Experience: I was shot by a sniper Life and style

TOctober 3, 1993 was a beautiful day in Moscow. The sky was blue, the streets were busy and the air was cold. I was an American lawyer living my best 23-year life, with my head full of dreams and a job at an international law firm.

I grew up in New Jersey, then rural Pennsylvania. At university, I did politics and Russian studies and took a class in American and Soviet relations. I was fascinated by these two countries in conflict.

In 1991, I spent some time in St. Petersburg learning the language. I fell in love with Russian life and moved to Moscow when I graduated. I rented an apartment near the Russian White House. Moscow was then like the Wild West: there was a lot of money to be made. Politically, it was on the verge of a constitutional crisis.

On a sunny October evening, there was unrest. MPs had blocked themselves inside the White House, which houses the government, in an attempt to overthrow President Yeltsin. That night, the public stormed the National Television Center and the station went on the air. Russia was on the brink of a coup. I called my parents and told them not to worry.

The next morning the transport was down. My boss lived in my building, across from the US Embassy. He called from the office and asked me to check on his wife and children. I then went turned into pancakes. Afterwards, their 16-year-old son, John, went back with me.

He told me about the great view of the Parliament from the roof, so we climbed up. Other young people were there too. Then we looked down. The road below was lined with tanks that began to roll out. Troops flooded the streets, and machine guns blew up the White House. The roof began to shake. I was afraid. Then I was shot. Twice. In my leg and stomach.

I could not feel pain, just the need to survive. The shooting continued as I dragged myself to the fire escape. I came halfway down before my body gave up. John helped me and neighbors carried me into his apartment to wait for an ambulance. I only remember chaos. Later I found out that the buildings around us were full of snipers.

Smoke billowing from Moscow's parliament building on October 4, 1993.
Smoke billowing from Moscow’s parliament building on October 4, 1993. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Three weeks before I was shot, my mother had flown from the United States to visit me. When she returned, two days after the shooting, my condition was so critical that she was asked to drive directly to the hospital if she wanted to see me alive.

I had to have surgery, and lost liters of blood. The doctor and nurse had given me their own when they operated. Everyone at my law firm had also donated, but that was not enough. Hospitals were dirty, with poor standards (unless you were a diplomat), so I had a life-threatening infection.

I had to get to a hospital of western standard to survive. Together with my mother, I was put on a small plane to Helsinki, Finland. The doctors performed CPR for a full 90 minutes of flight.

When I arrived, my lungs were full of blood. The doctors discovered that I also had liver damage and no longer had a right kidney or gallbladder. They operated again and I stayed in Finland for 10 days. Before I left, a phone call came from President Clinton. He had heard what had happened and wished me all the best. I was on so much morphine, I can barely remember it.

I was flown home to the United States, where I spent two months in the hospital. As soon as I was ready to fly, I returned to Moscow; I was determined that a random sniper would not derail this great life I had created. I stayed for six more years.

Sometimes my story comes to dinner parties, but I often forget it. I have a scar from my stomach to my back, but I have never dreamed of what happened; it does not haunt me. The shooter was never identified. I think it was a coincidence, but there were too many people – army and civilian – firing weapons that day to know.

Two years later, I was working for a human rights organization when President Clinton visited. He gave me a two-handed handshake and told me it was good to see me well.

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This article comes from Saturday, the new print magazine from The Guardian that combines the best features, culture, lifestyle and travel writing in one beautiful package. Now available in the UK and ROI.

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I live in Fife, Scotland, now, but was in Russia at the age of 20 for the siege. Hearing the memory of the hundreds who were killed or wounded made me reflect. I have often been told that I have a Russian soul. Sometimes I wonder if what I do in life justifies this incredible thing that I survived. But really, it was just a moment where I collided with a piece of history.

As told to Deborah Linton

Do you have an experience to share? Send email to experience@theguardian.com

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