Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Moscow Bomb Fails to Intimidate
It is laughable to suggest that the explosion which claimed eight lives on Pushkinskaya Square this week was anything other than the work of Chechen terrorists.
Already alternative theories abound. There are those who say the bomb was planted by the secret police in a bid to boost popular support for the war in Chechnya. Others blame rival mafia cartels battling for control of the kiosk trade. Rumours of a tragic gas leak have also done the rounds.
But such versions only insult the memory of the eight dead - who included an 18-year-old female colleague of mine - and cheapen the suffering of the 53 injured. Standing at an impressive 70%, President Putin's popularity rating has never been higher. And mafia gangs don't plant bombs in busy shopping crowds - it's not good for public relations. Naturally, the "gas leak" theory was swiftly ruled out.
Based on eyewitness accounts, the version of events being circulated in the national press is as follows.
At around 5.45pm on August 8, witnesses saw two men "of Caucasian origins" approach a kiosk in the Pushkinskaya underpass. The men attempted to pay for their purchase (some say a watch, others a pair of shoes) with American dollars - which traders are not permitted to accept by law - and were pointed in the direction of a nearby bureau de change. Minutes later, the vendor noticed that the men had left a suitcase and a polythene bag by the kiosk and immediately informed a security guard. It was as the vendor and the guard approached the bags that the bomb exploded.
According to one account published in the Sevodnya daily newspaper, both suspects were seen leaving the underpass together with three other Caucasian men shortly before the devastating explosion.
Even with a photo-fit of one of the suspects, police will be hard pressed to find the culprits. However, it has been established that the bomb weighed less than half a kilogramme (under a pound) - in such an enclosed space, the terrorists could be sure the heat, smoke and debris from the marble walls would "do the job".
But one thing is certain: the terrorists failed to achieve their main goal - to sow panic across the Russian capital. The police reacted swiftly, producing a photo-fit of one suspect just 12 hours after the explosion (after last year's bomb attacks in Moscow, it was nearly three days before pictures were published).
And Muscovites have shown no signs of panicking - in fact, other vendors returned to the scene of the explosion on the very next day to salvage what they could from the few kiosks which had survived the blast. "This is our place of work," said one woman, "so we returned here without any fear."
A few dozen metres away, mourners (probably friends or relatives of the victims) were putting together an improvised memorial to the dead -- flowers, candles and icons propped up against a smoke-blackened wall. Meanwhile, hundreds of people were forming long queues outside Moscow hospitals to donate blood to those injured in the blast - many of whom are suffering from potentially fatal burns.
Such was Russia's unanimous response to this attempt to terrorise her. It reminds me of a ballad by the rock group St Petersburg which goes, "Oh, Russians, Russians, yours is a troubled destiny, why do you need a disaster to make you stronger?"
I know the scene of the tragedy well. I often use the underpass to cross Tverskaya Street - or as a meeting point for friends and acquaintances. In my younger days, it was a favourite place for rendez-vous with girlfriends. I used to meet my wife here before we were married. Recently, I bought her a leather bag at one of the kiosks and, just a couple of months ago, there was a tie there which caught my eye.
I'm not trying to say that I was a potential victim - but to underline the callous nature of the terrorists' plot. Pushkinskaya Square is probably the most popular spot in Moscow - groups of teenagers hang out in the underpass, housewives buy small luxuries there on the way home from work. At 6pm, it is one of the busiest underground passages in the city with literally thousands of people passing through. And, overhead, there is usually a heavy traffic jam - a factor which severely hampered the subsequent rescue operation.
Of course, it is impossible at this juncture to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that the investigation trail will lead to the North Caucasus. But the coincidences are too striking to be ignored. On numerous occasions, the warlords Khattab and Shamil Basaev had threatened to carry out terrorist attacks across Russia during the month of August.
On the eve of the Khasavyurt treaty in 1996, Moscow was shaken by a series of bomb blasts -- on this occasion in city buses. Although a Chechen link was never firmly established, the similarities are undeniable. The latest attack is also reminiscent of the first terrorist bombing in August last year, when an explosion ripped through a gambling arcade in the Manezh shopping mall.
According to an opinion poll held this week by TV-6, 95 % of respondents advocate tougher measures against the Chechen terrorists (can you imagine the reaction in America if the FBI established Libyan links to a terrorist attack on the New York Metro? It is unlikely Bill Clinton would shrink from bombing Tripoli...)
Of course, Vladimir Putin was right not to lose his cool and to make politically correct statements to the effect that we should not stick "labels on the entire Chechen nation or any other nation for that matter". Of course, one can understand the outrage of Shamil Beno, Chechnya's representative in Moscow, who was so incensed by Yuri Luzhkov's claims of a "Chechen link" that he has threatened to sue the Moscow mayor for damages.
But, after his politically correct pronouncements, Putin went straight to the heart of the matter. "However, we must know where the threat is coming from," he said. And he made his opinions on this issue very clear, promising that Russia would destroy the "beast in its den".
Of course, we cannot point accusatory fingers at an entire nation. But, to paraphrase an axiom popular in the Russian press, "every nation deserves its leaders". And, over the past decade, the leaders of Chechnya have done little to inspire confidence - from the godfather of separatism, Dzhokhar Dudaev, to the hostage-mongers, Shamil Basaev and Salman Raduev, and the wishy-washy ex-Soviet colonel, Aslan Maskhadov. Incidentally, it took Maskhadov just 30 minutes to react to the bomb attack in Moscow, with assurances to Agence France Press that his cohorts were innocent of the massacre. Think about it, 30 minutes - the Chechen bush telegraph clearly works with the speed of light.
It's time for the Chechen people as a whole to take a long, hard look at the men who have led to them to the brink of the abyss - men who made a business out of hostage-taking, money counterfeiting and drugs trafficking. And then perhaps Beno and the pro-Russian Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov (who fought alongside Maskhadov during the first war) would be better off addressing their grievances to the architects of this murky past.
Meanwhile, the way ahead for Russia is clear. Vladimir Putin said it all in his address this week: "There is only one way to deal with such terrorist attacks - and that is called making an 'adequate response'." In other words, the president has reiterated his commitment to completing the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya and to punishing those found guilty of exploding bombs in crowded city centres.
It is a matter of honour for the law-enforcement bodies to do their utmost to track down the terrorists. And certainly few Russians have any patience for the Western observers who whinge about "human rights violations" when the police subject foreigners to document checks in Moscow's city streets. It is our children who are in danger. "Moscow is the capital of a nation at war," as city minister Alexander Muzykantsky said last week.
It is an extraordinary and cruel war - a war of two opposing ideologies, two civilisations and two very different societies. On the one hand, the Russian state struggles to maintain its territorial integrity and force its subjects to acknowledge universal, civilised norms. On the other, Chechnya has allowed itself to be dominated by questionable leaders who have used the image of "an oppressed ethnic group" to violate every human right imaginable. The Chechen leadership has compelled its people to live by the "laws of the wolf" - the symbol which is now emblazoned on the Chechen rebel flag.
A few weeks ago, the Itar-Tass news agency reported that the population of wolves in Russia had doubled over the past decade -- so much so that entire regions of the country are now under threat. Local authorities are considering reintroducing the system of special bounties for hunters who help tackle the problem. It may well be coincidence - but perhaps there is a parable here too: when man gets too lax or too complacent, the wolf inevitably steps in.
Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight