The tomb of the Soviet Union, or the womb of Putinism? The 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, 30 years after

The tomb of the Soviet Union, or the womb of Putinism? The 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, 30 years after

Tobias Rupprecht, Freie Universität Berlin
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
21.09.2023 - 21.09.2023
George Payne, Global History Research Area, Freie Universität Berlin

The 1993 Russian constitutional crisis was a defining moment in the country’s turbulent post-Soviet history. The stand-off between the popularly-elected President Boris Yeltsin and the constitutional authority of the Russian parliament culminated in a violent clash in late September and early October. The images of a parliament building being shelled by its own army made the country seem like it was on the brink of a civil war. Yeltsin emerged victorious from ‘Black October’, as the events of that autumn have come to be known in Russia. Was this the tomb of the Soviet Union, or the womb of Putinism?

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Russian constitutional crisis, TOBIAS RUPPRECHT (Berlin) hosted a workshop in Berlin with funding from the Cluster of Excellence SCRIPTS. Since the historical event in focus happened in the recent past, the workshop was able to put some of the remaining eyewitnesses in dialogue with an international group of historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists, and constitutional lawyers. That was a significant organisational achievement given the political difficulties involved in academic exchange since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Thirty years is also an opportune moment for exchange among the disciplines. Historians usually begin to take an interest in a topic after such a period due to the rules governing access to state archives. Their research is guided by the earlier work of specialists from other fields.

In his keynote address, VLADIMIR GEL’MAN (Helsinki) provided an overview of the ‘October conflict’, his preferred term for the constitutional crisis. The situation facing Russia’s political leadership was a choice between a simultaneous or consecutive ‘triple transition’ – borrowing from Claus Offe’s framework for Eastern Europe.1 A strategic decision was made to prioritise market reform over further democratisation. Yet, interpretations of the conflict as primarily a disagreement over economic policy miss its political component. The real winners of this zero-sum violent conflict were the new post-Soviet political elite. With parliamentary opposition suppressed, Yeltsin and his advisors were able to ram through a new presidentialist constitution, approved in a referendum in December 1993. By contrast, market liberals lost their position in government, and economic adjustment was further delayed. From a comparative perspective, violent suppression was not the usual response to economic policy disagreements, thus strengthening Gel’man’s claim that the strategy of conflict was driven by the agency of political actors. Clipping the wings of Russia’s fledgling democracy may have resolved the triple transition dilemma, but it also put Russia on a course that led to a personalist authoritarian regime under Yeltsin’s hand-chosen successor Vladimir Putin. The self-coup also became model for post-Soviet countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The design of the constitution of 1993 had historical roots in the Soviet dissident movement. Legal historian WILLIAM PARTLETT (Melbourne), giving his talk online from Australia, argued that the informal opposition had since the 1960s embraced an anti-political form of rights constitutionalism. They were suspicious of democratic pluralism and saw democracy as a moral search for the truth. Universal rights, they held, were best protected by a unifying president and technocratic institutions. Nobel-prize winning physicist Andrei Sakharov incorporated such ideas in his constitutional drafts that served as a model for reformers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anti-political rights constitutionalism was a fatal conceit: Yeltsin was able to hijack anti-politics for his own ends, Partlett suggested. Only competitive and pluralistic politics could have created the conditions for self-enforcing constitutions.

The next contribution switched from deep causes to long-run effects. ANNA FRUHSTORFER (Berlin) presented findings from a study on constitutional change in post-Soviet autocracies between 1990 and 2020. It is tempting to disregard legal structures in autocracies as a mere façade given that autocrats have little respect for the concept of constitutionalism. Fruhstorfer, however, found that leadership change in non-democratic regimes increased the probability of constitutional change. The content of that change was usually formal, like abolishing term limits. As for timing, reform was either pre-emptive, neutralising threats to a leader’s longevity, or reactive, strengthening their position. In the Russian case, the constitutional crisis of 1993 was more than simply a reactive formal amendment. It did, however, set a precedent, being the first in a series of reforms that suited the interest of the leadership.

