Secret at the heart of Putin's rise to power
By Julius Strauss in Ryazan
By rights Tatyana ought not to be alive today.
Along with the other residents of the red-brick housing block on
Novosyolov Street in the Russian city of Ryazan, she should have
died with husband and son on Sept 23, 1999.
|Mr Putin: likely to remain
president of Russia
At 5.30 that morning three sacks of high
explosive hidden in the basement of their building were set to
blow up. The explosion would have brought down the block.
"Of course we're lucky to be here," said
Tatyana, 39, in the hallway of her building this week. She was
too scared to give her surname.
"They had decided to blow up the building and
we would all have died. Even today I shiver when I think about
More than 240 other Russians were less
fortunate. They died that autumn in a wave of bombings that
destroyed three blocks of flats, two in Moscow and one in the
town of Volgodonsk.
The Russian authorities were swift to lay the
blame at the door of Chechen separatists. But no supporting
evidence has emerged. Two men from the Caucasus were
convicted of involvement after a closed trial this year, but
it was widely denounced as a charade.
Instead a growing body of proof has surfaced
that links the bombings, and the Ryazan incident in particular,
to the FSB - the revamped KGB. Independent investigators,
including several MPs, who have sought to look into the case
have been intimidated, arrested or beaten.
Analysts and investigators claim that President
Vladimir Putin, who was FSB chief until August of that year and
subsequently prime minister, must know the truth.
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate with the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "He would know
not just what happened but who the suspects were. The truth will
not damage him because it won't be told until after he is gone."
The 1999 bombings proved to be Mr Putin's
political making. He positioned himself as a strongman who would
crush the Chechen rebels and restore order to the ailing
Riding a wave of nationalist fervour, in eight
months he went from being a virtual political unknown to winning
the presidency by an easy margin. Now, after winning nearly
complete control over parliament in December and installing a
loyal new cabinet days before tomorrow's presidential election,
Mr Putin is poised to seal another four years at Russia's helm.
In Novosyolov Street the day before the bomb
was due to detonate, residents noticed a white Lada parked with
a man sitting in the back and a woman standing nervously by the
front door. Then another man emerged from the cellar and the
three drove away. The residents called the police who found the
bomb - three sacks of hexogene, a military explosive used in the
other attacks that autumn.
The railway station and airport were cordoned
off and roadblocks set up. To general approval, Mr Putin
announced that Russian planes had begun strafing Grozny, the
That evening the bombers made a mistake. Using
a public telephone one of them called a number in Moscow for
instructions, saying it was impossible to leave the city
undetected. An operator traced the call. The number called
belonged to the FSB.
Shortly afterwards the two men were arrested.
Each produced documents showing that he worked for the FSB.
Later an order came down from Moscow ordering the local police
The next day Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the
FSB, announced that the entire thing had been a training drill
to raise public awareness. The white substance was not hexogene,
he said, but sugar. The residents who called the police and the
telephone operator were each given a colour television to reward
them for their vigilance.
For a while the controversy refused to die
down. Boris Berezovsky, the exiled tycoon and a bitter enemy of
Mr Putin, sponsored a film and a book about the incident but
both were confiscated by Russian authorities.
A human rights activist, Veniamin Ioffe, who
tried to show the film in St Petersburg was beaten up and later
In 2002 several liberals, including the MPs
Ivan Rybakin and Sergei Yushenkov, set up a citizens' commission
to investigate the bombings.
On April 17 last year, Mr Yushenkov was shot
dead outside his home. In July, another MP and commission member
died mysteriously after alleged food poisoning. A third
commission member was beaten unconscious in the lift of his
Last December, Mr Rybakin lost his seat in the
State Duma. He has now all but given up on the investigation.
"The men behind this were definitely FSB
employees," he told the Telegraph. "Whether they got their
orders from the very top, or were a criminal grouping inside the
organisation, is impossible to say.
"Since they are guarding this so carefully I am
afraid there is something really horrible there. As for Putin,
its possible he didn't know at the time. But he certainly knows
the truth now, better than anyone."
Tatyana said: "We still don't know who is
guilty. We probably never will. Life is hard here and after a
while we stopped asking. I'm sorry to say it, but that's the