03/25/2024, 09.18
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The Moscow massacre and a quarter of a century wasted

by Stefano Caprio

The terrible terrorist attack on Krokus City Hall takes away the Russians' illusion of living under an unbreakable glass bell. In a Russia that 25 years after the attacks of the first war in Chechnya and a week after Putin's apotheosis finds itself once again at its year zero.

It was the first half of September 1999, when a series of Islamic terrorist attacks shook Russia, blowing up houses full of defenceless people in Bujnaksk in Dagestan, twice in Moscow and in Volgodonsk in the south of the country. 307 people died, over 1700 were injured and the second war in Chechnya began, at the behest of the newly installed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who inaugurated his 'era of revenge' with vulgar and threatening phrases, then towards terrorists, and in time it became clear that he intended to address the whole world.

A quarter of a century has passed, and again just after Putin's election, Russia is shaken by the terrible attack on Krokus City Hall, by Isis-K assailants (according to their own claim), Tajik guerrillas who according to Putin 'were trying to flee to Ukraine' (alluding to Kiev's involvement).

The attack produced over 150 dead and hundreds injured. Today, however, this tragedy looms over the war in Ukraine, as it did then over the war in Chechnya, and in between there have been attacks and conflicts of all kinds in Russia and around the world, such as the Russians' war against Isis in Syria and Iraq, now deemed 'stagnant' in the face of continuing escalations in Ukraine and Gaza.

History has regressed, a quarter of a century has gone up in smoke along with the roof of the concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow, a symbolic building of the 'new Russia' (with an evidently outdated fire-fighting system) now dissolved in the mists of a backward future.

By dint of evoking the greatness of the past, from Aleksandr Nevsky's battles to the conquests of Catherine the Great, the now old and bolder Tsar Putin V finds his youthful image of a 'crude and menacing man' in the mirror, Putin the Terrible, who instead of conquering the world is losing Russia, and instead of ascending to eternal glory is returning to the humiliations of the beginning.

It was Chechen separatists who challenged Boris Yeltsin's then 'heir to the throne' in 1999, according to Putin's own accusations, which were never proven, so much so that various analysts and journalists supported the version that it was Putin's own FSB that organised the massacres, to exalt the new leader as Russia's only salvation.

The memory of these contradictions has led even today to the hypothesis that Putin was once again the instigator of the attack, even if it seems absurd that just after his consecration to the eternal presidency there was a need to mess everything up, perhaps only to justify a new mobilisation to war, for which there is certainly no lack of motivation.

The fact remains that the 1999 bombings were the seal of 'Operation Preemnik' (the 'Successor'), which concluded the transition of power after the thousand contradictions of the Gorbachev-Eltsin decade, and the Krokus Centr massacre is inextricably linked to the 'succession of himself' of the warmongering tsar.

Yeltsin too, after all, had been gripped by delusions of grandeur during his years in power between 1990, when he was elected president of the Soviet Russian republic, 1992 of the Federation proclaimed after the collapse of the USSR, and 1996 of the re-election against the reborn communist party of Gennadij Zjuganov.

Convinced that he had led Russia on the bright road to democracy, inspired by George Washington he tried to imagine a succession that would truly allow the people to freely choose their leader, consecrating his image on the altar of a modern and credible state for centuries to come. Instead, it ended up reproducing the usual dynamics of Russian autocracy, implementing the programme made famous by a phrase of its prime minister Viktor Černomyrdin: 'we wanted to do the best, it went the same way as always' (khotelos kak lutšče, polučilos kak vsegda).

Instead of preparing genuinely free and participatory elections (the 1996 elections had been heavily influenced by outside influences), Yeltsin considered it his right and duty to personally choose his successor, so that he could control the situation from behind the scenes, a very Soviet approach that is still used without restraint by the satraps of the Central Asian countries, such as Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan or Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan, who to avoid misunderstandings put his son in charge as president.

