For the last two and a half years, a specter has haunted the government of Vladimir Putin. This is the possibility of a serious examination of the strange apartment house bombings that took place in September, 1999 in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk and cost 300 lives.
The bombings terrorized Russia. The Russian authorities immediately accused Chechen rebels of responsibility for the attacks and this galvanized public opinion in support of a second war in Chechnya. The war, in turn, made Putin, the former head of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), an overnight hero and the leading candidate for the Russian presidency.
Almost from the start, however, there were doubts about the timing of the bombings that could not have been better calculated to rescue the political fortunes of the ruling, Yeltsin era oligarchy. Suspicions only deepened when a fifth bomb was discovered in the basement of a building in Ryazan and those responsible for placing it turned out to be agents of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB).
Until recently, attempts to call attention to some of the paradoxes surrounding the bombings, one of the most pivotal events in post communist Russian history, proceeded sporadically and were easily mastered by the information apparatus of the state.
On March 5, however, Boris Berezovsky, a self exiled oligarch and former key Kremlin adviser, held a press conference in London in which he accused the FSB of carrying out the bombings with Putin’s complicity in order to justify a second Chechen war. He presented as evidence the testimony of Nikita Chekulin, a former acting director of the Russian Explosives Conversion Center, a scientific research institute under the Ministry of Education, who was recruited by the FSB as a secret agent. Chekulin stated, and confirmed with documents, that in 1999-2000, a large quantity of hexogen, the explosive that is believed to have been used in the apartment bombings, was purchased by the institute from various military units and then, under the guise of gunpowder or dynamite, shipped all over the country to unknown destinations. Berezovsky also presented a documentary film that was largely based on a previous television program about the Ryazan incident that was shown on NTV and the reporting in Novaya Gazeta.
In fact, the press conference did not offer much that was new. Nonetheless, it was significant because it renewed discussion of an issue that had never really gone away. At the same time as the press conference was being held, a pamphlet novel by Alexander Prokhanov, a Russian nationalist leader, entitled “Mr. Hexogen,” was enjoying a wide circulation in Russia. The novel, based on information from sources in the intelligence agencies, describes a conspiracy to unleash the Second Chechen War and use it to elect a successor who would protect the interests of the corrupt Yeltsin “family.”
In explaining his support for the American led anti-terrorist coalition after September 11, 2001, Putin said that Russia had also been a victim of terrorism. This experience, however, looks rather different if the bombings in September, 1999 were carried out by the Russian government as part of an effort to preserve the power and wealth of a criminal oligarchy.
The view that the bombings were the work of the Russian government is based on three types of evidence: the logic of the political situation at the time of the attacks; what is known about the bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk; and the implications of the so called “training exercise” in Ryazan. Unfortunately, in all three cases, the weight of the evidence supports the view that the bombings were not the work of Chechen terrorists but rather the action of the Russian government undertaken to justify the launching of the Second Chechen War.
In August, 1999, on the eve of the bombings, it appeared that the Yeltsin “family” and the rest of the corrupt oligarchy that ruled Russia was facing an unavoidable day of reckoning. As the economic situation in Russia got steadily worse, Yeltsin’s approval rating dropped to 2 per cent and an uneasy awareness spread among the persons closely connected to the Yeltsin regime that their positions, their wealth, and possibly their freedom and even their lives were in jeopardy.
In August, 1998, Russia experienced a devastating financial crisis and, in its wake, Yeltsin was forced to compromise with the State Duma and accept as Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister and former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Primakov authorized a series of investigations that affected the members of the “family” themselves.
One investigation involved Berezovsky, who, in January, 1999, was suspected of appropriating money belonging to the airline, Aeroflot. More important for the “family,” however, was the investigation into possible kickbacks to Pavel Borodin, the head of the property administration in the presidential administration, from the Swiss firm, Mabetex, in connection with construction and repair work on the Kremlin. On January 22, 1999, the Mabetex office was raided in Lugano and records were discovered that showed payments of $600,000 on the credit cards of Yeltsin’s daughters, Tatyana Dyachenko and Yelena Okulova.