The workshop heard from OLEG RUMYANTSEV (Moscow), the man the Washington Post once hailed as the ‘James Madison of Russia’. The head of the Supreme Soviet’s Constitutional Commission from 1990 to 1993 started with his own recollections of that day when the tanks rolled in, pointing out the location of his office on a photo of the ‘White House’, the seat of the Russian parliament. Back then, Rumyantsev tried until the last minute to avoid bloodshed by leading negotiations between the president and the opposition. The main body of his presentation dealt with future prospects of constitutionalism in Russia. It was composed in a similar spirit of compromise and unwarranted optimism. Despite everything that had happened since 1993, Rumyantsev maintained that the Russian people had not given up on the idea of a constitution. Even so, they had vastly different conceptions of what it should be. Some form of consensus would be necessary if constitutional normalcy is to be restored, Rumyantsev reasoned, leaving open how and when this would come about.

In his own research, conference host Rupprecht had noticed that liberals from across the spectrum put aside their differences and supported Yeltsin against parliament. To test his conclusions, he led a discussion with members of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia from that period. RUSLAN GRINBERG (Berlin), an economist and close personal friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, represented the so-called informal liberals, a group of dissident reform thinkers. Grinberg and those around him first took an interest in constitutional matters during the perestroika era. The hope was that by changing the constitution, they could change society. Another economist VYACHESLAV SHIRONIN (Moscow), appearing via a video link, is known for being close to the systemic liberals – the liberal-minded technocrats who continue to serve in Russian governments. His circle began to discuss constitutional questions after Yeltsin came to power in 1991. By 1993, Shironin felt that the country had reached a dead-end that needed to be overcome. Although not ideal, Yeltsin and his team were at least realistic, in his opinion, about what was could be built from the ruins of the USSR. As a member of the democratic movement in the Soviet Union, Rumyantsev had similar views to Grinberg. Although he had good personal and intellectual relationships with the systemic liberals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was dismayed by their subsequent behaviour and record in office.

Speaking online, FRITZ BARTEL (College Station) argued that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was neither omnipotent nor impotent in its dealings with Moscow during the 1993 constitutional crisis. Having consulted sources at the institution’s archive, he concluded that the IMF was what he called an ‘authoritative accessory’. The opinion of IMF officials carried some intellectual weight, but their Russian counterparts used or ignored its advice to suit their own agendas. If anything, the organisation gained greater control over Russian economic policy in spring 1994 and over the course of the decade. At this key juncture, however, the leverage of the Washington institution in negotiations – withholding financing – was undermined by lenient G7 countries. For geopolitical reasons, the superpower of the Russian Federation was not like any other IMF member state.

In her presentation, CORNELIA SAHLING (Leipzig) addressed the changing role of the central bank either side of the 1993 constitutional crisis. Following the collapse of the USSR, the co-existence of the Soviet and Russian central banks symbolised the general legal and institutional uncertainty. The central bank was not simply an object in the power struggle, but an actor in its own right. There was considerable continuity among officials, who sought to maintain their position above all else. The ideologically flexible chairman of the Soviet State Bank Viktor Gerashchenko is a case in point. Power, not ideas, shaped the design of the new monetary authority and its day-to-day running.

Adding a very welcome transnational component, ANTON LIAVITSKI (Munich) summarised how Belarusian conservatives viewed events in neighbouring Russia. The clash in Moscow caused a split on whether democracy or legality should take precedence in a constitutional system. Those divisions returned during the stand-off between President Alexander Lukashenko and parliament in Minsk in 1996. The point was to demonstrate that the authoritarian backlash, as embodied by the likes of Lukashenko, was by no means inevitable. Forms of democratic conservatism did exist and represented a viable alternative in Belarus and much of the post-Soviet space.

