In the year Vladimir Putin rose to power, 1999, I was ten years old, snot-nosed and defiant, selling holographic Pokémon cards by the handball courts for far too much money. My interest in the cards was purely economic.
That same year, a politically inexperienced Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin. As a ten-year-old card pusher, this news never reached me – even if it had, doubtful it would have been very impactful.
I grew older, wiser, curious-er, and Putin became a person I knew. Not personally, but I knew the name and photos and reputation. I knew he was a former KGB agent, former director of the KGB, and current president of Russia.
In reality, until somewhat recently, I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Vladimir Putin, namely his rise to power. This ignorance bred a certain kind of fear.
That being said, I was alive when Putin ascended to his current position as one-man Russian regime. And now, with the Senate Intelligence Committee testimonies heating up, I feel it is timely to look back on his ascension to power, and the controversy surrounding it.
To understand Putin’s ascension, we must first understand Boris Yeltsin, who served as the country’s President from 1991 to 1999. The first post-Soviet President.
During Yeltsin’s presidency, following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was plagued by economic hardship, instability, and fear. Corruption became widespread and rampant among Yeltsin and his administration, dubbed the “family” – led by his daughter, Tayana Dyachenko, Boris Berezovsky (the richest man in Russia at the time), and Valentin Yumashev, a member of the Security Council and Dyachenko’s future husband.
As his Presidency was coming to an end, it is believed that Yeltsin, and the “family”, feared a great reckoning for their role in turning Russia into, what many would describe as, a criminal state, owing largely to disparities in wealth and growth in organized crime. It would seem widespread investigations into corruption amongst Yeltsin and the “family” prompted the President to begin his search for someone loyal and cooperative to take the reins, effectively relieving he and the “family” of any repercussions for the last eight years.
Yeltsin went through two other candidates within three months before deciding that Putin was his man, quickly appointing him Prime Minister in August of 1999. At that time, Yeltsin’s approval rating was two percent, and it was unlikely anyone associated with the outgoing President could win a free election, which was set for the middle of the next year.
In early September of 1999, a succession of four bombs were set off in two weeks. Each bomb targeted an apartment building in a different Russian city, including Moscow. The Russian government immediately blamed Chechen rebels for the bombings, believing two specific rebel leaders to be responsible. Those leaders, who had not shied away from taking credit for previous attacks, denied any involvement.
Three years earlier, the First Chechen War had ended. It had been a military victory for Chechnya, which, in 1999, was operating with more freedom and autonomy than ever before. This leaves little room for Chechen motive in an attack on Russia that could possibly lead them back into war.
The bombs, it was reported by the Russian government and FSB (the successor organization to the KGB), were made largely of a chemical called hexogen, a powerful military explosive.
David Satter, a journalist who has reported extensively on these bombings, wrote, “I had no illusions about Yeltsin and his cronies but it was hard to imagine that a man who came to power as a result of a peaceful anti-communist revolution with massive public support would be willing to murder his own people to hold onto power. Developing events, however, were to change my mind.”
Scott Anderson, a veteran war journalist who also reported extensively on these bombings, explained, “these were very crude and heavy bombs, and would have required a car to transport.” Anderson goes on to say that, in 1999, Russia was still a heavily policed state, with checkpoints and extensive security provisions in place. Following the government’s claim that the bombings were executed by Chechen rebels, it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for anyone, let alone Chechens, to drive these bombs through Russian cities without detection.
At the time of the bombings Yeltsin’s health had begun to deteriorate at an alarming rate. As fear began to rumble through every city in Russia, the country looked to the newly appointed Prime Minister for guidance.
The first bomb was detonated on September 4, 1999, while the fourth bomb went off on September 16, 1999 in Moscow. Up to that point, the story that Chechen rebels had perpetrated the attack had been accepted by the Russian public.
On September 22, 1999, that changed, for there was a fifth bomb that did not detonate. Local residents of Ryazan, where the fifth bombed was planted, reported seeing a white sedan pull up to an apartment building. Two men exited the car with a large white bag of something, and proceeded to the basement.
Local authorities quickly discovered the planted bomb in the Ryazan apartment building basement, and were able to disarm the explosive before it could go off. This bomb, too, was made of hexogen, and immediately a massive search for the white sedan and two suspects was launched.
