Russia: A Cataclysm Waiting to Happen?

Daily Mail (London), September 14, 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia: A Cataclysm Waiting to Happen?


Byline: MARK ALMOND

EVEN the IRA at its worst never produced mayhem like this. Twice in a week, sleepy suburbs of Moscow have been devastated by massive explosions demolishing whole blocks of flats and burying their unsuspecting inhabitants under the rubble.

The suffering is horrible enough, but there is a more sinister aspect to these cruel atrocities than the scores of innocent dead and injured.

So far, no credible claim of responsibility has been made.

Even worse than the brutal pomposity of an IRA press release after a bombing, the people of Moscow face a terrible uncertainty about who is behind these attacks and what their purpose is.

The Russian police and the former KGB (now FSB) are blaming Islamic extremists from the breakaway provinces of Chechnya and Dages-tan in the south. But the guerilla leaders deny planting the bombs, even though the idea of plunging Moscow into terror ought to be their greatest propaganda coup.

It is the silence of the tower block bombers that is so chilling. They wreak havoc but do not want the publicity avidly claimed by other terrorists elsewhere in the world.

Instead, like characters out of Dostoevsky's The Devils or Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Moscow's bombers make no demands, issue no threats; they merely murder on an horrific scale.

Senseless Moscow is living the waking nightmare of the modern metropolis.

Terrorists are on the loose targeting the most normal buildings - the ordinary homes of ordinary people.

The Kremlin would make a spectacular target. Lenin's Tomb in Red Square would be no loss. But Moscow's mayhem is hitting the capital's longsuffering ordinary citizens.

So far Muscovites have kept calm, but a nameless dread hangs over the city - where and who will be next?

It took a novelist and psychologist such as Conrad, who lived in the old Russian empire in the heyday of terrorism at the end of the last century, to understand what would be a really terrifying target - an apparently innocent or senseless victim.

Hitting the rich, the famous or the powerful could be explained, but inexplicable terror is more frightening. Random terrorism puts the fear of God into any population. And it is not just Russians who should be afraid.

President Boris Yeltsin has redoubled security outside key installations across Russia's vast expanse, especially at her ramshackle nuclear power stations and missile bases.

No one in Western Europe should sleep easily at night with the thought that terrorists more than 1,000 miles away in Russia could detonate another Chernobyl-style disaster.

Russia's nuclear industry has hardly improved its safety standards since 1986, when catastrophe struck Chernobyl. Its nuclear plants are vulnerable to accidents at the best of times.

But these are by no means good times for Russia.

Corruption The terrorist campaign has compounded bad news from many different directions.

Already the war in the southern province of Dagestan is turning into a bloody rerun of the savage Chechen war between 1994 and 1996.

Yeltsin's grip on power and reality was shaky before the latest deluge of corruption allegations washed over the Kremlin. Even the appointment of a lifelong KGB agent and hard-liner Vladimir Putin as Russia's fifth prime minister in 18 months has done nothing to steady the ship of state.

As the Yeltsin era staggers wearily to its close, most Russians have a terrible sense of foreboding that their country is drifting into another bout of what historians call Russia's Time of Troubles. …

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