The Russian apartment bombings were a series of explosions that hit four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in September 1999, killing nearly 300 people and spreading a wave of fear across the country. They were quickly blamed by the Russian government on Chechen separatists and together with the Islamist invasion of Daghestan, a republic within the Russian Federation, that took place in August 1999 were used as a pretext for the military invasion of the breakaway Chechen Republic, which started on September 30 and escalated the Second Chechen War. The Chechen militants and secessionist authorities, however, have denied their involvement in the bombing campaign as well as the Dagestan War.
The blasts hit Buynaksk on September 4, Moscow on September 9 and 13, and Volgodonsk on September 16. Several other bombs were defused in Moscow on September 13. A similar bomb was found and defused in the Russian city of Ryazan on September 23. The (then) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the Ryazanians and ordered air attacks on Grozny. The local police caught two Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who planted the bomb in Ryazan shortly afterwards. On September 24 FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev announced that the Ryazan incident had been a training exercise.
An official FSB investigation of the bombings was completed in 2002 and concluded that they were organized by Achemez Gochiyaev, who remains at large, and ordered by Islamist warlords Ibn Al-Khattab and Abu Omar al-Saif, who have been killed. Six other suspects have been convicted by Russian courts. However, many observers, including State Duma deputies Yuri Shchekochikhin, Sergei Kovalev and Sergei Yushenkov, cast doubts on the official version and sought an independent investigation. Some others, including David Satter, Yury Felshtinsky, Vladimir Pribylovsky and Alexander Litvinenko, as well as the secessionist Chechen authorities, claimed that the 1999 bombings were a false flag attack coordinated by the FSB in order to win public support for a new full-scale war in Chechnya, which boosted Prime Minister and former FSB Director Vladimir Putin's popularity, brought the pro-war Unity Party to the State Duma and him to the presidency within a few months .
Five apartment bombings took place and at least three attempted bombings were prevented. All bombing had the same "signature", judging from the nature and the volume of the destruction. In each case the explosive RDX was used, and the timers were set to go off at night and inflict the maximum number of civilian casualties. The explosives were placed to destroy the weakest, most critical elements of the buildings and force the buildings to "collapse like a house of cards". The terrorists were able to obtain or manufacture several tons of powerful explosives and deliver them to numerous destinations across Russia.
On September 9, shortly after midnight, 300 to 400 kg of explosives detonated on the ground floor of an apartment building in south-east Moscow (19 Guryanova Street). The nine-story building was destroyed, killing 94 people inside and injuring 249 others. A total of 108 apartments were destroyed during the bombing. An anonymous caller to a Russian news agency said the blast was a response to recent Russian bombing of Chechen and Dagestan villages. An FSB spokesman identified the explosive as hexogen. The President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin ordered the search of 30,000 residential buildings in Moscow for explosives.
A Karachai businessman Achemez Gochiyaev claimed that it was he who called the police and warned about the bombing locations, which helped to prevent a large number of further casualties. Gochiyaev said that he was framed by his old acquaintance, an FSB officer who asked him to rent basements "as storage facilities" at four locations where bombs were later found. When the first two bombs went off, Gochiyaev realized that he had been framed and called the police to warn about the bombing.
On the evening of September 22, 1999, a resident of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan noticed two suspicious men who carried sacks into the basement from a car with a Moscow license plate. He alerted the police, but by the time they arrived the car and the men were gone.
The policemen found three 50kg sacks of white powder in the basement. A detonator and a timing device were attached and armed. The timer was set to 5:30 AM. Yuri Tkachenko, the head of the local bomb squad, disconnected the detonator and the timer and tested the three sacks of white substance with a "MO-2" gas analyzer. The device detected traces of hexogen, the military explosive used in all previous bombings.
Police and rescue vehicles converged from different parts of the city, and 30,000 residents were evacuated from the area. 1,200 local police officers armed with automatic weapons set up roadblocks on highways around the city and started patrolling railroad stations and airports to hunt the terrorists down. In the morning, "Ryazan resembled a city under siege". Composite sketches of two men and a woman terrorist suspects were shown on TV.