One day later, still Prime Minister Putin, officially declared war on Chechnya, launching the Second Chechen War. His popularity quickly skyrocketed.
Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s longtime protégé and head of the FSB at the time, quickly went on national television and reported to the nation that the bomb scare in Ryazan had been a drill, a military exercise. The white powder, he explained to the nation, was not hexogen, at all, as initially reported. It was sugar, he alleged.
Despite inconsistencies in the reports leading to war, Putin’s popularity continued to rise as the Russians decimated the Chechens. On December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin announced he would retire and appoint Vladimir Putin acting President. Yeltin’s early retirement moved the election up three months earlier, allowing Putin to ride his newfound popularity to an easy victory on March 26, 2000.
Putin’s first decree as acting President was to relieve Yeltsin and the “family” of all ongoing corruption investigations.
Maura Reynolds, then a foreign correspondent for the LA Times, interviewed residents of the apartment building in Ryazan where the fifth bomb had been planted.
“At a minimum, they believe that the government is covering up something. At a maximum, they fear that the government might itself have played a role in the bombings,” she wrote in early 2000.
Is it possible that a virtually unknown prime minister and an outgoing, unpopular President would bomb their own people to launch a false war, in turn galvanizing a disbanded population under the young prime minister on his way to the presidency? The idea alone, without context, seems farfetched.
Why had Putin been chosen by Yeltsin and not someone else? If you recall, there were two other candidates considered before Putin. What had Yeltsin seen in him?
One event lends insight, while also highlighting Putin’s capacity for subterfuge.
In 1997, reports surfaced that Russian organized crime controlled numerous businesses in Switzerland and that Behjet Pacolli, head of Swiss construction company, Mabetex, had been paying both Yeltsin and his daughters discretely to earn favor with the Kremlin. Mabetex had recently secured massive reconstruction contracts with the Kremlin. In late 1998 these reports were sent to then Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov.
These revelations prompted Skuratov to amplify investigations into Yeltsin and the “family”, namely Yeltsin’s daughter Dyachenko and Berezovsky. During this time, Yeltsin’s health had deteriorated even further, leaving many important decisions to Dyachenko and Berezovsky.
In 1999 the offices of Mabetex were raided and the allegations confirmed, as more than $600,000 in payments were found to have been made to Yeltsin and Dyachenko. Yeltsin’s response came in the form of then FSB director, Vladimir Putin. The young director secretly filmed Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov in a sauna having sex with two prostitutes. The film was aired on RTR, the national television station of the Russia.
Shortly thereafter, Skuratov was forced to resign. Investigations into Yeltsin and the “family” were momentarily derailed, but the aging President and his cronies were still in need of a long-term solution to avoid repercussions for the past ten years of corruption.
Proving his capability and loyalty, Vladimir Putin was called on to fill the important role of Prime Minister, and, we know now, eventual successor. However, as mentioned before, with Yeltsin’s abysmal approval ratings and elections fast-approaching, at the time it seemed unlikely anyone associated with the aging President could win a free election.
How would they accomplish the desired transition of power to their new ally, Vladimir Putin? The question appeared to have no answer.
Then, in early September of 1999, the first bomb went off.
On September 13, 1999, three days before the third bomb would discharge in Volgodonsk, speaker of the Duma (Russia’s legislative body) and close friend of Putin, Gennady Seleznev, prophesized the bombing. Addressing a crowd, Seleznev misspoke and referred to the wrong city, stating that a bomb had gone off in Volgodonsk. He had meant to say Moscow where the September 13th bomb had just hit. At the time, it had been written off as a harmless mistake.
Three days later on September 16th, when a bomb actually did go off in Vologodonsk, public outcry roared, demanding an explanation. It looked as if the Russian government had known where the bombs were being planted beforehand, although it has not been proven.
Whose interests were being served?
Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was especially vocal, vehemently demanding explanation from Seleznev and Putin. On the day in which Seleznev misspoke, Zhirnovsky reported it to local journalists, but transcripts could not be located and no article was published.
No further explanation has ever been offered.
American David Satter, the forefront journalist and investigator of the 1999 bombings, has become as much a part of this story as the story itself. He has written extensively on the matter, publishing a book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, in 2003, arguing Putin’s involvement in the bombings.
