SERYOZHA REMEMBERED THIS. He was on a Metro train, on his way home from school, and when the train emerged from the tunnel onto the bridge over the Moscow River, Seryozha saw tanks. He got off at the next stop to board the train going in the opposite direction so that he could ride over the bridge again and look at the tanks. Then he did it again, and again, and again, until it was dark.

When he was an adult, he wondered whether this was a memory from 1991 or 1993. He checked Wikipedia, but then he forgot. He checked again, and searched for a mnemonic device, but then forgot again. Eventually he resigned himself to looking it up every six months or so.

SERYOZHA COULD BE FORGIVEN for being perpetually unable to pin down what had happened to the country in which he was born: much older people, learned observers and passionate participants in the events alike, had similar difficulties. Several narratives finally emerged. Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy has argued that the USSR collapsed because it was an empire in the century that ended empires: the process may have taken longer and looked different from the deaths of other empires because of the peculiarities of Soviet state-building and ideology, but that did not change the forces that pulled the Soviet Union apart.1 Zbigniew Brzezinski, who predicted the Soviet collapse—and the 1991 coup—wrote that a basic paradox would bring the country down: its economy had dead-ended, and to survive economically it would have to reform politically, which would inevitably destroy the state’s entire system. But if, he posited, the country wanted to preserve its political system, it would fail economically.2

More than a decade later, Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin wrote the story of the Soviet collapse as precipitated by Gorbachev himself, by oscillating between pursuing reform and not, constantly trying to fight a process he had set in motion.3 In other disciplines, University of California at Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has also written that the Soviet Union was brought down by its own paradoxes, falling into the gap between the governing ideology and lived reality—a gap that exists and can produce a crisis in any society.4 And, of course, Yuri Levada and his team of sociologists predicted that the Soviet Union would die off because Homo Sovieticus, who held up all of its institutions, would go extinct.

With the exception of Brzezinski, who was a student and theorist of totalitarianism, and Levada, who proposed the Homo Sovieticus model, all these explanations try to make sense of the demise of the USSR in terms imported from very different societies. The loss of the social sciences in the Soviet Union made this inevitable: Soviet society had been forbidden to know itself, and had no native language to describe and define what had happened. The occasional fortochkas that opened up the possibility of self-examination were usually too small to allow scholars to adjust and adapt imported models, or to invent their own. Yurchak, who grew up in the Soviet Union but received his graduate education in the United States in the 1990s, provides probably the most obvious example of the ill fit of foreign models. He lacks the tools to explore the ways in which the gaps between ideology and reality in the Soviet Union differed from the gaps in Western countries, for which his model was devised. In functioning democracies the contradictions between avowed ideals and reality can be and often are called out, causing social and political change. That does not eliminate the built-in gap, but it has a way of making societies a little more democratic and a little less unequal, in spurts. Totalitarian ideology allows no such correction. Hannah Arendt maintained that any ideology can become totalitarian, but for that to happen it needs to be reduced to a single simple idea, which is then turned into a single simple idea from which the ostensible “laws of history” are derived—and enforced through terror.5 What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.

That quality of Soviet ideology is also the problem with Plokhy’s argument that the USSR fell apart because it was an empire. Not only did the Soviet state not consider itself an empire, it claimed to be the opposite of one. That self-concept did not change during the Soviet dismantling or later, when Russia became its own federation of different territories, cultures, and ethnic groups. Of course, one can argue that an empire does not stop being an empire just because it says it is not one—a dog does not stop being a dog just because it identifies with its friend the cat—but an empire is unarguably a sociopolitical construction, and what it thinks of itself matters. To pass, like other empires in the twentieth century, into a post-imperial future, Russia would have had to reform its identity accordingly. But not even Yeltsin, who played perhaps the most important role in taking the Soviet Union apart, thought of it, or of Russia, as an empire.

Kotkin’s explanation for the disintegration of the Soviet state is, essentially, mismanagement: Gorbachev flailed until nothing worked. Kotkin’s is a view from the top of the process of institutional collapse that Levada had predicted from the bottom. But neither man focused on the connections between persons and institutions, the glue that holds societies together.

When the word “totalitarianism” is used in casual Western speech, it conjures the image of a monstrous society in which force is applied to every person at all times. Of course, that would be impossibly inefficient, even for an extremely inefficient state such as the Soviet Union. The economy of force in totalitarian societies is achieved through terror. Totalitarianism establishes its own social contract, in which most people will be safe from violence most of the time, provided they stay within certain boundaries and shoulder some of the responsibility for keeping other citizens within the same boundaries. The boundaries are ever-shifting—Arendt described totalitarian societies as producing a state of constant flux and inconsistency6—and this requires the population to be ever-vigilant in order to stay abreast of the shifts. A hypersensitivity to signals is essential for survival.