In the morning of September 23 Russian television networks reported the attempt to blow up a building in Ryazan using hexogen. Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Rushailo announced that police prevented a terrorist act. Later in the evening Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin praised the vigilance of the Ryazanians and called for the air bombing of the Chechen capital Grozny.
In the evening of September 23, the perpetrators were caught. A telephone service employee tapped into long distance phone conversations and managed to detect a talk in which an out-of-town person suggested to others that they "split up" and "make your own way out". That person's number was traced to a telephone exchange unit serving FSB offices. When arrested, the detainees produced FSB identification cards. They were soon released on orders from Moscow.
The next morning, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev declared that the incident was a training exercise.
On March 24 2000, two days before the presidential elections, NTV Russia featured the Ryazan events of fall 1999 on the talk show Independent Investigation. The talk with the residents of the Ryazan apartment building along with FSB members Alexander Zdanovich and General Sergeyev was filmed earlier on March 20, 2000. The FSB members refused to provide the name of the head of the training exercise, if there was any. On March 26 Boris Nemtsov voiced his concern over the possible shut-down of NTV for airing the talk.
NTV general manager Igor Malashenko spoke at the JFK School of Government on the day the show aired and said that Information Minister Mikhail Lesin warned him on several occasions. Malashenko's recollection of Lesin's warning was that by airing the talk show NTV "crossed the line and that we were outlaws in their eyes.
According to Alexander Goldfarb, Malashenko told him years later that Valentin Yumashev brought a warning from the Kremlin one day before airing the show. Goldfarb wrote that the warning in no uncertain terms said that NTV "should consider themselves finished" if they would go ahead with the broadcast.
Another controversy was related to the type of explosives that were used by FSB agents in Ryazan. The Russian Deputy Prosecutor declared in 2002 that a comprehensive testing of the samples showed no traces of any explosives, and that sacks from Ryazan in fact contained only sugar. However Yuri Tkachenko, the police explosives expert who defused the Ryazan bomb, insisted that it was real. Tkachenko said that the explosives, including a timer, a power source, and a detonator were genuine military equipment and obviously prepared by a professional. He also said that the gas analyzer that tested the vapors coming from the sacks unmistakably indicated the presence of RDX. Tkachenko said that it was out of the question that the analyzer could have malfunctioned, as the gas analyzer was of world class quality, costing $20,000 and was maintained by a specialist who worked according to a strict schedule, checking the analyzer after each use and making frequent prophylactic checks. Tkachenko pointed out that meticulous care in the handling of the gas analyzer was a necessity because the lives of the bomb squad experts depended on the reliability of their equipment. The police officers who answered the original call and discovered the bomb also insisted that it was obvious from its appearance that the substance in the bomb was not sugar.
In March 2000, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported about a Private Alexei Pinyaev of the 137th Regiment who guarded a military facility near the city of Ryazan. He was surprised to see that "a storehouse with weapons and ammunition" contained sacks with the word "sugar" on them. The two paratroopers cut a hole in one of the bags and made a tea with the sugar taken from the bag. But the taste of tea was terrible. They became suspicious since people were talking about the explosions. The substance turned out to be the hexogen. After the newspaper report, FSB officers "descended on Pinyaev's unit", accused them of "divulging a state secret", and told them "You guys can't even imagine what serious business you've got yourselves tangled up in." The regiment later sued Novaya Gazeta for insulting the honor of the Russian Army, since there was no Private Alexei Pinyaev in the regiment, according to their statement.
On July 22, Moscow newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda published leaked documents about an operation "Storm in Moscow", which by organizing terrorist acts to cause chaos would bring about a state of emergency, thus saving the Yeltsin regime.
Russian Duma member Konstantin Borovoi said that he had been "warned by an agent of Russian military intelligence of a wave of terrorist bombings" prior to the blasts.