In 2002, after the Duma denied several attempts to organize a commission to investigate the bombings, a public commission, outside of Russian government control, was formed.
Despite pushback from the Russian government, the commission was able to locate the transcripts and confirm Seleznev’s dark prediction of the bombing in Volgodonsk. David Satter worked intimately with the commission, and many other Russian human-rights defenders, attempting to expose Putin and his involvement in these acts of terror, as he describes them.
Those of whom Satter had worked with include Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkobskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Between 2003 and 2006, all of them were murdered.
Satter wrote in 2016: “By 2007, when I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the bombings, I was the only person publicly accusing the regime of responsibility who had not been killed.”
Satter was especially close to Yuri Shchekochikhin, and shortly before Shchekochikhin’s death, he presented Satter with a copy of his book, Slaves of the KGB: 20th Century, the Religion of Betrayal. In it, Satter writes, Shchekochikhin inscribed: “We are still alive in 2003!”
In July of 2003, Yuri Shchekochikhin was poisoned. His family were denied medical reports of his death, and it has been reported the Russian government refused to perform an autopsy. Shchekochikhin’s family, however, were able to secretly send tissue samples to London, where an independent commission determined Thallium responsible for Shchekochikhin’s death. Thallium was the same substance used in the death of Putin’s former bodyguard, Roman Tsepov, in 2004, a year later. Circumstances surrounding Tsepov’s death remain unclear.
Three months earlier, on April 17, 2003, Satter received a phone call informing him that Sergei Yushenkov had been shot in the foyer of his apartment building. Yushenkov had been an active member of the public commission investigating the FSB and Putin’s involvement in the bombings.
“For the first time in the 27 years I had been writing about Russia, I felt afraid even to leave my apartment,” Satter wrote. Yushenkov held the same view as Satter, whose book Dawn of Darkness detailing his certainty of FSB involvement in the bombings, was set to release the next month.
Three years later on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, also a member of the public commission and one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building.
A little more than a month later, Alexander Litvinenko, with whom Satter worked closely, also an active member of the public commission, was poisoned in London on November 23, 2006.
An independent British commission looking into Litvinenko’s death determined the cause to be radioactive polonium-210. An evil chemical. The independent British commission also determined that the assassination had been perpetrated by the FSB, concluding they had slipped the poison in his tea while he dined at a London sushi restaurant.
“By any standard, murdering hundreds of innocent and randomly chosen fellow citizens in order to hold on to power is an example of cynicism that cannot be comprehended in a normal human context. But it is fully consistent with the Communist inheritance of Russia and with the kind of country that Russia has become,” wrote Satter, who continues to this day, to work to expose the corruption of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.
293 Russians were killed by those four bombs in 1999.
In conclusion, there isn’t one.
To conclude with a single thought would be to ignore the complexities of the situation. The goal of examining these allegations and reports was, and remains to be, to seek to understand the dangers and rewards of a closer relationship with Russia, more specifically political alignment with the man at the helm of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
But who planted the bombs? I’m sure that’s what you’re still wondering. The short answer, I don’t know. In the eyes of the Russian government it was the Chechens.
To the public commission it was the FSB and Putin.
To many others, it remains unclear.
To Times reporter Maura Reynolds, it doesn’t matter. “Whether the government or people around Putin played a role or whether they didn’t, the affect is the same,” she stated in an interview. Fear is the intended goal – and it is achieved.
Today, opinions on Russia and American response range widely. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution believes, "Simply accepting Russian behavior that is truly egregious would prove problematic to US efforts to halting Russian meddling around the world. If the [United States] were to recognize Crimea as Russian, that would put us in the likes of a handful of countries like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.”
Further, the issue at the forefront of U.S. – Russian relations deals with an individual’s rise to power, and an election. As Michael Flynn, former national security adviser to President Trump, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, have both been subpoenaed by the House Intelligence Committee, it is clear the fear surrounding Russian involvement in U.S. elections and politics is prevalent and growing.
David Satter writes, “This [is] a moral obligation, because ignoring the fact that a man in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal came to power through an act of terror is highly dangerous in itself.”
Vladimir Putin has vehemently denied any involvement with the bombings of 1999.
Visit www.cmstassel.com for more from the author.