Sputnik: Were you based in Moscow at the time of the White House assault?
Therese Obrecht: Yes, I was. I had been in Moscow for almost two years at that time.
Sputnik: So, you weren’t sent to specifically cover the events?
Therese Obrecht: Not at all. I was there. As I remember, it was on a Sunday. [I] just had a feeling that something was going to happen, because this stand-off had been taking place for weeks in the backyard of the White House. It was becoming more and more hostile by the day, so I called the cameraman and said let’s just go and have a look. And we went there, we went inside the White House and we saw that this rag-tag army in the Parliament was ready to fight, and then it happened. I remember in the evening, we didn’t even have enough battery to film all the things that happened. I could tell the story on live transmission in the evening.
Sputnik: What was your first feeling? Were you shocked or amazed? Were you anticipating this kind of turn of events?
Therese Obrecht: Something was bound to happen. From the Putsch in 1991, Yeltsin, the kind of reforms he wanted, he was like a bulldozer. Of course, it didn’t please the conservative part of the political spectrum like the Communists. There was a lot of resistance and, of course, it wasn’t a democracy; this violence from before was still there, there was no dialogue to resolve this problem. So something was bound to happen. But of course, it was much more violent than I expected. Having tanks in the middle of Moscow shooting at the Parliament was quite amazing.
Sputnik: You mentioned that the standoff had continued for some time and yet you had the feeling that something was going to happen. Do you think that at some point, things might have taken a different turn and not become violent?
Therese Obrecht: Not at that time. I don’t think the country was ready; I’m not sure it is ready now. It takes a lot of very solid institutions to have a dialogue, to discuss and to make a compromise. It took us a thousand years in Switzerland to do that; so a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was absolutely impossible. I think that even now, these institutions aren’t there. A few months later the war in Chechnya started and it was also impossible to just have a dialogue, they just started shooting. That’s a big problem we had at the time, so I didn’t really expect it to end with a nice discussion around the table.
Therese Obrecht: Not really. They just asked me to be careful because some people had been shot and you never know what happens; it can become quite dangerous. I had no instructions, just get the best stories.
Sputnik: Did you at any point feel that you weren’t safe?
Therese Obrecht: Not really. It could be a random shot, it could always happen. That rag-tag army with Cossacks and even a few fascists, I knew these people quite well and it was easy to go there and talk to them; they were very friendly, there were no problems at all. But once the shooting starts, it’s better not to stand in the middle of the street as anything can happen.
Sputnik: You got the chance to speak to some of the eyewitnesses, participants and, perhaps, some other journalists. What impressions did you get?
Therese Obrecht: The people who participated, the ones who were in the White House, the hatred was enormous, they just wanted to get rid of Yeltsin; he was a kind of new dictator, they didn’t want his reforms, the so-called “shock therapy.” Of course it was a shock therapy and we as Westerners had a feeling that on the one side, in the White House, you had the people of the past who didn’t want anything to change, and on the other side you had the people like Yeltsin. When you want to change a system like this, you have to break it first, I think, otherwise you cannot really change things. Don’t believe that any former Communist can do anything good for this country; he doesn’t even know when he speaks the truth and when he lies. And it’s all true about this phrase, even now with Putin, it’s so true.
Sputnik: What was the atmosphere like in Moscow the next day after the White House assault? I remember those events myself and I’ve been talking to guest speakers who have also been even in warzones; they say that on the one hand you see destruction in a warzone and yet parallel [to that], life goes on and people continue their lives.
Therese Obrecht: Absolutely. It was just as this blackened White House from the bridge and there was destruction just in that very small area and in the rest of Moscow nothing had happened. It was just amazing. We all could go home to our apartments and it was not a problem at all. What happened was very local, but it was overwhelming. But when we heard that the army would come and they would stand with Yeltsin, so we knew that they would come but personally I didn’t expect them to bomb the House from the bridge. There were people inside; it was extremely violent. Of course, in Switzerland they said that it was horrible and it was against democracy; of course it looks quite awful from the outside. And even there, was it really necessary? But it was typical of that time. There was no other solution.
Sputnik: After all those events, did you ever actually sit down and write something to summarize your impressions of that time?
Therese Obrecht: Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wrote a book, but it was more or less on different topics, about the Putin system and so on. I always thought one should do something with one’s notebooks, but on the other hand, journalism is very ephemeral and it’s great because it’s difficult to make literature out of it. So I’ll let it stay there.
The views and opinions expressed in this article by Therese Obrecht are solely those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.