Two years later, in March 2002, Seleznyov claimed in an interview that he had been referring to an unrelated hand grenade-based explosion, which did not kill anyone and did not destroy any buildings, and which indeed happened in Volgodonsk. It remains unclear why Seleznyov reported such an insignificant incident to the Russian Parliament and why he did not explain the misunderstanding to Zhirinovsky and other Duma members.
FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko described this as a "the usual Kontora mess up": "Moscow-2 was on the 13th and Volgodonsk on 16th, but they got it to the speaker the other way around," he said. Investigator Mikhail Trepashkin confirmed that the man who gave Seleznev the note was indeed an FSB officer.
Galkin escaped from captivity at the beginning of 2000. After his escape he stated that Chechen rebels had tortured him to force statements he made to Pelton. His claims have been supported by medical expertise. Galkin did not tell anything at all about the alleged GRU involvement in the bombings during his interview to Novaya Gazeta, thus he "did not deny" the GRU operation according to Felshtinsky and Pribylovsky.
The official investigation was concluded only in 2002. According to the Russian State Prosecutor office, all apartment bombings were executed under command of ethnic Karachay Achemez Gochiyayev. The operations were planned by Ibn al-Khattab and Abu Omar al-Saif, Arab militants fighting in Chechnya on the side of Chechen insurgents. (Both of them were later killed during the Second Chechen War.) The planning was carried out in Khattab's guerilla camps in Chechnya, "Caucasus" in Shatoy and "Taliban" in Avtury, according to the prosecution.
The explosives were prepared at a fertilizer factory in Urus-Martan Chechnya, by "mixing aluminium powder, nitre and sugar in a concrete mixer", or by also putting their RDX and TNT, although the explosives used in Moscow were identified by the FSB as RDX (unlike explosives in the Ryazan incident, which were identified by a local police explosive expert as RDX but later declared by the FSB to be sugar). From there they were sent to a food storage facility in Kislovodsk, which was managed by an uncle of one of the terrorists, Yusuf Krymshakhalov. Another conspirator, Ruslan Magayayev, leased a KamAZ truck in which the sacks were stored for two months. After everything was planned, the participants were organized into several groups which then transported the explosives to different cities. Most of the people participating were not ethnic Chechens.
Batchayev and Krymshakhalov admitted transporting a truckload of explosives to Moscow but said "they have never been in touch with Chechen warlords and did not know Gochiyaev". They said that someone "who posed as a jihad leader had duped them into the operation" by hiring them to transport his explosives, and they later realized this man was working for the FSB. They claimed that bombings were directed by German Ugryumov who supervised the FSB Alpha and Vympel special forces units at that time.
In September 1999, hundreds of Chechen nationals (out of more than 100,000 permanently living in Moscow) were briefly detained and interrogated in Moscow, as a wave of anti-Chechen feeling swept the city. All of them turned out to be innocent.
According to the official investigation, the following people either delivered explosives, stored them, or harbored other suspects:
On January 18 2003, Yuri Felshtinsky provided Novaya Gazeta with a video recording and its transcript. The video dated August 20 2002, contained an interview with main suspect of the case Achemez Gochiyayev. According to Gochiyayev, he was an unknowing participant in a plot organized by an undercover FSB agent, his former acquaintance Ramazan Dyshekov.
The Russian Duma rejected two motions for parliamentary investigation of the Ryazan incident. The Duma, on a pro-Kremlin party line vote, voted to seal all materials related to the Ryazan incident for the next 75 years and forbade an investigation into what happened.
An independent public commission to investigate the bombings chaired by Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev, was rendered ineffective because of government refusal to respond to its inquiries. In 2002 and 2003 prominent members of the Kovalevs commission underlined they had no information about the initiator of the bombings, but stressed, that the theory of the FSB involvement, published in the book of Litvinenko and Felshtinsky seems to be even more doubtful than the results of the official investigation. Two key members of the Kovalev Commission, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, both Duma members, have since died in apparent assassinations in April 2003 and July 2003 respectively. Another member of the commission, Otto Lacis, was assaulted in November 2003 and two years later on November 3 2005, died in hospital after a car accident.