The threat to some of the country’s most powerful figures prompted a response. Yuri Skuratov, the prosecutor general who was leading the investigations, was removed after a video of him engaged in “sex acts” with two prostitutes in a sauna linked to a Moscow criminal organization was shown on prime time television. The cases involving Berezovsky and Mabetex, however, were not forgotten.
Dissatisfaction with Yeltsin was spreading and, in May, 1999, Yeltsin fired Primakov and his government and installed as acting premier, the interior minister, Sergei Stepashin. A move to impeach Yeltsin for, among other things, illegally suppressing the Supreme Soviet in 1993 and launching the war in Chechnya in 1994, was narrowly defeated with the help of the distribution of bribes to wavering deputies. But the Fatherland-All Russia movement that was organized by Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, was gaining strength. On August 23, Luzhkov promised that if Primakov, the most popular politician in the country, was to run for president, he would support him.
The prospect of Primakov as president was frightening for the Yeltsin entourage because he had already demonstrated his readiness to pursue corruption cases and, as Skuratov was later to state, it was possible to bring criminal cases against every one of the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era.
By the summer of 1999, there was reported to be an atmosphere of near panic in the Kremlin and there were reports that the Yeltsin “family” was planning provocations in Moscow, including acts of terror, in order to discredit Luzhkov. One such report, by Alexander Zhilin, which appeared July 22 in Moskovskaya Pravda said that there was a plan to destabilize the atmosphere in Moscow by organizing terrorist acts, kidnappings and a war between criminal clans. The plan, known among insiders as “Storm in Moscow,” was never implemented, possibly because an even more effective plan took its place.
On August 5, a muslim force led by Shamil Basayev, a Chechen guerilla leader, entered western Dagestan from Chechnya, ostensibly to start an anti-Russian uprising. On August 9, Stepashin was dismissed and Putin became prime minister. On August 22, the force withdrew back into Chechnya without heavy losses, amid suspicion that the incursion had been a provocation. At the end of August, Russian aircraft bombed Wahhabi villages in Dagestan in seeming retaliation for the incursion and this was followed, days later, by the explosions that obliterated the apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk.
The bombings stunned Russia but, in their wake, the stage was set for the rescue of the Yeltsin era oligarchy. Popular anger over corruption was redirected against the Chechens. Putin, whose popularity rating had been 2 per cent, launched a war against Chechnya and, in the process, became Russia’s saviour. In April, 2000, he was easily elected president and, in that capacity, he granted immunity from prosecution to Yeltsin and his family, put an end to all talk of a redivision of property, and preserved the Yeltsin era oligarchy virtually intact.
Besides the logic of the political situation in August, 1999 that suggested that only by provoking a war could the Yeltsin leadership retain their property and their power, the role of the Russian government in the bombings is suggested by the character of the explosions themselves.
The four bombings all had the same “handwriting” as attested to by the nature of the destruction, the way the buildings’ concrete panels collapsed and the volume of the blast. In each case, the explosive was said to be hexogen and all four bombs were set to go off at night to inflict maximum casualties.
To do what they were accused of having done without expert assistance, however, Chechen terrorists would have needed to be able to organize nine explosions (the four that took place and the five that the Russian authorities claimed to have prevented) in widely separated cities in the space of two weeks. They also would have needed the ability to penetrate top secret Russian military factories or military units to obtain the hexogen.
Finally, Chechen terrorists would have needed technical virtuosity. In the case of the Moscow apartment buildings, the bombs were placed to destroy the weakest, critical structural elements so each of the buildings would collapse “like a house of cards.” Such careful calculations are the mark of skilled specialists and the only places where such specialists were trained in Russia were the spetsnaz forces, military intelligence (GRU) and the FSB.
Another troubling aspect of the apartment bombings was the timing. The bombings were explained as a response to the Russian bombing in August, 1999 of Wahhabi villages in Dagestan. A careful study of the apartment bombings, however, showed that it would have taken from four to four and half months to organize them. In constructing a model of the events, all stages of the conspiracy were considered: developing a plan for the targets, visiting the targets, making corrections, determining the optimum mix of explosives, ordering their preparation, making final calculations, renting space in the targeted buildings, and transporting the explosives to the targets.
