Vienna, September 11 – Russians have not pressed for a full accounting of the 1999 apartment bombings despite widespread suspicions that Vladimir Putin and the security agencies were behind them because many welcomed such a scenario, however often officially denied, as confirmation that the kind of state they believe Russia must be to survive had returned.
Indeed, Aleksandr Skobov argues in an essay posted online yesterday, “the presidential elections in 2000” which confirmed Putin as president “were in fact a plebiscite on the right of the State in the course of solving its own high tasks to blow up its own peacefully sleeping citizens” (www.grani.ru/Politics/Russia/FSB/m.156997.html).
But while Russians a decade ago were enthusiastic about way in which the launch of the second Chechen war not only pointed to the restoration of a powerful Russian state and allowed them to direct their own aggression outward after the disappointments of the 1990s, ever fewer of them are pleased with the state’s use of unrestricted power against themselves.
Skobov begins his essay with the rhetorical question: “Why did Russian society not want to know the truth about the explosions of the apartment blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk?” He notes that there were “suspicions” about official involvement “almost immediately – at a minimum after the story of the Ryazan ‘training exercises.’”
“Practically everybody knew about these suspicions,” he continues, “and the further behavior of the powers that be could only increase them.” Why then, he asks as have many other observers, were Russians unprepared [immediately, in the intervening decade and now] to seek a full accounting?
Some have suggested that “the majority of Russians simply couldn’t imagine the possibility that their government could kill in cold blood its own peacefully sleeping citizens.” But Skobov says, “who at the end of the 1990s couldn’t know what its own government ‘could do’ in relation to its own citizens?”
Others appear to have thought that the reason for this lack of popular interest in investigating what happened reflects a view “the ruling kleptocracy might regret killing off several hundred of the little people,” despite all the evidence that it would do whatever it takes to keep control of the resources that were making its members rich.
And yet others have concluded that the truth in this case “was so terrible” that a “psychological defense” kicked in and people could not deal with it in their own minds. “But,” Skobov points out, “as succeeding years have shown, no less terrible acts of evil have not seemed to terrible” to Russians.
Perhaps the most widely accepted view is that the reaction of Russians to the apartment bombings was “an eternal, inalienable and unchanging aspect of the Russian mentality.” Among the clearest articulators of that point of view has been offered by Moscow analyst Stanislav Belkovsky (www.apn-spb.ru/publications/article5927.htm).
Belkovsky says that the state in Russia fulfills four functions – forcing the people to work and education, maintaining control over an enormous territory, defeating foreign opponents, and achieving triumphs that “the entire ‘civilized world’ will talk about – and that as long as it does these thing, it remains “legitimate” and can act without regard to “formal” laws.
“In the Russian political tradition,” Belkovsky continues, “’the state is not formed by Russian people but is given to them from the outside.’” And its “greatness and power are an absolute precondition for the well-being of the people.” That in turn means that “’the good of the people is secondary in relation to the good of the state.’”
Given that political tradition, Skobov says, “the state in order to be recognized by its subjects as legitimate cannot allow itself to be an object of derision.” Instead, it must show its ability and willingness to demonstrate its power. And it “can blow up houses with peaceful citizens for the good of the cause.”
Of course, the Moscow analyst says, “there is nothing specifically Russian in this political tradition. Such a mass consciousness is formed wherever the ‘little man’ feels himself humiliated. He tries to compensate his sense of his own unimportance with the illusion of being attached to something great – to a great power [or] to the strong of this world.”
During the years of perestroika, Skobov continues, there was “a massive breakthrough to civil society whatever anyone says now. The people then ‘took their pride out of their suitcases.’ And then it was cruelly deceived and betrayed by practically the entire new ‘political class’” in the course of the 1990s.
Even before the government institutionalized this, Russian society”returned to its former understandings: law is a deception and force is the norm of life.” Still worse, “society unconsciously longed for force and was prepared to approve it. The explosions … and the second Chechen war allowed” it to direct its pent-up aggression outward rather than inward.
Just as Russians welcomed the ascension of Emperor Aleksandr III because of his commitment to undoing the reforms of his father, so too Russians saw the war in Chechnya that the apartment bombings made possible as “a real holiday of liberation of the state from any limitations and restrictions.”
“The war became a clear pre-election message to society,” Skobov argues, “about the genuine program of the new leadership rather than the ‘deceptive’ one for public consumption that was masked in liberal rhetoric. It demonstrated the will of the powers that be to unrestricted force and its readiness to violate the rights of individuals and entire peoples.”
And Russian society “correctly understood this signal.” Crying about the lack of “full and truthful information” about Chechnya or the bombings had no meaning. The “majority perfectly well understood how the war broke out. And they accepted it,” not understanding that the force directed at the Chechens would ultimately be turned against them.