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Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings

The organizer of the Moscow terrorist acts, according to the FSB and the Russian Procuracy, was Achemez Gochiyaev, also from Karachaevo-Cherkessia; he later fled into hiding in Georgia. In Moscow, Gochiyaev was said to be operating under the false name of Makhid Laipanov. Thanks to the stubborn investigative work of Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB lieutenant colonel, it turns out that the man who carried out the bombings was not Gochiyaev, but Vladimir Romanovich, who worked for the FSB and was reportedly killed in an automobile accident in Cyprus in 2003. In November 2003, after Trepashkin’s findings were reported in the Russian press, he was arrested on false charges of carrying illegal weapons. Trepashkin was released briefly in 2005, but then was rearrested and remained in prison until 2007.

Meanwhile, the efforts of Kovalev’s commission to unearth the facts were stymied at every turn. (Trepashkin had been the commission’s lawyer before his arrest.) The commission could not interview witnesses under oath or gain access to documents and testimony in the cases. One important commission member, liberal Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov, was gunned down in Moscow in April 2003, and another, the prominent investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, died suddenly in July of that year. Many suspect he was poisoned. As a result, the commission’s work ground to a halt.

A central question involved the materials used in the explosives. The day after the first Moscow apartment bombing, an FSB spokesman said that both hexogen and TNT were discovered. Patrushev himself confirmed this in his September television interview. But by March 2000 the FSB had changed its story and claimed that hexogen had not been used in the bombs. In fact, several Russian investigative journalists were able to demonstrate that hexogen was the key ingredient in all of the bombs and that hexogen can only be obtained from Russian government facilities under the control of the FSB. According to Novaya gazeta reporter Pavel Voloshin:

The targets, perpetrators and zakazchiki [those who gave orders] of the terrorist acts can be determined by the provenance of the explosives. The circulation of explosive substances in Russia is under strict state control…. To “conceal” a supply of hexogen by skirting the existing rules is de facto impossible.

Another important issue is that of the motives for the bombings. As the former high-ranking general Aleksandr Lebed pointed out in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro in September 1999, Chechen rebels had little to gain by blowing up innocent civilians. But Yeltsin and his Family had a clear purpose: “A goal had been set—to create mass terror, a destabilization which will permit them at the needed moment to say: you don’t have to go to the election precincts, otherwise you will risk being blown up with the ballot boxes.”

As it turned out, there was no need to cancel the elections, because the Russian people rallied around Putin and his vows to seek revenge against ethnic Chechens. Russian troops began invading Chechnya on October 1. His approval ratings soared: from 31 percent in mid-August to 78 percent in November. As Dunlop notes: “The continuing upward movement in Putin’s rating was accompanied by an increase in the hatred, which soon became incandescent, on the part of ethnic Russians for Chechens.”

The evidence provided in The Moscow Bombings makes it abundantly clear that the FSB of the Russian Republic, headed by Patrushev, was responsible for carrying out the attacks. But who ordered them from on high? Dunlop concludes that it was most likely the three members of Yeltsin’s “inner circle”: Aleksandr Voloshin, Valentin Yumashev, and Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana, who were the closest to Yeltsin. But he does not address the possible role of Berezovsky.

After he left Russia, Berezovsky, on countless occasions, claimed publicly that the FSB had been behind the bombings. However, as the political observer Andrei Piontkovsky pointed out, Berezovsky himself must have had some knowledge of the impending terrorist attacks:

The highest authority in the land was the team in charge of Operation Successor (Berezovskii, Voloshin, Yumashev, Dyachenko) who were acting on behalf of an incapable Boris Yeltsin…. The aim [of the Family] was to avert a takeover of the Kremlin by the rival clan of Luzhkov and Primakov…. The shameful secret of how the Putin regime was conceived binds Putin and Berezovskii together with a single chain.

To be sure, these leading Kremlin figures had strong motives for wanting Putin to become Yeltsin’s successor. They could count on him to protect them and Yeltsin himself from charges of widespread corruption. Yet it is hard to imagine that they would have gone so far as to order bombings that they knew would kill so many innocent people. The more likely possibility is that the FSB was told by Yeltsin’s inner circle that violent acts were needed to destabilize Russia but that no specific instructions were given to blow up apartment buildings. The FSB, including its top leadership, responded by seizing the initiative.

What, then, was the role of Putin, who was prime minister at the time, and also secretary of the Security Council? In his “self-portrait,” First Person, published in 2000, Putin denied categorically that the FSB was involved: “What?! Blowing up our own apartment buildings? You know, that is really…utter nonsense! It’s totally insane. No one in the Russian special services would be capable of such a crime against his own people.” But of course the FSB, as Dunlop demonstrates, was indeed capable of committing this terrible act. And it is inconceivable that it would have been done without the sanction of Putin.

Yeltsin wrote in his memoirs Midnight Diaries that after Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999, “Putin turned to me and requested absolute power…to coordinate all power structures.” This of course would have included the FSB. Furthermore FSB chief Patrushev was a very trusted longtime ally of Putin’s from St. Petersburg. Their ties dated back to 1975, when both joined the KGB in what was then Leningrad and worked together in the counterintelligence department. When Putin took over the FSB in July 1998, Patrushev served as his deputy, assuming Putin’s post after he became prime minister. Asked in an interview for First Person who he especially trusted, Putin named, among a few others, Patrushev.

When Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, flew by helicopter on a surprise visit to Chechnya on New Years Eve, 1999, they were accompanied by Patrushev and his wife. According to Mrs. Putin, at midnight, while en route, they drank champagne straight from the bottle. They had good reason to celebrate. Russian troops had penetrated deep into Chechnya, seizing the city of Gudermes, where Putin and his entourage were headed. Putin had just been named acting president by Yeltsin, with his victory in the upcoming March presidential contest assured. And Patrushev, with Putin’s protection, was securely in charge of the FSB, where he would remain for the next eight years. (He then moved on to the even more powerful post of secretary of the president’s Security Council, which he holds to this day.)

In the preface to his book, Dunlop cites Russian journalist Anton Orekh, who made the following observations about the Russian bombings just after the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States:

If those bombings were not accidental in the sequence of events which followed; if, to put it bluntly, they were the work of our [Russian] authorities—then everything will once and forever take its proper place. Then there is not and cannot be an iota of illusion about [the nature of] those who rule us. Then those people are not minor or large-scale swindlers and thieves. Then they are the most terrible of criminals.

Orekh’s comments were made just ten days before Putin announced that he would be running again for the Russian presidency, instead of the incumbent, Dmitri Medvedev. With Putin now set to remain in power until 2018, and possibly even six years longer, suspicions among Russians about his involvement in the 1999 bombings remain. Dunlop is convinced that the truth about September 1999 will eventually come out, although “that may take a decade or more to occur.” But as Sergei Kovalev observed in late 2007, most Russians are indifferent: “I have met people who were convinced that the accusations were true, and yet they voted for Putin with equal conviction. Their logic is simple: genuine rulers wield the kind of power that can do anything, including commit crimes.”4 As more than twelve years of investigation, and now Dunlop’s book, have shown, Putin’s guilt seems clear, but it makes no difference.

  1. 4

    See Sergei Kovalev, “ Why Putin Wins,” The New York Review, November 22, 2007. 

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