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The forest of nondescript apartment blocks in the town of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, was an unlikely place for history to pause.
The twelve-storey building that stood at 14/16 Novosyolov Street was the same as tens of thousands of other concrete buildings throughout Russia, structures from the era when Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Kremlin–a time when the state gave you an apartment that was identical to your neighbour’s.
On the outside, the buildings were typically grimy, grey and in desperate need of a layer of fresh paint. And while the apartments themselves tended to be warm and kept immaculately clean, the shared stairwells and the elevator were dark and filthy places that stank of garbage and urine. In post-Soviet Russia, the state no longer took care of such common areas, and no one had bothered to figure out whose job it now was. Residents of the building on Novosyolov Street had become used to seeing strangers come and go and to not asking too many questions about them. It was nobody’s business.
But in the aftermath of a series of devastating bombings in September 1999 that destroyed a trio of similar apartment blocks–two in Moscow, one in the southern city of Volgodonsk, killing more than three hundred people–there was a renewed communal spirit. Across the country that fall, ordinary people in such apartment blocks formed patrols and neighbourhood watch committees to prevent further attacks.
So when on the night of September 22, 1999, residents of the Ryazan apartments spotted two men and a woman unloading large sacks from a white Zhiguli car they did not recognize and putting them in the basement of their building, they became concerned. One resident, Alexei Kartofelnikov, noticed a piece of paper sloppily pasted over part of the car’s licence plate–hiding that the car was not actually from Ryazan, but from Moscow–and called the police.
When they arrived, police found three sacks in the basement, along with a timer, detonators and traces of hexogen, the powerful sugar-like explosive that had been used to bomb the apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. The giant bomb had been set to explode at 5:30 a.m. the next day, when most of the building’s residents would have been asleep. Police evacuated the area and shut down the entire city in a desperate manhunt for Chechen “terrorists,” whom the government had accused of the other attacks. For the next forty-eight hours, Ryazan’s airport and train station remained shut, and all roads out of the city were blocked.
Eventually, by tracing a phone call, the police apprehended the two men and one woman–who immediately pulled out badges identifying themselves as members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the modern successor to the dreaded KGB. The three were swiftly released.
Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB, eventually admitted that agents had indeed been apprehended in Ryazan. But, he claimed, the media had got it all wrong: there had been no thwarted terrorist attack, only a successful FSB training exercise. There had been no explosives in the sacks, he told a TV interviewer, only sugar, though police who had been at the scene continued to claim otherwise in interviews with journalists. Residents of Ryazan, he said, should be applauded for successfully responding to a “test” of their vigilance.
Even before the apartment bombings, fear was already in the Russian air. On August 31, 1999, a blast ripped through the underground Manezh shopping centre in the heart of Moscow, just steps from the Kremlin and Red Square, killing one person and injuring forty others. That attack had put an exclamation point on the troubles facing Vladimir Putin, the unheralded former KGB agent who had been appointed the country’s prime minister just two weeks beforehand.
Putin took office on August 16 with single-digit recognition in most opinion polls, to a collective “Who?” from a Russian public grown weary of President Boris Yeltsin’s machinations. In his last two years in office, Yeltsin, ailing but desperately clinging to power, rapidly went through four prime ministers, each one brought in with great ceremony and then quickly disposed of.
But from the moment he took office, Putin assumed the poise of a wartime leader. In the wake of the second Moscow apartment bombings–and while the blast sites were being bulldozed before any investigation could be done–Putin declared Chechnya to be a “huge terrorist camp.” The next day, despite repeated denials from the Chechen government that it or its fighters had anything to do with the string of attacks, Putin sent the Russian air force to bomb the breakaway republic, which had just won de facto independence in 1996 from the Kremlin following a bloody two-year war. Within months, the Russian army was once more engaging Chechnya in a full-scale war, one that would win Putin massive popularity, propel him to the presidency and cost tens of thousands of lives. In the eyes of most Russians, this was a just war, begun by the “terrorists” who carried out the apartment bombings in the fall of 1999, and one they trusted their new leader, Putin, to execute.
If the Kremlin’s story is to be believed, Russia was a country under assault, attacking Chechnya to protect itself. In that version of history, the public’s wholesale embracing of Putin as a man of action in the presidential elections the following year becomes fully understandable. But if the conspiracy theory–that all the bombings were the work of government agents–was right, Russia was backsliding quickly toward autocracy. By using mass murder to convince Russians that they needed to put their trust in the secret agents they had so long despised, the old KGB had effectively carried out a coup in the Kremlin.
The conspiracy theory had two important adherents from the beginning. At the Washington, D.C., offices of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S.-government-backed agency dedicated to promoting democracy worldwide–sometimes through funding independent media and trustworthy opinion polls, sometimes through organizing revolutions–senior staff saw the September 1999 bombings and Putin’s subsequent war in Chechnya as the end of Russia’s flirtation with being a Western-style democracy. They understood instinctively that Boris Yeltsin and the young reformers that NED had worked with since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 were no longer in charge. They were back facing their old enemy, the KGB.
From the Hardcover edition.