The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep:
Russia's Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin
(Yale University Press, 2016)
August 19, 2016
To the memory of the victims of the Nord-Ost theater siege, the Beslan school massacre, and the Russian apartment bombings
On December 23, 2013, I received word that the Russian Foreign Ministry had finally approved my visa and issued a number for my visa approval letter. I had been living in a rented apartment in Kiev while a revolution unfolded on the streets, writing a diary for Radio Liberty and other publications about the extraordinary events that were freeing a people and propelling the world to a new crisis.
Despite the fascination of events in Ukraine, I was anxious to bring the Russian bureaucratic process to an end. I had been waiting three weeks for the approval and wanted to return to Moscow where, after years of traveling back and forth from the United States, I hoped to settle for at least a few years. With the news of approval, all I had to do was go to the Russian consulate and present the number, along with a completed application and photograph.
On Christmas Eve, I went to the consulate and was buzzed in by staff members. The consul greeted me cordially and asked me to wait while he retrieved the approval letter. After an hour and a half, he returned and said that he had found my number in the consular log but that there was no letter. At my request, he searched for the letter twice more without success. Finally I asked him: “Has there ever been a case in your experience where the Foreign Ministry issued an approval number without an accompanying letter?” “No,” he replied, “never.”
Back in my apartment, I called the Foreign Ministry in Moscow and explained the situation to Lev Lvovich, a diplomat in the press department. He seemed surprised and said he would consult with his superior. A half hour later, he told me to call the embassy the following day and ask for Alexei Gruby, a first secretary. Something had gone wrong, he said, but Gruby would make sure I received my visa.
That night, my documentary film, Age of Delirium, about the fall of the Soviet Union, was shown in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the epicenter of Kiev’s antiregime revolt. About a hundred people stood for an hour and forty minutes in subzero cold in an improvised outdoor cinema watching the story of the fate of ordinary people in the Soviet collapse. The next morning, I was interviewed by Kiev’s Espreso TV, an internet television network that covers the Maidan. After the interview I called the embassy and was connected to Gruby.
Ukraine celebrates the Orthodox Christmas, so all offices, including the Russian embassy, were open on December 25. Gruby, who was expecting my call, said he had a statement to read to me: “The competent organs have determined that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable.” My application to enter Russia had been refused. The phrase “competent organs” is used in Russia to refer to the Federal Security Service (FSB). The formula “your presence is undesirable” is used in espionage cases. I had never before heard it applied to a journalist.
The Russian authorities were not objecting to anything I had written. My previous stay in Moscow had been only three months, during which time I had been able to do little more than open a bank account, familiarize myself with the operations of the Radio Liberty Russian Service, where I was to serve as an adviser, and organize an apartment. The only significant article I had written concerned Yeltsin’s destruction of the Russian parliament twenty years before, in 1993. Still, my expulsion was not a complete surprise. As Viktor Davidoff put it in the Moscow Times, it was not surprising that I was expelled; “it was amazing that it took so long.”
When I first began working in Russia, in 1976, as a correspondent for the London Financial Times, I quickly concluded that Russia was an alternate universe that could be understood only through the details of individual Russians’ lives. These efforts led to an attempt to expel me in 1979 for “hooliganism.” I survived that attempt because both the British and the American governments threatened to expel Soviet correspondents in retaliation, and I remained in the Soviet Union until 1982, when I left to write my first book, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. It was this book that became the film shown on Christmas Eve in the Maidan.
During the 1980s, I was refused visas to the Soviet Union and was able to enter the country on reporting trips just twice, after the U.S. State Department threatened retaliation against Soviet correspondents if I was barred. In 1990, with perestroika under way, I continued to be blacklisted. I was apparently the last journalist still banned. But Reader’s Digest, for which I was writing pieces about Russia, threatened to cancel plans for a Russian-language edition of the magazine. The Soviet authorities were encouraging Western institutions to set up in Moscow and, faced with the Digest ultimatum, decided to give in.
For the next two decades, I traveled freely to Russia, writing two books and hundreds of articles. In 1999, after four apartment buildings in Russia were blown up, killing hundreds of residents in their sleep and providing the pretext for starting the second Chechen war, which brought Vladimir Putin to power, I contended that the bombings were carried out by the FSB, not by Chechen rebels. I also argued that the decision in 2004 by Russian forces to open fire with flamethrowers on the gymnasium of the school in Beslan that had been seized by terrorists, killing 338 hostages, constituted a crime against humanity.
Despite these stories, I regularly received visas, and persons connected to the Russian authorities pointed to me as an example of the regime’s tolerance of free expression. In fact, this tolerance was based on the authorities’ confidence in their ability to manipulate Western opinion. The picture of contemporary Russia sent back by Western journalists and academics was far from favorable, but it hardly conveyed how morally damaged Russia really was.
