L’AMICO PUTIN. L’invenzione della dittatura democratica.
Aliberti Editore, Reggio Emilia, June 2011
Putin: The Invention of a Democratic Dictatorship
The Putin Project
December. Biting cold. Dry, thick snow slowly drifted down from the sky.
At nightfall, cars fought for space on the frozen streets as their exhaust enveloped the imposing ocher-colored building on Lubyanka, the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), heir to the Soviet KGB. Some cars – with darkly tinted windows and flashing blue lights on the roofs – briefly stopped close to entrance No.1 and let a passenger in black get out. Then they immediately rejoined the flow of Moscow traffic.
This was a special evening. Inside the ominous Lubyanka building, this year, like every previous year, hundreds of agents gathered to celebrate the founding of the Cheka[i], the Soviet secret police. For more than 80 years, this was an occasion to meet old friends and colleagues, to recall the good old days, and keep up contacts. But on this evening, the tinkling of glasses full of champagne, the conversations among colleagues, and the notes of classical music stopped as Vladimir Putin – a former colleague who had been appointed prime minister a few months earlier – stood up to speak.
“Dear comrades,” Putin said. “I would like to announce that the group of FSB[ii] agents that you sent to work undercover in the government has accomplished the first part of its mission.”
Everyone in the room understood. All of them smiled in satisfaction: “The mission” was for Putin to become president and to appoint his former KGB colleagues to top government posts. Everyone hoped that night that they could soon enjoy the fruits of their labor, the result of the work they had done the previous months. They were almost certain that very soon the spetssluzhby [iii] (the special services) would again play the leading role in the country.
Putin – a former KGB lieutenant who had become director of the FSB – was in seventh heaven: His usually cold eyes shone with pleasure, and his pale lips tried to form a smile. The enthusiastic pleasure his former colleagues took in his popularity – a level none of them had reached before – pleased him. He felt finally at home.
“There are no former agents,” Putin said, quoting a common joke among KGB men. It meant that an agent is an agent forever. Former agents don’t exist. Everyone is always on duty, even if after changing jobs or retiring.
But Putin gave a new twist to the joke: He – a former spy who worked in Dresden, in East Germany, until the fall of the Berlin wall – wanted to make a verbal pact with them. He wanted to assure them that they wouldn’t be forgotten once he reached the pinnacle of power, but also that they would be in charge of key posts. This promise revived pride in those men, who, over eight years of Russian-style capitalism, had been humiliated and demeaned. Now they knew the intelligence services were about to reassume their former prestige.
“We are once again in power, and this time we will stay forever,” Putin assured them between toasts.
“That is exactly what happened.” These are the words of a former agent, whom I will call Dmitry[iv]. In Soviet times he worked for the second Directorate of the KGB, which controlled the political activities of Soviet citizens and foreigners, including diplomats living in the Soviet Union.
Dmitry is tall and extremely thin. Now, at almost sixty years old, he looks more like a bureaucrat who has spent hours and hours behind a desk under artificial lights than a specialist who wire-tapped “enemies of the Fatherland” and “foreign spies.”
We met in one of the many cafes in the center of Moscow. While sipping cappuccino, Dmitry recalled the agents raising a toast to Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the Polish aristocrat who founded the Cheka, and Yuri Andropov, who served longest as KGB chief in his the third floor office on Lubyanka — the man who radically broke the traditional separation between the KGB and the Communist Party.
Dmitry said the agents abandoned the champagne for vodka – they needed something stronger to celebrate the end of the decline of the secret services after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. They wanted to forget once and for all their bitterness over the betrayal and humiliation they endured. Dmitry remembered dark times when many agents had to take on lowly jobs to survive. Some became gypsy cab drivers; others joined the criminal underworld or worked as bodyguards for the newly rich. In Soviet times, they had been part of a much feared and respected elite, but during the transition to capitalism, they had become part of the masses – people without stable jobs, who had to live by their wits to make ends meet. But on that evening, there was hope that things had changed and that order would once again prevail in “democratic” Russia, a country the former KGB agents didn’t recognize anymore.
“Values had been turned upside down. People we had considered scoundrels were now riding the wave of the moment,” Dmitry said. “And we, who had spent our lives serving the Fatherland, not only had to pretend that everything was fine, we had to serve as their bodyguards to make few cents to survive. We had to work for them, because those people – whom we considered scoundrels – were now the new owners of Russia, a country in decay. That evening we drank to the hope that things would get back to their natural order.”
“What do you mean by natural order?” I asked him.
“Order that brings justice,” he answered.
The evening Dmitry was talking about was December 20, 1999. On the day before, Russians had voted for a new parliament. Prime Minister Putin’s party, founded just two months earlier, had gotten an astonishing 23 per cent of the vote – just one percentage point less than the very popular Communists.
The Ideal Candidate
Moscow, spring 1999. As the snow slowly melted, all the debris the long winter had buried began to come up to the surface. All sorts of things emerged from under the snowy streets and fields of Moscow: old shoes, pieces of plastic, wastepaper, cigarette butts, excrement. As usual in the spring, the carpet of snow turned into filthy, brown pulp. At this time of year, Muscovites zigzag across the ground to avoid putting their feet into the frozen slush.
During this wet harbinger of the spring to come, some agents of the old secret services met several times. In the name of their common mission – what Putin disclosed to his colleagues on Lubyanka – they had put their old misunderstandings aside.
President Yeltsin had appointed in August 1999 Putin – a former spy who just a few months earlier had been a complete unknown – as prime minister.
His career advancement was as rapid as it was surprising. In May 1998, Yeltsin appointed Putin deputy head of the presidential staff, responsible for the regions; in July he was appointed head of the FSB[v]; in October he became a permanent member of the Security Council, and in March 1999 – secretary of the Security Council. The apparently shy Vladimir had managed to win Yeltsin’s favor like no one else before. His career took off.
And now the men of the old secret services, long relegated to the margins of the country’s political life, had a thrilling new opportunity. “One of them” would soon reach the pinnacle of power – the Russian presidency. And this – they thought – was the right time to make a pact with him. They would back Putin’s accession to the throne and, in return, Putin would restore the organization’s old power and prestige.
They discussed this issue on that day in early spring. They didn’t make any practical plans. That was not, after all, their style. They would let events unfold to show them the best way to reach their goal. But they all agreed about one thing: Their moment was about to come. Everything seemed to be turning to their advantage, and they had to be ready.
According to Dmitry, many in the Kremlin were quite surprised by the results of a poll about Russians’ ideal presidential candidate. People were given a list of fictional characters to choose from, and the majority picked one of three candidates with a common trait: All of them were siloviki, a word that literally means “strong people,”[vi] but is used to denote people who work in the security services and the armed forces.
Russians’ ideal candidates were the secret agent Stirlits, hero of the Soviet television series Semnadtsat mgnovenii vesni (Seventeen Moments of Spring)[vii]; Georgy Zhukov, the famous Red Army Marshal; and Gleb Zheglov, the detective in another well-known TV series: Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya (The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed)[viii].
The agents realized that the people were tired of Yeltsin’s “democracy” and the chaos it had wrought, and they now wanted a strong man – a man who could rule the country with an iron fist.
They discussed the survey during that spring meeting and decided their moment had come.
“We had the ideal candidate,” Dmitry said, “But to get things going, we needed a couple of events to convince people to accept a former KGB agent as a presidential candidate.” That meant convincing people that Vladimir Putin was the right man for Russia’s future.
At the time, Boris Yeltsin was becoming moodier every day due to poor health and serious drinking problems. And then in November 1996, he had heart surgery that forced him to remain in the hospital for months.
Throughout his second term, the president was almost never in office. He would only appear for key moments – for example, when he needed to announce for the umpteenth time the firing of a prime minister – and then disappear again.
But if Yeltsin was conspicuously absent, Putin, as director of the FSB, worked hard to appoint many chekists from Saint Petersburg to the Kontora[ix] – the agents’ slang term for the headquarters on Lubyanka. He appointed people who worked with him in the northern capital, as well as many of his former colleagues from the Leningrad KGB Academy with whom he’d kept up contact over the years.
Men began to move to Moscow to eventually take up high positions: Viktor Cherkesov,[x] Putin’s colleague from the KGB Academy; Aleksander Grigorev, a colleague from the Leningrad KGB; Sergey Ivanov, the future deputy prime minister. These are just a few names on a very long list.
Putin convinced Yeltsin to change the staff of the Kontora and start the so-called operation Doloi okamenelosti v lampasakh! (Down with fossils in uniform!) The operation entailed dismissing many old generals and replacing them with Putin’s men, or men who would pay for the favor at the right moment.
In this way, Volodia[xi] laid the foundations for his future network.
“When Putin became president, the FSB was already full of his Saint Petersburg friends: it was like a branch of the Leningrad KGB,” said an agent who used to work for FAPSI, the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, a spetssluzhba similar to the American National Security Agency (NSA).
Winning Over the Family
Putin seemed to have gained Yeltsin’s confidence, but this was not enough. To become president, he needed the backing of all the president’s clan, the so-called Semya – the Family.