Just as the princes and tsars of the past prepared these operations with the advice of the boyars, Yeltsin was assisted by the 'family' of oligarchs, who had grown up around him in the early years of liberal, capitalist Russia. Thus was born Operation Preemnik, as it was called by the Kremlin circle, made particularly urgent in 1998 by the collapse of the financial pyramids and the severe economic crisis, which the successor absolutely had to take over.

The heir to the throne therefore had to appear as the 'problem-solver', economic and social, perhaps even more burning problems such as the conflicts in the Caucasus and the tensions of the other neighbouring countries, from Ukraine to the Baltics, which were calling for NATO membership in those very years.

Moreover, it had to appear as 'independent' from Yeltsin himself, with no close personal or financial ties. The choice was not an easy one, and the most influential oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky applied themselves to it, and even the figure of the polittekhnolog, the 'technical political scientist', embodied by the mythical Gleb Pavlovskij, former Soviet dissident and prophet of the 'Russian idea' on the post-Soviet scene, who passed away a year ago after having long inspired, and later criticised, the Putin era of power. After Černomyrdin, between 1998 and 1999, Yeltsin changed six council presidents, throwing the entire Russian political scene into utter confusion.

At one point it seemed that the right figure had been found: the economist and army general Sergei Stepašin led the government from May to August 1999, after having been director of the FSB in 1994-1995, then Minister of Justice and Interior. Putin himself later kept him among his most trusted men, as president of the Court of Accounts from 2000 to 2013, and since 2007 also president of the revived Imperial Orthodox Association in Palestine, the famous tsarist structure of Russian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Even today, at 66, Stepašin still holds key positions in various state institutions, but in 1999 he failed to earn Yeltsin's trust due to too many compromises with opponents, and above all due to his inability to deal with the dramatic situation in Chechnya, where the first civil war and the attempt to create an independent Ičkeria was underway, with the risk of destabilising the whole of Russia. This led to the appointment of Putin, Stepašin's successor as head of the FSB services, in August 1999.

The choice was sanctioned by Berezovsky's negotiation with Putin to grant total immunity to the Yeltsin 'family', which finally convinced the now exhausted president, increasingly addicted to alcohol (again, in keeping with Russian tradition) to finally give up his chair at the end of the year, replacing the declaimed democracy with autocratic Putinism, the current realisation of the Russian idea in the 'Russian world'.

However, attacks have accompanied the whole of the useless Putin quarter century, in which Russia has squandered wealth and honours to become the most sanctioned and most compromised state in every world conflict. Already in the jubilee year of the first presidency in 2000, on 8 August a bomb was planted in the subways of Pushkin Square, near the Kremlin, killing 13 people.

Two years later, the most similar tragedy took place, with the kidnapping of spectators at the Dubrovka theatre that ended with the death of 41 guerrillas and 130 hostages. That circumstance allowed Putin to perfect the 'power vertical' scheme by removing the eligibility of regional governors, justifying himself with the need to control the outbreaks of rebellion throughout the Federation.

Many other episodes followed, and everyone remembers the Beslan massacre in North Ossetia, with the kidnapping of 1,200 people in a kindergarten on the first day of school, with a death toll of 335, including 186 children and 31 terrorists, as well as 400 wounded. 

In the following years, it seemed that the situation was more under control, although there was no shortage of new attacks, and now we are once again faced with the terror that takes away the illusion of living under an unbreakable bell jar, as the Russians (and especially the Muscovites) felt during these two years of war that seemed devastating only for the 'uchronazis' and the infantry of Asians, mercenaries and thugs sent to the front in Ukraine.

The consequences of the Krokus Centr bombing can only further accentuate the sense of encirclement and the need to defend oneself from the world, which characterises the life of present-day Russia, taking it out on anyone in the West and also in the East.

The paradox is that the attack by Islamic extremists "against a large group of Christians", as written in the claim, shatters the image of a Russia where moderate Islam coexists with fundamentalist Orthodoxy, a harmony based on common "traditional moral and religious values", also blown up in the periphery of an empire, which must continually return to year zero.




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