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'All Of Russia Was At Stake In This Game': Who Blew Up The Apartment Buildings In 1999?

Rescuers and firefighters work at the site of a massive explosion that destroyed a nine-story apartment building on Guryanov Street in southeastern Moscow on September 9, 1999.
Rescuers and firefighters work at the site of a massive explosion that destroyed a nine-story apartment building on Guryanov Street in southeastern Moscow on September 9, 1999.

"My cameraman Vladimir and I were at the site 15 minutes after the explosion. The dust hadn't settled yet. We heard cries and moans. There were flames in the gas pipes. We ran to a man wearing only underwear who was calling for his wife and granddaughter: they lived on the first floor, and when the wall collapsed they were caught under a burning wardrobe. We could hear the girl crying for some time, but then she went silent.

"We were trying to climb up using a nightstand when a policeman came up and asked, 'Do you have a permission to film?' I rarely curse, but in this case I started telling off that idiot so vigorously that he ran away.

"Then we went into one of the intact apartments on the ground floor and saw a rescue worker rummaging through drawers looking for money and valuables. He jumped out of the window when he noticed us. Later we were taking out crying old women and invalids and stopped filming when we ran out of videotape. I noticed some points shimmering in the moonlight. As I came closer, I saw that it was human eyes. I'll never forget the shimmering eyes of a half-naked dead woman.

"A year later, I received an icon in the mail. There was a note: 'Thank you for your report, Sergei. I keep thinking about the man in his underwear calling for his granddaughter.'"

That's how journalist Sergei Kanayev recalls the explosion of the apartment building on Guryanov Street in Moscow early in the morning on September 9, 1999. On August 31, 1999, there was an explosion in the Okhotny Ryad shopping mall under Manezh Square in Moscow; on September 21, an apartment building on Kashirskoye Shosse was blown up; on September 16, a building in Volgodonsk.

More than 300 people died, about 1,500 were injured. On September 22, an explosion at an apartment building in Ryazan was declared to have been prevented, but later the Federal Security Service (FSB) said that it was "training." On September 23, the Russian military started massive shelling of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and its suburbs. Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, promised to "wipe out terrorists in the outhouse," and his meager poll ratings started to rise quickly.

Twenty years later, there is no clear answer as to who planned the terrorist attacks that claimed more than 300 lives and left 1,500 injured. Even the official version offers no proof that the Chechen leaders were behind it. Attempts to find out what kind of FSB "training" was taking place in the basement of a n apartment building in Ryazan have failed. The FSB administration didn't bother to give an explanation and even prosecuted independent investigators.

Smoke rises from a destroyed apartment building as Russian Emergency Situations Ministry officers and firefighters try to save people in Moscow on September 13,1999.
Smoke rises from a destroyed apartment building as Russian Emergency Situations Ministry officers and firefighters try to save people in Moscow on September 13,1999.

In his article Questions That Date Back 20 Years, published by RFE/RL on the 20th anniversary of the explosion on Guryanov Street, Yury Fedorov writes about the fierce struggle for power in 1999. Had there been no terrorist attacks and no second war in Chechnya, Putin would have had no chance of becoming the president of Russia.

In his 2003 book Darkness At Dawn: The Rise Of The Russian Criminal State, American journalist David Satter comes to similar conclusions about the events of 1999 and the transformation of Russian into a "criminal state."

"I'm absolutely sure that the FSB is responsible for the explosions of buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk, Volgodonsk, and an attempt to blow up a building in Ryazan. I think that those terrorist attacks were planned by people around [then-Russian President Boris] Yeltsin -- most likely [Boris] Berezovsky, and Putin became the prime minister because he was ready to take part in it. Declassified U.S. documents show that on September 8 Yeltsin tried to convince [then-U.S. President Bill] Clinton that Putin would be Russia's next president, although he had the support of 2 percent of the population. On the next day, the building on Guryanov Street was blown up. We can't rule out that Yeltsin either supported those who did it or gave the order himself," Satter says.

