By François Christophe, July 2017
We in the West know more about Vladimir Putin than we care to admit. Over the past 18 years, in spite of the relentless efforts of a few men and women, we have for the most part succeeded in blocking this knowledge from entering our consciousness. As Putin once again presses Western leaders to forge new bonds with his regime in order to defeat terrorism, the time has come to rediscover what we already know about the circumstances which brought Mr. Putin to office.
The apartment bombings of September 1999
No single episode reveals as much of the criminal nature of Russia’s current leadership than the September 1999 apartment bombings across Russia. These attacks are at the root of Putin’s power; his response as Prime Minister established his reputation as a firm and decisive leader, and ensured his subsequent election as President.
In September 1999, hundreds of ordinary Russian men, women and children lost their lives in a series of bombings targeting modest, working class apartment buildings. The bombings, which generally took place in the middle of the night, decimating entire families in their sleep, prompted a wave of nationwide terror. Having seen entire apartment buildings reduced to piles of rubble, some Russians understandably started to fear staying indoors at night, preferring to sleep outside. The first bombing, which occurred on September 4th, destroyed a five-story residential building in Buinaksk, Dagestan. Because it took place in a remote and troubled Caucasus region, this initial bombing did not inspire widespread fear. However, within days, the terrorists made Moscow their target. On September 9th, 94 Muscovites were killed and another 249 wounded in the explosion of their apartment building in a modest southeastern neighborhood of the capital.
The authorities immediately declared that there was a “Chechen trail” behind the attack. On September 13th, 124 people were killed and over 200 injured in the 5am bombing of another building. On September 16th, 18 people died and 89 were wounded in the bombing of a nine-story apartment building, also at 5am, though this time not in Moscow, but in the southern town of Volgodonsk, 230km (140 miles) east of Rostov-on-Don. On September 22nd, another bombing was averted in the distant suburb of Ryazan, 190km (120 miles) southeast of Moscow, as local residents witnessed the bombers moving heavy bags to the building’s basement, and alerted the police. In the end, over 300 were killed and around 1,000 wounded in this series of horrific, indiscriminate attacks. In each case, the explosives were placed so as to target the ageing buildings’ weakest points, triggering their complete collapse. To achieve this, the attackers had to be perfectly familiar with each building’s structure and engineering design.
From the onset, authorities blamed the bombings on Chechnya-based Islamist militants. On the day of the September 13th bombing, Prime Minister Putin, who had only been in office since mid-August, announced that the terrorists were tied to Osama Bin Laden, and had received training in Chechnya. FSB Chief Nikolai Patrushev later endorsed this view, stating that the organizers were “completely concrete international terrorists dug into Chechnya”, not “mythical conspirators in the Kremlin”. The masterminds of the attacks were soon designated as Arab mercenaries Al-Khattab and Abu Umar, both based in Chechnya, while the Moscow police arrested young men from the Caucasus at random. Some of them, such as Timur Dakhkilgov, were detained and tortured for months before being discretely released. In the following years, several men from the Caucasus – though not from Chechnya – were put on trial and sentenced to life on terrorism charges. The trials were not open to the public, and none of the evidence supporting the rulings was ever made public. Parliamentary attempts to investigate the bombings were blocked by Putin’s party, United Russia. Meanwhile, days after the attacks, the Russian military responded by launching large-scale military operations against Chechnya that would mark the beginning of the second Chechen war, three years after the Russian defeat of 1996. The war was also meant as a response to militant Islamist Shamil Basayev’s armed incursion into Dagestan in August 1999. The Russian air force bombed Grozny airport on September 23rd, and Russian ground forces crossed the border into Chechnya as early as October 1st. This second war would not officially end until April 2009. Although total casualty estimates vary widely, tens of thousands of civilians and thousands of soldiers died in the second Chechen war, according to the more conservative estimates.
The averted bombing of September 22nd in Ryazan, however, dealt a severe blow to the official narrative that Chechen terrorists were to blame. The city had been put under complete lockdown after the police confirmed the presence of explosives in the building’s basement. Within hours, a phone call placed by the perpetrators allowed the local police to locate and arrest them. To the police officers’ stupor, the terrorists produced FSB identification, and were released. After one and a half day of silence, FSB Chief Patrushev called a press conference to explain that the entire Ryazan incident had only been a drill. By that time, however, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, had already congratulated the building’s inhabitants for averting another “terrorist bombing”, suggesting that if the episode had been a drill, the Interior Minister himself was not aware of it. Patrushev further claimed that the bags found in the basement contained only sugar, contradicting earlier police findings that they contained hexogen, a powerful, military-grade explosive. Regardless, Patrushev’s statement that it had only been a drill raised more questions than it answered. Why would the FSB conduct such an exercise at a time when the country was in a state of panic from earlier attacks? Inhabitants of the Ryazan building, who had to evacuate their homes in the dead of night, were not convinced. In a surreal scene, they openly confronted FSB agents live on independent television channel NTV. Not long after the program aired, officials shut down NTV, seized all related materials, and eventually took full control of the channel.
