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Shock therapy and Russia’s fatal turn

Thirty years ago, the Kremlin crushed a parliamentary uprising, ushering in an era of strong presidential and authoritarian rule


The Supreme Soviet building, otherwise known as the “Russian White House,” after being shelled, October 4, 1993. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Scanpix.

There are events that at the time seem to portend one thing but years later take on a very different hue. So it is with the dramatic political crisis that erupted in Russia 30 years ago this week, a crisis that ended with tanks of the Russian army blasting the country’s parliament, the Supreme Soviet, into submission.

Back then, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was a hero in the West. Optimism ran high that the post-Soviet Russian Federation would rapidly evolve into a fully functioning Western-style liberal democracy and capitalist free market economy. All that stood in its way were a few hold-outs from the old communist system who sought to challenge Yeltsin from their power base in the parliament. By eliminating them, Yeltsin had secured the bright future that Russia deserved. Or so many believed.

Looking back on it, though, more and more analysts now take the opposite view: that the events of October 3-4, 1993 constituted the moment that Russia took a fatal turn in the wrong direction.

Three factors precipitated the political crisis. The first was the policy of economic reform undertaken by Yeltsin, known as shock therapy. This began with a decree liberalizing prices (which had been fixed by Soviet central planners at artificially low levels). The aim was to create incentives for producers to bring goods to the market. And indeed, soon afterwards the shops were full again. The downside was enormous inflation. The government tried to reduce this by classic monetarist means—reducing the money supply by cutting spending, including state subsidies to industries. This threatened millions of Russians with unemployment. The central bank, however, was under the control of the parliament not the president, and refused to follow the monetarist prescript, continuing to issue large amounts of funds to troubled Russian enterprises. This allowed people to keep their jobs, but the result was that inflation soon became hyperinflation.

The second factor behind the crisis was that the collapse of the Soviet Union had left the Russian Federation without a clear division of powers between the president and the parliament. In October 1991, the parliament granted Yeltsin the right to enact economic reform by means of decree. Before long, however, many parliamentarians began to have doubts about shock therapy and tried to claw back the emergency powers they had granted to Yeltsin. By contrast, the government took the view that parliament was obstructing reform and that the only way to enact it properly was by concentrating authority in the hands of the president.

A third factor was the attitude of liberal reformers toward political opposition. They tended to view reform through a moral lens. Supporting it was morally good. Opposing it was morally bad, even outright evil. Any measures were justified in fighting opposition, including undemocratic ones.

The result of this attitude was a growing preference for what one might call liberal authoritarianism. Russian liberals recognized that economic reform was likely to prove unpopular. Consequently, if the people had power they would try to halt it. Power would instead have to be centralized in the hands of “democrats” (i.e. liberal reformers) so as to force reform through against the will of the people. As the future head of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, put it in a 1990 article: “There is a fundamental contradiction between the aims of reform (the forming of a democratic economy and society) and the means of their achievement, including measures of an anti-democratic nature.”

A favoured model was that of General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. In April 1991, a group of Russian economists visited Chile to investigate the free market reforms undertaken under Pinochet. Among the group was Alfred Koch, who later became deputy prime minister under Yeltsin. Koch remarked that:

A strong hand, when it’s really strong, that’s harmonious; it’s a dictatorship in its complete, mature form. Pinochet didn’t try to pass himself off as a democrat, which he was not. He knew they needed to build a liberal economy, and he built it; he knew they need to stifle the opposition, and he stifled it, just as he was supposed to do. … Chile 1973. Total collapse. The economy just stopped. The country was bankrupt. Politically, a dead end. Then, like in a bad movie, fast forward on the calendar, twenty years later … What better example do we need to see that we must act and not just gab about reforms?

In April 1993, Russians voted in a referendum asking four questions: whether they supported the president; whether they supported his economic reforms; whether they favoured early parliamentary elements; and whether they favoured early elections. In the subsequent vote, 60 percent supported the first question, 54 percent the second, and 60 percent the third, but only 49 percent backed the fourth (an early presidential election) with 51 percent against. Yeltsin and his supporters interpreted the result as giving him the right to rule by himself. The president then acted accordingly.

On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin issued a decree dissolving the parliament, transferring control of the central bank to his authority, and ordering elections to a new parliament, the State Duma. The decree went far beyond Yeltsin’s constitutional authority. The Supreme Soviet responded by impeaching him. On the night of October 3, a crowd of parliamentary supporters attempted to storm the central TV station. Yeltsin then ordered the army to attack the Supreme Soviet building, the “White House.” This it proceeded to do on October 4, when army tanks shelled the parliament, forcing it into submission. Some 150 people died in the two days’ violence, most of them civilians killed by security forces and the army during the attacks on the TV station and the Supreme Soviet.

Western politicians welcomed Yeltsin’s actions. “It is clear that the opposition forces started the conflict, and President Yeltsin had no other alternative but to try to restore order,” said US President Bill Clinton. Russian liberals were equally supportive. The head of the presidential human rights office, Sergei Kovalyov, for instance, said that, “There is no doubt that the victory of [Supreme Soviet speaker] Khasbulatov and his supporters… would have meant the end of democracy, the end of parliamentarism and the final result, the end of freedom in Russia.” While acknowledging that Yeltsin had violated the constitution, he argued that it wasn’t the most important thing. “What is constitutionalism—following the bad letter of a bad law or the fundamental principles of constitutionalism?” he asked. “Democracy in Russia played a very malicious joke on the process not just of economic, but also political reform,” claimed Chubais, “a strong hand plus the market is undoubtedly technically much more attractive.”

Even more passionate was the outspoken former dissident Valeriia Novodvorskaia. She wrote:

On the night of 4 October … we had a choice: to kill or to die. We preferred to kill and even found moral satisfaction in it. … And if during the night they had given tanks to us, democrats and humanists, … nobody would have hesitated. The “White House” wouldn’t have survived till morning, not even ruins would have remained of it. … We are not dealing with people, with equal opponents, but with some evil black fog … To deal with it, we need bullets. … I know that 20 percent of my fellow citizens regularly vote for communists, fascists, Zhirinovsky and simple filth … and I am completely prepared to get rid of every fifth person. … I am no longer afraid of Pinochet. I am prepared to use any methods to win this civil war.

Former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, by contrast, was a bit more cautious. He noted after the attack on the Supreme Soviet that “It immediately became clear that the first casualty was democracy itself. On the morning of October 3, President Yeltsin was still only one of many players on the Russian scene. … On the morning of October 5, all the power in the country was in his hands. We had leapt from the gelatinous dvoevlastie (dual power) into a de facto authoritarian regime.”

This proved to be the case. Following the destruction of the parliament, Yeltsin pushed through a new constitution that centralized power in the hands of the president. The authoritarian system that has governed Russia under his successor, Vladimir Putin, was thus not Putin’s creation. Rather it was a product of the events of October 1993.

In the context of the time, Yeltsin’s actions were understandable. In 1993, Russia was stuck in a political impasse. Existing institutions were clearly inadequate. Something had to be done to move the country forward. The chosen method, though, proved decidedly problematic. Yeltsin’s supporters imagined a liberal authoritarianism that would in due course so change the culture of the country that the authoritarian elements could be dropped, creating a truly liberal order. It seems not to have occurred to them that the system they created could fall into the hands of illiberal elements who might push it in a different direction. It’s a mistake for which they have paid a heavy price.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.


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