Berezovsky claimed that in 1999 he didn't think of the explosion as a secret operation, but later he gathered evidence and was convinced that the FSB was behind it. His main argument was the conclusion of British and French experts, who studied the photos of the explosive device found in Ryazan and confirmed that it was the real thing and not a hoax, as claimed by the FSB.

Artyom Kruglov, author of the Putinism As It Is website, reconstructs the timeline of the Ryazan case:

"There were two official versions of the Ryazan incident. One had only two days to live, from September 22 to the morning of September 24, 1999. During that period, officials were talking about an attempted terrorist attack in Ryazan that was intended to kill the residents of a nine-story building on Novosyolov Street. Three terrorists allegedly wanted to create a Moscow-style explosion using three bags of hexogen. The timer was set for the early morning, to kill as many people as possible, as was the case in the previous explosions on Kashirskoye Shosse and Guryanov Street in Moscow.

"On September 23, the press center of the Interior Ministry officially talked about the hexogen in the bags, and the Ryazan headquarters of the FSB opened a criminal case under Article 205 (a terrorist attack). Major Russian media outlets reported about the attempted terrorist attack. Sketches of the suspects were broadcast on TV. It was officials' first reaction, and I believe it.

"On September 23, Putin himself talked about the 'bags full of explosives' in Ryazan during his press conference in Astana. He was thanking people for being vigilant. However, he let out a strange phrase about the incident: 'I don't think that someone messed up.' Who messed up and why? No one paid attention.

"It was there in Astana that Putin gave his famous speech about 'wiping out terrorists in the outhouse,' which overshadowed everything. This was the message of his presidential campaign in 1999, when he took power: 'Look, Chechens are blowing up your houses, killing your children at night, but I am Putin the Savior and I'll wipe them out in the outhouse.'

"But someone did mess up. It was clear on the morning of September 24, when the Ryazan terrorists were either arrested or their hiding place identified. [Then-FSB chief Nikolai] Patrushev appeared on TV around noon and presented a new version of the events. The suspects were not Chechen, but FSB officers, and it was not a terrorist attack, but "training," and there was "sugar" inside the bags.

"Five months later, on March 22, 2000, General [Gennady] Zaitsev and General [Dmitry] Gerasimov, the former commanders of the Alfa and Vympel SWAT teams respectively, gave a press conference and gave the details of the 'FSB training': officers of Vympel (FSB saboteurs) drove from Moscow to Ryazan. They arrived in the evening, bought sugar and a shotgun cartridge at the location, and then went to a poor neighborhood to 'test the vigilance' of the local residents.

"I don't believe the version told by Patrushev, Zaitsev, and Gerasimov. I won't repeat all its discrepancies, as the issue was widely discussed 20 years ago, for example by Litvinenko. This is not the way training is done: a real criminal case was opened, the residents were taken out of their homes in the middle of the night. The 'training' was announced three days later when there was no more room for lying: the suspects had been captured and so on.

"I'll just focus on one point, which Litvinenko and other investigators missed, and it's important. The explosives used to blow up the houses on Kashirskoye Shosse and Guryanov Street were not pure hexogen, but a mix of hexogen and TNT. Pure hexogen is too dangerous to transport because it can explode. That's why it is usually mixed with TNT.

"On September 10, 1999, the Moscow and Moscow regional FSB headquarters officially revealed that the house on Guryanov Street was blown up with a disruptive explosive consisting of a mix of hexogen and TNT with a mass of about 350 kilograms in TNT equivalent.

"In March 2000, in the famous program Ryazan Sugar on the NTV channel, Yevgeny Kartofelnikov, the resident of the building in Ryazan who found the bags, described their contents as 'yellowish noodles.' Not sugar, but 'noodles.' That's what TNT flakes look like.

"'Granular hexogen is colorless sugar-like crystals that are significantly smaller than TNT flakes, so the witness didn't notice them amid the 'noodles.' Still, when the police explosives experts arrived, their gas sensor detected the hexogen and an emergency evacuation started.