The commission of Sergei Kovalev asked lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin to investigate the case. Trepashkin found that the basement of one of the bombed buildings was rented by FSB officer Vladimir Romanovich and that the latter was witnessed by several people. However Trepashkin was unable to bring the evidence to the court because he was arrested in October 2003, allegedly for "disclosing state secrets", just a few days shortly before he was to make his findings public. He was sentenced by a military closed court to four years imprisonment. Amnesty International issued a statement that "there are serious grounds to believe that Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested and convicted under falsified criminal charges which may be politically motivated, in order to prevent him continuing his investigative and legal work related to the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities". Romanovich subsequently died in a hit and run accident in Cyprus.
According to Trepashkin, his supervisors and people from the FSB promised not to arrest him if he left the Kovalev commission and started working together with the FSB "against Alexander Litvinenko".
Commission chairman Kovalev summarized their findings as follows: "What can I tell? We can prove only one thing: there was no any training exercise in the city of Ryazan. Authorities do not want to answer any questions..."
The bombings happened over a span of two weeks in 1999 and stopped when three FSB agents were caught by the local police while planting a similar bomb in an apartment block in the city of Ryazan. Russian Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Rushailo congratulated citizens with preventing the terrorist act soon after the incident, but FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev declared that the incident was a training exercise, when he had learned that the FSB agents were caught. The next day, President Boris Yeltsin received a demand from 24 Russian governors to transfer all state powers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to Yushenkov. Second Chechen War began on September 23, a week after the last bombing and a day after Ryazan incident. This war made Putin very popular, although he was previously unknown to the public, and helped him to win a landslide victory in the presidential elections on March 26 2000.
These events were a successful coup d'état organized by the FSB to bring future Russian president Vladimir Putin to power according to a theory that was put forward by writer David Satter, political scientist Vladimir Pribylovsky, historian Yuriy Felshtinsky, former FSB officer and writer Alexander Litvinenko, Russian Duma lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov, film maker Andrei Nekrasov, investigator Mikhail Trepashkin, and others. Some of them described the bombings as typical "active measures" practicised by the KGB in the past. David Satter stated during his testimony in the United States House of Representatives that:
According to the book by Felshtinsky and Pribylovsky, the September 4 terrorist attack in Buynaksk was probably conducted by a sabotage unit of twelve Russian GRU officers who acted on the orders of Colonel-General Valentin Korabelnikov. They referred to the testimony of GRU officer Aleksey Galkin. According to this version, all other attacks were organized by FSB forces based on the following chain of command: "Putin (former director of the secret service, future president) - Patrushev (Putin's successor as director of the secret service) - secret service General German Ugryumov (director of the counter-terrorism department)." FSB officers Vladimir Romanovich, Ramazan Dyshenkov and others directly carried out the bombings. Several Chechens were recruited by FSB agents to deliver explosives disguised as bags of sugar to Volgodonsk and Moscow: Adam Dekkushev, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov, and Timur Batchaev. The Chechens believed that apartment buildings were merely temporarily storage places, and that the explosives would be used against federal military targets. Ethnic Karachai Achemez Gochiyaev rented the apartment basements as storage spaces on request from FSB agent Ramazan Dyshenkov.
The BBC Channel 4 programme Dispatches report Dying for the President, screened on March 9, 2000, and a subsequent article in The Observer also alleged that their journalists put Russian "secret police in [the] frame for Moscow atrocities".
Former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and historian Yuri Felshtinsky published thr book Blowing up Russia: Terror from within about the Russian apartment bombings and other terrorism acts that have been allegedly committed by Russian State Security Services to justify the Second Chechen War and bring Vladimir Putin to power. On December 29 2003, Russian authorities confiscated over 5000 copies of the book en route to Moscow from the publisher in Latvia.
