A Time of Revolution in Moscow, Part I

Date: 10/27/2021

Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.

The next three installments in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale series are very different. They remain personally the most difficult pieces with which I have ever been associated. I did not write these but had to edit them before publication. They were written by my wife Marina who at the time was in the middle of the uprising in Moscow unfolding from late September to early October 1993. She was beginning a career as an American newspaper columnist. I had no idea where she was most of the time as telephone communication was impossible. The only connection was text coming in periodically over the fax machine (this was well before one could reliably connect via a computer, especially to and from Mother Russia).

With what happened in Washington on January 6 of this year, the national debate following, and the extreme polarization that shows no signs of ending, it is useful for all of us to take stock on where such political disagreements can end.

These pieces constitute the first major entries in a multiyear column called Moscow Diary Marina would write for a US newspaper syndicate. Throughout, she would display an unusually prescient eye, sometimes telling a story through a solitary event or a single individual, one often swept up in the tide of events.

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On some occasions, like the ones surrounding what begins below, the print network picking up the columns would number in the hundreds and cover the US and Europe.

The process was always the same. Marina would write (always far beyond the publishing word limit), I would edit, we would disagree. She would rewrite, I would reedit, we would continue the “artistic” argument. At some point, a deadline approached and a final version was hammered out.

But in the examples that follow, I edited remotely with a light hand and the syndicate just ran the copy.    

I have already recounted some personally trying episodes in this Spy Tale series. At least in those cases I had something to do with what was unfolding. But reading what Marina was sending during this period, from wherever she was, remains the most wrenching time of my life. It was a trial to sit there staring at a silent fax machine waiting for it to spit out something telling me my wife was still alive.  

So here goes.


Moscow Diary

It seems I am beginning this diary at an historically pivotal time. The political combat between Russia’s president and parliament has turned very ugly. By the time this will be over a new democracy will have lost its innocence and over 1,000 people will have lost their lives. 

Diary Entry for Thursday, September 30, 1993: “The Storm Gathers”

On the evening of September 21, Russian President Boris Yeltsin went on national television and dissolved the Russian Parliament. New elections are to be held in less than three months. Until then, Yeltsin is to rule by decree.

The move has been expected. People cannot understand why it took Yeltsin so long to act. I watched the broadcast with my sister Tanya. When the president announced the suspension of the legislature, she said: “Better late than never” (as it happens, the phrase is also the punchline in many Russian jokes). The next day Moscow newspaper surveys suggested that almost 70 percent of Muscovites agreed with her.

Yeltsin had narrowly escaped impeachment twice at the hands of a Soviet era appointed legislature. The bitter struggle had brought government to a halt and increased public frustration.

During the previous days, opposition leaders had warned of coming action against parliament. Vice President Alexsandr Rutskoi, Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Constitutional Court head Valeri Zorin had all rallied support. Calling the expected parliamentary suspension a coup d’état by the president, they sought a war. Yeltsin was about to give them one.

Political instability had intensified during the long ongoing competition between Yeltsin’s government and the reactionary legislature. With each of my returns to Moscow, I could see that life in the city had an intensifying pessimism.

Everybody I knew, mostly professionals and academics, thinks the worst is yet to come. Governing was impossible so long as the legislature stood in defiance of the chief executive. Few really understand what this means, and no structuring of politics can address the accelerating collapse of personal lives anyway.

Nothing of consequence had been accomplished since December of the previous year when Yeltsin’s reformers were forced to resign. But animosity between the camps had noticeably increased.

The streets are also reflecting the tension. Violent crime, radical nationalism, ethnic clashes, an uneven market, and brutal exchanges in the local press also contribute to a pervasive uneasiness. Moscow is a city waiting for something to happen. The widely held assumption is that matters will worsen as the usually brutal winter inevitably approaches. In Russia, that starts in October.

By September 22, a startled Russia learned parliament had deposed Yeltsin, sworn in Rutskoi as acting president, passed decrees to take control of the national media, revised the criminal code to include the death penalty for their opponents, and guaranteed safety for any military or police coming to their side.

Before that day ended, 11 parliamentary supporters, including a retired general, would attempt to take over an emergency communications center in the city.   

As September 23 drew to a close, the war began claiming victims. An attack on the Commonwealth of Independent States Joint Army Headquarters in Moscow left two dead. One was a 64-year-old woman dispatched to her maker without ever knowing why. She caught a stray bullet in the chest.

By September 24, I saw what this crisis was doing to Moscow firsthand. Near Pushkin Square, always a site for demonstrations, I found myself between two opposing crowds. One backed the president; the other, according to one of its placards, supported “the rule of law.”

Before I knew what was happening, the combatants were closing off the sidewalk. Some militia (police) arrived and started pushing everybody in the direction of the Metro entrance. It was impossible to resist this tide of humanity. I simply moved with it.

In the subway, smaller groups continued the argument. I walked in the direction of the tracks, only to be confronted by yet another disturbance. This time, Yeltsin’s opponents were condemning his actions as fascist.

An offensive woman stopped me and asked, “Do you oppose fascists?” “Certainly,” I answered, “especially when their demonstrations prevent me from reaching my train!”

Similar confrontations were taking place throughout the city.

On September 25, classical impresario Mstislav Rostropovich gave his long-awaited free concert in Red Square. Over 100,000 came, and the return of this cello master from an exile imposed 20 years ago was a wonderful event.  But even here, one could not completely escape the political crisis.

Later that afternoon, I made my way to the Russian White House (the parliament building) to see the events unfolding. I would return several times in the next few days, until the building itself became a casualty of the conflict.

