History is inevitably condensed into the bigger names that feed and shape our world.  In the context of the dissolution of the Soviet state, the names Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin come closest to mind.  Behind the scenes, of course, is a breadth of names that shaped their actions and policies, and powerfully guided the course of history.

Matthias Rust is just one example.  A West German pilot, he gained notoriety when, in 1987, he illegally landed his plane a stone’s throw from the Kremlin building in the Red Square.  Gorbachev, who had been elected to power after a quick succession of deaths struck down a line of former Soviet leaders, is creditted for the radical change of the Soviet system from pure authoritarian to that of perestroika and glasnost.  Although his original intent was to change the country’s economic status, Gorbachev ended up decentralizing political power and liberalizing old policies.  As a result, the Soviet systen was dismantled, and the Cold War came to an end.

Matthias Rust’s illegal landing sped up many of Gorbachev’s policies; in fact, Gorbachev took advantage of the incident to fire several officials in the Soviet military, which inevitably reduced the power of the military in Russia.  This greatly aided the end of the Cold War.  

Although Rust’s actions were described as a “humorous prank,” Rust himself described it as an attempt to create a bridge between the East and West, and reduce tension between the two halves of Europe divided by the Iron Curtain.  In any case, without his landing in Moscow, it might have been difficult for Gorbachev to dismiss those officials from power, and the breaking up of the Soviet state may have taken a longer period of time.

In addition to Matthias Rust, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station incident likewise sped up the road to glasnost.  The leaking of radioactive materials was reported only to a minimal degree within Russia.  This led the public to push for greater freedom and dissemination of information.

The interlocking events of history often act in mysterious ways.  In Rust’s case, his goal of creating a bridge between democracy and communism was met, even if he did have to serve a prison sentence for it. 

A week ago, someone asked me why I find history to be so fascinating.  If you take someone like Matthias Rust and trace his story, and in turn trace the stories of all who shaped Matthias Rust down the line, you have a kaleidoscopic array of names and faces who have given in some shape or form to that momentous event.  History is literally the story of Our People, all of us bound together by the sequence of events that move our world and define where we are today.  I ask you: How can I not find it interesting?


On October 7th 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was exitting the elevator from her Moscow apartment when a hitman shot her four times. The correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta, a controversial newspaper owned by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that explores Russia’s true social/political environment, was killed on the spot. The assassination, triggered on Vladmir Putin’s birthday, ignited the outrage and sorrow of Chechens as well as fellow Russian journalists who sought to expose the corruption of the FSB and government officials. Said Litvinenko, fellow journalist and a former KGB/FSB officer who resigned due to firsthandedly witnessing much of this corruption, “I know that a journalist of her stature could not be touched without sanction from the Russian president himself. Anna was a political opponent, and this is why she was killed.”

When later poisoned to his own death in London, Litvinenko uttered the famous phrase: “You may succeed in silencing one man, but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, for the rest of your life.” But the furor, as always, reverberates for a short period of time before dying down, the names and stories of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko fading into obscurity — which was part of the intent of those behind their assassinations, as well as a clear message to those championing human rights and truth in Russia that, should their work continue, they will be next.

But today Russia, Chechnya, the world needs Politkovskaya more than ever. The Moscow subway bombings of yesterday reek of unanswered plotholes that the Russian government will most likely keep to themselves. The event was blamed on Chechnen suicide bombers — though hard evidence to this has not manifested. Due to the brutality of the two past Chechen wars, during which both sides suffered immensely, every act of terrorism in Russia seems to be automatically assigned to the doings of the Chechen people. However, this accusation is not always true; the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia were originally blamed on Chechnen terrorists but were most probably orchestrated by FSB officials themselves. The end result of that conspiracy was Vladmir Putin’s ascension to power, and the engagement of the Second Chechnen War. Anyone who dared to divulge this truth was at once silenced through intimidation, or death. One man standing outside one of the bombed apartments in which his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson died, angrily said, “They say it was Chechens who did this, but that is a lie. It was Putin’s people. Everyone knows that. No one wants to talk about it, but everyone knows it.”

Which leaves us with this perplexing, ugly question: Were the Moscow subway bombings orchestrated NOT by Chechens, but by someone else? Like the FSB, for example (and for what end)? Does it even make sense that Chechens, after the end of the counter-terrorism operation in 2009 and during much-needed recovery, wish to trigger another war?

Although some US journalists have intelligently questioned the verity of the statements that it was Chechnen suicide bombers behind the attack, they are unfortunately physically too far-removed from Russia to solidify their investigations. Neither do they seem to understand that investigations carried out by Russian officers (some of whom are tied to the FSB) can lead to a truth that will do anything to remain hidden.

It is unfortunately easy to ascribe such acts of terror like the subway bombings to Chechen rebels. In October 2002, Chechen terrorists held hostage 850 people in a Russian theater. In September 2004, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev (killed 2006) masterminded the Beslan School hostage crises, where more than 1,000 children and teachers were held captive in the gymnasium for several days and at least 330 people died.

Although they carried their dissent through these seiges, it was Politkovskaya who was their voice. Politkovskaya was the medium of truth, the only one who would frankly and intelligently tell their story to the world. Although she did not agree with the methods the Chechnen terrorists were using, she understood that they were using such opportunities to negotiate with the Russian government. When Russian officials tried to send in their own to the theater and Beslan school, the Chechens refused to speak with them. They demanded Politkovskaya.