ONE AREA in which Soviet citizens learned to be hypersensitive to signals was the regulation of private life. The party line on the family kept changing over the course of Soviet history. Right after the 1917 Revolution, marriage was abandoned and the family was willed to wither away. Less than twenty years later, the family was officially redeemed and even consecrated as the “nucleus of Soviet society.”7 In the years immediately following the Revolution, homosexuality was tolerated (but, contrary to myth, not celebrated or even really accepted), but in 1934 it was recriminalized.8 As the pendulum swung back, divorce was made prohibitively difficult, and abortion, legal and common in the 1920s, was outlawed.9 Faced with a crisis of depopulation after the Second World War, the Soviet Union first made divorce even more difficult and then reversed direction, taking measures, instead, to encourage single motherhood by legitimizing, in effect, multiple relationships.10 In the mid-1950s, however, abortion was again legalized.11

The legal shifts demanded that Soviet citizens change not only their behavior but also their very outlook on life—and the social contract dictated that the state send out reasonably clear signals and the population react accordingly. Signals were sent through propaganda in newspapers, movies, and books; through legal changes; and through enforcement, with demonstrative punishment of the few keeping the many in line (the proportion of those being punished to those observing shifted after the death of Stalin, and this solidified the principle of teaching by frightening example). It was this system of signaling and response that broke down by 1991.

The milestones of the breakdown were large and small. In 1988, Gorbachev released all political prisoners. The same year, Novodvorskaya and her allies held that outrageous congress founding the country’s first alternative political party, the Democratic Union, and ignoring the threats and summonses from the KGB (which their party proposed to abolish). The way Gorbachev was zigzagging, the release of all political prisoners did not mean that dissidents would never again be jailed—it was the Democratic Union’s rejection of the KGB’s signals that made the secret police powerless against them. In March 1991, Gorbachev used tanks in the streets of Moscow to signal his resolve to put an end to pro-Yeltsin demonstrations—and hundreds of thousands of Muscovites ignored this signal. That month, as the country prepared for the referendum on the Union, Central Committee functionaries were frantically trying to keep the country in check. They banned a women’s forum planned in Dubna, a nuclear-science town a couple of hours outside Moscow, after a newspaper reported that among the young academics now hungrily cramming gender theory, older dissidents who had been publishing underground feminist journals, labor activists focusing on women’s rights, and a dozen foreign dignitaries, there would be two out lesbians from the United States. But one of the foreign guests—Colette Shulman, a New York journalist and academic who had long cultivated relationships among the Soviet elite—intervened, and the organizers’ arrangements were reinstated even though the newspaper, and the lesbians, rejected the request for a retraction.12

The Russian politician Yegor Gaidar described similar incidents in his memoir. In the late 1980s he served as economics editor at Kommunist, a journal of the Central Committee.

Kommunist pages now contained words that had been unthinkable as applied to a socialist economy: inflation, unemployment, poverty, social inequality, budget deficit. We published the first realistic estimates of military spending. . . . Periodically a call would come in from the Central Committee’s headquarters.

“What are you doing? Since when is this issue subject to public discussion?”

Such calls were generally easy to handle. I would ask in response, “Don’t you know?” The caller, a bureaucrat who could not be sure of what the latest party line was, would shrink back and leave me alone.13

The Party’s signaling system had ceased functioning, and this in turn rendered the ideology no longer hermetic—in effect, no longer totalitarian.

Four months after the women’s forum, the two American lesbian activists and their Soviet partners held a gay and lesbian film festival and a series of workshops, first in Leningrad and then in Moscow. Mindful of the feminists’ experience, they made backup arrangements in case they lost their venues. But the festival proceeded without incident, in a centrally located “house of culture” in Leningrad and a similarly central movie theater in Moscow. Both venues belonged to the state, but by now they could be rented for a few hundred dollars. The organizers were able to bring into the country reels with gay-themed films, though neither censorship nor criminal penalties for homosexual conduct had been abolished. At the end of the festival, they even rented a restaurant in central Moscow and held the country’s first nonclandestine gay party. By this time, Moscow had a few “cooperative” restaurants—a perestroika-era euphemism for newly legalized private businesses—but this was not one of them: the gay party was held at the Central House of the Workers of the Arts, which for six decades had served the elite who serviced the ideology.

In the four months between the feminist forum and the gay festival the government had not shifted its stance on homosexuality or on private life more generally, but between rapid political change and new economic exigencies—every venue needed hard currency—the system of signaling and response, the very social contract of Soviet society, lay in ruins. At one point during the Moscow leg of the festival, the police meekly tried to seal off the movie theater from the street by stringing construction-site flags around it. The gays cut these down with scissors, and the shows went on. In another three weeks, many of the people who had attended the gay festival were in front of the Moscow White House, preparing to push back the tanks. The American activists had given the Moscow gay group a photocopier, and it was now put to work printing Yeltsin’s address to the people.

The tanks were there but never moved in on the protesters. Gaidar later described what happened as follows:

As of August 19, 1991, there was nothing in Russian or Soviet history to give one hope that the resistance would not be brutally suppressed. The coup leaders were clearly prepared to do just that. All that was needed was someone willing to accept immediate responsibility for large-scale bloodshed and mass repressions, someone who would organize and demand action from the troops, someone who would identify the most reliable, trustworthy, and decisive of generals and place him on the leading tank, assigning to him personally the task of crushing the resistance. In other words, there had to be a person who would overcome the military’s natural inertia and reluctance to accept blame. As it turned out, there was no such person among the coup plotters. Hence the back-and-forth, the inconsistency of action, the will to shift responsibility onto others, and the military’s wheel-spinning.14

The coup organizers, in other words, tried to will the signaling system back into existence simply by issuing several decrees—and by placing the country’s president under house arrest, which has to rank near the top in the hierarchy of signals—but the social contract could not be resuscitated. The army did not respond to the hard-liners’ signals, but it did not pick up on signals from Yeltsin’s White House either, and did not side with the resistance: it simply did not act.

FOR THE POST-SOVIET INTELLIGENTSIA and Western journalists and politicians, the most important moment in August 1991 came after the coup failed, when a giant statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, was removed from its pedestal in the middle of Lubyanka Square, a short walk from the Kremlin, a block from the Central Committee, and right in front of KGB headquarters and the Children’s World department store, which stood kitty-corner to each other. The toppling, mandated by the Moscow City Council, which wanted to beat the jubilant crowds to it for safety reasons, symbolized the simultaneous dismantling of the two pillars of totalitarianism: ideology and terror. As it was lifted by a crane, the giant monument was revealed to be hollow.

Neither Masha nor Lyosha nor Zhanna nor Seryozha remembered the toppling of Dzerzhinsky—which was televised—as the defining moment of the coup. They remembered the tanks in the streets, the ballet on television, Yeltsin on the tank, and Gorbachev on the plane. Lyosha also thought he remembered footage of Gorbachev under house arrest, but that was probably an acquired memory rather than a true one. In general, they remembered the coup not as the end—or the beginning—of an era, with a strong symbolic finale, but as one in a chain of confusing and exciting and sometimes frightening events that engaged the adults in their lives. Another such event for Lyosha was the murder, later in 1991, of Igor Talkov, a young bearded singer who performed heartrending pop songs of a new patriotism—Russian rather than Soviet. Lyosha’s mother had a boyfriend now—she would marry him before the year was out—and he followed newly emerging popular culture. Like everyone else in Russia, Sergei loved Talkov. He was watching the Song of the Year contest on television when the announcer said, “Talkov has been shot.” Sergei and Lyosha, sitting next to each other on the couch, saw the singer’s body being carried on a stretcher; he was wearing only his underwear. Sergei cried, and so did Lyosha. It was the most frightening thing he had ever seen.

The August coup looked like only one in a chain of important events from at least one other vantage point: that of Yeltsin. He spent all that year waging his war for Russia. He was fighting on at least two fronts simultaneously, against the Party conservatives, who opposed all reform, and against Gorbachev, who wished to rein in Russia’s and Yeltsin’s own political ambitions. Yeltsin won several battles that year: in March he defeated Gorbachev in the battle for the streets of Moscow; in June, when Russia declared sovereignty, he won a battle against both of his opponents—a battle for the hearts of Russians. When Yeltsin triumphed over the coup in August, he eliminated one of the fronts in his war. With hard-liners no longer a force, it was just him against Gorbachev. On this front, victory was virtually assured.

In the intelligentsia’s mythology, 1991 was the year of Russia’s bloodless revolution. But it was not bloodless: its victims included the three men who died in Moscow in August and the nineteen people killed in Vilnius and Riga in January, and the hundreds who had died in Azerbaijan since 1988 and during the brutal breakup of a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1989.15 Nor was it a revolution. For the remainder of 1991 Yeltsin focused not on destroying the institutions of the Soviet state but on taking them over. He claimed, for his newly independent Russia, the army, the central bank, and the Soviet seat in the United Nations. Wisdom in the West was that this was a good thing: most of the Soviet nuclear arsenal would be in one place, and Russia would not renege on its predecessor’s foreign debt, as the Bolsheviks had done in 1917.