"Things don't add up. Patrushev said that there was sugar in the bags. It was bought at a local street market, as the generals specified. But the witnesses say it didn't look like sugar, more like yellowish noodles. Did the saboteurs buy noodles, too? Is it sold in bags? The security agents did mess up. First the saboteurs messed up during the 'training,' then the version that there was sugar turned out to be a poorly concocted improvisation because it didn't even look like sugar. It's a pity that the lives of over 200 Muscovites, the victims of FSB terror, are lost for good."

Artyom Kruglov mentions the investigation of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who wrote two books, Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror (in cooperation with Yury Felshtinsky) and Criminal Gang From Lubyanka. Blowing Up Russia, which became the basis for a documentary by Jean-Charles Deniau and Charles Gazelle. Any attempts to screen this film in Russia were blocked by the security services. In 2002, customs officers at St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airport confiscated 100 videotapes of the film brought in by lawmaker Yuly Rybakov. The book Blowing Up Russia was also banned, and there was even a criminal case opened on charges of divulging state secrets; it means that the FSB confessed that the involvement of the security services in these terrorist attacks was a state secret.

Aleksandr Litvinenko poses with his book Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within at his home in London on May 10, 2002.
Aleksandr Litvinenko poses with his book Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within at his home in London on May 10, 2002.

We are publishing an excerpt from Third Life, a memoir of journalist and rights activist Aleksandr Podrabinek. (The author is looking for a brave publisher to print the whole book.) Russian publishers didn't dare to print Litvinenko's books, so Podrabinek tried to distribute copies printed abroad in 2004. This is what happened:

"We managed to bring into Russia the book about the criminal gang from Lubyanka. It was printed by a Latvian publisher. We imported it completely legally, with customs inspection and following all necessary procedures. The only unusual thing about that operation was that we never talked about it aloud. I only used the phone with an anonymous SIM card that I bought specially for that occasion. And I never used it in a room that could be wiretapped by the FSB. It was not just legal, but also successful.

"After importing the books, we started selling them in a news stall on Strastnoi Boulevard in Moscow. At first, bookstores would gladly take the book, even the one inside the State Duma building. There it was a particular hit, not because of lawmakers, but because there were always many people coming to file a complaint or request. Later, stores refused to sell the book and when asked about the reason, just looked up meaningfully. The store at the Duma was the last to give up. Still, we sold all the copies left at our newsstand, and no one pressured us.

"When we were done with the book, we thought of a new one. The operation was repeated. We printed Blowing Up Russia in Latvia and imported 4,400 copies. We drove it across the Russian border in compliance with all customs procedures. It would have gone well if the shipping agent hadn't called me on my usual number and even the office phone. How he got my usual number and not the one specially bought for the operation is still a mystery to me. It was either foolishness or a setup. I'm inclined to think the latter.

"The shipping agent dutifully reported where the cargo was and when it was expected to reach Moscow. It was too late to explain anything to him or give the other telephone number. All I could do was wait.

"And it was worth waiting! Early in the morning on December 29, 2003, the truck with the books was pulled over at a police post at the intersection of Mozhayskoye Shosse and the Moscow Ring Road. FSB agents made a real show trying to make it look like an accident. The truck was stopped and searched allegedly in terms of the ever-present Vikhr (Whirlwind) counterterrorist operation. Junior Sergeant S. Budrevich, who was rummaging through the truck, put it elegantly in the police protocol, "There were found literary publications that, in my opinion, had political implications, therefore, I deemed it necessary to hand the vehicle over to FSB officers to find out the origin of the cargo.

"The vehicle was handed over on the spot. FSB officers came at once with a search warrant and confiscated all the copies. The warrant said that the goal of the search was to confiscate the books Blowing Up Russia and Criminal Gang From Lubyanka. There were no copies of the latter in the truck, as we had already sold them all. The FSB agents who monitored my phone calls must have gotten something wrong.

"The story wasn't over yet. In Blowing Up Russia, Litvinenko and Felshtinsky quite compellingly proved that in fall 1999 the FSB organized terrorist attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk. The FSB later opened a criminal case on charges of divulging state secrets. A month after the books were confiscated, I was called in for questioning to the FSB office at Lefortovo prison.

