrew, possibly under orders, but a few opened fire, and for the first time in my life I heard that whining hornet sound Kalashnikov slugs make as they fly through the air. I saw people killed, some torn apart by bullets, others trampled amid crowd surges. Huddled against the White House wall, under a balcony, I tried to scribble notes.

That evening, as the violence spread, pro-Kremlin police fanned out around Moscow to shut down the elected district councils, or soviets, that had been set up in the heyday of perestroika. Boris Kagarlitsky, a frenetically active deputy of the radical, left-leaning Moscow city soviet and a close friend, had spent the day in neighbourhoods like Oktyabrskaya, where a hulking statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin overshadows the nearby Moscow police headquarters, trying to dissuade local pro-parliament activists from engaging in violence. But Kagarlitsky’s name was on a list, and police seized him and handed him over to the security organs, who passed him on to some special cops, who held him for forty hours, beating his back and stomach with rifle butts, until Amnesty International pulled him out. (Kagarlitsky, who spent thirteen months in a Soviet jail in the early ’80s, is the only Russian I know to have been arrested twice, under two different regimes, for exactly the same reason: he is a democratic socialist.)

The next day, a Russian Army armoured division entered Moscow and stormed the White House, setting it ablaze with tank fire. The parliamentary leaders surrendered and were hauled away to prison while other deputies and supporters found in the building were herded into a nearby football stadium for interrogation. Most later reported being beaten; a few were forced to kneel and threatened with a cocked rifle to their heads, in mock execution, sometimes repeatedly.

I knew there had been a fair bit of violence around the Soviet Union’s periphery as the huge state collapsed, but this was the first time I’d experienced, with full adrenaline rush, the way angry speeches can turn into a storm of gunfire. I realized that the potential for it had always lurked just below the surface. I’ve seen a good deal more of it in the years since — it has erupted frequently in Vladimir Putin’s new Russia.

But what is not present today is any struggle over the soul of Russian democracy. That was all settled in the mini–civil war of October 1993. In the weeks that followed, all of the perestroika-era soviets around Russia were forcibly closed down. Yeltsin used his triumph to rewrite Russia’s constitution, vesting the lion’s share of power in the Kremlin and reducing a new incarnation of parliament, the State Duma, to little more than a talking shop. “It was the end of the democratic experiment,” says an older, somewhat more dour Boris Kagarlitsky, and the end of the great hopes Gorbachev had aroused in so many Russians.

Mine must be an unusual story. I came to Moscow over twenty years ago as a correspondent for the Canadian Tribune, the now defunct weekly newspaper put out by Canada’s Communist Party. I was a third-generation red diaper baby from Toronto, and a long-time member of the party. My uncle, trained at the Lenin School in Moscow in the 1920s as an agent of the Communist International, spent many years in the ussr. I’d visited a few times, had studied Russian history up to the graduate level, but never wanted to live there until Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The new general secretary, the party’s first to be born after the revolution, talked unlike any Communist leader since the original Bolsheviks. Suddenly, there was the electrifying prospect of a socialism powered from below, a system focused on creative human potential rather than crop statistics. Optimists could imagine a Soviet Union that might actually compete with the West in ideas as well as nuclear missiles, a non-capitalist society that worked, or at least an example that might be productively debated to replace the albatross hanging around the neck of any Canadian who selfidentified as a socialist. I grabbed the Tribune job as soon as it was offered to me.