To a very hopeful, very anti-Soviet eye, Yeltsin might have appeared to be tackling the pillars of the totalitarian system, its machines of ideology and terror. He banned the activities of the Communist Party and he tasked his (nominally, Gorbachev’s) new head of the KGB with dismantling the organization. But on closer inspection, the Party ban concerned economic activity—Yeltsin feared, with good reason, that the Party apparatus would siphon off what remained of its wealth. The dismantling of the KGB was actually its partitioning into fifteen constituent parts among the republics of the USSR, which ensured that Russia inherited a functioning Soviet-style secret police.16

By the end of 1991, Yeltsin had a country to run. But even with the former institutions of the Soviet state under his control, he faced a dire deficit of instruments of governance, and of people to use them. He appointed leaders of the constituent members of the Russian Federation—in some cases, leaders who had already emerged locally, whether they called themselves “governor,” “mayor,” or “president.” Only a few of them were, like Boris Nemtsov, loyal to Yeltsin personally and committed to his political agenda, with its focus on the immediate introduction of the market. Nemtsov set about privatizing stores and other property in Nizhny Novgorod. An endless stream of foreigners—potential investors, Western advisers, journalists, and dignitaries—flowed into the city to talk to him. Yeltsin did not have other regional leaders to show them.

In several regions, especially Chechnya and Tatarstan, the local leader had been brought to power by a movement for national independence. Elsewhere, like in Yakutia in the far north, home to Russia’s diamond mines, the push to secede was framed in terms of economic self-interest. Even a group in St. Petersburg proclaimed independence as the region’s goal, only half in jest. The constitution of the Russian Republic, unlike the constitution of the USSR, did not guarantee the right to secession, but that seemed irrelevant now.

The forces pulling at Russia now were eerily similar to those that had torn apart the Soviet Union. There were also new, confounding problems. Russia was a country nearing economic ruin, surrounded by other countries nearing economic ruin. It shared a currency with them and its borders with them were porous, yet Russia held next to no political sway over them. One of these countries—Georgia—was sinking into civil war, and the neighboring regions of Russia—North Ossetia and Chechnya—were already involved in the conflict. The South Ossetians, on Georgian territory, were fighting to secede and join Russia. Over to the west, a small part of Moldova called Transdniester was fighting to join Russia, from which it was now separated by a narrow strip of independent Ukraine. Russian troops were mired in the conflict there. Russia now also acquired an exclave: Kaliningrad, the former Prussian city of Königsberg, which had been annexed and Russified by the USSR after the Second World War and now had independent Lithuania between it and the Russian mainland.

The legal and political foundations of the new state were not entirely clear. It had a parliament of sorts, the Congress of People’s Deputies, which had been elected in 1990, before Russia declared sovereignty. At its first session, in May 1990, 920 of its 1,068 members belonged to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A year later, only 767 Congress members remained in the Party. But even after Yeltsin banned the Communist Party’s activities, a majority—675 people—maintained their Party affiliation. The Congress could pass legislation, including amendments to the constitution. The president had the right to veto legislation, but his veto could be overcome with a simple majority of the Congress.17

There were laws. Like every other former Soviet republic, Russia inherited criminal and civil procedure codes that banned private enterprise in nearly any guise, operations with hard currency, and being unemployed, among other things. Russia also inherited a constitution that contained virtually no information about the country’s structure, principles, and identity. This was an issue common to all former Eastern Bloc countries, with the exception of East Germany: all they knew about themselves at first was that they were not what they had been. The peaceful-revolution narrative (which was more accurate in most of the other countries) compelled them to start their new state on the old legal foundation. Their success depended largely on implied political understandings. Countries amended their old Communist constitutions to make them workable, and lived with the resulting patchwork for years. But here, as in other areas, Russia’s problems ran deeper because its inherited constitution did not aim to create even an illusion of statehood.

In the late fall of 1991, Yeltsin scrambled to create a functioning cabinet. He most urgently needed someone to take charge of the economy, which after the coup went from bad to dead. Both trust in and fear of command-economy authorities had evaporated, and collective farms halted grain deliveries to the centralized distribution centers: rather than fulfill their socialist obligations in exchange for worthless rubles, they would barter their goods locally. Russia’s biggest cities, where the military-industrial complex dominated the economy, were hit the hardest, for they had little that could be bartered. “The country was in a state of high anxiety,” Gaidar the economist wrote in his memoir. “Autumn 1991 was filled with anticipation of catastrophe, hunger, and the paralysis of transportation and heating systems. Portable coal stoves were in high demand. The dominant topic of conversation was survival.”18 Ration cards had long been introduced throughout the country, but local authorities could no longer guarantee a supply of even minimal rations.