"The FSB has many interrogation sites all over Moscow, but questioning at Lefortovo is a sign of a 'special attitude' toward the interrogee. An investigator does not even need to explain what awaits the interrogee who is reluctant to talk: it's enough to look out of the window at the bleak walls and barred windows of the Lefortovo prison. You are sitting in the interrogation room, but you may find yourself in a prison cell in 10 minutes.

"I was interrogated by a young and self-confident senior lieutenant, A. Soyma. Or at least he thought that he was interrogating me. I refused to answer any question without giving a reason. This tactic had worked for me for decades, why would I change it?

"'Are you refusing to answer my questions?' the investigator asked from time to time, looking for any certainty and being tired of the uselessness of the interrogation.

"'Of course not,' I replied. 'I only refuse to answer this particular question of yours.'

"It went on and on. By the questions asked, I found out that there was a criminal case on charges of divulging state secrets and it was opened in June 2003. The suspects were the authors of the book Blowing Up Russia, and there was an arrest warrant out for them. I received more useful information from Soyma than he did from me during the interrogation.

"When the list of questions was exhausted, Soyma gave me a nondisclosure form regarding the contents of the interrogation and other investigation details.

"'Sign this.'

"'I won't. I don't undertake obligations like that.'

"'You must follow the law.'

"'You had to notify me of that before the interrogation.'

"Soyma called someone, and a minute later a featureless, plainclothes man came into the room and sat down on a chair in silence while Soyma left the room.

"Ten minutes later, a group of three or four FSB agents filled the room. One of them was a boss, he was the loudest of them.

"'This guy doesn't want to sign a nondisclosure agreement, does he?' the boss asked Soyma, pointing his finger at me.

"Soyma nodded. They probably expected me to start making excuses or at least explain, but I was sitting in my chair silently. I found the situation amusing and surprising. Hadn't they looked me up in their archives to learn something about the man they were going to interrogate? I realized they hadn't prepared for the interrogation. They had crumbled professionally, which is good rather than bad.

"'If you divulge information about the investigation, you will be charged under Article 310 of the Criminal Code,' the boss said solemnly.

"'I guess I'll have to go to prison for that,' I replied grievously, although I knew that this article didn't stipulate any prison term.

"'So, you are going to violate it?' the boss looked surprised.

"'Of course. I'll definitely tell the press about the contents of this interrogation, and I might even do it today, if there's enough time,' I said, looking at my watch.

"'Well,' the boss tried to look satisfied, talking to his officers, 'make a report about his refusal to sign the nondisclosure form, and don't a forget to invite witnesses. If he talks, open a criminal case and lock him up.'

"Soyma nodded approvingly, the boss's henchmen were smiling at such a wise decision.

"The bosses left. The witnesses attested my refusal to sign the nondisclosure form, and I was let go. Later that very day, I gave an interview to Moscow News and published a detailed report on the Prima website, our news outlet. I was not prosecuted in any way, and there was no criminal case. FSB officers are reluctant to deal with cases that won't bring them money, fame, or promotion."

David Satter, the author of Darkness At Dawn, was refused a Russian visa; the author of Blowing Up Russia, Aleksandr Litvinenko, was poisoned with radioactive polonium.

His U.S.-based co-author, Yury Felshtinsky, says that it was retaliation by the Russian authorities for Litvinenko's investigation:

"I must say that Aleksandr Litvinenko and I were confident that Russian secret services were behind the 1999 explosions from the moment the manuscript of Blowing Up Russia was finalized and published in a special edition of Novaya gazeta in August 2001. We wouldn't have published it otherwise.

"The response of the public, Kremlin, and Lubyanka was, of course, important. To everyone's surprise, the government and the secret services were silent about the publication in Novaya gazeta (and it sold 100,000-200,000 copies across Russia), as if nothing had happened. A week or two later Aleksandr Prokhanov published an article in his ultraconservative newspaper Zavtra, generally saying that we had hit the Kremlin with a cannonball and everyone there was dead.