When I arrived in Moscow in the fall of 1986, the place was still in Soviet deep freeze. One of the double-edged advantages to being a Communist correspondent was that one got to live, pretty much unsupervised, in regular Soviet housing. (Other foreigners, diplomats, and journalists were kept in special closed compounds and followed around by the kgb.) I recall nearly starving to death in my first couple of weeks because I couldn’t figure out the system of multiple lineups in Soviet grocery stores, or talk my way past the imposing doormen outside so-called restaurants, where the staff were engaged in many pursuits, not many of which involved attending to customers. But having few obstacles to fraternization with the natives, I found it surprisingly easy to make friends, who quickly conjured away those little mysteries for me. Within a year, I married Masha, a graduate student of history, and moved into her family flat in a huge grey tenement across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

Just as quickly, I became convinced that the Soviet revolution, for all its ugliness, had succeeded in transforming Russia into a modern, urbanized, industrial society. Most people I met were highly capable, sophisticated professionals — the products of an extraordinarily effective system of mass education. The central problem, which Gorbachev identified, was that the regime dictated all terms of their public lives. That doesn’t mean they lived in terror, as their parents had under Joseph Stalin. After being viciously clubbed with Kalashnikov rifle butts by Yeltsin’s police in 1993, my friend Boris would sometimes speak nostalgically of his Soviet-era incarceration, and even of his kgb interrogator, “with whom one could discuss things intelligently.”

People certainly had no fear of opening up in private, usually over lengthy, vodka-soaked meals at their kitchen tables. It was through many such boisterous yet often deeply philosophical discussions with friends that I learned just about everything I think I know about Russia, not least of which was that these people were perfectly capable of running their own lives and, by extension, their own country. Gorbachev’s message resonated with me because that’s exactly what he was saying, almost as though he was trying to rule the country from one of those kitchen tables.

My own dispatches to the Tribune were mostly stories about how well Gorbachev’s plan was working out. I travelled in cramped, smoke-filled Aeroflot jets across the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Vladivostok, and everywhere found people waking up to new possibilities. The first miracle was the transformation of the Soviet media, which sprouted a full political spectrum almost from the moment Gorbachev began to relax censorship. Previously unheard-of political criticism and social investigation exposed the harrowing facts of Soviet history, most of which were easily found in any standard Western text on the ussr but were news to the Soviet public. “It was like sixty years of memory suddenly sprang into view. It was exhilarating,” says Sergei Strokan, then an intensely idealistic young reporter for Moskovskie Novosti, the flagship of perestroika. “People would start queuing at 6 a.m. to buy a copy of our paper.”

Gorbachev also moved to revive the existing Bolshevik system of legislatures at all levels, through open and competitive elections. In 1989, the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies was created, with one-third of its representatives chosen by the people. The body, scheduled to meet twice a year, pulled from its ranks a regular sitting parliament, the Supreme Soviet. I was thrilled to see a huge banner hanging across the Kremlin Wall with the old Bolshevik slogan “Vsya vlast Sovietam!” (“All power to the Soviets!”), which actually seemed to be coming true. The next year, a Russian congress (with its own Supreme Soviet) was elected entirely by popular mandate, and freely elected local soviets were springing up everywhere. Gorbachev bluntly told Communist Party functionaries that if they hoped to retain executive power, they’d have to get elected. I recall one particularly painful interview in Kaluga with a local party secretary, who sat white knuckled and red faced behind his desk, contemptuously ignoring my questions about his future plans, if any, to run for office.

Around this time, I also conducted two cross-Canada tours, to publicize the Tribune and my book of essays on Gorbachev’s reforms. Even in the West, perestroika seemed to be a magic formula that disintegrated old sectarian lines on the left. I found myself chatting with Trotskyists without quarrelling over Stalin, and ndpers quizzed me earnestly about the potential of socialism. Indeed, just about everyone I met was intrigued by the momentous changes overtaking the old ussr.

At the Toronto headquarters of the Communist Party of Canada, however, there was also some disquiet at the processes in the ussr that were aggressively reshaping the views of history and definitions of socialism party members had long defended. I held a couple of private meetings in the book-lined office of the party’s long-time leader, Bill Kashtan, a grizzled, Soviet-trained apparatchik of my uncle’s generation, who listened to my glowing reports of burgeoning people’s power with narrowed eyes.

