Russian Deputies in Parliament: In the End We Were Hostages
Rebels tell of being uninformed by their leaders and intimidated by armed radicals
THE building was shaking all over. Shots were hitting it continuously. It was terrible.''
Ivan Rybkin was one of about 600 people huddled in the dark and stifling hall of the Council of Nationalities, the parliament's upper chamber, as the Russian Army pounded the White House into submission Oct. 4. Along with some 230 of his fellow parliament deputies, there were members of the parliament staff, including many women, some with their children, even some teenage boys who had snuck into the building seeking excitement.
``Somebody sometimes read poetry, especially when people were getting hysterical,'' Mr. Rybkin told the Monitor. ``There was a priest among us. He stood up and sang memorial hymns. Women were calmer than some of the men.''
According to accounts of the White House siege from the inside provided by Rybkin and two other parliament deputies, the lawmakers were politically as well as literally in the dark. During the long hours of the fighting, which began around 7 a.m., they were told nothing about what was going on, even about the government's attempts to negotiate their surrender.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who was leading the armed band defending the White House, never appeared in their chamber. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliament chairman, came several times, looking ashen and shaken, but offered no information.
Deputy Sergei Mikhailov, a thick-fingered, burly former factory director from Sakhalin, was moving through the building during the fighting, traveling from floor to floor and sometimes to the offices where the leaders were holed up. ``Khasbulatov was sitting in an armchair on the fifth floor in an office facing the inner courtyard of the building,'' he reports. ``He was in a state of depression. His nerves were on the brink of collapse. Of course, he didn't believe this would happen.''
Meanwhile, armed militants would periodically come through the halls. The deputies say that they had increasingly felt intimidated by these men, many of them members of extremist groups.
``There was talk in the corridors that if we tried to leave or demand that they lay down their arms, they wouldn't let us out,'' says a deputy who, fearing continued reprisal from the government, asks to remain anonymous. ``Finally at the very end, we turned out to be hostages.''
The parliament deputies are bewildered as well by the chain of events that led to Monday's battle. Rybkin was involved in the attempts to negotiate an end to the armed standoff, through mediation by the Russian Orthodox Church. He says the deputies hoped a deal would be struck within a couple of days.
On Sunday, when the demonstrators broke through the government's barricades around the White House, the deputies were overjoyed at first, certain the political tide had swung in their favor.
``We thought all the people believed in the White House,'' the anonymous deputy recounts. ``People were hugging each other, kissing. It was a little celebration.... Not one of us could understand why Rutskoi at that moment went out to the balcony and called for seizing the Mayor's office and Ostankino [the television broadcast center].''
Shooting broke out as the Mayor's office was attacked, while buses appeared out of nowhere to take the mob to assault the television center. ``It was sheer madness,'' says Rybkin. ``Everything started moving as if in a kaliedoscope.''
Mr. Mikhailov offers several conspiracy theories, all aimed at proving that the government had provoked the violence. But he also says that Mr. Rutskoi was out of control. ``I've known Rutskoi for a long time,'' he says. ``He is a very emotional person. He can't control his emotions and after two weeks of such stress....''
Some deputies left the building but others stayed, out of loyalty rather than good sense, they admit. ``During the night, [fellow deputy Vladimir] Ispravnikov told me it would be better to leave,'' Rybkin says. ``But how could I leave? My committee was without any leadership. I was the eldest with a bunch of young deputies, practically boys. How could I leave them alone? But if everyone had left, maybe we could have avoided this.''
So they sat in the dark as the bullets flew. Finally around 3 p.m., the so-called White House Security Minister, Viktor Barrannikov, showed up in the hall with two military men, one of whom was the commander of the Alpha group, the commando unit leading the assault. ``When he said he came to help us,'' one deputy recalls, ``people started to applaud.''
The Alpha commander told the deputies they would be taken to the nearest Metro station and released. But the final stage of their ordeal was in many cases far from easy. The staff members, including some of the remaining members of the parliament's official police guard, were sent out first in two groups. The deputies were held in at least two groups for a couple of hours, awaiting buses that the commandos said were blocked by gunfire from reaching the building.
Rybkin was lucky. His group of 60 exited, with Spetsnaz special forces troops guarding them, from the side of the building facing the US Embassy. Dodging fire, they were escorted up the side street, to a cinema building and released.
Both Mikhailov and his colleague were with the majority of deputies at the front of the building. In darkness and under chaotic automatic-weapons fire, many of them were led on foot into a nearby building. Special police troops, the OMON, met them, searching them roughly. Some deputies were manhandled, but the harshest beatings were reserved for the Army officers and others who had joined the White House defense.
``They were angry,'' says one deputy describing their captors. ``They cursed us. They said the blood of their comrades was on our hands.'' Once they were in the hands of the regular police at a nearby station, they were treated well, says the anonymous deputy, who was released the next day.
Mikhailov somehow managed to hide in a cellar in the confusion. After an hour, his briefcase in hand, he walked calmly down the embankment of the Moscow River, and took a train home to his Moscow apartment. ``I was very lucky,'' he says simply.