Beyond the narrowly-avoided tragedy in Ryazan, an overwhelming body of evidence points to the involvement of state agencies in the entire series of bombings. Months before the first attack took place, Moscow was awash with rumors of an upcoming act of state terrorism. Such rumors were reported by Russian and foreign journalists alike. In June, three months before the attacks, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet warned that a faction in the Kremlin was planning “terror bombings that could be blamed on the Chechens”, while the Italian daily La Stampa raised the possibility of state terror. In July, the Russian newspaper Moskovaya Pravda warned of oncoming terrorist attacks in Moscow. Such warnings continued right up till the day of the first attack, when a member of the Duma, Konstantin Borovoy, received a tip on the oncoming bombing from a military source.
More troubling still, on September 13th, Gennady Seleznev, Speaker of the Duma, solemnly announced the bombing of an apartment building in Volgodonsk… three days before it actually took place. When the blast in Volgodonsk finally occurred on September 16th, nationalist Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky confronted Seleznev, asking where his advance knowledge of the Volgodonsk attack had come from. “Do you not see what is happening in this country?” he asked, before his microphone was cut off. A potential explanation for Seleznev’s prophetic announcement is that the official who provided him the tip had meant to inform him of the September 13th bombing in Moscow but got confused, which would leave little doubt as to the actual identity of the bombings’ perpetrators.
Yet other elements cast doubts on the official narrative. Although the attacks had likely been months in the making, requiring a careful study of each target, authorities presented them as a response to the Russian military’s intervention to drive Basayev’s forces out of Dagestan, which had taken place… the preceding month. Moreover, after each bombing, authorities rushed to clear the site, and in doing so destroyed evidence which could have been vital to any serious investigation, had one taken place. Most of all, the type of explosive used, hexogen, strongly suggests that the authorities were involved in the bombings, as Russia’s only hexogen production facility is guarded by the FSB. In March 2000, perhaps fearing that the use of hexogen reflected its own involvement a little bit too clearly, the FSB reiterated Patrushev’s claim that the substance had not been used in the bombings after all, in blatant contradiction with earlier findings by the police and independent investigators. In light of this, one might conclude that the FSB was either incompetent or not particularly careful in covering its tracks, which would make sense if one of the attacks’ objectives had been to frighten the people into submission.
Last but not least is the inevitable issue of the motives behind the bombings. Having won the 1994-1996 war and acquired de facto independence, Chechen separatists would have had everything to lose by carrying out attacks within Russia, which would be virtually certain to bring about another war. And even supposing that Chechen separatists had intended to carry out attacks inside Russia, they would have been more likely to set their sights on political and military targets than to go after ordinary citizens asleep in their beds. And while official efforts to blame the attacks on Islamist militants rather than separatists might seem rather more convincing in the present era of frequent Islamist attacks against unarmed civilians, ties between global Jihadi networks and Chechen militancy were still rather tenuous at the time, despite the Islamists’ attempt to incorporate Chechnya into their broader narrative of religious oppression and struggle ranging from Kosovo to Palestine.
On the Russian authorities’ side, potential motives arise from the political context prevailing before the attacks. At the time, President Boris Yeltsin’s approval ratings had sunk to two percentage points, and the ailing President faced credible accusations that he and his daughters had transferred money to a slew of secret bank accounts abroad. The Prosecutor General, Yury Skuratov, had been dismissed in February after he promised to let all corruption investigations run their course. The dismissal itself had been made possible with the help of a honey trap set by Putin himself, then FSB Chief, who made sure that stolen footage of Skuratov frolicking with two young FSB-hired prostitutes would be aired on prime-time television. Putin personally assured viewers that the man involved in such debauchery was indeed Skuratov. At a time when Yeltsin and the “Family” were loathed for stealing the country’s wealth, the bombings did in effect turn the people’s growing anger against the Chechens, and away from Yeltsin and the oligarchs. General Alexander Lebed said as much in a September 30th interview with the French daily Le Figaro, in which he directly accused Yeltsin of being behind the bombings. In addition, the attacks could be used to discredit Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, then regarded as one of Yeltsin’s main political rivals. The attacks might also serve to justify an election delay on security grounds, though ultimately this proved unnecessary thanks to Prime Minister Putin’s soaring popularity. But above all, and whether or not it was among their intended effects – which is highly plausible -, the bombings worked spectacularly in justifying the ensuing military campaign in Chechnya, which truly established Putin’s credentials as a strong and fit leader. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings jumped from a mere five percent in September to 78 percent in November.