The Family consisted of a small circle of highly placed state officials and financiers that controlled Russian politics. Aleksander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, headed the group.
Among the most important representatives of the Family were Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter and advisor;[xii] Valentin Yumashev, Dyachenko’s partner (now her husband);[xiii] the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich (one of the most famous Russian billionaires);[xiv] and the young reformer Anatoly Chubais who, as director of the State Property Committee, ran the program of privatization.
Dyachenko was the fulcrum who kept together this diverse group; Yumashev was in charge of helping – or destroying – alliances between different members; Chubais, Voloshin and Berezovsky were the political strategists; and Abramovich was the “cashier” who took care of the financial interests of the Family.[xv]
These people had literally privatized the state. By carefully placing their people in key posts, they became very wealthy and powerful during Yeltsin’s rule. But now on the eve of a regime change, they were looking for an heir who could guarantee the status quo. They didn’t care if the future president shared Yeltsin’s democratic ideals or not, or if he had worked for the KGB in Soviet times. Obedience – or, better yet, complete submission to the Family – was the main requirement for the future candidate. And now as the end of century and Yeltsin’s second term were approaching, the quest for the perfect candidate was their number one priority.
Putin appeared to have all the necessary qualifications. He was always ready to carry out any order and seemed to have no personal ambitions. He gave the appearance of being an easily manipulated person – a puppet president who would conceal their shady and unscrupulous dealings.
In previous years, the Family had faced difficulties, but it had always been able to overcome them. Now, at the beginning of 1999, the trouble seemed serious enough to shatter the base of this powerful clan.
Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, backed by Yevgeny Primakov, Prime Minister at the time, began a corruption investigation that led to many high government officials. According to Skuratov, about 800 of them were involved in administrative or felony violations of the law. The prosecutor general also investigated the privatization of many state companies that, he said, needed to be reviewed and annulled because he suspected they had been carried out in violation of the law. This meant that many members of the Family and their allies had to give back property they had seized during the wanton privatization campaigns of the previous eight years. Skuratov was the Family’s worst enemy. If the investigation continued, the Family risked losing their property and might even end up in jail.
By February 1999, when the investigation had just begun, Yeltsin asked Skuratov to resign.[xvi] But the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian Parliament), opposed the president’s decision. Yeltsin tried twice more, but the parliament, which still played a role at the time, sided with the prosecutor general. Skuratov continued his work.
Putin realized that this was a good opportunity to gain favor with the Family. At the KGB Academy, agents were taught that anyone could be framed, since most people had a skeleton in the cupboard. If they didn’t, it was a good agent’s job to invent one. Putin, the director of the FSB at the time, decided to apply this principle to the prosecutor general. He started “Operation Skuratov.” A group of agents under Putin’s personal supervision tailed Skuratov and gathered as much information as possible about his private life. They wanted to find a compromising situation that would destroy the prosecutor general and force him to resign.
In Skuratov’s case, the operation’s result was simple and even boring: The prosecutor general had a soft spot for women – child’s play for any agent. They hired two attractive young women to lure Skuratov to a room and film him while the three of them were having sex. With the tape in his hands, Putin met the prosecutor general. After showing him the video, he asked him to resign on Yeltsin’s behalf. Skuratov refused once more. The video was then given to state TV channel RTR, which aired it on March 17 (a few years later, the RTR director said that Putin had personally given him the tape). After RTR, the other channels also aired the video of the prosecutor and the two prostitutes.
Today a Kremlin insider, who at the time oversaw relations between the Kremlin and the security services, remembered the operation:
“The method used to compromise the prosecutor general was quite simple –elementary, in fact. It could have been a training operation for first year students at the KGB Academy. But it worked just perfectly. It seems quite incredible, but this simple operation helped Putin gain Yeltsin’s trust and – what was also important – the trust of the whole Family. This was Putin’s golden opportunity – and it paved his way to the presidency.”
Although journalists cautiously called the tape “a video of a man resembling the prosecutor general,” the recording was a success not only on TV, but also in the market of pirated porno cassettes that were sold at makeshift stalls in the underpasses of Moscow metro stations. Next to “classics” of the genre – tapes with covers of attractive, half-naked blonde women and young men in sadomasochistic costumes – a tape of the prosecutor general was on sale for just a couple of dollars. And it sold like hot cakes, according to Andrei, a vendor, who had a stall in the center, a few paces away from Red Square. When I asked him who gave him the video, he simply answered: “My usual supplier.”
At a press conference in April 1999, Putin and Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin called the video “genuine,” even if the author was unknown. They also stated that people linked to the underworld paid for the prosecutor general’s “fling,” and they asked Skuratov to resign.
Even if it was never officially proven that the man in the video was Skuratov – and Skuratov in his speech to the Duma (parliament) refused to either confirm or deny – the operation achieved the desired result: Skuratov was forced to resign. The Family quickly appointed the loyal Vladimir Ustinov in his stead.
According to a poll conducted at the time by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 58 percent of Russians believed the tape was sufficient reason for the prosecutor general to be dismissed.
“The mission was successful from every point of view. Skuratov was out and Putin was able to hide the real reason for his removal, that is, the investigation he started against the Family,” a source inside the Kremlin said.
The Family could sigh with relief about Skuratov, but Primakov, who backed the prosecutor general’s investigation, was still there.
A former director of the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, Primakov was very popular, not only because he carried out a series of reforms that allowed the country to get out of the extremely difficult 1998 economic crisis, but also because he promised to punish people who got rich through political intriguing under Yeltsin.
In February 1999, the newspapers Novye Izvestiya and Moskovskaya Pravda published “Primakov’s List” – the names of 162 prominent officials involved in corruption scandals. The list included almost all the political and business elite of the country, with the exception of Primakov, Putin and Stepashin. Primakov was in particular after Boris Berezovsky, the untouchable of the Family, and tried to get him arrested for money-laundering.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos in February of that year, Primakov announced that he wanted to free more than 90,000 prisoners and replace them with entrepreneurs who were “more criminal than the men in jail.”
On the political front, Primakov was supported by communists who held high state positions, as well as by average citizens, who had become impoverished since the Soviet era and were weary of the chaos and corruption.
According to a VTsIOM poll conducted March 27-30, 64 percent of Russians were ready to give him their vote if he ran for president, while only 6 percent said they would cast their ballot for Yeltsin.
The Family was panicking.
In May, Yeltsin fired Primakov, after only eight months[xvii] as prime minister, and replaced him with Interior Minister Stepashin: a short-term solution just to reassure his inner circle, but not a definitive way out of the problem. Everyone knew Primakov’s stubbornness.
Berezovsky Looks Back
London, spring 2007. The sight was quite unusual even for a city as eccentric as the British capital. A sturdy young bodyguard with black hair and green eyes got out of a blue armored Mercedes, looked around, and then signaled that the street was safe. It was a typical Moscow scene in the heart of London.
Then I heard the unmistakable voice of Boris Abramovich Berezovsky as he greeted some friends waiting for him. Berezovsky has a high-pitched voice, and he speaks incredibly fast, as if his tongue can’t keep up the pace of his thoughts and his words overlap to save time. For those who have lived and worked as journalists in Moscow, it is a familiar and unmistakable voice, but it was strange to hear it in England. I had called Boris Abramovich (a patronymic that shows his Jewish origins) on his cell phone to make an appointment. He suggested we could meet at the bohemian Miller’s Academy, a few steps away from Notting Hill Gate, where he had an appointment with a group of London intellectuals. He would talk about the decay of Russian democracy under Putin and the reasons why a few months before, in his opinion, his friend Aleksander Litvinenko[xviii] had been poisoned by Polonium 210.
We spent a few hours together, and I insisted that he tell me why he decided to back Putin in 1999. That was a question that Berezovsky tried to avoid answering. He only said: “I made a huge mistake. It can happen to anyone.” Then he changed subject and started laughing and joking with his friends.
After surviving two assassination attempts in Russia – in one of them, a bomb beheaded his driver right before his eyes – since 2001 Berezovsky has been living in exile in the United Kingdom to avoid being arrested in Russia, where he is accused of corruption and fraud.
“Putin was a friend at the time, and I never thought that once he took power he’d turn the country upside down,” he finally said in reply to my questioning.
But who is this oligarch who appears and disappears from the Russian political scene? In the 1990s, Berezovsky made a fortune importing Mercedes to Russia and selling cars produced by Avtovaz, a Russian car manufacturer. Avtovaz struggled to survive, but Berezovsky managed to make millions of dollars. By the mid-1990s, he was one of the main Russian oligarchs who grabbed up the gems of Russian industry at knockdown prices. He was the owner of the oil company Sibneft and the major shareholder of the television channel ORT, the main propaganda instrument that helped the much-hated Yeltsin get re-elected in 1996. That was also the year in which Andrei Lugovoi – the man London’s prosecutors charged in 2007 with poisoning of Litvinenko[xix] – was hired to head the ORT security department.
Now Berezovsky divides his time between his central Mayfair office in London and his Surrey villa, which is guarded by former French Legion soldiers.
