CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils,
as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.
On October 3 through 4, 1993, Russia experienced its first (not counting the putsch) reactionary uprising of the Democratic era. Ironically, the argument that set off the conflict was over the president's excessive powers.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had ruled Russia with iron hands for seventy-four years. When it was finally about to give up the ghost in 1991, it gave a dying fart in the guise of the GKChP, or General Committee on Emergency Situations. The old state structure, falling apart, was slowly democratizing--the Perestroika gave the antiquated apparatus no chance to turn into a Chinese-style communist oligarchy. Mikhail Gorbachev was going to become Russia's first democratic leader.
Unfortunately, the GKChP had other ideas. Essentially, they were a group of soon-to-be-ex-ministers and generals who fiercely believed in communism(makes sense; it brought them lots of personal gain) and hated what the USSR was turning into. So, they did what any upstart junta should do: they took Gorbachev and locked him up in his villa, and proceeded to attempt to seize power. The Russians did not like this; Boris Yeltsin led the resistance, which soon turned into major streetfighting, etc.
The GKChP was defeated; if anything, the putsch quickened the Soviet Union's demise. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was banned, and the building of democracy continued.
In 1993, it became apparent that the semi-legitimate government that was built during this time lacked sufficient foundation. In January of that year, Russia became embroiled in the constitutional crisis which would later lead to the events herein described. This was basically a conflict between the executive and legislative branches of the government over power.
Several emergency sessions of Parliament were called, at which several laws were passed, like "The decision of obedience to the Constitution of the Russian Federation by supreme government authorities and officials" In March, this culminated in a vote to reduce the powers of the presidential office. A few weeks later, Yeltsin counterattacked, reading on television his Act #379, "Of special orders of preeminence until the end of the governmental crisis", which the constitutional court promptly found unconstitutional. In May, a referendum was held, at which the Russian people voted for confidence in the president.
In June, the leaders of the opposition convened an 'All-Russian Constitutional Convention'. A few days later, the High Council (the upper house of Russian parliament) passed a bill establishing the date of development and ratification of a new project of the Constitution.
The next two months passed fairly uneventfully. In August, war was finally declared: The president made a statement about the actions of the High Council, declaring them "dangerous to Russia's security". A month later, Yeltsin spoke on television and proposed a stage-based roadmap for the Constitution. Out of the things he said, it became apparent that this meant the dissolution of the Parliament and High Council, and the transfer of legislative powers to the Federal Council (a council of governors). At this point, the politician R. I. Hasbulatov went on TV and declared the actions of the president to be equivalent to a coup (Shades of Cromwell here.) The Parliament convened and effectively divested the president of his authority, naming vice president A. V. Rutzkoi as his replacement.
The next ten days saw the conflict escalate: The president blockaded the White House (haha; the seat of Russian legislative government), later cutting off electricity, water, and phone lines. On September 27, the White House was surrounded with troops, and the first days of October were marked by street battles between supporters of the High Council and the Russian OMON, a kind of pseudo-militarized special police.
On October 3, about 5 PM, supporters of the High Council rally. With some AK-47s, they attack the Moscow city hall and capture it, chanting communist slogans. Speeches are made. Threats are uttered. Someone brings a few armored cars (Not the entire government was supportive of these events; the rest of the legislature declared that all consequences will be on the heads of the former High Council). General Makashov, one of the main participants of the struggle, climbs on top of an armored car and delivered a rousing call to action, to the effect that the Jews were hiding out in the Ostankino telecenter and that they must be driven out of there and the center captured. So they go. As they are marching up to it, it becomes apparent that Vityaz' ('warrior'), a special-forces squad, is holed up in the building, as well a few thousand OMON agents. The Makashovians (3000 or so in number) demand the government forces surrender, unsuccessfully. A political rally is held, soon replaced with machine-gun fire. All television broadcasting is stopped. Throughout Moscow, armed elements of various political affiliations are organizing fights. The patriarch, attempting to restore peace, has a heart attack. Soon, Yeltsin supporters pull up and are promptly assigned to places. Liberal leader Yegor Gaidar asks the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy and to fight the Makashovians. The telecenter is now on fire--20 people have been killed. Three more armored cars show up; it is unknown whom they are supporting. There is a huge, many-thousand person rally near the Moscow city council, all ready to fight for Yeltsin. The special forces take over the telecenter and are ordered to shoot to kill. Gorbachev protests the violence. The rally swells to 15,000 people. After midnight, the flow of wounded slightly subsides. The Russian Orthodox Church is still attempting to end the conflict, as 40 armored cars line up in front of the Kremlin. Thousands of idle observers are gathered on the main governmental plazas, near the barricades. Fighting continues, with no major events.
In the early hours of the morning, machine guns are actively passed out, with several dead and wounded from mechanized infantry fire. A group of T-80 tanks roll out onto the Novoarbatsky Bridge. They start firing at the top floors of the White House, from where everyone has fled. A fire starts. Fighting, with mechanized infantry everywhere, becomes concentrated near the central administrative areas of the city. More and more wounded arrive. The stock market opens, surprisingly stable. Newspaper-closing squads are formed. A poll shows that 72% of Muscovites support the president (there is no reason to doubt its validity). More and more idle observers gather near the tanks on the bridge, which are firing. The People's Deputees (another political organ) declare hatred for this attempted restoration of Soviet totalitarianism and support for the president. Snipers kill several civilians. Defenders of the White House start surrendering. Hasbulatov and Rutzkoi are declared outlaws. Various organizations declare outrage. The storm ends; the rebels are arrested (they are now rehabilitating themselves; Hasbulatov, for example, is now a major politician in Chechnya.).
Approximately 50 (official statistics)--200 (unofficial) people, mostly observers, are dead as a result of this fighting. Many hundreds are wounded.
This episode in history shows that perhaps, just perhaps, taking the obvious route and decrying the president's ambitions is inappropriate in this context. It seems that ideologically and politically, the president was an abuser of power and clearly in the wrong; however, the prospect of a return to hardline communism is much worse than such abuses. Ironically, the West remembers this as an example of how bad a president Yeltsin was. Funny.
One more thing to remember: This was almost exactly ten years ago! Even in our day and age, in G-8 countries, these things happen. If this had turned into civil war, the world would be in horrible danger. It didn't.