A documentary film, Assassination of Russia, was made in 2000 by two French producers who had previously worked with NTV on NTV's Sugar of Ryazan program. This film was broadcast by the main TV channels of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Russian Deputy Yuri Rybakov brought a hundred copies to St. Petersburg, but the copies were confiscated at customs, in violation of his parliamentary immunity. No TV station in Russia was able to show the film. However tens of thousands of pirate copies were sold in Russia in 2002. On April 23, 2002, Sergei Yushenkov brought to Washington, D.C., a box with copies of "Assassination of Russia". He tried to convince U.S. administration that bombings were committed by the FSB, however there were no official statements. A staffer in Senate Foreign Relations Committee explained: "We just cannot go out and say that the president of Russia is a mass murderer. But it is important that we know it."
A documentary Nedoverie ("Disbelief") about the bombing controversy made by Russian director Andrei Nekrasov was premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The film chronicles the story of Tatyana and Alyona Morozova, the two Russian-American sisters, who had lost their mother in the attack, and decided to find out who did it.
Alexander Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko have published a book Death of a Dissident. They asserted that the murder of Litvineko by Russian agents was "the most compelling proof" of the FSB involvement theory. According to the book, the murder of Litvineko "gave credence to all his previous theories, delivering justice for the tenants of the bombed apartment blocks, the Moscow theater-goers, Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya, and the half-exterminated nation of Chechnya, exposing their killers for the whole world to see.
Litvinenko' books and the movies Assassination of Russia and Disbelief were sponsored by a controversial self-exiled Russian tycoon and Putin ally-turned-enemy Boris Berezovsky. Co-author of the Gang from Lubyanka and Death of a Dissident Alexander Goldfarb is an executive director of International Foundation for Civil Liberties (established by Berezovsky) since November 2000. David Satter heavily relies on research sponsored by Berezovsky in his book.
Russian author and businessman Yuli Dubov, author of The Big Slice, wrote a novel The Lesser Evil, based on the bombings. The main characters of the story are Platon (Boris Berezovsky) and Larry (Badri Patarkatsishvili). They struggle against an evil KGB officer, Old man (apparently inspired by the legendary Philipp Bobkov), who brings another KGB officer, Fedor Fedorovich (Vladimir Putin) to power by staging a series of apartment bombings.
Sergei Markov, an advisor to the Russian government, criticized the film Assassination of Russia which supported the FSB involvement theory. Markov said that the film was "a well-made professional example of the propagandist and psychological war that Boris Berezovsky is notoriously good at." Markov found parallels between the film and the conspiracy theory that the United States and/or Israel organized the 9/11 attacks to justify military actions.
Some publications tell that "being prone to conspiracy theories, as Russians certainly are, doesn’t mean that someone is not conspiring against them". The director of the Nixon Center Paul Saunders commented that Putin's willingness to shut down the Novaya Gazeta could be understood because "most dismiss the involvement of the Russian government in the apartment bombings as an unsupported conspiracy theory though it has received widespread attention". British author and journalist Vanora Bennett said that although "it sounds far-fetched at first",
Former KGB colonel Konstantin Preobrazhensky said that "Litvinenko's accusations are not unfounded. Chechen rebels were incapable of organising a series of bombings without help from high-ranking Moscow officials."
GRU defector and author Viktor Suvorov said that the Litvinenko's book Lubyanka Criminal Group describes "a leading criminal group that provides "protection" for all other organized crime in the country and which continues the criminal war against their own people", like their predecessors NKVD and KGB. He added:
"The book proves: Lubyanka [the KGB headquarters] was taken over by enemies of the people. (Is it possible to call them friends of people, them who put their own people on the needle and blow up sleeping children?). If Putin's team can not disprove the facts provided by Litvinenko, Putin must shoot himself. Patrushev and all other leadership of Lubyanka Criminal Group must follow his example.
Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer noted: "The FSB accused Khattab and Gochiyaev, but oddly they did not point the finger at Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov's regime, which is what the war was launched against."