The bombings of September 1999 therefore brought undeniable political gains to the sitting government. Of course, the fact that they served the government’s interests does not in itself prove the latter’s involvement. It nevertheless provides a rationale for it, albeit a terrifying one, as the authorities’ involvement had already been amply demonstrated through factual elements such as the FSB’s hand in the attempted Ryazan bombing, the use of hexogen, Seleznev’s prophecy and leaks preceding the attacks. Although such a rationale may seem inconceivably cynical to some, Russia’s political stakeholders operate based on norms and rules distinct from those prevailing in the West.
In any case, given the FSB’s role in the bombings, it would seem highly unlikely that Putin, who was FSB Chief until August 16th, probably months after planning for the operation had started, could have ignored such a high-profile plot. Though evidence on this is obviously lacking, it would seem more plausible that Putin, as head of the FSB, would have played a leading role in this FSB operation. Putin himself vehemently denied any involvement in his 2000 book, First Person. In light of 20th Century Russian history, however, his claim that “no one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people” could pass for a particularly dark attempt at humor. Other figures involved in planning Yeltsin’s succession, such as Boris Berezovsky, must also have been involved in a plot so central to ensuring a safe transition from Yelstin to Putin. Somewhat ironically given his own likely role in this dark episode, Berezovsky himself became very vocal in denouncing the bombings as an “inside job” following his sidelining by Putin and forced London exile. Predictably, his accusations only made it harder for the truth to emerge due to the man’s odious reputation as a manipulative and deeply dishonest person. For many people in Russia and beyond, allegations that the bombings had been an inside job were dismissed as little more than Berezovsky’s desperate attempt to get even with Putin. However, even people who cannot be trusted tell the truth every now and then.
Revealingly, in the years following the attacks, the few politicians and independent journalists who dared to look into them ended up in jail, or dead. In 2002, former Soviet dissident and human rights activist Sergei Kovalev set up an unofficial commission to investigate the bombings. The commission, which brought together Duma members and civil society figures, was soon prevented from interviewing witnesses or accessing official documents. Then, in April 2003, Duma member Sergei Yushenkov, who was also a commission member, was shot dead in Moscow. In July of that same year, Yuri Shchekochikhin, another commission member, was struck by a sudden and mysterious illness: his skin peeled off and his internal organs collapsed, likely as a result of poisoning. Following his passing, the authorities forbade any autopsy, but relatives managed to smuggle tissue samples to a London lab. The results were unambiguous: Shchekochikhin had been poisoned with thallium. The same substance was subsequently used in September 2004 against one of Putin’s own bodyguards, who had perhaps witnessed more than he should have. After Yushenkov and Shchekochikhin’s murders, the commission’s work ground to a near-complete halt. Former FSB agent and commission member Mikhail Trepashkin continued to investigate, and some of his findings were published by the press in November 2003, but Trepashkin was arrested shortly thereafter and sent to a labor camp in the Urals.
He remained in detention until 2007.
Aside from commission members, other figures were targeted in connection with the bombings. FSB agent Vladimir Romanovich, who may have played a role in carrying out the attack, died in a 2003 automobile accident in Cyprus, circumstances which may or may not have been suspicious. In November 2006, former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, whose book Blowing Up Russia exposed Putin’s role in the bombings, was poisoned in London using a highly radioactive substance, Polonium 210, which was poured in his tea. A picture of Litvinenko on his hospital bed, looking gaunt, having lost all of his hair, with a gaze showing that he knew full well he would die, makes for a haunting sight. “For us, Litvinenko was a nobody”, declared Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov after the former agent’s passing. To this day, Britain has been unsuccessful in its efforts to obtain the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB operative and Litvinenko’s presumed killer, who has since been rewarded by becoming a member of the Duma. Litvinenko’s killing demonstrated if need be that Russian security organs would not hesitate to physically eliminate Russian nationals on foreign ground, including in Western countries, to prevent the dissemination of information concerning the 1999 bombings. A month earlier, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had also written about the attacks, had been shot dead in her own apartment building. The date of her assassination coincided with Putin’s birthday.
A country governed by terrorists?
The 1999 bombings leave few illusions as to the men governing Russia. Leaders of the political and security apparatus are not just the “crooks and thieves” derided by Alexei Navalny, but first and foremost murderers of their own people, capable of carrying out a plot to kill innocent Russian civilians at random, likely in the interest of perpetuating their own power. For Putin and the FSB alike, human life weighs little in the face of superior “state interests”, which often happen to coincide with the personal interests of leaders whose hold on power has brought them considerable financial benefits.
Time and again, Putin has demonstrated his lack of consideration for the life of his fellow countrymen. In 2000, he turned down foreign offers to help rescue the 23 navy men trapped on the Kursk submarine, until it was too late. During the horrendous Dubrovka and Beslan hostage crises, he oversaw security operations which used such force as to kill the hostages and hostage-takers together. In Beslan, security forces used tanks, grenades and flamethrowers against the school building where children were being held. While this does not in any way absolve the terrorists of their primary responsibility in this tragedy, the authorities’ lack of concern for human life is striking nonetheless. Such indifference becomes perhaps less surprising when one reflects that Putin’s power is quite literally rooted in murder.
As with any crime syndicate worthy of the name, contempt for human life goes together with theft, taking the form of the insatiable appropriation of public assets by private interests. Far from reining in the oligarchs, Putin has merely replaced them with oligarchs of his own. His personal friends are among the wealthiest men in the country. Gennady Timchenko’s wealth is estimated at over $15 billion; Yuri Kovalchuk’s at over $1.4 billion; and the Rotenberg brothers’ over $5.6 billion. All built their fortune on state assets. Some may in fact serve as mere holders to Putin’s own money, a practice that Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev is also well-accustomed to. In 2007, the German newspaper Die Welt estimated Putin’s wealth at over $40 billion.
Regrettably, perhaps due to the combined effects of time and a lingering sense of danger, many Russians appear to have lost interest in the plot behind the 1999 bombings. In a country where many have grown so cynical as to think that no one and nothing should ever be believed, the attacks are merely one conspiracy among countless others. Stunningly, some people who are aware of the authorities’ role in the bombings support Putin nonetheless, arguing that it is within the prerogatives of a “true leader” to commit such crimes. However, not everyone has forgotten the circumstances under which Putin came to power, and signs referring to the bombings have popped up in the hands of the protesters who sporadically march across Russian cities to denounce the president’s indefinite reign. This is perhaps part of the reason why, for all its supposed strength, the government still feels compelled to respond so heavy-handedly to the protests, as if they were a reminder of its murderous ascent, and of its ultimate illegitimacy.
When amnesia takes over the West
To Westerners, the 1999 bombings should be a timeless and powerful reminder of the fundamental distinction between the regime in power and the Russian people, who in this case were attacked by their own government. Over the years, Western leaders, for obvious reasons of Realpolitik, have tended to treat Putin as they would any other head of state, and ignore the terrorist act which catapulted him into office. Not all are prepared to face the fact that, as David Satter puts it, “a terrorist is in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal”. As a result, democratic leaders have, perhaps unintentionally, led credence to the official Russian narrative of the 1999 attacks. In their time, European statesmen such as Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi all proved exceedingly complacent. Chirac might have been better advised not to award the French légion d’honneur to a man who is essentially a power-thirsty criminal. George W. Bush did not fare any better; as for sitting US President Donald Trump, he is in a league of his own, as is the case on all other matters. One would hope that despite public appearances, our leaders are at least aware of the cloud of suspicion hanging over Putin. Knowing all of what is known of this tragedy, they might hopefully be less prone to harboring naive and unrealistic expectations as to what should be expected from the Putin regime.
From a more philosophical point of view, the episode should lead us to question our own prejudices in the face of evil. French author Raphael Glucksmann once wrote that “not every terrorist wears a beard” a propos Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And yet it is true that when evil wears a face resembling ours, our collective perception of it tends to be less acute. The crime committed by Russia’s current leaders against their own people is inhumane by any measure, yet we are blinded by the widespread notion that we share with them a common European and Christian cultural background. Putin does not seem to us “exotic” in the way of Idi Amin Dada, and we are therefore naturally predisposed to assume that he shares our common values.