Yeltsin asked Gaidar to figure out how the country was going to survive. Gaidar was the thirty-five-year-old scion of a privileged Soviet family, grandson of two of the country’s most venerated writers and husband of the daughter of a third.* Save for a short stint as an editor, he had worked only at research institutions. He assembled a team of like-minded economists, starting with half a dozen and later adding a few more. All of them were roughly the same age and came from academia. They had no experience in government or administration of any sort, and with the exception of a few recent short trips to the West, they had never seen a market economy outside of a textbook. Their predicament was not unlike that of Levada’s sociologists trying to devise their first actual survey, except this group of theoreticians was asked to prevent famine and a total collapse of the infrastructure while also reinventing the country’s economy.

The group spent the fall of 1991 holed up at a government dacha outside Moscow. In the first few weeks they learned that the situation was even more dire than they had imagined. The country had no currency or gold reserves—most had been spent and the rest appeared to have been plundered. Because consumer goods had been in short supply for years, and also because prices for all goods were set by the government without regard for cost or demand, people had accumulated a lot of unspent rubles—there was no telling exactly how many. Between that and the inability of the Russian government to control the supply of rubles in the economy—because the neighbors could print them too—there was little to no hope of being able to stem inflation if consumer goods became available and price controls were lifted. But the only way to make consumer goods available seemed to be to lift price controls. “It became clear that the situation was mercilessly dictating only one option: the most conflict-ridden and riskiest scenario of starting reform,” wrote Gaidar.19

In November 1991, Yeltsin appointed Gaidar his minister of the economy and finance with the rank of vice-premier. Yeltsin decided to run the cabinet himself, without appointing a prime minister—in no small part because no one wanted to accept a suicide mission—and this meant that Gaidar would in effect run the government. To ensure that reform could go forward, Yeltsin secured the right to issue decrees that contradicted existing law, provided the Congress signed off on them.

ON JANUARY 2, 1992, the government lifted price controls on consumer goods, with the exception of bread, milk, and alcohol. In a couple of weeks, goods began showing up on store shelves. Within a month, prices had gone up 352 percent and the money that Russians had thought of as savings and Gaidar had thought of as a dangerous cash surplus had been spent.20 In an effort to avoid continued hyperinflation, the government pursued a stringent monetary policy. For most Russian citizens, this meant that on the one hand they were paid in large wads or small bags of cash, and on the other hand they could not afford most of the goods that were now accosting them everywhere. In January 1992, Yeltsin signed a decree legalizing private commerce, and private citizens began trading. They stood on the sidewalks holding their wares—sometimes a single raw steak or a fried chicken, exposed, because wrapping supplies were a deficit and a luxury. Many of them had clipped Yeltsin’s decree out of the newspaper and pinned it to their jackets to protect them from the police. The orderly gray streets of Soviet cities came alive, vibrating with the sight of varied goods, the voices of people hawking them, and the overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Gaidar’s reforms may have averted famine and total infrastructural collapse, but the anxiety they produced far exceeded anything that had come before. By the end of the winter, Yeltsin’s honeymoon with the Congress was over.

A majority of the people’s deputies adopted a stance familiar from the perestroika era, when the parliament’s main task was to challenge central authority. The Congress wanted reforms stopped or even reversed, and it wanted Gaidar out. Yeltsin would not budge, and his cabinet continued along its path. Where local authorities cooperated, stores and services were privatized. By the summer, the government discontinued all subsidies of consumer goods, including bread, milk, and alcohol. Inflation stabilized at levels well below hyperinflation. From the point of view of Gaidar and his team, this was success. From the point of view of many Russians, this was unemployment, no longer hidden, as it had been under the old regime, with its pretend work for pretend pay. Not only had it been exposed, it was growing, thanks to falling production, and wages that had become laughable. The Congress began blocking presidential decrees—for example, one that would have introduced bankruptcy as an option and a procedure. Wrote Gaidar:

As we moved forward, more and more obstacles presented themselves. Our progress felt strange. It did not resemble climbing a mountain: however steep and dangerous it may be, the end result depends only on you, your strength, and your perseverance. It was more like trying to make one’s way through a tar pit: the path is unstable beneath your feet, sedge is cutting your skin, mosquitoes are getting in your eyes, and a single misstep can plunge you into the liquid blackness.21

