At 8 P.M. on Monday, twelve hours after the first of two suicide bombs ripped through a crowded subway car at Moscow’s Lubyanka metro station, Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, materialized on the platform. He appeared just as a train—this one mostly empty—sped by. The site of the attack had been cleaned up, and the red line, which runs through Lubyanka, was reopened in time for the evening rush hour. Seven million people take the Moscow metro every day—it is one of the biggest and busiest subway systems in the world—but few Muscovites were braving the commute now. Most people on the platform were photographers or curious civilians fingering evidence of the blast: holes drilled into the columns and the ceiling by the screws and nails the suicide bomber had packed into an explosive belt. Shattered glass still sparkled on the rails. Someone spotted what looked like blood.
Suddenly, Medvedev stepped into our midst, with Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, by his side and surrounded by a scrum of security people and cameras. The President looked around, stony-faced, though it was unclear how much he could see.
That’s when a bearded man named Timofei Bogomiloff began to scream. “Dmitry Anatolyevich,” he said, addressing the President by his patronymic. “Dmitry Antaolyevich! This is your Golgotha! This is your Golgotha! And after that comes the Resurrection!”
Medvedev mumbled a quick “Da” and ducked back into the station’s main hall, where a weeping, boozy crowd had gathered with red carnations and candles to honor the twenty-four victims killed there that morning. (Twelve more died when a second bomb went off forty minutes later, at Park Kultury, four stations away on the red line.)
Back on the platform, Bogomiloff, who identified himself only as a “public philosopher,” told me, with mystical suspicion, “I am here to find out who is responsible.”
It was already evening, and no one had taken responsibility. There was talk of conspiracies as more questions bubbled up in the minds of the curious. Within four hours of the blasts, the authorities announced that they had established several things: Both suicide bombers were women. Their explosive belts had severed their torsos, and, according to a report from inside Russia’s security apparatus, the head of the Park Kultury bomber was in good enough condition to determine that she was from the North Caucasus—how, it wasn’t clear. The word was that the women had started their journey at the southernmost stop on the red line, accompanied by two Slavic-looking women and a man in a black baseball cap. The bombers had never ridden the metro before, and one had got lost on her way to Oktyabrskaya, the station nearest the Interior Ministry and, perhaps, her original target. By mid-afternoon, the signs seemed to point to the North Caucasus, and the volatile triad of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.
But the people milling about the newly reopened metro at Lubyanka, the square where Russia’s security forces—once known as the K.G.B., now the F.S.B.—are headquartered, were left with plenty of questions and theories. How did the government know the Chechens were involved? Why was the response to the crisis unusually swift and orderly—did they know an attack was coming? And if the response was so swift and orderly, why wasn’t the metro shut down after the first explosion? How did they know the second bomber had gotten lost? As news trickled out that the government had received a call on Sunday at 5:36 P.M. warning that Chechen women were planning to attack the subway, people asked why the police hadn’t prevented it? And why scrub down the stations so quickly? How, in the first hours of the attack, did the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, know whom to charge with terrorism?
To Bogomiloff, the public philospher, the answers were obvious. “The government is to blame,” he said. “This is what happens when an empire falls apart: it’s unstable, there’s no control, and there’s a struggle for power.” The subway bombings, he explained, were “a sign of a serious battle of bulldogs under the rug. Did you see Medvedev’s face? He looked lost. Because there’s a big battle of political forces, and the ones who did this are the same forces that built the Gulag.” Bogomiloff was suggesting, in other words, that Medvedev’s faction had been one-upped by the siloviki, Putin and other graduates of the security forces, who, during Putin’s Presidency, had taken control of much of Russian politics and business.
“This doesn’t smell of the Caucasus,” added Bogomiloff’s friend, who wore a pristine white windbreaker and pristine white beard, and only gave his first name, Neil. “This an F.S.B. job.”
A young banker with alcohol on his breath approached me. He identified himself as Denis, and asked if I knew what the man in the white jacket—meaning Neil—did for a living. Neil, he said, must be in the F.S.B. himself, given his “intelligent” way of asking questions. Denis also thought the subway attack was an inside job, as did Ivan, a trembling seventeen-year-old who had been in Lubyanka station immediately after the blast and returned to the scene. Trembling, and averting his eyes, Ivan told me, “The government did all this.”
In 1999, a string of bombings brought down four Russian apartment buildings and killed nearly three hundred people. Those attacks were blamed on Chechens, but afterward a theory began to circulate that the F.S.B. had bombed the buildings in order to give Putin, then the President, an excuse to go hard in Chechnya and crack down at home. This theory gained new momentum after Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent who had espoused that view, was mysteriously poisoned in London in 2006.
Following Monday’s suicide bombings, many in the metro—and in the Russian blogosphere—speculated about whether the same forces were at work. Russia has seen an unprecedented wave of protests in the last three months; now, in the wake of the metro blasts, Medvedev told the F.S.B. to take control of the situation, to keep the country from becoming “destabilized.” But there are other conspiracy theories, too. There has long been talk that Medvedev is a placeholder for Putin, who is now Prime Minister but is mulling a Presidential run in 2012. What if Putin ordered this attack to make Russia seem unstable under Medvedev, as a pretext for taking back control?
It’s tempting to laugh at these theories, to dismiss them as Russia’s version of the 9/11 “Truthers,” but if you live in Moscow long enough the conspiracy bug is easy to catch. The Kremlin is a black box—Kremlin insiders notoriously do not talk to foreign journalists—and there’s not an independent press strong enough to serve as a corrective. (Under Putin’s stewardship, the press was brought under the firm control of the Kremlin, as Michael Specter wrote in 2007.) This produces the distinct—and quite accurate—impression that the state’s words and its actions exist on parallel planes, which do not intersect. And this makes Russians perpetually eager to find the false bottom in a situation—and the false bottom under that one, too. Conversations with Russians can spiral into an epistemological abyss, where nothing is provable except that everything is not what it seems. The bounteous archives documenting Stalin’s crimes? Forged. The Western media? A tool of the American government, meant to denigrate Russia. What’s interesting is that conspiratorial logic is not the domain of any one political camp or socioeconomic layer. It can strike any Russian at any time, and always with one, pointed question, usually asked with and eyebrow arched in understanding: Komu eto vygodno?—Who profits from this?
It was a question I heard on the metro platform. “Yeltsin did a good thing in letting the Soviet Union dissolve peacefully,” Bogomiloff said, his friend Neil nodding beside him. “Why won’t they let these regions out? It’s profitable to hold on to them.”
Hours after the blast, a cell phone scam emerged as thousands of text messages arrived saying the sender was stuck in the metro where everything was horrible—and would be lost unless the recipient added money to the sender’s account. With scams like that, at a moment like that, how was one to trust any information at all?
To Lubyanka Station [newyorker.com]