October 17, 1993
EYEWITNESS TO A COUP THAT FAILED
It’s a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon–a rarity for Moscow in October. Outside, people stroll through the bright yellow foliage of birch trees. In our apartment, my wife finishes giving me a haircut, while our 2-year-old naps and her older sister plays. Suddenly, a loud chattering sound. Gunfire? The phone rings. BUSINESS WEEK Correspondent Patricia Kranz calls to say anti-Yeltsin demonstrators have broken out of the nearby parliament building, where Vice-President Aleksandr V. Rutskoi and supporters have been holding out.
I dash from our apartment down Kutuzovsky Prospect and toward the “White House,” just a quarter of a mile away. In front of a bus with smashed windows is a group of flak-jacketed Interior Ministry troops listening anxiously to a walkie-talkie. Eerily, the large contingent of police that had surrounded the White House has now melted away.
The area is full of agitated Rutskoi supporters. A ragtag crowd with communist banners shouts slogans from a balcony. A bearded man approaches me and exclaims: “Yeltsin’s dictatorship is over!” Teenagers clip away pieces of the razor-sharp concertina wire around the Parliament as souvenirs.
OFF THE AIR. Soon, pro-Rutskoi toughs in green and white camouflage uniforms start forming a convoy of captured military trucks and a jeep. Some carry Kalashnikovs. One affixes a red Soviet flag to the lead jeep, shouting “Ostankino, Ostankino,” the name of the 18th century palace where Russia’s central television studios are located. Urging the crowd to follow, the little convoy roars up a street, followed by eight yellow ambulances with flashing lights. As I start back toward BUSINESS WEEK‘s bureau, machine-gun fire bursts from the high-rise building that houses the now-occupied Moscow mayor’s office.
The next hours are confusing. At 8 p.m., we switch on the television and watch a nervous announcer read Yeltsin’s state-of-emergency order on the only TV channel still broadcasting. There’s fighting at Ostankino.
I head off alone to the television center about five miles away. Approaching it by car, I hear gunfire and see ambulances race past. Soon, I notice about 20 onlookers cowering behind a smashed car. Suddenly, streams of red tracers lick the sky. One stream arches toward my car. I turn around, fast. Later, I realize how lucky I was. Four other journalists were killed.
The next morning, the fighting starts in earnest. A column of tanks and armored personnel carriers pulls up in front of our apartment, waiting to move on to the White House. As they head out, we begin to hear machine-gun fire and the booms of even bigger weapons. Yeltsin’s forces have begun their assault on the White House, and the cacophony lasts for hours. To get a closer look, Patricia leaves her apartment nearby for the river embankment across from the White House. T-72 tanks take up positions there, and she’s told to move as bullets snap past.
Despite the obvious danger, a crowd of several thousand bystanders gathers, drinking beer and munching hot dogs. Japanese tourists saunter by. A boy walks his dog. As armored personnel carriers rake the 17-story White House’s marble facade with machine-gun fire, a father hoists his young son to his shoulders for a better view. From time to time, a T-72 lets off a round with an enormous boom that shakes the ground. This is followed almost instantly by a loud crack and the orange flash of a shell exploding on the White House’s upper floors. In a comic note, each cannon shot triggers a chorus of car alarms in the parking lot of the Hotel Ukraine.
Working the crowd is BUSINESS WEEK Correspondent Juliette Rossant, who once covered the fighting in Azerbaijan. One spectator she speaks with is 18-year-old student Nikolai Bediakov. He, his brother, and two friends watch the action through binoculars. “These communists give weapons to all these crazy people,” he tells her. “Yeltsin should have done this two years ago.”
TANK-TOP VIEW. Just after noon, the fighting dies down. Negotiations soon start. Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev‘s black Zil limousine slowly rolls to the middle of the bridge so he can meet with White House negotiators. The silence is chilling. Down by the riverbank, onlookers try to climb the T-72s for a better view. Flames are licking from two upper-story windows. The only sound is the slow bonging of a drum that a Buddhist priest beats in prayer.
It’s not over, though. Shooting picks up from time to time. By 4:30 p.m., hundreds of White House noncombatants file out of the building. Rutskoi and Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov are arrested. Even so, there’s a new problem: snipers who periodically spray the streets and sky with red tracer fire on into the night. When I return home, the sight of armored vehicles in front of our apartment building is strangely comforting. My family is safe. Our 4-year-old is very curious about the day’s events. At one point, she gestured in the direction of the machine-gun rat-tat and asked my wife, “Mommy, why are the people out there clapping so hard?”
Peter Galuszka in Moscow