An example of the Russian success in manipulating Western observers was the Valdai Discussion Club, organized as a means of influencing the world’s leading experts on Russia, both journalists and academics. One of the great attractions of the meetings was the opportunity to question Putin and other Russian officials in a supposedly informal setting. Russian officials were unfailingly generous with their time and hospitality, but they tightly controlled the proceedings, providing detailed answers to prepared questions and ignoring or giving short shrift to those that were even mildly critical. The participants, anxious not to offend their hosts for fear of not being invited back, engaged in self-censorship, as the Russian authorities knew they would. After the sessions, the participants in the “club” returned to the West, where they often cited their firsthand contact with Russian leaders and parroted what they were told.
The success of Valdai was reflected in headlines like the one on the BBC web site on September 20, 2013, the forum’s tenth anniversary: “Putin shines at Valdai summit as he castigates the West.” The story described Putin’s criticism of the West, in his opening speech, for losing touch with its Christian roots. Richard Sakwa, a British academic, was quoted as saying he would not participate in Valdai if it were simply “brainwashing.” Instead, he said, the Valdai participants “felt the evolution, the self-confidence of this country, its consolidation,” inadvertently demonstrating the effectiveness of that brainwashing.
Russia’s ability to manipulate foreign opinion, however, is limited by external circumstances. In December 2013, as I was waiting for my Russian visa to be renewed, the crisis in Ukraine was changing the calculus. The mask of liberalism had effectively misled the world about the true nature of the regime, but if the regime began to be directly threatened, as it was by events in Ukraine, it would have to take steps that would make the illusion harder, or impossible, to sustain.
I owed my continued presence in Moscow to the regime’s desire to protect the masquerade. Russian officials liked to point out that no American journalist had been expelled since the end of the Cold War. With the Ukraine crisis, however, the authorities apparently decided that the show was over. My presence in Moscow was a luxury they could no longer afford.
Understanding Russia is actually very easy, but one must teach oneself to do something that is very hard—to believe the unbelievable. Westerners become confused because they approach Russia with a Western frame of reference, not realizing that Russia is a universe based on a completely different set of values. If a Westerner takes it for granted that the individual has inherent worth and is not just raw material for the deluded schemes of corrupt political leaders, he may not realize that in Russia this outlook is not widely shared. To grasp the reality of Russia, it is necessary to accept that Russian leaders really are capable of blowing up hundreds of their own people to preserve their hold on power. They really are capable of ordering an attack with flamethrowers on a gymnasium full of defenseless parents and children. Once one accepts that the impossible is really possible, the degradation of the Yeltsin years and Vladimir Putin’s rise to power make perfect sense.
The 1999 Apartment Bombings
In the summer of 1999, with the Boris Yeltsin era coming to an end, those at the pinnacle of power in Russia feared for their freedom and even their lives. There were signs of an economic recovery, but most citizens were still living in poverty and waiting months to be paid. The Yeltsin entourage was increasingly isolated and widely hated for its role in pillaging the country. According to Russians and Westerners with access to the Kremlin leadership, the leading members of the Yeltsin “family”—Tatyana Dyachenko, the president’s daughter; Boris Berezovsky, her close adviser and the country’s richest man; and Valentin Yumashev, a member of the Security Council and Dyachenko’s future husband—lived in fear of a cruel reckoning. Many were convinced they would never surrender power.
In the twelve days from September 4 to the 16th, however, everything changed. Four apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, and the controversies that wracked the country over corruption and privatization were suddenly forgotten. Eight years of post-Soviet Russian history was telescoped into the shocking images of bodies being carried out of the rubble of bombed buildings.
Newly appointed prime minister Vladimir Putin expressed perfectly the country’s desire for revenge. On September 24, he said, “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, then in an airport, and, forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we’ll rub them out (mochit) in the toilet. … The question is closed once and for all.”
Russian officials said there was a “Chechen trail” in the bombings. The wording was unusual: not proof but a “trail.” The Chechens insisted that they had nothing to do with the bombings, and no proof of their involvement was ever adduced. But Russian forces were already fighting Chechen rebels in Dagestan, and the country was looking desperately for someone to blame. Russians had been opposed to further involvement in Chechnya, but in the wake of the apartment bombings, sentiment shifted. They were now ready for a new Chechen war.
The mystery of who bombed the apartment houses in 1999 has never been solved. To the extent that there is evidence as to the perpetrators, it points not to Chechen terrorists but to the Kremlin leadership and the FSB.