Boris Abramovich doesn’t like to speak about Putin and the past, but according to his former aides, he was the one who convinced the Family to stake their future on Putin and make him a part of the clan. And he did it at a time when many Family’s members were getting ready to leave the country and put their fortunes in a safe place.
Primakov was not the first enemy Berezovsky had to defeat, and the oligarch would succeed this time as well.
To understand the role Berezovsky played, it’s necessary to go back in time. In 1996, Yeltsin was written off as politically dead. According to a poll conducted in January of that year, he came fifth in a list of presidential hopefuls with a mere 8 percent, while the Communist Gennady Zyuganov came in first with a strong 21 percent.
At the time, like later in 1999, the game seemed to be lost before it even started. During the World Economic Forum at Davos in February 1996, both world leaders and journalists regarded Zyuganov as the future Russian president. This sent the oligarchs into a panic. They knew that Yeltsin’s era was about to end, and – worst of all – a communist president would replace him.
During the Davos forum, Berezovsky decided to put aside his aversion for the media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky and proposed that they join forces to defeat Zyuganov in the June 1996 elections. Gusinsky agreed. In Davos, they brought in Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the owner of Menatep bank and Yukos petroleum,[xx] and Vladimir Vinogradov, from Inkombank. The quartet made the “Davos pact,” that is, they agreed to unite to help Yeltsin get reelected.
Back in Moscow, they were joined by other oligarchs. Together they decided to appoint Chubais as campaign manager.
Chubais was one of the young economists in charge of reform. In November 1991, he was appointed chairman of the Russian State Property Committee, which had the task of privatization. From this position, Chubais supervised and influenced the privatization of state properties. But in 1996, he had to resign after a series of scandals linked to the privatization process, which was not above board. And yet a month later, Chubais was again riding the wave, in charge of defeating Zyuganov.
Berezovsky also worked full time to mobilize people for Yeltsin’s campaign, and called anyone who was against the president a traitor. And so a powerful media campaign to support Yeltsin began. Journalists willingly took part. They were so frightened by the specter of communism that they believed campaigning for Yeltsin was the best way to defeat it. Yeltsin could count on the backing of the three major television channels: the first channel, ORT, controlled by Berezovsky; the state channel RTR; and NTV, the gem of the media oligarch Gusinsky.
The elections were presented to Russians as a referendum for or against the communist regime embodied by Zyuganov, rather than as a vote on the regime of Yeltsin and his entourage.
Yeltsin’s approval rating did inch upward, but even after the massive work done on a national scale and the huge investment of resources, he was able to win only in the second round and due to clear falsification. It is enough to remember that in Chechnya, devastated by war, officially there was an incredible 76.4 percent turnout and a very unlikely 68.2 percent of the vote for the man[xxi] who had gone to war in the small republic.
Years later, a high Central Election Committee official told me that Zyuganov had won the elections, but the result was reversed during the ballot counting. Just in case, the ballots were destroyed soon after the elections to hide all evidence of fraud, the official said.
Everyone knew what had happened – politicians, journalists and representatives of civil society – but the fear of communism was such that they preferred to deceive themselves, to believe that such a violation, in a still fragile and unsteady democracy, was acceptable if done out of good intentions and only once. But they failed to estimate the consequences of such blatant fraud and the lesson the authorities had learned from it.
These elections taught the Kremlin that any vote could be manipulated with the help of the media and “administrative resources.” Ideology and programs were not needed anymore, since the authorities had discovered a weapon that would make it invincible.
After Yeltsin’s victory, the oligarchs claimed their rewards. They openly asked the president to pay off his debt, reminding him that in 1995 they had loaned the state the money for the budget and then paid for his reelection.
The oligarchs were soon rewarded with shares in very attractive state companies at rock-bottom prices. Berezovsky and Abramovich grabbed the oil company Sibneft, which was worth one billion dollars, for a mere hundred million dollars, while Vladimir Potanin seized Norilsk Nickel.
The oligarchs took all they could, but their appetite was still insatiable. They also wanted political control of the country. And so Berezovsky was appointed secretary of the Security Council, Potanin – vice prime minister, and Chubais was moved to the presidential administration. The debt was fully paid with huge interest.
But this was still not enough. The oligarchs were suspicious of one another and afraid that the others might have snatched bigger pieces of the pie. They quarreled like a pack of predators fighting over Russia’s remains.
In this situation (combined with the 1998 economic crisis, when the ruble lost 70 percent of its value compared to the dollar, government instability, and Yeltsin’s poor health) in 1999, or less than one year before the elections, the Kremlin was seen as weaker than ever. Average Russians believed that chaos ruled.
Some of the oligarchs tried to convince Yeltsin to amend the constitution and extend the presidency to three consecutive terms, but that idea was quickly abandoned. Getting Yeltsin elected again would have required massive falsification that would have been impossible to hide.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov took advantage of this power vacuum to enter politics on a national level. He announced he would take part in the Duma elections with a new opposition party, Otechestvo-Vsya Rossia (Fatherland-All Russia, Russian acronym –OVR), a party made up of many influential regional leaders. But the real threat to the Family appeared when their number one enemy Primakov announced that he would use this new party as a springboard for the following year’s presidential elections.
This was an open challenge to the Family.
Meanwhile, plotting continued within this powerful clan. After a series of exhausting quarrels, disputes, and fights with the other oligarchs, the once-powerful Berezovsky was marginalized. He had not only lost his allies, he had lost most of his influence over the president and the Family. The other oligarchs thought his career had come to an end, especially considering the possible victory of Primakov, Berezovsky’s personal enemy. They stopped taking him seriously. Berezovsky was aware of this, but as the other oligarchs were working on plans for leaving their fortress without losing their money, Berezovsky once again came up with a solution to their problems.
Like in 1996, the Family would win this time, too, he said.
Roses for Lena[xxii]
A few months before, in February, Berezovsky realized that many of the Family members were counting his days in power. His young and beautiful wife Yelena had turned 32 and no one had called to wish her a happy birthday.
Birthdays are important social events in Russia. People invite relatives and friends home or to a restaurant for a party, and at work they treat their co-workers to snacks, sweets and drinks. Forgetting or failing to call someone to wish them a happy birthday is perceived as a lack of respect. This is the reason why Russians write down, or remember by heart, the birthdays of the people they care about.
On that day as Berezovsky stared at his silent telephone, he realized that he was truly alone. He had no more allies. But at the end of the day, something unexpected happened: The doorbell rang and Vladimir Putin stood there with a huge bouquet of roses for Yelena.
“Berezovsky was close to tears out of surprise and emotion. In Russia, he had no friends left. Primakov was after him. Chubais was an enemy and so was Gusinsky. None of the Family members wanted to talk to him. Boris felt his time was over. But then there was a big surprise: Putin was at his door with a big bouquet of flowers for Lena. Boris was well aware of the risk he had run by coming to his place. Primakov’s people had certainly tailed him, and Putin knew about it. But he had come anyway,” recalled journalist Sergei Dorenko, who at the time was extremely loyal to Berezovsky.
Dorenko, a very charismatic journalist, was the information director of the television channel ORT and considered the best “weapon of destruction” the oligarch had on television. He was able to completely destroy or rehabilitate someone just with a couple of carefully chosen words, a talent that was at Berezovsky’s complete disposal at the time.
It was that unexpected visit for Lena’s birthday that finally convinced Berezovsky to back Putin. He recalled it few months later and thought he had found the solution to the Family’s problems: the ideal Yeltsin successor. Now he needed to convince the other oligarchs who had turned against him.
“In the Kremlin, there was an atmosphere of defeat. No one wanted to fight anymore. But here was Berezovsky saying with new energy that they would win again like they did in 1996 elections. They all hated him, but they had no other choice [than to listen to him],” Dorenko said.
Berezovsky tested Putin’s character on other occasions as well, according to his ally and business partner, Yuli Dubov, who is also in exile in London. Dubov wrote the book Bolshaya Paika (The Big Portion), which was the basis for the film The Oligarch, a movie about how people became oligarchs in the 1990s in Russia, which is primarily the story of Berezovsky.
We met in Berezovsky’s luxurious Japanese-style office on Down Street in London, where Dubov has a room at his disposal. I asked him why Berezovsky chose Putin and why he decided to back his rise to power.
“First of all, Putin was better than Primakov,” he said. “I met with him several times and if he flattered other people they way he flattered me, it is quite easy to understand. Putin seemed to be a wonderful person. I found him likeable right from the first meeting. But one event in particular convinced me that [my first impression was correct]. At the time, Putin was Saint Petersburg’s deputy mayor. Boris and I had a firm in the city, but due to a long series of bureaucratic problems that we couldn’t solve, we were unable to get this firm moving. We wrote letters, submitted documents to the City Property Committee, but nothing happened. I called then Boris Berezovsky to ask if he had any idea of how to solve the situation quickly. I didn’t want to waste any more time on this company. Boris told me to call Putin and make an appointment, perhaps to invite him to lunch and explain the situation to him. That’s what I did. We agreed to meet for lunch and Putin strangely arrived on time[xxiii]. I explained the problem to him. He took out his huge cell phone (at the time cell phones were very big) and spoke with someone. He told me the problem was solved. Then he left. He didn’t even want to eat, and he didn’t ask for as much as a ruble for his time. It was the first time I had met an official who didn’t ask for money and refused a free lunch in a good restaurant. I told Boris about it and he was surprised. This is the way Putin presented himself. So Boris’ decision to bet on him didn’t surprise me.”
