The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Part 7: Puddles of blood

May 3, 1993

The following is a special presentation of the Taiga Home Companion, featuring guest host Josh Gerstein of CNN Special Assignment in Washington, D.C. . . .

"They are beating the passengers. They are threatening to kill them now. They are going to shoot a passenger; we must land at Beirut."
--Capt. John Testrake, TWA 847

"I have been to Moscow; it's very gay. Well, anyway, on the First of May."
--Stephen Sondheim

Z: So, Josh lands in Moscow on Thursday afternoon, and within 48 hours he and I are standing on the roof of the cab of a smashed up militia truck as mounted troops file past us in an attempt to clear a path for the fire hoses to reach the second truck that the nationalists had set ablaze.

J: Perhaps I should add a little context. On Friday afternoon, Zach spotted a poster for a May Day rally to be held Saturday at 10AM. The group of anti-Yeltsin activists was then planning to march from the rally site in October Square to Red Square. But it didn't quite work out that way.

Z: We arrived in October Square shortly after ten. There was a large group -- a few thousand people -- of assorted malcontents. Flags were very popular, most of them Communist. Soviet flags, flags of the socialist republics, Red Fleet flags. But there was a solid contingent of National Salvation Front types (essentially fascists) and a few tsarists, with their blue and white crosses. And a Jesus banner amid the Lenins. So there wasn't much in the way of ideological consistency. The average age of the crowd seemed to be about 62, so at this point we were expecting nothing more than a colorful parade. But we did see some people staring at some gleaming reflections on the horizon.

J: It was hard to make out, but it appeared that there was a long line of horses blocking the street a couple of miles away from us, and perhaps a line of police with shields behind that. As we were trying to figure this all out, the march got underway. Rather than march towards the police, the crowd apparently decided to proceed down another street. It was your usual political type march, led by a truck carrying loudspeakers with booming Communist march songs. There was also a smattering of rather militant looking old men who screamed anti-Yeltsin chants so vehemently that it seemed they would certainly have strangled Yeltsin had he appeared.

Z: The march was quite pleasant. The weather was beautiful: perfect temperature, and cheery sunlight streaming through the red banners. Though impassioned and upset, the marchers did not seem particularly angry at the press, and we did not see any journalists being harrassed or threatened. And there were good photos to be had. Angry veterans, cute kids waving red flags, and quaint pictures of Lenin. We were marching along Leninskiy Prospyekt, a wide boulevard in the southwest of the city. It had been closed off to traffic, much the way that Massachusetts Avenue had been closed for the January 15, 1991 anti-war march that Josh and I covered together for The Crimson.

J: I suggested that we get to the front of the column to see how the front-line marchers were faring. There were about five men in military dress uniform marching about ten feet ahead of a line of about forty demonstrators. We walked along in front of the crowd for a bit, watching TV camerapeople jump on and off of the roofs of parked trolley cars in order to get a good perspective shot of the group. I was most interested in identifying the crews and trying to spot the one from CNN. (They didn't turn up until much later.) As we were walking along the march passed a bend in the road and soon we could see that this street, too, was blocked by a line of police with riot shields. Behind the police was a line of trucks parked blocking the street, which emptied into a large open square. The crowd slowed as it approached the police, but continued to chant, perhaps even more forcefully than before.

Z: In front of the marchers were a few dozen journalists, and at this point many of them began crossing through the police line and climbing into the open-bed trucks which formed the barrier directly behind the police. "Let's get in the truck," Josh said. I'm always a little reluctant to climb anything when I have all my camera gear around my neck, but this time it seemed like a good idea. By the time we had got ourselves settled standing in the bed of the truck, the marchers were only a dozen meters or so from the police and advancing steadily. Realizing that they were not going to stop, I turned to Josh and said, "I don't know what is going to happen in the next ten seconds."

J: We looked on incredulously as the crowd came forward, essentially backing the line of police against the trucks. Sure enough, within seconds, there was the sound of about fifty people crashing into the plexiglas police shields. As Zach and I began firing away with our cameras, police batons were flying and militiamen (as the police are called) were engaged in virtual hand-to-hand combat with the demonstrators. Soon a couple of protesters and a couple of policemen were bleeding profusely. People then began dragging individual officers from the line out into the crowd and beating the living daylights out of them. The scene was pretty ugly and seemed ready to grow worse. The police, sensing that they were outnumbered and inadequately equipped to confront a crowd of this magnitude and vigor, began to look for a way out.

Z: All this combat was taking place directly in front of the trucks, at most ten feet away from us. I was a bit stunned by the level of the violence; while I had seen police club people in Boston before, and had seen some foreheads cracked, this was much worse. One or two policemen were pulled about five ranks back into the mob, and by the time they got back to their comrades they were not standing on their own. A militia cap flying up from the fracas bounced off my leg; rather than touch it and perhaps risk being spotted as someone who had grabbed a cap, I let a ten-year-old commie grab it. As the police faltered, older commies also began getting in our truck before getting pushed out by the cops. But then they began getting in the truck and staying there, using the elevation to swing sticks down at the police behind the barricade.

J: At this point, I thought it might be a good idea to get out of the truck and move a bit further from the advancing crowd. By this time people were scrambling all around us and whether I sprained my ankle jumping from the truck seemed considerably less important than getting off of it immediately. Zach and I both sprung out of the truck, but before we could really decide where to go next, angry Anti-Yeltsinites were streaming over the truck and pressing forward. The police had fallen back against a set of smaller paddy-wagons which were parked in a line behind the first trucks. Soon were were standing in the midst of the hand-to-hand combat between police and demonstrators. By this time, the thousand of people milling in the street had acquired a large number of bricks, half-bricks, bottles and sticks, all of which they were tossing indiscriminately over the first row of trucks into the zone where we were.