"A few other idle publications came out later, trying to dismiss our accusations. Some authors said that it was not Litvinenko and me who wrote the book, but a CIA department of 300 people.

"Frankly speaking, after the Ryazan case it was hard to believe that the security services had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. Some lawmakers called for establishing a Duma committee to investigate the attacks, but their resolution didn't receive enough votes (although just a few more votes would have been enough).

"There were many surveys (both the people and the media were still free at the time), which produced amazing results: after our book came out, a majority of the Russian population thought that Chechens weren't involved in blowing up the buildings, and a considerable number agreed that the Russian security services were behind it. I monitored all those publications, I have a big collection of them, so these aren't unsubstantiated words off the top of my head.

"There is another important point: by 2001 (and by now), even according to the FSB's version (if we cast off everything Litvinenko and I have published and said), not a single Chechen was involved in the September attacks. I repeat, it's the FSB version! Still, the war was started against the Chechen Republic, which de jure was a Russian territory.

"There is another damning argument against the Russian authorities and secret services: the second Chechen war started on September 23, 1999, when Russian planes started bombing Grozny in response to the terrorist attack in Ryazan that happened earlier that day. The Russian military pilots received their orders in the morning, and probably didn't know that the attack was prevented and there were no victims. They also didn't know that the terrorists had been caught by the local law enforcement agencies. Neither did they know that the terrorists happened to be FSB officers. It was only after the bombing was over that the authorities said that it wasn't a terrorist attack, but training, and it was sugar, not hexogen, in the bags.

"The second Chechen war was already in full swing, and it was declared in retaliation for FSB training in Ryazan.

"Therefore, it was difficult not to accept the claims made in Blowing Up Russia.

"After September 2001, we started receiving new information about the terrorist attacks; we analyzed and combined it and tried to publish it as soon as possible to let the public know. We made a documentary film, Blowing Up Russia.

"Later we were contacted by virtually all the Karachai and Cherkess people whom the FSB called the Chechen terrorists involved in blowing up the buildings. They were hiding in Georgia. We tried to meet A. Gochiyayev (unsuccessfully), who claimed he was innocent and had nothing to do with the attacks. I had a very complicated correspondence with Y. Krymshamkhalov and T. Batchayev, who, unlike Gochiyayev, didn't deny their involvement but said that they were led not by Chechens (such as [Aslan] Maskhadov, [Shamil] Basayev, or Khattab) but, as they realized later, by people from security services.

"At some point, I was contacted by a representative of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who thanked me for the book and asked if he could be of any help. I asked the Chechen president to share his view on the September attacks. A few days later, I received a fax from Maskhadov, who flatly denied any involvement of the Chechens with the September attacks in Russia.

"Later I was able to obtain (it took many months) a record of the statement given by a senior lieutenant of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), A. Galkin, who had been taken prisoner by the Chechen side in November 1999. He stated for the record that the buildings in Russia had been blown up by the secret services. I published the full transcript of his statement in Novaya gazeta.

"There were many dramatic events. The last edition of Blowing Up Russia had 213 pages of the original text and 35 appendices (over 270 pages), which included our most important findings after September 2001. That's when we decided to put the matter to rest, because we'd spent too much time on a single subject. But in November 2006, Litvinenko was killed. In 2007, our book, which had been long forgotten outside Russia, came out in 20 languages in the whole civilized world. By killing my co-author, the Russian authorities gave us decisive proof that the secret services had been behind the terrorist attacks. Let's be honest: no one in the U.S.S.R. or Russia has ever been killed for telling lies and libel. Only for telling the truth.

"A particular question was important for us in 2001 and later: did Putin know about the terrorist attacks planned by the secret services? We replied in the affirmative in 2001 and kept doing so later. Putin was director of the FSB until August 1999, when he became prime minister. The terrorist attacks happened in September. Sergei Stepashin, former director of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (a precursor of the FSB), has said that the invasion of Chechnya was planned and would have happened even if there had been no terrorist attacks in September. In other words, they were a supplementary operation, not the main one. The main operation was starting a war in Chechnya."

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