Perhaps more crucial and problematic is our failure to summon the moral imagination necessary to appreciate the extent to which Putin’s regime is criminal in nature. For all the very real flaws of our leaders, we are just not accustomed to the level of murderous cynicism epitomized by the 1999 bombings. This is a case where reality is truly hard to believe, as it contradicts what seems to us conceivable and rational. Indeed, in this case, reality appears to have come straight out of the mind of a conspiracy-minded lunatic. Yet it would be terribly misleading to draw a parallel between the infamous “9/11 truthers” or other conspiracy theorists and those seeking to draw attention to the actual conspiracy behind the Moscow bombings, the reality of which is no longer in doubt. Unfortunately, human nature is such that people who propagate the most ludicrous thesis, including the sitting US President, are often rewarded with significant public attention. By contrast, brave Russian dissidents and journalists struggled to raise interest as they risked their lives to expose the true perpetrators of the 1999 bombings.
The prevailing ignorance of the very event which led Putin to power does not reflect well on our collective ability to face uncomfortable truths, let alone derive the necessary lessons from them. While many Russians might understandably avoid the topic out of fear, given that several of their fellow citizens who have looked into it were physically eliminated, we in the West do not face the same threat. John Dunlop, David Satter and others have devoted several books to the Moscow bombings, taking it upon themselves to lend a voice to those who have been silenced. In the face of state-sponsored terror, it should normally be up to democratic countries to ensure that Russian exiles and Western researchers alike can safely pursue the truth and let it be known to wider audiences, honoring the memory of those Russians who were killed for uncovering key facts. However, our general lack of interest for this crucial episode has been such that so far, Russian authorities have not had to be too concerned. Even Litvinenko’s extraordinary assassination on British soil did not prompt widespread public attention to the plot he had sought to expose.
Moreover, a recent unfortunate episode involving a major French university, which I attended, shed light on another factor at play: pressure from Russian embassy personnel resulting in self-censorship. In January 2017, Sciences Po’s International Research Center (CERI) abruptly cancelled a planned lecture by David Satter. A leaked email from CERI’s executive director left little doubt as to the reasons for cancelling:
“(…) as there are numerous students and PhD aspirants in Russia (…), it seems very imprudent to invite an author, whatever the quality of his works, who was expelled from Russia [Satter is persona non grata in Russia] and hence necessarily always on the radar of [FSB] organs. We both know very well what they are capable of, in terms of retaliation, including against Sciences Po.”
Strikingly, in this case, the lecture’s cancellation does not seem to have resulted from any direct intervention by the Russian embassy in Paris, making it a genuine example of self-censorship. However, the embassy had previously intervened following a May 2016 conference on Chechnya, also organized by CERI. The cancellation of Satter’s lecture, which was bound to touch on the 1999 bombings, is all the more alarming coming from an institution normally dedicated to research and the quest for truth.
However, the main obstacle to widespread knowledge of the 1999 attacks comes less from direct Russian interference than from our own tendency to shield ourselves from this reality. As pundits say, “Putin is so popular at home, how can he possibly be so bad?”
Many of those who advocate for closer ties to Russia like to think of themselves as “realists”, yet they are anything but: they advocate policies based on the Russian leadership we wish to have, not the one we actually have. While the need to maintain relations with Putin’s regime is not in doubt, these relations must take into account what we already know to be true. The circumstances of Putin’s rise to power, long-known but generally ignored, can open our eyes to the threat that his regime poses not just to Europe and to the world, but to the Russian people themselves. The current Russian leadership has kept them hostage since 1999; that many of the hostages have developed a clear Stockholm syndrome makes no difference. Let us hope that French President Emmanuel Macron, who prides himself on being a fact-driven pragmatist, will let the sinister reality of the 1999 bombings guide him. For now, however, Macron does not appear to see the dark irony in Putin’s repeated calls for unity against terrorism.
- Dunlop, John, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule. Ibidem, February 2014.
- Feifer, Gregory, “Russia: Three Years Later, Moscow Apartment Bombings Remain Unsolved”. RFE/RL, September 2002.
- Goble, Paul, 15 Years On, Suspicions About Putin’s Involvement in Apartment Bombings Linger in Russia. The Interpreter, September 2014.
- Judah, Ben, “The Ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin”. New Statesman, October 2015.
- Judah, Ben, “Putin’s Conquered History” Standpoint, May 2016.
- Knight, Amy, “Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings”. The New York Review of Books, Nov. 22, 2012.
- Litvinenko, Alexander, Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror. Encounter Books, April 2007.
- Nekrasov, Andrei, “Nedoverie” (“Disbelief”) documentary. Dreamscanner Productions, January 2004.
- Satter, David, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep. Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin. Yale University Press, May 2016.
- Satter, David, How Putin Became President. The American Interest, May 2016.
- Satter, David, “The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Act of Terror That Brought Putin to Power”. The National Review, August 2016.
 An audio clip of the scene was recently aired in a recent episode of Ira Glass’ famous podcast, “This American Life”