Finally “One of Them” in the Family
In August 1999 Yeltsin appointed his fifth prime minister in seventeen months.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he announced, “will replace of Sergei Stepashin.”
But that was not all: Yeltsin told also the Russians that Putin was his successor, the person who would continue the democratic reforms he had begun.
“I want the voters in next July’s elections to trust him the way I do,” Yeltsin said.
Putin accepted the challenge with pleasure: “We are soldiers,” he said, “An order is given and we will carry it out.”
These were exactly the words that Yeltsin wanted to hear, said the source overseeing relations between the security services and the Kremlin.
The Family had spent the summer fearing its enemies, but now they could breathe freely. They had found the ideal candidate, a person who suited everyone.
But there was a small problem: No one knew anything about Putin. He was only 46 years old, didn’t speak much, and even if he had spent five years in East Germany serving the KGB, no one seemed to know who he was. Even colleagues who worked with him didn’t know what exactly lieutenant colonel Putin did in Dresden, where he had lived and worked. When a reporter from the Russian television asked him to talk a bit more about himself, Putin said: “Wife, two daughters of thirteen and fourteen.” Nothing more.
But Berezovsky and the Family didn’t care about Putin’s past. They felt unbeatable once more. They had the right card to play now. They made a pact with Putin. Once he was in the Kremlin, he’d be the president de jure, but they would continue to hold the reins de facto, the Kremlin source told me. Putin agreed with no objection.
They were not worried that Putin was unknown and that someone had called him “the lieutenant colonel who never became general or even colonel.” Compared to the 1996 elections, ensuring Putin’s election was child’s play. Voters would not be offered a sick, alcoholic, old man, but a young, former agent whose story wasn’t written yet. The Kremlin’s spin doctors would take care of it, and they were already at work.
But first of all, one problem needed to be solved. The candidate Putin needed a political base of support to help him defeat the Primakov-Luzhkov tandem in the December parliamentary elections and to keep these enemies of the Family from ascending to the presidency. In September, the skilled Kremlin spin doctors created Yedinstvo (Unity), a party with no ideology other than support for Putin. The new party was registered in October, two months before the parliamentary elections.
Berezovsky once again embarked on a political campaign. He toured all the Russian regions in his private plane, meeting with governors and convincing them to support Putin. It was extremely important that Yedinstvo win. In exchange for his help, every governor was promised a high post in the future government.
But someone thought – perhaps rightly – that Yedinstvo was not enough to turn the unknown Vladimir Putin into the television heroes Russians said they were dreaming about in that poll the Kremlin commissioned a few months before…
Shikhsaidova Street, on the outskirts of Buinaksk, the second largest city in Dagestan.
The plotting inside the Kremlin, their heir to the throne, the Family disputes, and the creation of Yedinstvo were only geographically far away from this North Caucasus town.
On September 4, 1999, the streets were empty. The residents – most of them Russian soldiers from 157th brigade and their families – were at home in front of the television to cheer on Ukraine in its soccer match against France.
All of a sudden a violent explosion blew out the windows. Plaster fell from the ceiling. Doors, tables and chairs trembled. The soccer game disappeared from television screens. A truck full of explosive had blown up at 9:40 p.m., reducing the five-story building next to it to a pile of rubble. In an instant the lives of sixty-two people, eleven children among them, were gone.
Hundreds of people were injured.
Later, someone passing by tipped off the militia, which found another truck parked between the military hospital and a dilapidated residential compound with an explosive device set to blast at 1:30 a.m.
Five days later, the same thing happened in another suburb, this time in the southeast of the Russian capital. Shortly after midnight, on 19 Ulitsa Guryanova, a powerful explosion split in half a nine-story, six-entry apartment building. The blast was so violent that it broke the windows of all the buildings within a half-kilometer radius and overturned cars parked in the area. Experts later estimated that the explosion was the equivalent of four hundred kilos of TNT.
In the second attack, 106 people died.
Four days later, there was another explosion. In the Moscow outskirts, on Kashirskoye Shosse (south Moscow), a bomb placed in the basement of the apartment block number 6/3 blew up at 5 a.m., killing 124 people in their sleep. Only smoking rubble and pieces of bodies were left of the eight-story building.
The strength of the explosion scattered tons of debris hundreds of meters and woke up people in the neighboring areas.
Russians learned a new word: geksogen, hexogen, the name of the explosive placed in the basements of the apartment buildings. Also called RDX, hexogen is an explosive used for military and industrial purposes. It is a white and crystalline powder.
The day after the attack on Kashirskoye Shosse, the authorities announced that they had found and defused another bomb on Ulitsa Borisovskiye Prudy, in the southern Moscow suburbs.
The city was panicking.
Everyone wondered what building was going to blow up next. At night it was difficult to fall asleep in Moscow – even for people like me, who didn’t live in a poor suburb, but in a good neighborhood close to the center, or for people living in a patrolled neighborhood difficult for terrorists to infiltrate.
I slept in my clothes. I became obsessed by scenes of defenseless people dug out of the debris naked and covered with blood. So I thought that if something like that happened to our building, at least my body wouldn’t be caught naked in the frames of intrusive television cameramen or photographers. Days later, I learned from an article in Argumenty i Fakty that this kind of paranoia was quite common, affecting not only people like me who had to look at this brutality for work, but also common people. A man, the paper reported, had a quarrel with his wife because she wouldn’t let him sleep in his valenki[xxiv].
The city was under siege. But the tragedy that snatched away hundreds of human lives had the side effect of making relations between the inhabitants of this rude city more human. My neighbor, who rarely smiled, now would say hello to me when he met me in the lift and hold the doors open. I was a familiar and reassuring face, nothing to be worried about.
Authorities proclaimed a state of alert. All cars entering Moscow were thoroughly checked. Apartment buildings’ basements and attics were sealed off to prevent anyone from placing loads of hexogen. Since Soviet times basements have been used as utility rooms for water and gas pipes, while the heating system is placed in the attics. After the fall of the Soviet Union these spaces – especially the attics – often became shelter for homeless people or alcoholics.
Our neighbors – like most Muscovites and the inhabitants of other Russian cities – organized shifts to patrol the areas surrounding our building at night. With torches in their hands, they watched all the streets around our building, stopping every suspicious person to ask for documents. When they saw a suspicious car parked nearby they would immediately call the militia and ask them to come and check.
In Volgodonsk – a town in the Rostov region – everyone was on alert, too.
On September 16 early in the morning, strange phone calls woke up some tenants living at 35 Oktyabrskoye Shosse.
“How can you sleep with death around the corner?” a young male voice asked one of the residents.
“How do you feel facing death?” another male voice (perhaps the same one?) asked another resident.
The men who got the calls said that they hung up and went back to sleep, thinking it was just a bad joke. They felt safe. The militia had checked the basement and the attic under their own supervision and no explosives had been found. In addition, patrols were watching the neighborhood, a further guarantee that suspicious people wouldn’t get close to the area. Everything was calm and silent. No one paid attention to the Gaz-53 truck that parked at 5:50 a.m. next to the entrance of 35 Oktyabrskoye Shosse. It parked there every morning, and so it was not suspicious.
But eight minutes after parking, the truck blew up with such a violent explosion that the entire facade of the building and the lives of nineteen people disappeared in an instant. The truck vaporized, leaving a three-meter hole. According to experts’ estimates, the explosive force was equivalent to 800 to 1,000 kilos of TNT.
It was the fourth time in two weeks that the country, petrified by horror, sat in front of the TV, staring the gruesome images of rescuers desperately digging in the debris in the hope of finding someone still alive.
Many of us still remember the ghastly scenes we had to describe: blood, pieces of bodies trapped under the debris, fragments of objects that just one day before had been part of normal life but now set off heartbreaking scenes of despair among the survivors.
“This shoe belonged to my little granddaughter, do you see it? It’s her shoe,” screamed a middle-aged woman holding what remained of a tennis shoe that might have once been pink.
“Why did someone do this to us? Why? What did we do? Why didn’t I die with them?” a poor old man cried, swaying back and forth while holding a cup of tea a sympathetic neighbor had brought him. His face was covered with fine, gray powder that made him look like a living cement statue.
“Pochemu? Why?” he repeated over and over again. He had no more tears left.
After the first explosion, the authorities pointed their finger at the Chechens.
And in fact, on August 6 and 7, more than one thousand Chechen and Dagestani Wahhabis, headed by Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and the Arab Ibn Al-Khattab, entered the northwestern Dagestan border from Chechnya and occupied several Wahhabi villages. Three days later, on August 10, they announced the creation of the Independent Islamic State of Dagestan and declared war on Russian occupying forces and the Dagestan central government. Basayev declared himself the emir of this new Islamic state, and Khattab added that their aim was to create an Islamic state stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian.