Assuming that these calculations were even approximately correct, planning for the apartment bombings had to begin in the spring. They therefore could not have been retaliation by Chechen terrorists for the Russian attack in Dagestan, which occurred only days before the bombings took place. They might, however, have been part of a plan that included the Chechen invasion of Dagestan, the Russian bombing of the Wahhabi villages and the apartment bombings. But such a plan could only have been implemented by elements of the regime in cooperation with the FSB.
As both the Chechen war and the presidential campaign progressed, some observers noted that events were unfolding in a manner that matched the conditions described by Harold Laswell, a University of Chicago political scientist, as being optimal for successful propaganda. In his book, Propaganda Technique in the World War, Laswell said a propagandist’s success is limited by the tension level of the subject population. “The propagandist who deals with a community when its tension level is high, finds that a reservoir of explosive energy can be touched off by the same small match which would normally ignite [only] a bonfire.” Some persons who knew of the popularity of American political science literature with the FSB became convinced that events were being played out according to a scenario written by Lasswell.
The strongest indication that elements of the Russian government were responsible for the bombings, however, was the history of the supposed training exercise in Ryazan.
In that incident, the FSB was forced to admit that they had put a bomb in the basement of a civilian apartment building because they were caught in the act.
The incident began on the night of September 22, six days after the bombing of Volgodonsk, when police answering a call reporting suspicious activity discovered a bomb in the basement of the building at 14/16 Novosyelov Street. Experts arriving at the scene found that the bomb tested positive for hexogen.
Within minutes, not only the building but also the surrounding neighborhood was evacuated. In all, nearly 30,000 persons spent the night on the street. The airport and railroad stations were surrounded by police and roadblocks were set up on all of the roads leading out of the city.
The origin of the bomb was determined, however, in a totally unexpected way. On the evening of the 23rd, a call to Moscow was made from a public telephone bureau for intercity calls. The operator who connected the call caught a fragment of conversation in which a caller said there was no way to get out of town undetected. The voice at the other end of the line said, “Split up and each of you make your own way out.” The operator reported the call to the police and they traced the number. To their astonishment, it belonged to the FSB.
A short time later, with the help of tips from the population, the police arrested two terrorists. They produced identification from the FSB and were released on orders from Moscow.
On September 24, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, announced that the bomb in the basement at 14/16 Novosyelov had been a dummy and the incident had been a “test.” He congratulated the residents of Ryazan on their vigilance. This explanation stupefied the residents of Ryazan who had assumed that the bomb was real. The FSB said that the bomb was a dummy and that the explosive materials in the sacks attached to the detonator was sugar. It said the gas analyzer that detected hexogen had malfunctioned.
Several months after the incident, however, Pavel Voloshin, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, interviewed Yuri Tkachenko, the sapper who defused the “dummy” bomb. He insisted that it was real. Tkachenko said that the detonator, including a timer, power source and shotgun shell, was a genuine military detonator and obviously prepared by a professional. At the same time, the gas analyzer that tested the vapors coming from the sacks unmistakably indicated the presence of hexogen.
Voloshin asked Tkachenko if the gas analyzer could have given a false result. Tkachenko said that this was out of the question. The gas analyzers were of world class quality. Each cost $20,000 and was maintained by a specialist who worked according to a strict schedule, checking the analyzer after each use and making frequent prophylactic checks. These were necessary because the device contains a source of constant radiation. In the end, Tkachenko pointed out, meticulous care in the handling of the gas analyzer was a necessity because the bomb squad’s experts’ lives depended on the reliability of their equipment.
Voloshin also interviewed the police officers who answered the original call and discovered the bomb. They also insisted that the incident was not an exercise and that it was obvious from its appearance that the substance in the bags was not sugar.