Perhaps I was naive, but it isn’t as though I had failed to notice that the garden was crawling with snakes. I found highly organized, though democratically minded, nationalism in the Popular Fronts of the Soviet Baltics. Down in Uzbekistan, I was shocked to see women wearing the veil, discouraged since the 1920s, and even more so to hear a party satrap explain it to me as part of “perestroika’s new opening to Islam.” In the Caucasus, I encountered simmering ethnic hatreds. By loosening the grip of the Communist Party, Gorbachev had opened up possibilities, but these were taken very differently by peoples across the vast patchwork state that was the ussr.

Meanwhile, the Soviet economy was crashing. A lack of central planning had resulted in the foundering of industry, and massive shortages began to cripple life in the cities (e.g., those insufferable lineups at the shops). Gorbachev spoke in almost utopian terms of “workers’ democracy” — turning the factories over to elected councils — but attempts to implement it merely aggravated the chaos. The only part of the economy that worked was the “co-operatives,” basically private businesses, which quickly expanded beyond consumer services into manufacturing, banking, and farming. Most of my acquaintances, members of the educated elite, grew sick and tired of the lofty chatter in the “theatre of democracy,” increasingly at odds with the dreary realities of life, while exposure to the West and the example of rich co-operative owners stimulated dreams of becoming successful Western-style businesspeople.

Sometime in the spring of 1991, I realized how far they had taken this. I was invited to a garden party at the country home of Andrei Brezhnev, nephew of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in Zhukovka, an elite dacha settlement outside Moscow. One of the guests, whom I’d known for years as a functionary of the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) rolled up in a shiny white Volvo and told me he was now president of an import-export firm. Another, whom I’d often dealt with as an official of the Tribune’s fraternal newspaper, the Soviet Communist Party organ Pravda, boasted that he’d just been hired at a private bank. A third, even more surprising because he was the son of renowned Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, leaned over the table and handed me a card that announced him as an “international business consultant.”

I poured out my confusion over a bottle of vodka with Vladimir Pozner, a fellow red diaper baby who’d laboured much of his life in the bowels of the Soviet propaganda system, and then achieved a brief perestroika-era stardom in the West, as a Soviet spokesman who spoke flawless, New York–accented English. We sat on the terrace of his dacha, eating and drinking by candlelight, thanks to one of the frequent power outages. “Socialism and the Soviet Union are probably finished,” he told me. “But we’re a democratic country now, and nobody will be able to roll that back.”

He turned out to be right (if too optimistic about the fate of democracy). By December, the balance of power shifted to the republics, and the ussr disintegrated into fifteen separate states. Gorbachev shuffled off into retirement, handing over authority to Russia’s recently elected president, Yeltsin. Any semblance of socialism was junked by the acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, whose now infamous “shock therapy” campaign consisted mainly of liberating prices. Hence, one of the first post-Soviet experiences fixed in Russians’ memories is a hurricane of hyperinflation that wiped out savings and jacked the price of all but a few regulated goods (e.g., energy, housing, and bread) out of reach. I held an account in the Sberbank state bank with 1,000 rubles, which would have purchased a two-week Black Sea vacation in the summer of 1991 but a year later was barely enough to purchase a Snickers bar.

Disillusionment with Yeltsin, who’d rashly promised to improve popular living standards within a year, came swiftly among ordinary Russians (though he retained the support of the liberal intelligentsia and the new business class). I recall the savage political jokes that proliferated in that dreadful winter of 1992. “You know, everything our old Soviet leaders told us about communism was false,” says one friend to another. “But everything they told us about capitalism was true.” Or another: What has Boris Yeltsin accomplished in one year that the Communists couldn’t do in seventy years? He’s made communism look good.

But the democratic system created by Gorbachev staggered on. Russia’s Congress of People’s Deputies continued to meet in the Kremlin Palace, and in late ‘92 it forced the removal of Gaidar and required Yeltsin to appear regularly before the Supreme Soviet to explain Kremlin policies. The relationship between the president and parliament, in particular its vain and ambitious chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, quickly soured. I remember running into Yeltsin in a Kremlin corridor after he’d given a darkly threatening address, warning “extreme measures” if parliament didn’t start co-operating with him. His bodyguards pushed me and several other reporters out of the way, but the burly leader weaved toward us and embraced a startled Swede of his acquaintance, whom he dragged away for what we later heard was “a few drinks” in one of the ornate anterooms.