After the invasion of Dagestan, Yeltsin dismissed Stepashin and, on August 9, nominated Vladimir Putin prime minister. After few days of uncertainty, the new prime minister sent some Russia Army divisions that hardly could regain control of the area.
Speaking at the Federation Council – the upper house of the Russian parliament – nine days after being appointed, Putin said that the agreement Russia signed with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in 1996 at Khasavyurt, Dagestan, was a big mistake. The agreement, which ended the first Chechen war, was considered by many international experts as a de facto Russian acknowledgement of Chechen independence. The agreement provided for the withdrawal of Russian troops before the end of the year and a new status for Chechnya by the end of 2001.
The Mystery of Ryazan
Ryazan, September 22, evening. Artur was smoking his umpteenth cigarette of the day and resting on his own elbows on the balcony rail, thinking on his many fruitless attempts to quit. His smoker’s cough wouldn’t let up, but he was, as usual, outside for his ritual after-dinner poisoning, as he ironically called it.
“You’ll die with a lighted cigarette in your mouth,” his wife Yelena yelled at him from the kitchen. But that cigarette might have saved their lives.
As he smoked, Artur noticed three people unloading heavy bags from a white Zhiguli with a Moscow license plate. The car was parked in front of the entrance of his apartment building.
In Ryazan, people were also panicking. They organized patrols in every neighborhood and any unusual situation was a cause for alarm.
Those people aroused Artur’s suspicions, and he decided to call the militia. The operator told him that a car was already on the way because another tenant had called for the same reason.
The white Zhiguli left before the police arrived. When the agents searched the basement, they found 50 kilos of explosives connected to a detonator with a timer set to explode at 5:30 a.m.
Yuri Tkachenko, the head of the local bomb disposal squad, disconnected the detonator and the timer and then asked for the substance inside the three bags to be examined with a gas MO-2 analyzer.
The result of test confirmed that it was hexogen, the same military explosive that had been used in the previous blasts. Everything seemed clear: The terrorists wanted to blast the building, but luckily they were stopped on time.
About 30,000 residents were evacuated from the area.
“We were panicking. We left home with just the clothes on our backs. We didn’t take anything. We were really afraid for our lives,” Artur said.
Every militia officer in Ryazan agents was on duty. More than 1,200 armed people were patrolling the streets of the city and checking train stations and bus stops. Every corner of the city was thoroughly inspected.
“Ryazan is a city under siege,” commented every television channel, which constantly ran a police sketch of the alleged terrorists.
The militia opened a case of terrorism.
On the next day, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said that the militia had prevented a terrorist attack. On the same day, in an evening interview on channel RTR, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin congratulated the people and the militia of Ryazan for what they did. He then promised revenge in a televised statement that went down in history: “If [the terrorists] are at the airport, [we will hit them] at the airport. And, excuse me, if we get them in the toilet we’ll wipe them out in the outhouse. The problem will be completely solved.”
With this expression, Putin’s metamorphosis into a political leader was completed. In that moment, Putin used the strong language that would distinguish his character. The sentence mochit v sortire – wipe out in the outhouse – became a popular idiom because of its strong meaning. The verb mochit used in this sense is part of underworld jargon, the language of killers.
On the next day, Russian air forces bombed the airport in Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic.
On the same day (September 23) that Putin and Rushailo’s statements came out, the FSB spokesman, General Aleksander Zdanovich, told the NTV program Geroi Dnya (Hero of the Day) that the special services were analyzing the substance found in Ryazan to establish where it came from.
In the meantime, in Ryazan the militia and the office of the local FSB were working day and night to find the terrorists. They were in the spotlight, since what had happened in their city had become a nation-wide event.
“Our adrenaline was so high. We wanted to get them. We were sure the terrorists were still in Ryazan. They couldn’t have left the city: They didn’t have enough time to do that,” said Sergei, one of the officers in the Ryazan police squad.
And on September 23 in the evening, the police caught the men.
A telephone operator, who was in charge of wiretapping potential terrorists’ calls, heard a suspicious conversation. “Split up,” a voice with an accent said. “It’ll be easier to escape without being caught.”
The woman immediately sounded the alarm, and the terrorists were stopped.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when they showed us their documents. They were all FBS agents,” Sergei said. “At first we thought the documents were fake, but then we received a call from Moscow asking us to set them free. So we did.”
The next day FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev announced that the Ryazan incident was a simple FSB exercise. What was first thought to be hexogen was now identified as sugar. The detonator was just a harmless plastic box. Russians were told that the residents in that Ryazan house weren’t at any risk: The whole thing was staged to test how the country was prepared to cope with terrorism.
Patrushev added that similar exercises had been conducted in different Russian cities and that the exercise in Ryazan was the last of a long series. (To this day no one knows where the “other” exercises were carried out.)
Patrushev’s announcement came as a surprise to the Ryazan militia.
“We didn’t understand what was going on. Only half an hour before the interior minister had praised us for the umpteenth time: We were shown as an example of how people should behave to defeat terrorism. And then we discovered that there hadn’t been any danger, that everything was staged,” said Sergei with anger. “We felt, to put it mildly, that someone was pulling our leg. We discussed the matter among ourselves and came to the conclusion that we were pawns in a bigger game – a game in which someone was willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of their fellow citizens for the sake of some higher cause.”
“How else could we explain that no one told us it was an exercise?” Sergei continued. “The danger was real for us. We asked thousands of people to evacuate their houses so we could check to make sure no explosives were there. Every time I entered a basement or an attic, my temples pounded from tension. I was afraid of finding an explosive device and not to being able to defuse it in time. And now Patrushev was telling us it was an exercise. I’ve taken part in dozens of exercises, but we knew they were test runs. This is standard procedure, because if you don’t know anything, it could be dangerous. In a situation like the one in Ryazan, we were so tense and tired that any moment something could have gone wrong. What if a shot was fired? Or what if one of the residents panicked and died? What would Patrushev have said? For two days we ran around like mad. We didn’t sleep or eat, and then they told us: ‘Good guys, good work, excellent exercise.’ Are they joking?”
The militia, Ryazan governor Vyacheslav Lyubimov, and even the head of the local FSB said they didn’t know anything about the exercise. What’s more, nobody knew who was responsible for the supposed exercise, if it in fact existed.
Many unanswered questions about Ryazan remain to this day. But one in particular comes to mind: If it was an exercise, why did the FSB wait two days to announce it – two days during which the authorities, including Putin, made fools of themselves making statements about the importance of the operation carried out in Ryazan? During those two days – and this is an important detail – the Russian air force started bombing Grozny. What had happened in Ryazan, Putin said, was the last straw.
Another important question is: Why did the situation in Ryazan only become “an exercise” when the militia caught the alleged terrorists, who turned out to be FSB agents? How is it possible that the bags contained hexogen according to a preliminary analysis, and then the hexogen became sugar?
I’ve talked with different explosive experts and they said that it is impossible to mistake the two substances. Furthermore, people in Ryazan still remember that after the analysis, the bags were left outside in the rain for a long time, and the substance turned to mud. If it had been sugar, it would have just melted.
“The Ryazan operation was a complete failure, proof that the FSB and not the Chechens were involved in the apartment bombings. When the explosives that the agents placed were discovered, the FSB decided to take credit for preventing a terrorist attack. But when authorities in Ryazan – who were in the dark about Moscow’s games – were about to arrest the “terrorists,” Patrushev ordered a halt to the operation, and all of a sudden this became an exercise. This also explains why the attacks stopped after Ryazan.” This is what I was told by a military intelligence agent. He is an expert in Chechen affairs and closely followed the situation at the time.
“The usual chaos that reigns in the Kontora came out of the closet,” he added.
The Duma Gaffe
What happened in Ryazan was not the only event that pointed the finger at the Kontora.
The Duma session on September 13 was very tense. On the previous day, the house on Kashirskoye Shosse had been blown up, and according to a message Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov received, another house had exploded the night before. “In Volgodonsk,” Seleznyov informed the deputies, according to a shorthand report of the session.
The Duma deputies didn’t utter a word; what was going on was so terrible they didn’t know what to say. Only later it became clear that no apartment had been bombed in Volgodonsk. That explosion happened three days after Seleznyov had read the note.
In the next Duma session, a deputy asked Seleznyov to explain this hard-to-believe coincidence. Seleznyov turned off his microphone.
Seleznyov has never told anyone who gave him the note.
According to a military intelligence agent, this is what has happened: “It is simple to explain, and the explanation is once more linked to the chaos inside the Kontora. Someone knew where the attacks were planned, but that person confused the dates and the place. Later no one wanted to sort it out.”
Scandalous incongruities and suspicions notwithstanding, these bloody attacks became the casus belli for the second Chechen war, which was now called an “anti-terrorist operation.” On September 29 after bombing the airport in Grozny, Russian troops crossed the borders into Chechnya.
A savage war began, and violence grew along with Putin’s popularity. He personified the collective desire for revenge against Chechen terrorists, the alleged perpetrators of the blasts.
