WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

Frontline spectators

MALCOLM GRAY October 18 1993
WORLD/SPECIAL REPORT

Frontline spectators

MALCOLM GRAY October 18 1993

Frontline spectators

Letter from, MOSCOW

The blond clerk pushing cigarettes and candy bars through the service window of a sidewalk kiosk was calm and matter-of-fact. “It’s been quiet here since we opened at 9 o’clock this morning,” said 21-year-old Anna Lyashenka as she turned to serve a customer who was trying to choose between The Godfather or Police Academy 3 from her selection of pirated, Russian-language video cassettes. Even in Moscow, a city that has endured much since the 1991 collapse of communism, that statement and those transactions were little short of surreal last week. Only a few hundred metres away was the white marble bulk of the Russian legislature, the White House, where soldiers loyal to Boris Yeltsin were laying siege to a building held by die-hard opponents of the Russian president Even as Lyashenka spoke, the deafening sounds of gunfire filled the air. But no stray rounds pierced the thin, metal walls of the last outpost of commerce before the battlefield. “Things are much hotter down the street,” Lyashenka said, pointing towards the nearby Kalinin Bridge. “Only crazy people would go up there.” Hundreds of people did. As automatic rifle fire crackled constantly from the army positions less than 100 m away and from the imposing building beyond that, spectators were lined shoulder to shoulder along the bridge railings or gathered around four T-72 battle tanks that were parked halfway across the span. Most of the onlookers were male teenagers and men in their twenties. Some puffed on cigarettes,

others pulled on bottles of beer and most appeared unfazed by the flashes of light winking from the bullet-holed windows of the 17storey-building in front of them: the answering fire from the defenders of the White House.

While stray rounds ripped through the air, some people strolled near the fighting with dogs—and even children—in tow. ‘We came here when the coup happened in 1991,” said Marina Shibolina, a 33-year-old economist who stood in full view of the burning parliament With her, squirming with excitement, were her 11-year-old niece, Alexandra, and her son Ilya, 7. Didn’t she think it was dangerous to have them so close to the action? “I wanted them to see what was happening to their country,” shrugged Shibolina. “I’m fed up with all our political leaders.” Joining the reckless spectators was easy. With no Moscow policemen in sight, only a single soldier at one end of the bridge tried to

‘This is not a victory but a tragedy for our country’ keep thrill seekers away by gesturing halfheartedly with his sub-machinegun. But no one blocked the way to a nearby side street where a flight of stone steps led directly to the bridge surface. There, people stood in the unseasonably warm sunshine, watching soldiers storming the national legislature. “Russians are killing Russians,” said a sad-faced elderly man clutching a black, plastic briefcase across his chest. “This is not a victory but a tragedy for our city, our country.” When the T-72s suddenly opened fire with sharp cracks, many people surged back towards the steps, uncertain whether their position was becoming a target As some struggled to get down the stairs, others were running up to see the action. “Excellent!” exclaimed one teenaged Russian boy wearing a Los Angeles Kings hockey jacket “This is better than the movies,” he shouted to a friend as black smoke began to curl up the front of the White House.

But the blood and the casualties were real enough. Several onlookers were hit by bullets. Some foreigners were also caught up in the violence. My lawyer wife, Carol Patterson, and other staff at the Moscow offices of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie Ltd., four kilometres from the fighting, were at a safe enough distance to keep working, with one eye on the rivetting spectacle playing over a television. But the impact of the war at the White House suddenly landed much closer when managing partner Bill Atkin answered the phone at 11:30 a.m. and learned that one of the firm’s paralegals had been badly wounded. Julie Brooks, a 23-year-old American, had gone up to the roof of her 10-storey apartment building to view the scene three blocks away at the White House. And as she made her way down a fire escape, someone shot her—probably a sniper, because she was hit in the back by two bullets fired in quick succession.

After two days of treatment for massive internal injuries in Moscow’s Botkin hospital, Brooks was evacuated by air ambulance to the Finnish capital of Helsinki, where she remained in critical but stable condition. Hers is among the hundreds of individual stories of sorrow from the latest chapter of Russia’s bleak and bloody history.

MALCOLM GRAY