In other areas, Yeltsin was walking a similarly uncertain path. In March, almost exactly a year after Gorbachev’s referendum on the Soviet Union, Yeltsin organized the signing of the Federation Treaty, the founding document of the new Russian union. This was not a promising beginning for the country: the document was hazy, and the signing was rocky. The federation included three different categories of members, with different degrees of independence from the center. Two republics—Tatarstan and Chechnya—refused to sign; both considered themselves independent states. The otherwise unremarkable Kaluga region, just a couple of hours from Moscow, signed but added a caveat. St. Petersburg added three—among other things, it refused to recognize Moscow’s right to declare a state of emergency in the region.22 The imposition of a state of emergency followed—not in St. Petersburg, but in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, where armed conflict over territory erupted in 1992.23

By the fall of 1992, even Nemtsov, the poster boy for economic reform, was begging the cabinet to slow down.24 But the cabinet pressed on with ever greater urgency. By the end of the year, it approved a privatization plan for Russia, according to which every one of the country’s 148 million citizens would receive a voucher that could be turned into shares of any newly non-state-owned enterprise. The Congress generally hated the idea, but agreed to let it proceed. Soon after, the people’s deputies demanded that Yeltsin get rid of Gaidar: until he did, they would block every one of the president’s initiatives.

The new Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, looked much more the part of a Russian, or, rather, Soviet official. He was fifty-four, came from a working-class family in a small town in the steppes, and had risen through the ranks of the Communist Party, from which he never resigned. He had been a member of the Central Committee, and his last job before joining the cabinet had been as head of the state’s natural-gas monopoly.25 He promised the Congress to stem the fall of production and to keep the population from growing poorer. “A market system need not be a bazaar,” he said.26

Chernomyrdin failed. He tried to reverse some of Gaidar’s policies, but he lacked the cooperation of most of the cabinet. Russian politics had returned to its pre-coup state: the president and his cabinet, hardly a united front, were in an all-out war with the Congress. The hastily patched and repatched old Soviet-Russian constitution made matters worse because it did not delineate the responsibilities and powers of the branches of government. As large industrial plants began privatizing, corruption became a major force once again, with officials scrambling to apportion property, whether or not they had the right to do so.27 With the president and Congress at war, there was no chance of adopting a new constitution. Instead, the Congress began to discuss, ad nauseam, impeaching Yeltsin. In a televised address on March 20, 1993, Yeltsin declared that the country’s political crisis stemmed from “a deep contradiction between the people and the old Bolshevik anti-people system that still has not fallen and that now aims to restore the power it has lost.”28 Yeltsin said he was revoking the Congress’s power to block his decrees and was scheduling a referendum for April 25. Russian citizens would be asked to affirm their confidence in the president and to vote on the draft of a new constitution.

It did not work. Yeltsin’s move itself was unconstitutional, and the Constitutional Court invalidated it. Yeltsin got his referendum, but only on the following four questions:

  1. Do you have confidence in the president of the Russian Federation, B. N. Yeltsin?
  2. Do you approve of the social and political policies pursued by the president and cabinet of the Russian Federation since 1992?
  3. Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections to the office of the president of the Russian Federation?
  4. Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections of people’s deputies of the Russian Federation?29

Leading up to the vote, Yeltsin’s supporters flooded the airwaves with a chant: Da-Da-Nyet-Da, “Yes-Yes-No-Yes.” Flyers with the same rhythmic sequence were handed out on every corner. This was, in essence, the first election campaign in post-Soviet Russia. Yeltsin got nearly the vote he wanted: Russians answered “Yes” to all four questions, but the margin on question 3 was very small. The Constitutional Court had ruled that early elections would require a majority of all eligible voters, not merely those who had gone to the polls, and question 4 did not get that despite the fact that the number of those who said “Yes” was more than twice that of voters who said “No.” Yeltsin declared victory, but he did not have legal grounds to schedule a new parliamentary election.

In the days immediately following the referendum, Yeltsin fired his vice-president, General Alexander Rutskoi, who had taken to siding with the Congress, and began to push measures that the cabinet considered important. One was a set of changes to Russian criminal and procedure codes that brought them into line with minimal European standards. These included penalties for the use and mishandling of biological weapons, the criminalization of kidnapping, and the decriminalization of consensual homosexual intercourse.30 All of these changes were required for membership in the Council of Europe. This legislation went largely unnoticed, including by the prison authority, which neglected to instruct wardens to release men convicted of sodomy. There had been bigger news that day: Yeltsin unveiled the draft of a new constitution and invited the federation’s constituent republics to start submitting amendments.31

Within a week, Russia’s political setup reverted to its pre-referendum state of ongoing, slow-burning crisis. The people’s deputies produced their own draft constitutions, at least two of them. None of these documents had a chance of garnering enough support from all branches of government to begin the process of shaping the law of the land.