Official and Unofficial Investigations
An investigation into the apartment bombings was conducted by the FSB and completed in 2002. According to the official version, the Arab commander Abu Umar e Ibn Al-Khattab and the Chechen commander Basayev organized a group of terrorists to carry out the attacks. The group was trained in the Chechen rebel camps at Serzhen-Yurt and Urus-Martan. The head of the group, Achemez Gochiyayev, an ethic Karachai,[xxv] was allegedly paid $50,000 to organize the attacks. He hired nine people to work with him. Curiously, neither Gochiyayev nor his alleged accomplices were Chechen.
According to the authorities, five of the terrorists hired by Gochiyayev were killed fighting in Chechnya and Georgia, two are fugitives, and two are serving life sentences.
The FSB said they had hidden explosives in a warehouse in Kislovodsk, in the Stavropol region (North Caucasus). At the beginning of September they went to Moscow, where Gochiyayev and Denis Saitakov were waiting for them. Gochiyayev rented the basements where the explosive were kept.
But this version is unconvincing.
Although the authorities immediately accused Chechens, many terrorist experts believe that they were incapable of carrying out such huge and complicated operation from a technical point of view. Such attacks, they said, could only have been made by well-trained people – groups like the Irish IRA or Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Another fact that calls into question the official version is that no Chechen leaders claimed responsibility for the attacks. What was the point of organizing mass-scale attacks without claiming political and military responsibility? And finally, why didn’t the Chechens strike a military target? (In 1999, there were hundreds of them a few steps away from the Chechen border). Why did they run the risk of transporting the explosives all the way to Moscow?
I tried to find answers to all these questions.
I met Mikhail Trepashkin in the spring of 2008. Although he’d just been released from prison only a few months before, Trepashkin hadn’t lost his good humor. Trepashkin worked in the KGB Investigative Directorate and then, at the beginning of the 1990s, he moved to the FSB, where he worked in the Directorate of Interior Security. In 1997,[xxvi] disgusted by the corruption widespread in the Kontora, he left the FSB and became a lawyer.
A good friend of Aleksander Litvinenko, the agent poisoned in London in 2006[xxvii], Trepashkin was asked by the liberal deputy Sergei Yushenkov to join a parliamentary commission headed by Sergei Kovalyov. The commission was tasked with carrying out an objective and independent investigation into the explosions. In addition, Trepashkin agreed to represent the sisters Tatyana and Alyona Morozov, who had lost their mother in the attack on Ulitsa Guryanova.
In the days after the Moscow explosions, the militia was able to draw a sketch of the person who rented the apartment house basement based on the testimony of Mark Blumenfeld, the property manager on Ulitsa Guryanova. The portrait of the man was shown on TV and published in all the newspapers. Trepashkin said he immediately recognized an old acquaintance of his: Vladimir Romanovich, an FSB agent who infiltrated Chechen groups. In 1996, Trepashkin had arrested Romanovich for extortion along with a criminal Chechen gang. But the next day, Trepashkin said he was ordered by his superior to release him.
Once again something strange happened: Romanovich’s portrait disappeared and was replaced by one of a man resembling Gochiyayev. Blumenfeld told Trepashkin and journalists that the FSB forced him to withdraw his first testimony and to identify Gochiyayev as the person who rented the basement.
Romanovich was mysteriously killed by a hit-and-run driver in Cyprus a few months after the bombings.
In April 2002, Gochiyayev sent a written statement to the FSB agent Litvinenko, who had started to investigate the attacks while in exile in London. In his testimony, Gochiyayev wrote that an old schoolmate, who perhaps cooperated with the FSB, asked him for a favor – to rent some basements in Moscow to use as warehouses for food he wanted to sell in the city. After the second explosion, Gochiyayev realized that he had become an unwilling accomplice. He immediately called the militia and gave them the addresses of the other two basements he rented. In this way, he said, he helped to avoid two more explosions.
In his statement, Gochiyayev added that he had to leave Russia because his brother, a policeman, told him the FSB wanted to kill him.
“Gochiyayev was from the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, but he had been living in Moscow for more than ten years. All his family lived here. He had a construction company, Kapstroy 2000. If he wanted to organize the attacks, he wouldn’t have rented basements using the name of his firm. And he would have asked his family to leave the city for a safer place. For that reason, the more I investigated, the more I was sure that he didn’t organize the bombings. I sent an official request to the FSB to check the militia printouts and verify that Gochiyayev had really made those phone calls, but I found only obstacles on my way. I’m sure Gochiyayev had nothing to do with the attacks, but he was the ideal candidate: His liking for Wahhabi ideas was well-known,” Trepashkin said.
In October 22, 2003 on the eve of the trial against Adam Dekkushev and Yusuf Krymshamkhalov (who, according to prosecutors, took part in the organization of the attacks under Gochiyayev’s supervision), Trepashkin could not present in court the proof he had gathered against the FSB, because the police had arrested him. The agents said they had found a gun into his car. Trepashkin was charged with illegal weapon possession and revealing state secrets.
The Kremlin insider responsible for relations between the Kremlin and the special services at the time, told me that only after the bombing did he understand the odd activity he had noticed in the spring, when Putin was the head of the FSB. These activities had taken place at the same time Skuratov was under fire.
“In my work, I had to speak to different security services’ representatives, and I felt that someone was planning a new Chechen war. I’m not talking about a plan involving all the Russian spetssluzhby – they were not, and are not, capable of organizing and coordinating such large-scale plans. I’m talking about some groups within them. All of a sudden there was a lot of activity going on, and it was clear that someone was looking at Chechnya and trying to revive old contacts with Chechen fighters,” he said “At the time I didn’t understand why we needed a new war and who in the Kremlin would gain from it during that period of complete chaos.”
The agent who worked for military intelligence, who also took part in different undercover missions in Chechnya, confirmed this version of events.
“Chechnya has always been full of agents from the spetssluzhby. All the extremist fighters were linked to them. Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB had organized the so-called Party of Islamic Rebirth, and many agents from the Fifth Directorate (in charge of watching and eliminating dissidents) were infiltrated into the party. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, right after Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev declared independence from Russia, he ordered his men (one of them is a good friend of mine) to destroy the KGB archives. Why did he do that? He didn’t want people to know who had cooperated with the KGB. In Chechnya, there were many well-known people who kept their links with colleagues now working for the FSB. No one suspected them. After the first Chechen war and the Khasavyurt peace treaty in 1997, Aslan Maskhadov was elected president. Maskhadov was backed by well-known field commanders like Akhmed Zakayev and Magomed Khambiyev (the defense minister), but one group opposed Maskhadov. The best known representatives of this group were the Wahhabi Shamil Basayev, Khattab and Arbi Barayev. Other than the Arabs, all the opposition to Maskhadov was linked to the Russian spetssluzhby. These were the men who invaded Dagestan in August 1999. At the time – let’s not forget – Putin was still the head of the FSB. The FSB promised them that they could keep Dagestan and make an Islamic emirate out of it, but they didn’t keep their promise.”
“Arbi Barayev and the Akhmadov brothers were responsible for most of the kidnappings under Maskhadov’s rule. When the second Chechen war started, Barayev should have been enemy number one for the Russians, but instead he moved freely all over the Chechen territory and crossed all the checkpoints with an FSB agent pass. When he was in Moscow, he lived in FSB apartments.”
I asked the Kremlin source who coordinated work with the spetssluzhby if the president and his entourage had known anything about a plan to invade Dagestan. He said no. That meant that the Family and the president didn’t know that someone else was working on “Putin’s project.”
“When Basayev and Khattab invaded Dagestan, it was an unpleasant surprise for the Kremlin. Everyone was shocked, and for a few days the only force opposing the fighters was the Dagestani militia. Finally, the Defense General Staff took action, but if people in Dagestan hadn’t fought back, Basayev and Khattab would have easily taken the capital of Makhachkala.”
According to the military intelligence agent, the group of FSB agents who backed Putin organized the apartment bombings.
“The invasion of Dagestan and the terrorist attacks were carried out to make the public believe that Russia was under attack and that the country needed a strong man who could handle this critical situation. And the strong man was Putin,” he explained.
“But why did they need to kill so many people?” I asked him. “They could have pretended to catch someone who was organizing a terrorist attack.”
“That didn’t even occur to them. This is not they way they think. In Russia, human life has never had value: It was like that when we were under the czars, and nothing has changed now, especially in the world of spetssluzhby. What are the lives of 300 people worth when power is involved? And power in Russia means money. Not only innocent citizens were killed – the agents and everyone working on the project were killed, too. A gang of Chechen KGB agents headed by an FSB informant took part in organizing the attacks. In exchange for protection, the group used to help the FSB with dirty work — killings, robberies, and terrorist attacks. After the apartment bombings, all the members of the gang were killed. Romanovich, an agent who worked in the gang, was killed in Cyprus. Basayev and Khattab[xxviii] were liquidated. All the agents – I’m talking about small pawns – who worked on the attacks are now dead.”
