Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 20


Americans face powerful psychological barriers to considering–even as a hypothesis–the idea that today’s Russian authorities could have secretly ordered the murder of hundreds of their own citizens for domestic political purposes. If that actually happened, and even more so if it was not an aberration but essentially a case of “business as usual,” we shall have to rethink assumptions that have guided most of our policymakers for the last decade. Thus it is all the more important to weigh the evidence calmly and precisely, without ax-grinding polemics.

Chapter Two of David Satter’s new book, “Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State” (Yale University Press), provides the clearest, most meticulous account yet published in English of the bizarre events of September 1999, when FSB agents were caught planting a dummy bomb (or rather, a device which the FSB claimed to be a dummy) in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan in central Russia. That episode took place after a series of fatal apartment bombings in other cities which the Russian authorities blamed on Chechen terrorists, but which they mysteriously refrained from fully investigating. (For example they quickly buried the rubble, preventing high-tech forensic analysis.) Soon afterward then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched the second post-Soviet Chechen war, which continues to this day. That initially popular war became the key to Putin’s successful election campaign to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president in March 2000.

Satter’s understated narrative largely lets the facts speak for themselves, but he also systematically criticizes the FSB’s attempts to explain the Ryazan affair as a training exercise. On September 22, 1999, alert residents of the Ryazan apartment building spotted a suspicious trio who had arrived in a car with obviously doctored license plates and had planted three large sacks in the building’s basement. The local Ryazan police found that the sacks contained the powerful explosive hexogen, attached to a timer and detonator. The building was immediately evacuated, and most its residents spent the rest of the chilly night on the street. But the three suspects failed to make good their escape from the city, and were tracked down after a local telephone operator chanced to overhear a phone call from them to the FSB headquarters in Moscow. When arrested by the Ryazan police, they admitted that they were working for the FSB–which then and only then, two days after the sacks had been planted, claimed that the whole episode had been only an exercise.

If that account is true, asks Satter, why did the FSB wait so long before announcing it? Why were the local authorities, including the local branch of the FSB itself, not told in advance of this “exercise?” Why did the Ministry of the Interior immediately declare (before the FSB operatives were caught) that what had happened was a genuine terrorist attack, and why did Prime Minister Putin then announce air strikes on Chechnya? Why were the evacuated residents not allowed to return immediately to their homes, or at least provided with means to protect their health such as warm clothing, alternative shelter and medicines and ambulances for the sick and elderly among them? Why did the FSB fail to make available to journalists the operatives who had conducted this exercise, why did it seize the physical evidence from the local police and refuse to let it be examined by independent experts, and why did it try to intimidate television journalists who aired a skeptical broadcast some months later? Why have pro-Putin deputies continued ever since to block a Duma investigation?

The FSB claimed that the three sacks actually contained only sugar. They said that the chemical analysis by the Ryazan police had produced a false result because the police’s bomb expert had failed to clean his equipment with alcohol, and also because the expert must still have had the hexogen on his hands from handling it a week earlier.(The implication was that the local police had simply drunk the alcohol.) But the local bomb expert told Novaya gazeta that such equipment is never cleaned with alcohol–and also that it is not plausible that he could have failed to wash his hands for an entire week. The other Ryazan police officers who responded to the call from the apartment building remained insistent that the substance they found was not sugar. The FSB has failed to refute these points.

A phone tip led Novaya gazeta to a soldier who had been assigned in the autumn of 1999 to guard a warehouse containing large sacks labeled as “sugar” at a military base twenty miles from Ryazan. The soldier said that he had tried to use this “sugar” in his tea, but from the foul taste he immediately feared that he might have poisoned himself and thus reported the episode to his superiors. He told the newspaper that the contents of the sacks had turned out to be hexogen.

Satter notes various similarities between the Ryazan “exercise” and the unmistakably real bombings that occurred that year in other Russian cities. For example, the Ryazan episode took place in a brick structure located in a working-class neighborhood, where a blast would have caused significant fatalities (and, one might add, would not have endangered the Russian elite). Satter concludes that “if the bomb planted by the FSB in the basement of 14/16 Novosyelov was real and intended to murder 250 people as they slept, it seems very plausible that the successful bombings of the buildings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, in which hundreds died, were also carried out by the FSB. The implications of the events in Ryazan hang like a shroud over Russia and the entire Russian reform period.”