I had no idea what I would find. Once again, as two years earlier, a power struggle would center around this place. But this time, a different kind of crowd had gathered.

In August 1991, this was the place where a Moscow crowd defied a putsch and stood down Soviet tanks. This time, I was greeted by a motley group of the unemployed, homeless, and drunk, uncomfortably allied with communists, czarists, and nationalists. This seemed like a strange collection to defend self-avowed constitutional rights.

Fires had been started to keep the crowd warm. Those near the heat are throwing whatever is available on the flames. Acrid smoke permeates everything, burning eyes and throat. Already, I could see where the crowd had started dismantling fences for fuel. This would soon have the appearance of a squatters’ village.

Rutskoi appears and gives a speech. In the early days, as on this occasion, he would address the assembled from a podium in the square fronting the White House. Later, his speeches would come from a balcony hanging off the building. He wears fatigues and looks like some military hero (or perhaps a Russian version of Fidel Castro, minus the beard and cigar).

I manage to stand close to the podium and look out on the crowd. There is determination in his voice. This guy is not going to give in, I thought.

And that is what came to bother me most. They were not going to give up. There was to be no compromise. For the first time I realized the mess was not going to be as easily resolved as I had expected. While listening to Rutskoi, I could see off to the side some people putting up the first barricades.      

The nightmare starts.

Diary Entry for Friday, October 1, 1993: “Another Russian October Revolution Begins”

The past few days have witnessed a marked intensification of the conflict in Moscow. Yeltsin has demanded that parliament vacate the Russian White House by Monday, October 4.

Opposition continues to grow outside the city. Several controversial TV discussion programs have been pulled off the air.  The parliament’s radio and TV stations have been disconnected. Gleb Pavolovsky, the well-respected general director of the Postfactum news agency, has resigned in protest over the government’s crackdown.

Today, the Russian Agrarian Union has condemned Yeltsin and some Internal Affairs officers have refused to enforce presidential decrees. A report issued by Russian TV last night indicated a majority of Yeltsin’s own Council may favor new elections for both President and Parliament. Certainly, those still holding out in the White House count on profiting from such divisions.


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Hopes that a compromise sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Alexei II would defuse the crisis have been dashed today when the parliamentary leadership rejected the recommendations of their own negotiators and are vowing to fight on.

A rally in support of Rutskoi has left at least 15 supporters and more than 20 members of the militia injured. The rally took place at Smolensk Square, near the Foreign Ministry Buildings. Old buildings in the area were set afire; they are still burning as I write this.

Some are using the unstable situation to cover criminal activities. Casualties have resulted from clashes around the White House. Fighting has erupted throughout the city over the past few days.

Late this evening I went back to the White House. I don’t feel comfortable being in the area at night. Matters are very tense, so I come well prepared. I bring all my American and Russian identification and personal documents. If I end up detained, at least they will have a good idea who they have.  

Approaching the White House on Kalinsky Prospekt, you can see every car ahead being stopped and searched. I park my Lada some distance away and walk to Parliament Square surrounding the building. Accompanying me is a family friend who has successfully played the role of my bodyguard on several previous occasions.    

[Editorial note from Kent: this “friend” is the KGB officer I have called “Sergei” in earlier Spy Tale segments. See “Cornering ‘Sergei’ in Arbat,” Classified Intelligence Brief, June 9, 2021; “‘Sergei’ Runs Interference to Sheremetyevo,” Classified Intelligence Brief, June 16, 2021; “How Cowboy Jack Saved Me in a Moscow Jail Cell, Part II,” Classified Intelligence Brief, July 23, 2021. Before the weekend is done, Sergei will save Marina’s life. That comes in the next installment of Spy Tale.]

Those supporting the parliament remain small in number. The building’s defenders no longer look like volunteers, but more like army veterans. They are reportedly well supplied with weapons, including sub-machine guns, pistols, and even surface-to-air missiles.

The wire service Interfax advised this morning that the parliamentary delegates no longer seem to be in control of the situation. Rather, experienced field commanders who have come over from the army are now calling the shots. There have also been reports that the tunnels leading into the building have been mined to deter attack.

Near a White House side entrance, I ask a militia officer “Where are the 50,000 people we hear about? He smiles and says, “There are maybe 2,000 here; perhaps they look like more on TV.”

“You can’t go in,” he adds.

“But I won’t be any trouble,” I press, knowing there is little chance I will win this conversation.

He sighs and responds, “Everybody who goes in there these days ends up being trouble.”    

I manage to talk to one of the parliament members still inside. He is in his mid-40s but refuses to give me either his name or the district he represents. “What is it like in there?” I ask him.

“It’s bad,” he says. “There has been no water since yesterday, and no electricity for several days. We are being subjected to this siege because we insist upon constitutional rights. It is the rule of law that must be protected.”

I attempt to be objective but cannot help myself. “Nice speech,” I say, “but what constitution are you defending?”

“People here are cold, hungry, working by candlelight,” he continues, avoiding my question.

“Nobody is forcing you to stay,” I remind him.

“We will stay as long as it takes,” was his not so forceful response.

It is after midnight and I decide it is time to begin leaving. While crossing the Square, we observe a fight between two drunken protesters. The one having the upper hand is loudly calling his opponent a traitor.

The loser in the altercation is demanding help from several soldiers who watch the situation with clear amusement. One of them shouts out, “You, my friend, are on the wrong side of the barricades. Help yourself.”

It is then that I notice a young militiaman standing to the side. He is obviously cold and exhausted. I decide to strike up a conversation and will gain much more than expected.


We pick up early on Saturday, October 2, 1993 next time.

Dr. Kent Moors

This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).

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