“But you shouldn’t think that the entire FSB worked for Putin to win the elections. There were a few agents within the organization who backed him and wanted to see him in power. They arranged it all, but they were sloppy and crude. Just think what happened in Ryazan or the note the Duma speaker received. They left traces everywhere. And then to clean it up, they killed the people who helped them so that they couldn’t tell anyone or blackmail some big shot at the Lubyanka headquarters. The FSB isn’t a monolithic organization that was fighting on a single front. Within the Kontora, there are countless groups, subdivisions, organizations and alliances with different interests.”
Akhmed Zakayev was an actor at the Grozny National Theater who was famous for his portrayals of Hamlet and Coriolanus. When the first Chechen war (1994-96) began, Zakayev left the stage to take up arms and join the separatist guerrillas. He became one of the best field commanders. After losing the 1997 elections (when Chechnya was de facto independent), he became President Maskhadov’s deputy prime minister and his right-hand man. Zakayev – whom Russian authorities call “our Osama bin Laden” – left Chechnya after he was injured at the beginning of the second war. He now lives in exile in England, which is why I could meet him in the center of London, at Piccadilly Circus.
“We had nothing to gain from those attacks. And if we had done them, what was the point if we didn’t take any credit? And why would we have stopped after what happened in Ryazan?” he said.
“As soon as Putin became FSB director and then secretary of the Security Council, contact between the Chechen government and the Russians abruptly stopped. Instead, kidnappings increased and the Russians started to finance Wahhabi groups. The Arab world had been under Soviet control, and when Putin came to power, old contacts were revived. Through these contacts, the Arabs gave money to gangs of religious fanatics to destroy our government. In a document from the secret services that we obtained, we read that Chechen society would be split in two through religious fanaticism,” Zakayev said. “We checked all the IDs of the Wahhabis: All of them were given visas in Moscow before they arrived in Chechnya. They left the country when the war began. Their mission was accomplished.”
Zakayev said that Maskhadov knew about Moscow’s attempts to radicalize Chechen society in order to provoke another conflict. He also knew why the new conflict was needed. But, he said, the fragile Chechen Republic had neither the strength, nor the means to fight it.
“The people who brought Putin to power planned the war. Without the war, Putin would have never become the people’s hero and win the elections. They also wanted to raise Russian morale, which had fallen during the constant economic crises, and give the nationalists a small victory like the one in Dagestan. Then they could tell the people that they had a new leader, the strong arm Russia needed. Chechnya was the perfect place to test the plan. The chauvinists asked for revenge – why not make them happy?”
Apti Bisultanov is perhaps the best poet to write in the Chechen language. After fighting for independence, he became minister of social affairs in President Maskhadov’s government. He lived in Germany and now in Austria. We met in Düsseldorf, the North-Rhine Westphalian capital.
“Besides creating an image for Putin, the war had another goal,” he explained. “For the siloviki it was a source of enormous income. Dirty money could be easily laundered in rebuilding [Chechnya], and then there was oil. Chechnya is not Saudi Arabia, of course, but thanks to the black market and illegal selling, Chechen oil became quite attractive. Every day, people in Chechnya see a line of tanks full of black gold traveling towards Russia. Where exactly they go and whose hands they end up in – no one knows. People who tried to find out became ‘victims of war.’ They killed two birds with one stone: They got political control [in Russia] and money from selling oil and rebuilding the country,” Bisultanov said.
Many who have tried to understand what had really happened in September, 1999 have been killed. Duma deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who was the deputy head of the independent Duma commission, was gunned down in April of 2003 in Moscow just a few steps away from the front door of his apartment building. In the same year, in July, Duma deputy and journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, another member of the commission, passed away. Officially, he died of an allergic reaction, but his colleagues at Novaya Gazeta believe he was poisoned.[xxix] Shchekochikhin, they say, had symptoms similar to those of Litvinenko. In addition to the apartment bombing, Shchekochikhin was also digging into another unsavory case that involved highly placed FSB officials.[xxx] Litvinenko, who published the results of his investigation in a book in 2003, was poisoned with Polonium-210 in London. He accused the FSB of being behind the apartment house blasts. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and Shchekochikhin’s colleague at Novaya Gazeta, was killed in October of 2006 in the elevator of the building where she lived.[xxxi]
Ten years after the explosions on Kashirskoye Shosse, on the site of house 6/3 there is a small monument with a stone engraved with the names of the dead. There are several religious symbols, including a striking Orthodox cross. The bottom bar – the footrest – points upward to show Heaven to the Good Thief, who was crucified together with Jesus Christ and repented; the other side is pointed down toward the underworld – the eternal resting place of the thief who didn’t repent.
“I really hope that whoever did that to us goes there – to hell. We can only hope for divine justice,” Oleg said.
With one hand he laid a bouquet of red carnations at the base of the monument; with the other he supported his weeping, elderly wife. Their daughter, son-in-law, and small grandson had lived here. He pointed at their names carved in the stone.
“What upsets me most is that after ten years, we still don’t know who was responsible. [The authorities] keep on saying that the Chechens did it, but who was really responsible?”
After more than ten years, there are still more questions than answers about this chapter of Russian history.
Although there have been many media investigations, no official investigation has come close to answering the most important question: Did the FSB plan and carry out the terrorist attacks to bring Vladimir Putin to power, or was Russia just fortunate to have had a prime minister like Putin, who crushed the country’s enemies and brought stability?
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the apartment houses that exploded together with their occupants facilitated the victory of Putin-the-politician, who presented himself as a strong man capable of bringing order back, but who also began a new war “against terror” in Chechnya. In any case, the war made him a national hero – and the Russian president. These are the questions I asked Dmitry in that Moscow café.
“No one has done as much for Russia. Putin is the best president the country has ever had.”
That was his answer.
Meanwhile, in the Kremlin…
While the Russian people were still deeply shaken by the bloody September 1999 attacks that led to a second war in Chechnya, in the Kremlin everyone was busy on the political front.
Berezovsky and the Family were hustling to win the December parliamentary elections. Huge state resources were diverted to back Yedinstvo, which the Russian press were already calling a “virtual party.” Berezovsky employed the best political advisors, and the state channels worked diligently to promote this new entity and destroy the party of the rival Primakov-Luzhkov tandem.
Under Sergei Dorenko’s supervision, journalists at ORT (the channel that reached every one of the huge country’s 11 time zones) started a merciless campaign to destroy Primakov. Serious accusations that ranged from homicide to corruption and insinuations about health problems were lobbed at Luzhkov and Primakov. For example, just one in-depth program accused Primakov of having made an attempt on the life of Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze and then disparaged him for allegedly having a hip operation in a Swiss clinic.
The editing was ruthless: Close-ups of a bone surgery alternated with shots of the former prime minister, while Dorenko kept up a running commentary about how this operation, which could have been done free in Russia, cost at least $50,000 in Switzerland. More images flooded the screen: Tendons being cut, blood, and close-ups of Primakov. And then Dorenko, with an air of someone about to disclose a big secret, faced the camera and said that soon Primakov would have a second operation. When? Soon after the presidential elections, he assured viewers.
“Do you remember Yeltsin after his heart attack, the way he tried to hide his illness? Primakov will do the same… If he becomes president, he will have plenty of time for treatment during his four-year term.”
The message was clear: A vote for Primakov would mean a vote for another president who would spend more time in the hospital than in the Kremlin – like Yeltsin.
“The campaign was so convincing that Primakov’s rating dropped before our very eyes,” Dorenko told as he sat at his Moscow desk of the radio station he heads, Russkaya sluzhba novostei (Russian News Service).
In September, Primakov had started with a good rating of 32 percent; Luzhkov had 16 percent, and Putin only had 1.5 percent. But after a month of “Dorenko’s treatment,” Primakov’s rating had dropped to 8 percent, Luzhkov’s to 2 percent – while Putin’s soared to 36 percent.
“We got them,” Dorenko remembered with satisfaction.
Putin was shown on TV as the hero who would save Russia from terrorism and resolve once and for all the problems in the Caucasus and Chechnya. His rising popularity helped Yedinstvo to win. The party took home one fourth of the popular vote – a result that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of Berezovsky and the Family.
Yedinstvo got 23 percent of the vote, coming in second place after the Communists, who got one percentage point more. OVR, the party of Primakov and Luzhkov, garnered only 13 percent the vote. After this unexpected and disappointing result, Primakov decided not to run in the presidential elections.
The Duma election results in 1999 suggested that Putin had a good chance of winning the presidential elections. But they needed to strike while the iron was hot.
On December 20, soon after the parliamentary elections, Putin went to Lubyanka to talk with the spetssluzhby agents. He must have felt his victory was close at hand.