ON SEPTEMBER 21, 1993, Yeltsin issued a decree dissolving the Congress and scheduling a new election for December 12. The Congress refused to recognize the decree and instead anointed General Rutskoi the country’s new president. Just two years after the coup that finished the Soviet Union, history was repeating itself in a B-movie version. Now it was the opposition to Yeltsin that barricaded itself in the White House—several hundred men and a few women—their supporters gathering outside. The country once again had two men who called themselves president. This time, again, the people who thought of themselves as proponents of democracy were supporting Yeltsin, who they thought had waited too long to take action against his political enemies. If they feared anything, it was that he would not carry through. Veronika Kutsyllo, a young journalist for the leading newspaper Kommersant, which positioned itself as the voice of the new entrepreneurial class, was inside the White House along with a group of other reporters:

Before the clock struck midnight, we got a chance to grab some coffee in the cafeteria and discuss the situation. We concluded that the thing everyone had been wishing for, long and passionately, had happened. The president had finally violated the Constitution (“He has stomped on it,” I added as a point of clarification), and this meant that in accordance with Amendment 6 to Article 121, the president is automatically removed from power. That makes Rutskoi president and the parliament happy. Yet it’s clear that Yeltsin is not about to retreat. That creates a stalemate. He needs to take the next step, it needs to be decisive, but what will it be? Our peace-loving leader surely won’t want to use force to get the deputies out of the White House.32

The 1991 coup had exposed the collapse of the Soviet social contract. That void had not been filled. Russian citizens still carried Soviet passports with a hammer and sickle on the cover, paid for food with Soviet rubles decorated with profiles of Lenin and the Soviet state seal, and could not even be sure of the name of their country. Was it Russia? The Russian Federation? The constitution still called it the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, but the constitution was a thing to be stomped on, and Yeltsin’s most important supporters—the new journalists—thought he was not doing it with enough force.

Even though Yeltsin had spent months considering his move to dissolve the Congress, he was no better prepared than the coup plotters two years earlier. He had no plan of action in case the people’s deputies, in full accordance with the constitution, refused to disband. Worse, his opposition had stronger evident ties to the military, the police, and the KGB than he did. And unlike Yeltsin in 1991, the men—and a few women—who had now barricaded themselves in the White House had access to weapons. They began handing them out to their supporters in the street. At the same time, the Congress voted to institute the death penalty for Yeltsin’s key supporters. In response, the cabinet had the phones in the White House turned off.33

The standoff, punctuated by ever more virulent public statements on both sides, lasted nearly two weeks. The heads of the Constitutional Court and the Russian Orthodox Church brokered negotiations, and these failed. On October 3, armed supporters of the Congress stormed the Moscow mayoralty and the federal television center. For a time, TV screens went blank—or, rather, gray—with an announcement in white type: “Broadcasting on Channels 1 and 4 has been disrupted by an armed mob that has forced its way into the building.” Nearly a hundred people died during the attack on the television center. The armed mob, directed by General Rutskoi, went on to storm the Ministry of Communications, the customs office, and other federal buildings. Gaidar, who was now back in the cabinet, serving as minister of the economy, issued a radio address in which he once again called on civilians to come out and protect Yeltsin, as they had done two years earlier. In the evening of October 3, Muscovites began coming out into the streets. The cabinet was mobilizing civilians because it could not be sure that the armed services would side with it: there was no law and no force that could compel them to do so.

This time, though, the military chose sides, and it picked Yeltsin. By the morning of October 4, tanks had pulled up to the White House. At seven, they began firing, aiming at the upper floors, apparently to provide the people’s deputies and their supporters the option of evacuating the building. Still, when soldiers finally forced their way in, they found about forty bodies. Twenty military men died during the storm. The White House burned into the night, visible for miles around: it was by far the tallest building in the neighborhood. In the morning, it looked like a giant decayed tooth. The casualty total was 146 dead, over a thousand injured, and at least two thousand arrested.34

Yeltsin scheduled a parliamentary election for December. A referendum on his draft of the new Russian constitution would be held the same day. There would be no parliamentary discussion of the document, because until then, there would be no parliament. For the first time in a year and a half—virtually for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union—Yeltsin had a firm hold on power. The hold was based not on law but on force. But the fact that Yeltsin had been able to resort to force stemmed from a new understanding in Russian society, though the nature of that understanding could not be clear to anyone in the immediate aftermath of what became known as “the Execution of the White House.”

