Magazine article The Spectator

Enemy of the People

Magazine article The Spectator

Enemy of the People

Article excerpt

I HAVE never seen anything like it in my life, and hope never to again. I have seen buildings cratered, gutted, ruined, toppled. But never - not in Sarajevo, Beirut or Afghanistan - have I seen an eight-storey apartment block flattened, reduced at a single stroke to a 30-foot-high pile of smoking rubble. A bombed-out building is desolate, crippled, but at least still recognisably a building. But a bombed-flat building is just an terrible, aching vacuum.

Muscovites used to be a pretty phlegmatic bunch when things went bang in the night. For many years it was considered fashionable among the city's rival Mafia groups to blow up each others' offices, apartments and Mercedes sedans with a few hundred grams of TNT. The explosions caused some impressive wreckage but usually harmed no one but the intended victim and his flunkeys.

However, the three major bombings in the capital in the past fortnight have wrought a strange and radical shift in the usually nonchalant mood of Moscow's unshockable natives. Corruption scandals caused a brouhaha in the Western press and ruffled feathers in the Russian media and political elites, but didn't cause much of a stir among ordinary people (they had assumed for years that their rulers were crooks). Yeltsin's latest change of prime minister evinced only passing interest. Even the prospect of a prolonged guerrilla war in distant Dagestan didn't get anyone very excited. But, by God, these bombings have sent shock waves through Moscow greater than all the putsches, devaluations, shootings, scandals and intrigues of the last decade.

What shocks Muscovites most is that the two biggest bomb attacks were not directed against some public building, police station or government office but at archetypically ordinary suburban apartment blocks. Panic, old-fashioned, irrational panic, has set in across the capital. Russians are used to looking to the state to provide enemies to explain failure, war and terror. But this time - or should we say once again - the state has failed: the enemy has no face, no name and no easily discernible goals.

Though official Moscow, from interior minister Vladimir Rushailo down, has pointed the finger of blame squarely at Islamic militants who have been fighting Russian federal forces in Dagestan for the past six weeks, no one has claimed responsibility or put forward any demands. As a result, Moscow has been rife with uncharacteristically paranoid conspiracy theories. Uncharacteristic, that is, in their extraordinary cynicism, for after all Russians are second only to the Lebanese in their love of conspiracies. The theory is this: that the Moscow bombs were set off not by crazed Chechen terrorists but by the Russian secret services at the instigation of the Kremlin. Why? To give the authorities an excuse to introduce a state of emergency, cancel upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and maintain their hold on power - or to embarrass the politically ambitious mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, and to puncture his soaring popularity.

Crazy? I think so. But thousands don't, including many Russian colleagues I used to take somewhat seriously. But what is most interesting are not the ins and outs of the theory itself - more about that later - but the fact that so many otherwise intelligent people are inclined to believe that their rulers could stoop to perhaps the most breathtaking act of political cynicism since the burning of the Reichstag. …

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