During the theater siege, Politkovskaya immediately flew back to Russia from a media ceremony in LA, and while giving water and juice to the hostages, broadcast their voices to the world. “The terrorists,” she said, “wanted someone who would accurately report things as they were. My work in Chechnya makes people there feel that I don’t lie. But there wasn’t much I could do for the hostages anyway.” During the siege at the Beslan school, as Politkovskaya was getting ready to actively save the children by brokering talks between Russian officials and Chechen rebels, her tea was poisoned by state agents. Due to her illness, she was unable to attend the scene and mourned the catastrophic aftermath where sudden open-fire took the lives of so many.

But with Politkovskaya gone, there may not be anyone to broadcast the voice of the Chechen people and investigate if they were behind the bombings. There may be no one willing to expose the truth, if they should find it, for fear that the FSB would silence them next. Even today, the aftermath of the theater and Beslan school crises are left with disturbing conclusions found from crime scene investigations–that it was the FSB who fired first on both accounts, that Chechens did not begin firing until Russian officials started killing both terrorists and hostages alike. With Litvinenko and Politkovskaya now permanently MIA, this means possible danger for the Chechen people even more than ever. Who will continue the work Politkovskaya started?

Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko are needed today more than ever. The two investigators who sought to convey truth amid a muddled KGB/FSB-controlled Russia ended their lives in tragedy: Politkovskaya was assassinated on Putin’s birthday several years ago, and Litvinenko was poisoned shortly thereafter.

Journalist Lisa Ling once lamented the state of American news, saying that it was near impossible for solid coverage to be given to the American audience. News transported from Russia to the United States seems to suffer twice this malady: the state of news in Russia in a censored environment where KGB/FSB officials and authorities monitor citizens is far from free, so what we receive in the US is an even further-removed muddled translation of the going-ons there. Scott Anderson’s article “None Dare Call it Conspiracy” covering the Russian apartment bombings in 1999 strove to look inside how Russian officials engineered these bombings (while publically blaming Arab terrorists and Chechnens), and how a back-then unknown Vladmir Putin used this as an opportunity to ascend to power. (Anderson’s article can be read here. It is well worth a read).

Politkovskaya dedicated her life to making heard the voices of the Chechnen people, to whom this act of terror is currently ascribed to. Yet is there any evidence, not counting the “word of government officials” that these acts were indeed carried out by North Caucasus female suicide bombers–and, if this were the case–that such an act was “unjustified?” The reason why I ask the first question is that the word of the Russian government in relation to such events is not to be completely trusted. Russian officials have, in the past, engineered certain lies and tried to pass them off as truth. Take for instance the apartment bombings in 1999. The act of terror was blamed upon Chechnen and even Arab terrorists; that is, until contradictions slowly manifested upon themselves. Denizens of an apartment in Ryazan reported to authorities several men coming inside with large white sacks. When officials arrived, they discovered an explosive timer and detonators attached to the sacks. The men who had carried these inside the apartment were arrested; HOWEVER, to everyone’s surprise, they produced FSB identification cards. The director of the FSB tried to publically pass off the experience–many days later–by saying that these FSB workers were trying to train the “alertness” and “diligence” of those residing in the apartment and that the bags contained only sugar–a complete lie, as when the substance was chemically analyzed, it was found to be RDX. Scott Anderson wrote:

Contradictions in the FSB’s account were manifold. How to reconcile FSB headquarters’ sacks-of-sugar claim with the local FSB’s chemical analysis that had found RDX? If this truly had been a training exercise, how was it that the local FSB branch wasn’t informed ahead of time, or that Patrushev himself didn’t see fit to make mention of it for a day and a half after the terrorist alert was raised? For that matter, why did the apartment-building-bombing spree suddenly stop after Ryazan? If the attacks were truly the handiwork of Chechen terrorists, surely the public-relations black eye the FSB had received over the Ryazan affair would spur them to carry out more.

But the time for such questions had already passed. Even as Prime Minister Putin gave his speech on the night of September 23 praising the residents of Ryazan for their vigilance, Russian warplanes began launching massive air strikes on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Within a few more days, Russian armored battalions that had been massed on the border for months crossed into Chechnya, marking the start of the Second Chechen War.

Events moved very quickly after that. On New Year’s Eve 01999, Boris Yeltsin stunned the nation by announcing that he was stepping down from the presidency effective immediately, which made Vladimir Putin acting president until new elections could be held. And instead of holding them sometime in the summer, as originally scheduled, those elections would now occur in just ten weeks’ time, leaving Putin’s many competitors for the position little time to prepare.

In a presidential poll taken in August 01999, Putin had garnered less than 2 percent support. By March 02000, however, riding a wave of popularity for his total-war policy in Chechnya, he swept into office with 53 percent of the vote. The reign of Vladimir Putin had begun, and Russia would never be the same.

In regards to the second question I posed, Russia and Chechnya’s brutal history shows that both sides have suffered their dues at each other’s hands. Female suicide bombers have often, before turning into terrorists, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder due to the murder of their brothers, husbands, families, or to themselves getting kidnapped by Russian officials and brutally gang-raped. In one of my previous posts discussing John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, I touched upon the fact that the way we view terrorism is always in terms of Bad versus Good, something removed from truth. Politkovskaya refused to see the people of Chechnya in such a light–often going out of the way to arrange search parties for missing Chechens– resulting in her demise at the hands of Putin.

This is not to in any way justify these acts of terror, if these events were indeed carried out by Chechnen terrorists. But this raises a set of new questions– why would Chechnens act now after previously fighting so hard for their rights? Now that Basayev, former Chechnen terrorist leader, is dead, who is the mastermind engineering this feat and for what purpose? To that end, if this was orchestrated by Russian officials themselves, what purpose does it serve? Does the fact that this occurred a day after the new US-Russia arms treaty signify something? Time will have to tell–and a clear-eyed view amid the chaos and muddle of the news media. Politkovskaya and Litvinenko have been silenced forever but in this time, the ghost of their presences are everywhere.