Thursday, May 22, 2008
The Darker Side of the Children's Park behind the White House
"I lay shot
Beneath me spread out
Like bloody bandages
Clouds at sunset
I perished with honor
In Black October."
I've now written a few times about the super children's park behind the White House (parliament building) and US Embassy. In this entry I showed you many, many pictures of this wonderful spot, in this entry I talked about a pretty cross there, and here I spoke about yet another fun day we spent there.
Now I'd like to give you a little tour of the memorial just outside the park--the memorial to some of the 187 people who were killed during the ten-day coup attempt by anti-Yeltsin forces in October of 1993. Those ten days were the bloodiest in Moscow streets since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917--and most of us in the West watched it unfold on CNN.
People are sometimes confused by the fact that there were two attempted coups where the White House was a central spot--in both 1991 and in 1993.
On August 18, 1991 Communist hard-liners and military leader of the Soviet Union, upset by the direction the country was taking under Gorbachev's reforms, forced Gorbachev into house arrest while he was vacationing on the Black Sea. Their key mistake was not also detaining Yeltsin, then the President of the Soviet Republic of Russia. He got back to Moscow the next day and went straight to the White House--where he then gathered support to defeat the hard-liners. The White House was the central landmark of this crisis; citizens surrounded it, risking their lives, to prevent tanks from getting close enough to overtake it.
The coup was over, having failed, on August 21. It is remarkable that only three citizens died while defending the White House; Yeltsin declared them "Heroes the USSR." The men responsible for plotting the coup were arrested or committed suicide. Gorbachev, however, didn't exactly emerge "victorious." The days of the USSR were numbered and the Communist party no longer ruled the nation. The failed coup by the party's staunchest supporters had been a final blow. Gorbachev resigned as the General Secretary of the Communist Party and by December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. The former republics were then independent countries, and the flag of the Soviet Union was replaced by the Russian flag at the Kremlin.
The next coup came in October of 1993, known as "Black October." (As opposed to "Red October," the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917). This time Yeltsin found himself as the target; citizens were disenchanted by the staggering inflation and plummeting economy in Russia. The process of privatizing businesses in Russia, of switching from a Communist to Capitalist economy was (and still is) very difficult; support for Yeltsin waned as life became harder and harder. In an effort to force his privatization plan through the government, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the Russian legislature (the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies) and called for a referendum on a new Constitution--one that granted him considerably more power.
The Congress rejected Yeltsin's moves, calling for his impeachment. Yeltsin's former Vice President, Aleksandr Rutskoy, declared himself the acting President and the coup began. The legislature refused to disband and leave the White House. Citizens rallied behind the legislature, surrounding the White House to protect it from Yeltsin and the military (who remained loyal to Yeltsin). Bloodshed erupted, Yeltsin and the military overtook the White House, and an estimated 437 were injured and 187 killed in the process. Yeltsin continued as the leader of Russia until retiring in 1999, when he handed over the Presidency to Vladimir Putin.
The Memorial behind the White House
After the bloodshed of 1993, mourners created makeshift shrines to those who were killed during the fighting. Panels with glass cases tell the story of what happened during the coup, honor those who died with obituaries and photographs, and hold collages of memorial poems and articles.
These shrines always have fresh flowers mixed among the fake ones, even in winter. You can just imagine relatives who visit this site regularly, watching all the young parents and kids playing inside the park, oblivious to their sorrow.
The calendar lets mourners know which saint to pray to on each specific day.
This shrine is for an Orthodox priest who died in the fighting.
This "ship" was built from the wreckage of the fighting.
Knowing the history of the White House--and what has happened on this pretty grass behind it--sure adds deeper meaning to the scenes of children playing so joyfully inside the adjoining park. Most people I know think that Yeltsin was right, that for all his shortcomings he did do what needed to be done to jump start the transition to capitalism. I was actually in Moscow for Christmas and New Year's in 1993, just two months later. My friends then said they had supported Yeltsin because of the belief that no matter how hard their lives were economically at that moment, they had to persevere for the promise of the future.
The majority of those friends are now living considerably better lives than they had ever imagined!