When I was told on Christmas Day 2013 that the “competent organs” had determined that my presence in the territory of the Russian Federation was “undesirable,” I was certain that my role in the investigation of the 1999 apartment bombings was the most important reason. Many journalists asked me, “Why did they decide to expel you rather than someone else?” The Russian authorities had tolerated my presence for ten years since the publication of my book Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, in which I accused the FSB of responsibility for the explosions. They did this, I believe, because my expulsion would have drawn attention to an episode the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten.
But by the time I worked in Moscow in late 2013, Putin’s hold on power was weakening. Mass protests had taken place in Moscow and a popular revolution had broken out in Ukraine. The question of the apartment bombings had never quite gone away in Russia, and now the whispers were becoming louder. In the new conditions, raising the topic freely was not going to be allowed.
Yeltsin’s Russia in the spring of 1999 was a nation traumatized by impoverishment and criminalization, and it was far from certain that the presidential elections set for June 2000 would take place. The popular approval ratings of both Yeltsin and his newly appointed prime minister and heir apparent, Vladimir Putin, were at 2 percent. It was nearly inconceivable that anyone connected with Yeltsin could win a free election. But there was a widespread fear that Yeltsin would find a pretext for declaring a state of emergency so that the elections would not take place.
On June 6 of that year, Jan Blomgren, the Moscow correspondent for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, reported that a faction in the Kremlin was seriously weighing “terror bombings that could be blamed on the Chechens.” In the July 22 issue of Moskovskaya Pravda, the military journalist Alexander Zhilin quoted “trustworthy sources in the Kremlin” saying that persons close to Dyachenko were planning to use terror attacks in Moscow to discredit Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, who had emerged as one of Yeltsin’s most serious political opponents. The plan was referred to as Storm in Moscow and was to include attacks on the headquarters of the FSB, the Interior Ministry (MVD), and the Federation Council, kidnappings by Chechen rebels, and a war between criminal gangs. All this was intended to create the impression that Luzhkov had lost control over the city.
Also in June, Russia began a steady military buildup on the Chechen border. Significant numbers of artillery and aircraft were transferred to the region, followed in early July by the arrival of multiple-rocket launchers capable of destroying entire areas. The slow increase of forces continued until the equivalent of a Russian division, about seven thousand men, was on the border.
At the same time, there were also puzzling developments in neighboring Dagestan. An invasion from Chechnya by Islamic rebels was widely expected. But in late spring, the Russian authorities surprised local law enforcement by withdrawing internal troops stationed on the border, clearing a route for would-be invaders.
On August 7, the invasion took place. An Islamic force of twelve hundred armed men, commanded by the Chechen leader Shamil Basaev and an Arab extremist named Khattab, entered Dagestan from Chechnya without meeting any resistance. A high-ranking MVD official later said that if the internal troops had not been withdrawn, the invasion would not have been possible. The invaders occupied territory in the Botlikh region and were fought mostly by local self-defense units. On August 23, the invaders withdrew, again without encountering resistance. A Russian commander told a correspondent for Time magazine that during the retreat, he had Basaev in his sights but was ordered to hold his fire. “We just watched Basaev’s long column of trucks and jeeps withdraw from Dagestan back to Chechnya under cover provided by our own helicopters,” he said. “We could have wiped him out then and there, but the bosses in Moscow wanted him alive.”
The Chechen government condemned the invasion. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president, tried to reach Yeltsin on a hotline installed after the first Chechen war, but no one answered. Within a few days, the line went dead.
After the rebels had withdrawn, Russia bombed the Botlikh region for several days and then began a punitive operation against Karamakhi-Chabanmakhi, an enclave that a year earlier, with official permission, had proclaimed Islamic law. Russian forces surrounded villages and bombed them, killing up to one thousand civilians. There was no obvious connection between the Botlikh events and Karamakhi-Chabanmakhi, which is in a different part of Dagestan.
In response to the bombing of Karamakhi-Chabanmakhi, on September 4, Basaev’s forces reinvaded Dagestan, leading to fighting that continued for almost three weeks. The apartment bombings occurred while this fighting was going on. The timing of the bombings coincided with the fighting in Dagestan, creating the impression that the bombings were revenge for the attacks by the Russian military on Islamic insurgents in Dagestan.
The invasion of Dagestan was treated by the Russian government as a sign that the Chechens wanted to take over the entire North Caucasus. In August, however, the investigative weekly Versiya published a report indicating that Basaev’s invasion of Dagestan had been organized with Russian complicity. According to the weekly, Alexander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, had met with Basaev on July 4 in the town of Beaulieu, between Nice and Monaco, at a villa belonging to the international arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi. This information was said to come from a source in French intelligence. On September 13 and 14 the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published parts of the transcript of a friendly conversation between a man with a voice similar to that of Boris Berezovsky—Yeltsin’s daughter’s close adviser—and Movladi Udugov, the unofficial spokesman for the radical Chechen opposition, which included Basaev and Khattab. In the conversation, they appeared to discuss the transfer of money to the radicals.