The main thing Yeltsin and the parliament fought over was the shape of constitutional reform. The system set up by Gorbachev was highly unstable, with no clear division of powers between the grafted-on presidency and the soviet-style legislature, and a parliamentary committee chaired by Yeltsin was tasked with drafting a new basic charter for the country. Its main author was the committee’s executive secretary, a brilliant, bespectacled legal scholar named Oleg Rumyantsev. When first elected to the Supreme Soviet, Rumyantsev was described in a glowing article by then Washington Post correspondent David Remnick as “the James Madison of Russia.” But as the confrontation deepened and the Bill Clinton administration in the US unambiguously took Yeltsin’s side, Russia’s parliamentarians morphed into “hard-liners” and “communist holdovers” in most Western press coverage. Yeltsin’s domestic supporters, unfortunately parroted at the time by many of my Western journalistic colleagues in Moscow, claimed that the parliament’s constitutional reform project aimed to reduce Yeltsin to a mere symbol, like the Queen of England. Yeltsin, who broke with the parliamentary reform committee and published his own super-presidential constitutional draft in April 1993, argued that Russians needed a single strong leader. “Two bears can’t share the same cave,” he famously remarked.

When the final showdown came in October, Rumyantsev was dragged from the White House by troops and handed over to the police, who beat him badly, much like the treatment Boris Kagarlitsky was receiving on the other side of town. His opposition knocked out, Yeltsin wasted no time in redesigning the country’s institutions, and its basic charter, into the neoczarist shape they’ve held ever since.

As became clear amid the muted eulogies and angry street commentary at the time of Yeltsin’s funeral in 2007, most Russians now blame the old leader for a decade they associate with economic decline, social decay, political drift, and national disgrace. Few, at least in Russia, praised him as any sort of democrat. It seems odd to me, then, that the man Yeltsin hand-picked to succeed him in 1999, ex–kgb agent Vladimir Putin, has been singled out by Western pundits as the main culprit in Russia’s regression into an authoritarian state. Putin, an able man with a genuine, often-expressed passion for modernizing Russia’s economy and military forces, inherited an office with full power to effectively renationalize key segments of the economy, take over media outlets, end popular elections for regional leaders, and make war.

If Russians have been quiescent — even dutifully marching to the polls to endorse Putin’s own hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, last March, and then standing by late in the year as Medvedev pushed through constitutional changes that could see Putin re-elected in 2012 — it’s because the Kremlin’s decisive leadership has been undeniably popular. Relatively good governance, combined with windfall oil and gas revenues in recent years, prompted an economic boom that brought prosperity to millions of Russians and is only lately beginning to peter out. My own family just moved into a house we constructed on the site of our Soviet-era dacha in Razdori, a small village near Moscow, and life has generally become far more comfortable. Among other delights, Boris Kagarlitsky, who now heads an institute that studies global social movements, sometimes meets me for an American-style lunch and leftish political conversation at the Starlite Diner, near the giant Lenin statue where he was arrested fifteen years ago. But most of my friends smile bitterly at official rhetoric that describes the political system as “democracy with Russian specifics.”

The constitution written by Oleg Rumyantsev, which would have given Russia a modern government with effective checks and balances, went up in flames with the White House in 1993. The last time I met the scholar, about five years ago, he was standing alone at a sumptuous buffet in the posh downtown Moscow apartment of the black Russian TV presenter Yelena Khanga, granddaughter of American Communists who came to the ussr in the 1930s. As soon as he saw me, Rumyantsev, still tall, gaunt, and intense, held up his hand. “I don’t discuss politics anymore,” he barked. “It’s a dead end. I’m a corporate executive now, and that’s how I make my contribution.”

Fred Weir