Last to speak was constitutional lawyer CAROLINE VON GALL (Frankfurt am Main). She made the case that the career and legal thought of Valery Zorkin, the long-serving chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, showed just how ambiguous ideas are in the field of comparative constitutional law. In his first stint as chairman, Zorkin made his name for himself opposing Yeltsin’s power grab in 1993. Since his return in 2003, he has used his position to justify the growing authoritarianism of the Putin regime. His concept of a ‘living constitution’, one which adapts to present conditions, could not stop the constitutional amendments of 2020 which removed the final formal restrictions on Putin’s power. Zorkin has survived what von Gall called the legal ‘zombie apocalypse’. In that way, the head of the constitutional court was similar to other elites whose loyalty has been rewarded.

To conclude, the question in the workshop title can be answered with relative certainty: The Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 was both the tomb of the Soviet Union and the womb of Putinism. The deliberate decision to focus on liberals and liberal constitutionalism – a decision which can be attributed to the research interests of the host and the funding body – cast the turning point in a new light. Was this the beginning or the end of the Russian liberal script? On this point, neither eyewitnesses nor scholars could agree. For liberals, the constitutional crisis may have been a unifying moment, but it has left a divisive legacy.

Discussion largely revolved around liberals or other elites, either their actions or thinking. On the one hand, a focus on the top was consistent with the historical record: the constitutional crisis was principally a dispute among political elites. On the other, the crisis had consequences for the rest of the population. The elites in question were not always the usual names. The personal and institutional biographies presented here were persuasive in calling for the inclusion or re-interpretation of other players in the narrative of the crisis told thus far. Even so, the absence of a significant political figure like Boris Yeltsin was felt. A contribution by one his many biographers would have enriched the meeting. A social history or sociological study could have grounded the intellectual discussions in social mobilisation or movements. Returning to Offe’s triple transition, the third element – the move from an imperial model to a nation state, was the topic of only one presentation that dealt with the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. But how did events in the capital Moscow impact the ethnic republics on the periphery of the new federal Russia? The war in Ukraine has added some further weight to this year’s anniversary and was raised repeatedly in the question and answer sessions. Direct links to the present are admittedly hard to establish, but the conflict has at least changed the perception of Ukraine’s post-Soviet trajectory as that of a laggard when compared to its neighbour.

The Russia of today is still living with the consequences of the 1993 constitutional crisis. Yeltsin’s constitution remains in force, although successive amendments have stripped it of its remaining liberal principles. Hope for a return to liberal constitutionalism is tied to a change in leader. We may have to wait another 30 years for that.

Conference overview:

Keynote speech

Vladimir Gel’man (University of Helsinki): Escape from Political Freedom. The 1993 Conflict and Russia’s Political Trajectory


William Partlett (The University of Melbourne): The Dangers of Rights Constitutionalism for Democratic Politics

Anna Fruhstorfer (Freie Universität Berlin): Constitutional Change under Autocracy from a Comparative Perspective


Oleg Rumyantsev: Constitutionalism versus Special Orders of Government. The Road to Constitutional Normality

Vyacheslav Shironin (St. Petersburg State Economic University) / Ruslan Grinberg (Freie Universität Berlin) / Tobias Rupprecht (Freie Universität Berlin): Liberals Against Parliament. The Russian Intelligentsia and the Struggle for a New Constitution


Fritz Bartel (Texas A&M): An Authoritative Accessory. The IMF’s Role in the Crisis

Cornelia Sahling (Leipzig): Implementing the New Central Bank Law in Russia. Legal and Economic Challenges Following the Adoption of the Constitution in 1993


Anton Liavitski (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München): Post-Soviet Conservatism and Democracy. Belarusian Views of the Russian Constitutional Crisis

Caroline von Gall (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main): From 'Living' Constitutionalism to 'Zombie Apocalypse'. Valery Zorkin and his Role for Russian Authoritarian Constitutionalism

1 Claus Offe, Capitalism by Democratic Design? Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe, in: Social Research 58 (1991), pp. 865–892.

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