Z: So here's the situation. The communists had carried the first line of trucks, and were taking advantage of their victory by smashing the windshields, setting two of the trucks on fire, and putting two more in neutral and rolling them toward the cops as battering rams. Meanwhile, a fresh line of police, this group in riot helmets, was advancing to meet them. And Josh and I were in the middle. Where to go for safety? The best thing to do would be to melt into a wall. And thanks to the recessed display windows of a building on the west side of the street, we were able to do just that. I pointed out a ledge in front of one of these windows, and we hopped onto it, along with a group of communist women. From this shelter -- off the sidewalk, elevated, and protected from missiles by a stout, stone column -- we watched and photographed the worst of the battle.

J: The lines pushed back and forth for a while. Zach and I would look up for a while and then try to keep our heads down and away from incoming bricks and bottles. Occasionally, we would see something humorous (like a man standing atop a truck throwing money into the air and yelling "Yeltsin has been bought) but mostly it was pretty nasty stuff and we were trying to figure out whether to scrunch right or scrunch left to be farthest away from the swinging batons. Some of the people on the ledge with us didn't seem to like us much, but they never did anything about it. The next thing we noticed was a couple of red fire trucks with nozzles mounted on them moving towards the mob. Our thoughts quickly turned to tear gas. When we saw the reddish liquid streaming forth from the trucks, we figured, "This is it!" We turned and ducked our heads for the expected onslaught. We soon realized, however, that the liquid had turned white. The red coloring, it seemed, was no chemical, but only rusty water from the trucks.

Z: At first the fire engines only sprayed Moscow water (which may in itself qualify as a chemical agent) in high arcs over the crowd. This was sufficient to drive back most of the mob to the first line of trucks, though many needed more encouragement from direct blasts of water and blows from police batons. A few knots of commies remained even as the police swept by, including the group on the ledge with us. For the most part they were relatively friendly. Asked by a woman if I was Israeli, I said no, American. She wanted to know what I thought of the situation, and I gave her my standard line: "I'm just a photographer. I don't think; I only watch." "Well," she responded, pointing to a white-haired gentleman bleeding profusely from the scalp, "did you get that?" "I saw it, I saw it," I assured her.

The people on the ledge mostly contented themselves with shouting "Fascisti!" at the militia, though one woman whacked a cop with her umbrella and got a mild jab in return. Close in front of us, however, a few older men were fighting a behind-the-lines action by hurling rocks at the backs of the police, who had by now re-taken the first line of trucks. Every now and then, a copy would come by and brain one of the geezers. There was a general sense of chaos as two trucks continued to burn out of control, the fire engines having used up their water on the protesters. Above the front line their was an amazing hail of missiles -- rocks, bricks, sticks -- that flew over the street like a cloud of mosquitos. The front line kept moving back and forth. Yet through all of this, not once did I see a gun, except for a single holstered weapon much earlier in the day. Nor were there any Molotov cocktails. It was bad, but it could have been worse.

Eventually, things slowed down, and we could get off the ledge. The fire engines had found a hydrant and had put out one of the trucks. The mob was thinnning. We wandered around the police rear area for a bit. There did not seem to be any prisoners; the police had clubbed a lot of people without managing or bothering to arrest anybody.

J: By now, most of the ardent communists had been pressed back into the march crowd, which seemed a bit confused about where to go and what to do. The police action concentrated on allowing firefighters to get close to the crowd so another burning truck could be extinguished. After a few attempts they made it up to the truck and doused it. The communists, having apparently grown weary from their battle, turned their loudspeaker truck around and slowly but surely headed back from whence they came. Zach and I climbed atop a beat up police truck and surveyed the scene. Broken bottles and bricks were strewn across the street. Puddles of blood. Chains attached to bits of metal. Cracked riot-helmet faceplates. Trucks, some with slashed tires, others totally burned out. Broken windows in at least one of the shops on the street. And dozens of police and military officials around, none of whom seemed at all concerned about the fact that we were standing on the cab of a government truck parked in the middle of the street.

Z: We stood on the truck for a while, its siren between us. More police were called in, including a line of mounted cops, who rode out and formed a line in front of the first line of trucks. It was an exact copy of a scene from Dr. Zhivago, with a line of mounted troops facing a red-flag-waving mob down a street. But this time, my sympathy was entirely with the forces of order.

J: Things gradually began to peter out and I spotted, first one, and then two, CNN crews. I had the sense that they had missed the action. Later in the evening, that appeared to be what had happened. [Moscow TV (which Zach was able to see at his workplace) had great footage of the disturbance/riot. I watched three cycles of CNN Headline News and saw nothing more than a map of Russia, although CNN did report that one policeman was killed in the clashes.] We wandered back past rows and rows of ambulances, police and military vehicles that had been sent in to reinforce the front-line. Still somewhat dazed, we descended into the metro station, noticing couple of people with large gauze bandages wrapped around their heads.

Z: We took the metro to Red Square, which was closed and guarded by more police. In the surrounding streets, Muscovites and tourists strolled along, buying souvenirs and ice cream. Everything was peaceful and calm, as it always is in Moscow.

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