The Bloody Battle for Power in Moscow
For 24 hours, Monitor correspondents followed the fighting as it shifted to various parts of the city - a reporter's notebook
MOSCOW — AT 4 p.m. Sunday those in Russia's White House, or Parliament building, moved through the corridors in a euphoric and triumphant mood.
A mob of at least 15,000 had just smashed through a police cordon to ``liberate'' the besieged parliament building. And neo-Communist and nationalists were ready to go on the offensive. ``We're going to take the mayor's building and the television center,'' an aide to hard-line deputy Ilya Konstantinov shouted excitedly as he escorted his boss through the halls. Other nationalist deputies, such as Sergei Baburin, could be seen beaming with pleasure, secure in victory.
Within minutes, the attack on the mayor's office - across the street from the parliament - commenced. There was gunfire, but many shots apparently were fired in the air. Pro-Yeltsin militia units fled the scene in a panic, herded like sheep by pro-parliament fighters, who fired automatic weapons in the air. Meanwhile thousands of civilians gawked at the spectacle, oblivious to the dangers. As the mayor's office building fell in pro-parliament hands, shouts of ``kill the mayor'' echoed through the lobby and the crowd smashed glass doors to gain access.
Interviews with several pro-Yeltsin Interior Ministry troops - who were effectively taken prisoner and were under armed guard - indicate that the pro-Yeltsin forces blockading the legislature had no desire to open fire on the crowd. Many had been stationed outside the parliament for over a week - in freezing temperatures, with little food and rest. The battle for TV
The action soon shifted to the Ostankino television complex, about five miles north of the city center. Pro-parliament partisans arrived at the sprawling complex in captured military trucks and city buses. As the sun went down at about 6 p.m., the mob simply milled in front of the main entrance. Dozens of pro-Yeltsin Interior Ministry troops stood outside the building, making no move to disperse the crowd. But inside the building plenty of heavily armed elite troops, known as OMON, remained. At one point retired Gen. Albert Makashov, the leader of the pro-parliament forces, addressed the Interior Ministry troops outside the building, inviting them to join his side.
``Our people have been suffering for a long time,'' he told the baby-faced troops in their ill-fitting helmets. ``Now they have come here. These people would never support the thieves, thugs, and prostitutes that are now running the country. That's what we rebelled against.''
Among the pro-parliament supporters at Ostankino, were those who were newcomers to the political storm, as well as plenty of hard-core neo-Communists and fascists, the backbone of the opposition movement.
``Before, I never participated in political actions, but after the riots I saw on the streets, I decided that I must participate,'' said Natasha, a 10th-grade biology teacher, referring to violent street demonstrations Saturday. ``The media here has lied to the people constantly. I was tired of being lied to.''
The main sentiment expressed by the mob appeared to be xenophobia. ``Russia is a rich country - richer than America. We'll defeat you,'' shouted Alexei Sapigin, echoing typical comments. ``You Americans will never be able to do to Russians what you did to your Indians.'' Urging surrender
An attempt was apparently made to convince the OMON troops inside the TV complex, via a loudspeaker, to surrender. But eventually the pro-parliament forces gave up. They focused their attention on a building across the street from the main Ostankino building. Trucks rammed the entrance to the building, smashing glass and metalwork, under the glare of television cameras.
During a lull, there was a flash and thunderous concussion from an explosive device, followed by bursts of gunfire. The crowd in front of the building scattered, but some were felled by the sudden firefight. Others were pinned down behind cars. According to an American television crewman who was standing in front of the building, the attack was started by the pro-parliment rebels who fired an antitank rocket directly into the building. But after the initial bursts, most of the fire was coming from inside the building, red tracer bullets illuminating the night. It was at least a half-hour before the wounded in front of the building could be evacuated.
At around 9 p.m., downtown Moscow was a virtual ghost town. Only about 200 people had by then answered government calls for pro-democracy forces to congregate at the Moscow City Council building, on Tverskaya street, about a half-mile from the Kremlin. At the Kremlin itself, hundreds of people gathered on Red Square. Everything inside the ancient fortress was blacked out.
Toward midnight, a pitched battle was raging back at the Ostankino complex. The sounds of cannon fire from government armored vehicles pierced the night, red tracers flying everywhere. Pro-parliament forces had managed to penetrate the first floor of the auxiliary building, but had subsequently retreated, leaving the building ablaze.
In the early morning hours, pro-democracy forces began to turn out. Thousands now filled the square outside the City Council building and they built three barricades. Pro-democracy leaders exhorted the crowd from a balcony, where Bolshevik Leader Vladimir Lenin spoke 75 years ago shortly after the Communist seizure of power.
When the attack on the White House came at 7 a.m., the gunfire could be heard a few miles away, and was loud enough to awaken an exhausted correspondent. Long bread lines began to form, as a nervous population awaited the outcome of the battle. Subways were crowded as usual as commuters headed to work. No new Soviet empire
At 4 p.m. yesterday, the White House was burning and the dreams of reviving the Soviet empire, cherished by the neo-Communists and nationalists, were in tatters. Hundreds of parliamentarians and their now unarmed supporters left the White House, even as sporadic gunfire continued elsewhere in the building. The danger did not stop thousands of onlookers from converging on the battered White House.
``I can't explain it,'' entrepreneur Andrei Antufyev responded when asked why he braved the gunfire. Mr. Antufyev and others said they supported Yeltsin's current actions but added it did not translate into long-term trust. ``For now, it's tough and we need Yeltsin.'' He added, however, that he would not necessarily vote for Yeltsin in the next election. ``Everything depends on who runs. I don't know who I'm for but I know I'm against those communists and fascists in there,'' he said, pointing toward the White House.