Re-examining the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia

In the absence of an official report on the controversial attacks that launched a war and a presidency, a Stanford scholar creates his own
| 02-20-2013
Workers remove rubble at the site of a September 13, 1999 apartment bombing in Moscow
Workers remove rubble at the site of a September 13, 1999 apartment bombing in Moscow

Not long after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Americans more or less understood  what had befallen them. Perpetrators, motives, means, mistakes -- it all came to light within months. After two and a half years of exhaustive research, the 567-page 9/11 Commission report had laid the tragedy wide open, from each angle and in excruciating detail, for any and all to read. In the time since, a steady stream of commemorations has fortified the memory, as if any American could hope to forget.

Two years earlier, in September 1999, the Russian Federation suffered a series of attacks that many would come to see as analogous -- “their 9/11.” Four seemingly random apartment buildings bombed, 300 people dead, a new war, and a new administration. And yet, according to John Dunlop, senior fellow emeritus at the Hoover Institution, to this day, little reliable information has emerged regarding who did it or why. Much of the ensuing investigation was shrouded in mystery, he said, and as far as the public is concerned, the Kremlin all but ignored the specifics, and still does. Historians and conspiracy theorists, take note. Last year, Dunlop published his research on the topic in a new book meant to anticipate what might come to light in a 9/99 commission, should one ever occur. According to the New York Review of Books, the volume “makes an overwhelming case” that Russian authorities were complicit in the attacks that not only killed hundreds of their own civilians, but set off a chain of events catapulting Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin to the presidency.

In a recent talk at Stanford, Dunlop discussed the book, called The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule.


Nowadays, both the version told by the Russian government and the conspiracy stories circulated by journalists and others are criticized for discrepancies and lack of sufficient data, Dunlop said. Much of the evidence he drew upon for his book has since been forgotten, and much has been erased from public access, but he believes every bit could help the truth come to light eventually. Needless to say, the implications of his research, if accurate, on the legitimacy of Russia’s current administration are enormous.

Dunlop's version of the story begins in 1996. He cited political scientist Peter Reddaway: “The modus operandi of Yeltsin and his entourage led more or less directly to the growth of various conspiracies in Russia. Part of this process was the growth of non-accountability in the regime, and taking of most of the real decision-making out of the public sphere.” In the months leading up to the 1996 presidential and parliamentary elections, Dunlop said, amid widespread discontent with state policies, Yeltsin demonstrated that he was prepared to take radical steps and violate his new constitution by dissolving the Duma and postponing the vote. Eventually, however, close affiliates, including former Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais and oligarch Boris Berezovsky, managed to convince the president that the elections could be won provided that the right "political technologies" were employed. Yeltsin won.

Three years later, the president’s deteriorating health and gradual loss of political capital had forced him to rely more and more on close allies – “the Family,” as they became known. Members of the Family included Yeltsin’s real family – Tatyana Dyachenko, his daughter, was de facto ruling the country then, according to political scientist Lilia Shvetsova. Meanwhile, a rival faction headed by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and starring Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, was gaining strength. Dunlop, citing political technologist Stanislav Belkovsky, suggested that Yeltsin and his entourage decided on two strategies to remedy the situation and ensure victory in 2000: first, to strip their opponents’ political power, and second, to provoke a conflict that would permit the Yeltsin regime to declare emergency rule in Russia and thus postpone the elections.

Work on the first goal began with the removal of Primakov in May 1999, and the appointment of Family man Sergei Stepashin as head of government. However, according to Dunlop, Stepashin’s unwillingness to “crack down on Luzhkov-Primakov forces” led to his swift replacement in August. FSB director Vladimir Putin, who had also already demonstrated loyalty to the ruling elite, was on deck. Dunlop noted that one of Putin’s first tasks was to publicly shame Skuratov. “Putin burned his bridges,” he said. “The Family saw that Putin could be trusted, that one could rely on him.” The Family also launched a series of attacks on Luzhkov, including attempting to close two TV stations seen as working in the mayor’s favor.

The second goal, to provoke the imposition of Emergency Rule, was embarked upon by other allies of Yeltsin, notably Boris Berezovsky. According to Dunlop, in the spring of 1999, the Russian opposition press published transcripts of a phone conversation between Berezovsky and several Chechen extremist leaders, essentially negotiating the price for a brief, victorious war in the Caucasus. Dunlop said various sources prove that Berezovsky, who had close ties with the Family, was “funneling large sums of money to Chechen extremists under the flag of the Security Council.” Moderates having been marginalized, the die was irrevocably cast.

In August, Chechen rebels invaded the Russian Republic of Dagestan, initiating a war that would last through late September. About 3,000 people, including numerous civilians, were killed. Why wouldn't the insurgents also send a bomb or two deep into Russia's heart?


The explosion of the apartment building on Moscow’s Guryanova Street on September 9, followed by another on Kashirskoye Highway on September 13, and another in Volgodonsk on September 16, killed hundreds of Russians, and shook the rest. The state moved quickly to place blame on Chechen extremists. Dunlop said public opinion followed as could be expected: according to VTsIOM, 64 percent of the country supported an invasion of Chechnya. A month later, prominent mathematician Andrei Piontkovsky said in an interview, “The crime has not been solved. The investigation has not presented the slightest proof of guilt of any concrete person or persons of Chechen nationality. But in the public consciousness, the word ‘Chechen’ has already become a synonym for ‘terrorist,’ and is also linked to the word ‘destroy.’” Dunlop said these attacks “paved the way for full-fledged war” in the republic. On October 1, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev initiated a full-scale invasion of Chechnya.

Putin’s decisiveness and firm stance in defense of Russia caused his popularity to skyrocket unexpectedly. His approval rating rose from 53 percent in September to 66 in October, and 78 in November. At this point, Dunlop said, the ruling elite were able to amend their initial strategy. Emergency rule was no longer necessary, and the looming elections looked favorable. Putin’s election would secure the future of the Family.


Read Dunlop’s full talk, which also covers the following topics in detail: findings of multiple investigations into the attacks, the FSB’s advance knowledge of the bombings, the identity and trials of the suspected Chechen terrorists, and the remarkable Ryazan Incident, which Dunlop called the “low-hanging fruit for those who suspect FSB involvement in all of the September bombings.”

Find the entire book here.


John Dunlop is a senior fellow emeritus at the Hoover Institution.