These publications may have inspired Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of Berezovsky’s most important publication, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, to offer a version of events that slightly defended Berezovsky while agreeing that the incursion into Dagestan was organized by the authorities. “It is perfectly obvious,” Tretyakov wrote, “that the Chechens were lured into Dagestan … in order to provide a legitimate excuse for … beginning the offensive phase of struggle against the terrorists grouped in Chechnya. Clearly it was an operation by the Russian special services … that was, moreover, politically authorized from the very top.” As for Berezovsky, whose voice was apparently captured on tape offering to pay the radicals, Tretyakov speculated that he may have been used “without his knowledge by the Russian special services.” It was more than likely, Tretyakov wrote, “that he acted in coordination with them,” a possibility he considered “far more realistic than the theory that Berezovsky ‘set everything up.’”
During this fateful summer when Moscow was awash with rumors, I was friendly with a Russian political operative who was well connected to the higher levels of Russian power. When I met him, he told me about the growing fear in the Kremlin about the possibility of the Yeltsin government’s losing power and the rumors that Moscow would be the scene of a huge provocation. He said that the issue was the security of Yeltsin and his family in the case of a handover of power. If there was no agreement on terms, “they will blow up half of Moscow.”
I sensed the uneasiness but did not know how to assess my friend’s prediction. I had no illusions about Yeltsin and his cronies, but it was hard to imagine that a man who came to power through a peaceful anticommunist revolution with massive public support would murder his own people to hold on to power. Developing events were to change my mind.
At 9:40 PM on September 4, a truck bomb exploded in Buinaksk, Dagestan’s second-largest city. It destroyed a five-story apartment building that housed soldiers from the 136th Motor Rifle Brigade. The explosion occurred while many residents were at home, watching a televised soccer match between France and Ukraine, and dozens of persons were buried under the rubble. The eventual death toll was sixty-four, with nearly one hundred people injured.
It later transpired that the toll could have been much worse. Hours after the first explosion in Buinaksk, a second bomb was discovered in a ZIL-130 truck near the military hospital. Sappers stopped a watch mechanism twelve minutes before the bomb was set to explode. There was almost six thousand pounds of explosives in the truck, enough to have leveled the central part of the city.
The events in Buinaksk, although major, did not stun the nation because the victims were Dagestani, not Russian, and Dagestan was a war zone. On September 9, however, the terrorists struck again, this time in Moscow. Shortly after midnight, a bomb exploded in the basement of a building at 19 Guryanova Street, in a working-class area in the southeast part of the city. The central section of the building was obliterated, leaving the left and right stairwells standing on each side of a gaping hole. Fires raged for hours under the rubble. “It’s like hell underneath,” one rescuer said. “Even if they survived the blast, they would have been burned alive.” In the end, 100 people were killed and 690 injured. Russian officials blamed the bombing on Chechen terrorists seeking revenge for their “defeat” in Dagestan. The Moscow FSB announced that items removed from the scene showed traces of TNT and hexogen, a powerful military explosive.
Four days later, on September 13, an explosion at 6 Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow flattened a nine-story brick apartment building, turning it into a pile of rubble. To add to the horror, the explosion took place at 5 AM, when almost all of the residents were asleep. Muscovites awoke to graphic television footage showing emergency workers feverishly going through the debris. The death toll was eventually established at 124, with 7 injured.
The Russian capital was now gripped by unspeakable terror. Every one of the city’s thirty thousand residential buildings was ordered to be checked for explosives; residents organized round-the-clock patrols. There were thousands of calls to the police reporting suspicious activity.
On the morning of the explosion on Kashirskoye Highway, Gennady Seleznev, the speaker of the State Duma, announced at a meeting of the Duma Council that on the previous night, an apartment house had been blown up in the city of Volgodonsk. The significance of this announcement would not become clear until later.
On September 16, the terror spread. With funerals of the Moscow victims still going on, a truck bomb exploded in Volgodonsk. The blast ripped off the façade of a nine-story apartment building. The dead bodies of eighteen people, including two children, were pulled from the rubble. Eighty-nine were hospitalized. This explosion, like the one on Kashirskoye Highway, took place at 5 AM. The psychological shock was so great that afterward hundreds of people were unwilling to sleep in their homes and insisted on spending the night outdoors. The bomb left a crater 11.5 feet deep and forty to fifty feet wide. Parts of the vehicle that carried the bomb were dispersed over a radius of nearly a mile.