ARUTYUNYAN NOTICED THAT very soon after the Execution of the White House people began conflating the events of 1991 and 1993. The two sets of barricades, two sets of politicians holed up in the White House, two television gray-outs, and two sets of deaths and arrests melded into one. All of it settled in memory as “politics,” and the charred remains of the White House stuck out in the Moscow landscape as a daily reminder that in politics, anything is possible. Looking at it, one wanted to stay as far away from politics as possible.

Masha’s grandfather, who had been such an ardent Yeltsin supporter, had had a political change of heart. He now spent his days reading the emergent ultranationalist press, newly known as the red-brown part of the political spectrum for its combination of Communist and brownshirt fervor. Boris Mikhailovich took to reading antisemitic passages out loud. Tatiana diagnosed this as senility and told her daughter that such was the tragedy of old age: Boris Mikhailovich, who had been an articulate, if generally quiet, opponent of the Communists his entire life, was now aligning himself with people who were not only brown but also red. More to the point, after his brief love affair with politics, Boris Mikhailovich was angry and disillusioned, and the “red-brown” press was the vehicle most immediately available for the expression of his disgust with politics.

Evgenia was no longer involved with any political party. Gay activism had also suddenly lost its way after Yeltsin repealed the sodomy law for no reason that had anything to do with actual gays and lesbians in Russia. She decided to boycott the December 1993 election: the idea was, clearly, to create a pliant parliament and to ram through a constitution drafted behind closed doors, and she wanted nothing to do with either. But if she was going to vote for anyone, she would pick Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party.35 Its platform, and Zhirinovsky’s public statements, were anything but liberal or democratic. The Western media called him an ultranationalist. Russians were more likely to see him as either a clown or a truthsayer.

Unless we get back the historical borders of Russia, at least those that existed before the 1917 Revolution, or those that corresponded to the 1977 [Soviet] Constitution, we are slowly going to degrade and die out. . . . That is what the West wants. The West is afraid of us, and this circumstance must be made use of in the resurrection of Russia. When I speak of this, I am accused of being a “fascist,” a “Hitler scaring other people.” We have been feared for a millennium. That is our capital.36

That passage from a 1993 speech, and many others like it—Zhirinovsky was a prolific speaker—certainly sounded like ultranationalism. But his speeches were both more and less than that. They promised a return to simplicity after years of the soul-searching that perestroika had demanded, and the mind-numbing economic and legalistic debates of the Yeltsin years. They were triumphantly anti-political.

If Evgenia and Boris Mikhailovich were merely listening to people who were flirting with ultranationalist and fascist rhetoric, then Dugin was going to the source. He had grown fascinated with Hitler’s philosophy and system of governance. He produced and narrated a documentary movie series called The Mysteries of the Century: The Mysticism of the Third Reich, a close study that mixed archival research and rumor. The first episode asked whether it might be true that Hitler had access to “ancient knowledge” that led to the invention of the atomic bomb. Dugin also wondered aloud whether it was possible that evidence of the Nazis’ satanic practices had been elided from the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials. The film hinted at a Western conspiracy to conceal the true nature of Hitler’s power, and also promised perhaps to show how a disillusioned society could be brought to cohesion. “The streets are filled with the Brownian motion of disappointed Germans,” explained the voice-over to footage of early 1930s Berlin. “But a drop of some magical catalyst has already fallen into this mass and chaos will soon turn to order. Every loser in this desolate world of profit-driven decisions and outdated religious dogma will be transformed. He will follow a Holy Grail that will grant him power over all the world.” Cut to footage of Germans marching in formation and throwing their hands up in the Hitler salute.37 The three-part miniseries was broadcast on Russia’s two leading federal channels in the fall of 1993, and Dugin, who was on-screen for minutes at a time, leafing through what looked like archival documents and telling a story of mysticism and world domination, became famous.

On election night, the country’s leading television channel was broadcasting the returns live. Sixty percent of voters approved of the new constitution—enough to make it the country’s foundational document in accordance with the very low bar set by Yeltsin’s September decree. Of the thirteen parties that had succeeded in getting on the ballot during the very short campaign, eight got enough votes to sit in parliament. Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats were firmly in the lead with 23 percent. Russia’s Choice, the government’s party, led by Gaidar, got 15.5 percent. The Communist Party came in third with 12.4 percent. “Russia, you have lost your mind!” shouted a well-known writer, Yuri Karyakin, who had been invited as a guest commentator. Then he stormed out of the studio.38

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!