Eleven days later, Moscow was getting ready to celebrate New Year’s. It was the millennium, and everyone wanted to do things in a big way. During the seventy years of communism and state atheism, New Year’s had replaced Christmas. Russians put up decorated trees and children eagerly awaited Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, the counterpart of Santa Klaus. On New Year’s Eve, people exchange presents and gather around the table for a traditional feast, which always includes Olivier salad. Created, Russians say, by a French cook named Olivier, the dish is known as Russian salad in the West. Every year the TV airs the Soviet film Ironia Sudby ili s Lyokhim Parom (The Irony of Fate, or Have a Good Steam – good wishes for someone after a steam in the banya, the Russian bathhouse). Year after year, Russians continue to laugh and cry over Zhenya’s[xxxii] adventures: On New Year’s Eve, after getting drunk with friends at the banya, he ends up on a plane to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in place of his friend Sasha[xxxiii]. Thinking he is still in Moscow, Zhenya gets in a taxi and gives the driver his Moscow address. But by the irony of fate, there is another building and apartment number just like his in St. Petersburg (Soviet apartment blocks were identical throughout the country). He opens the door with his Moscow keys. And later the beautiful Nadia is surprised to find a drunken man in his underwear in her apartment.
This year in many homes, preparation for the holidays was out of sync with the happy songs of Zhenya and Nadia as they fell in love. Most Russians were looking for news broadcasts: At noon, during his usual end of the year greetings, President Boris Yeltsin had announced his resignation.
“Today, on the last day of this century, I resign,” Yeltsin said. After a long pause, he sighed and asked forgiveness for “the mistakes” of his administration, “for the dreams that didn’t come true” and for betraying the hopes of those who believed that the passage from socialism to capitalism would happen “quickly, in a second.”
“I also believed that, but things couldn’t be done all at once. In a certain sense, I was too naïve,” he said. He then added that at the dawn of a new millennium, Russia needed a new political leader.
“I’m leaving before the end of my term. This is fitting: Russia should enter a new century with a new face… Why should I hold this position for six more months if there is a strong man in the country who deserves to become president? A person on whom Russians have already set their hopes… What’s the point of waiting six more months? This is not my character,” Yeltsin said.
“A new generation is coming after me, a generation that can do more and better.” He then announced that Putin would be the acting president and suggested the Russians vote for him in the presidential elections, which would be moved up by three months, from June to March.
As my friend Lena listened Yeltsin’s words, she put down the knife she was using to dice pickled cucumbers, boiled potatoes and sosiski (a kind of sausage) – the main ingredients for the Olivier salad. She turned the TV volume up, looked at Yeltsin’s puffy face, and asked me whether she should pour some vodka to celebrate the end of the reign of this drunkard whose antics had made half the world laugh, or if she ought to be worried.
Boris Nikolaevich’s[xxxiv] face was tired and pale, and his speech more slurred than usual. NTV then showed Yeltsin handing acting President Vladimir Putin the suitcase with the codes that controlled the country’s nuclear arsenal, which he had only once in his eight years as president reluctantly relinquished – when he underwent heart surgery.
“Don’t relax,” he told him as he opened the door of the luxurious presidential office to give his New Year’s greetings before Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia. From now on – he told Putin – he would feel like “the real master.”
At that moment, Putin enjoyed a rating of 78 percent, according to a poll carried out by VTsIOM.
It appears that Yeltsin and the Family were forced to make this unexpected decision due to potential problems in Chechnya. Authorities were concealing the real number of casualties among Chechen civilians and Russia soldiers. But how long could they lie? Presidential candidate and Prime Minister Putin seemed to have everything under control, but for how long could he hide the truth? The situation could slip out of control at any moment, as had happened to Yeltsin during the first Chechen war. If that happened, Putin’s popularity would not stay high until June 4, the day the presidential elections were scheduled to take place. And by moving up the date of the elections by three months, Putin would have the tremendous advantages of the incumbency while his opponents would have no time to prepare a proper campaign.
In this way, Putin was the only possible candidate. No one could compete with him: Not Gennady Zyuganov, with his electorate of old Communists; nor the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, the Yabloko leader who was beaten in the Duma elections in December; nor the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for whom it was more important to take part in the campaign than win.
“Putin now has every chance of coming to power and staying there,” reported NTV – the channel owned by Vladimir Gusinsky and the only one that didn’t campaign for Putin – on that December 31.
Putin’s team continued to work intensively on two important channels, the state channel RTR and Berezovky’s ORT. Every day they would provide thorough coverage of every single detail of Putin’s working day, just like television had covered Soviet leaders. The Chechen war was presented as an antiterrorist operation, and Putin was portrayed as a hero who was single-handedly fighting the wicked enemies of the country.
During the week before the elections, he was videotaped in a flight suit at the controls of a fighter jet flying into Chechnya to congratulate the Russian troops. Another icon was created: the brave president who could even pilot fighter jets.
The macho Putin was contrasted to the other candidates. When he flew the fighter jet, the television showed a press conference organized by a gay group in support of Yavlinsky.
Even the opposition newspapers following the campaign had no doubt that Putin would win. Some had a countdown – “There are only X days left to Putin’s election” – in imitation of the previous year’s headlines when the days were counted to the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Swept up by this relentless media campaign and weary of Yeltsin’s extravagance, Russians fell in love with the cold KGB agent Vladimir Putin. During the three months as acting president, Putin’s rating rose so high that on March 26, 2000, he easily won the first round of presidential elections with 53 percent of the vote.
Putin’s image was created, and his reign had begun. Russia would never be the same.
[i]Cheka, an acronym for Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya, Extraordinary Commission, was the first of a series of organizations created to guarantee the security of the Soviet State. Founded by Vladimir Lenin on December 20 1917, the Cheka was led by aristocrat-turned-communist Feliks Dzerzhinsky. From 1922, the Cheka was reorganized several times.
[ii]FSB in Russian is pronounced feh-ez-beh
[iii] In Russian the singular form is Spetssluzhba and the plural Spetssluzhby, both are a short forms for spetsialnaya sluzhba, special service. The plural form is used to indicate the secret services in general.
[iv] The agent asked not to be identified for fear of potential repercussions.
[v] Putin was the director of the FSB from July 1998 to August 1999.
[vi] The word siloviki comes from the Russian expression silovye struktury, force structures, which refers to the intelligence agencies, armed services and the law enforcement agencies. A silovik (plural siloviki) is a present or past official of one of these agencies.
[vii] See Chapter Six, Image
[viii] A popular miniseries in the Soviet Union, Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzya isset in post-World War II Moscow. The main characters are Vladimir Sharapov, who after serving the Red Army started working for the Moscow criminal police, and detective Gleb Zheglov, played by the well known singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky. Sharapov, who likes to work according to the rules, has often clashes with Zheglov, who thinks that a thief’s place is in prison and, if necessary, is ready to plant evidence to arrest a criminal. The two men learn to work together during a murder investigation that led them to uncover a criminal gang called Black Cat
[ix] Kontora means office, bureau
[x] Cherkesov was appointed first deputy director of the FSB and then head of the Federal Drug Control Service.
[xi] Diminutive of Vladimir.
[xii] Her first husband’s last name.
[xiii] Yumashev, a journalist who wrote Yeltsin’s biography, had also been the head of the presidential staff.
[xiv] Abramovich now spends most of his time in London. He is the owner of the Chelsea Football Club.
[xv] According to former Yeltsin’s right hand Aleksander Korzhakov, Abramovich used to bring every month a suitcase full of dollars to Tatiana Dyachenko.
[xvi] Skuratov was appointed prosecutor general in 1995.
[xvii] Primakov was appointed prime minister in September 1998.
[xviii] Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006.
[xix] See Chapter Nine, Poisonings and murders.
[xx] After having challenged Putin, Khodorkovsky was arrested on October 25, 2003. While still serving his sentence, he was put on trial again in 2009 on charges of embezzlement and money laundering and convicted in December 2010. He faces imprisonment until 2017.
[xxi] The first Chechen war began in December 1994 and ended on August 1996.
[xxii] Diminutive of Yelena.
[xxiii] Putin is known for being often late.
[xxiv] Valenki, felt boots, are traditional Russian winter footwear (now used only in the countryside).
[xxv]A member of an indigenous people living in Karachai-Cherkessia, a republic of the northwest of the Northern Caucasus region.
[xxvi] See Chapter Eight, Crime and FSB.
[xxvii] See Chapter Nine, Poisonings and Murder.
[xxviii] According to the official version, Basayev was killed in July 2006 during an FSB special operation; Khattab was poisoned by an FSB agent in 2002.
[xxix] See Chapter Nine, Poisonings and Murder.
[xxx] See Chapter Eight, Crime and FSB.
[xxxi] See Chapter Third, Putin and the fight against the press.
[xxxii] Diminutive of Yevgeny.
[xxxiii] Diminutive of Aleksander.
[xxxiv] Yeltsin’s patronymic.
p. 5 Foreword. From the Lubyanka to the Kremlin: The KGB special envoy, by Paolo Guzzanti
15 Chapter One. The Putin project
65 Chapter Two. The mission is accomplished
95 Chapter Three. Putin and the fight against the media
155 Chapter Four. The NGOs
175 Chapter Five. A Chekist Church
185 Chapter Six. Image
192 Chapter Seven. The Reformation and Counter Reformationof the FSB
206 Chapter Eight. Crime and FSB
261 Chapter Nine. Poisonings and murders
293 Chapter Ten. Everyone under control, the Kremlin’s youth movements
315 Chapter Eleven. The political reforms
327 APPENDIX. Friend Silvio? The Russification of Italy