Voloshin’s articles in Novaya Gazeta had a major impact. Doubt became so widespread that the FSB agreed to participate in a televised meeting between its top officials and residents of the building at 14/16 Novosyelov. The purpose of the program was to demonstrate the FSB’s openness but the strategy backfired. During the program, which was aired on NTV, March 23, FSB spokesmen could not explain why the “exercise” was carried out without measures to protect the health of the residents, why the gas analyzer detected hexogen or why bomb squad experts mistook a dummy bomb for a real one. When the program ended, the residents were more convinced than ever that they had been unwitting pawns in a FSB plot and only through a miracle escaped with their lives.
In fact, the building at 14/16 Novosyelov Street was an odd choice for a test of vigilance because there was an all night grocery store in the building and residents could easily have assumed that someone unloading sacks of sugar was doing so for the store. As the target of a terrorist attack, however, the building was very well suited, especially if the goal was to claim the maximum number of lives. Like the building on Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow, 14/16 Novosyelov Street was a brick building of standard construction. In the event of an explosion, it would have offered little resistance and there would have been little chance for anyone to survive. At the same time, since the building was on an elevation, in the event of an explosion, it would have hit the adjacent building with the force of an avalanche and, because the weak, sandy soil in the area offered little support to either building, probably would have toppled it. In this way, the tragedy in Ryazan would have eclipsed all the others.
In the face of evidence of FSB involvement in the bombing of the Russian apartment buildings, the government has refused to respond. It reacted to Berezovsky’s allegations by accusing him of funding the terrorist activities of Chechen rebels.
The most serious evidence that the Russian government bombed its own people, however, is presented by the Ryazan incident and, in that case, at least, the Russian authorities are perfectly equipped to refute the allegations that have been made against them. They need only to produce the persons who carried out the Ryazan training exercise, the records of the exercise and the dummy bomb itself. The FSB, however, has refused to do this on grounds of secrecy and evidence relating to the Ryazan incident has been sealed for 75 years.
The government has also prevented any inquiry by the parliament. In March, 2000, a group of deputies proposed to send to the general prosecutor a request for answers to questions regarding the incident in Ryazan. The Duma voted 197 in favor and 137 against. However, 226 votes, an absolute majority, was needed for passage and this was not achieved because the pro-Kremlin Unity party voted unanimously against. In February, another attempt was made to open a parliamentary inquiry into the Ryazan incident. In this case, 161 deputies voted in favor and only seven against but the remainder of the 464 members of the Duma abstained. As a result, the attempt failed.
In fact, the greatest support for the government’s denial of any involvement in the bombings is fear of the implications if it turns out that the regime was behind the bombings. Even the residents of the building at 14/16 Novsyelov were reluctant to draw conclusions about possible government involvement although they unanimously rejected the notion that the incident had been a test. The most they would say was that someone tried to blow them up without offering an opinion as to who.
The question of “who”, however, is very significant. If, as the available evidence indicates, the bombings were carried out by the FSB, it means the present government of Russia is illegitimate. It also means that a tradition has been established in Russia that can only lead to the country’s degeneration.
Russia has experienced three years of economic growth after more than a decade of steady decline and Putin has enacted some needed reforms. None of these changes, however, affect the real challenges facing Russia that are crime, ideological disorientation and demographic collapse. These problems are symptoms of a deep spiritual malaise and they can only be resolved by establishing the authority of moral values in the country that, in practical terms, would be expressed in the rule of law.
Under these circumstances, it is important to Russia’s future that the bombings not be ignored. Failing to react to evidence of a crime by the Russian government means implicitly condoning it and leaving unchallenged a precedent that will serve as a standing temptation for the future, demonstrating to all subsequent Russian leaders how elections can be “won” and putting paid to the effort to apply law consistently and establish the authority of moral values in Russia.
Any effort to examine seriously the true authorship of the apartment house bombings would, by right and of necessity, be non-violent. It is possible that if the regime were seriously threatened, it would react with repression. A hypothetical repressive response from the government, however, would only actualize what had always been a potential and the Russian public would have, at least, confirmed that it rejected the government’s crime and was not complicit in it. The worst outcome would be for the Russian public to become gradually convinced that the present government was established as the result of an act of terror but to treat that as a normal phenomenon because, in that way, they would not only be accepting criminal domination but also cutting off the moral roots of their own subsequent regeneration.
This article appeared in National Review Online, April 30, 2002