In an open letter to Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, historian Yuri Felshtinsky recounts the background to the publication of the book, “Blowing Up Russia,” which he wrote together with Alexander Litvinenko. The book is an investigation of the Russian apartment bombings in September 1999, which the authors say were committed by agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The bombings served to justify the Second Chechen War and brought Vladimir Putin to power.
Yuri Felshtinsky’s letter follows the publication in the US magazine GQ of Scott Anderson’s article, “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which recounted the murky details of the apartment bombings and their aftermath. The edition of the magazine was withdrawn from distribution in Russia. Yulia Latynina commented on the story on her talkshow on Radio Echo of Moscow. Below, an abbreviated translation of Yuri Felshtinsky’s letter.
Letter to Yulia Latynina
I have very high regard for you and think of you as a serious journalist. You are, however, wrong in the question of the apartment bombings. For many years, you have been insisting on a version of your own. For some reason, it seems to be very important to you to prove, especially to yourself, that the Russian government was not behind the September 1999 terrorist attacks. When I began to investigate the bombings, at first I could not believe either that the apartment houses were not blown up by Chechens. Yet I had to believe it because there were simply no other alternatives.
This was in 2001. We are now in 2009. Did you notice that on the 10th anniversary of the bombings, not a single news anchor on Russia’s semi-official First Channel could utter the claim that Chechens were behind the bombings? Or the fact that the Russian government decided not to organise any official ceremonies to commemorate the victims of the largest terrorist attack in Russian history (after Beslan), “at the request of the relatives”? No, you did not. What a pity.
I am writing this just before your next show on Radio Echo of Moscow, scheduled for 23 September 2009, the tenth anniversary of the “exercises” in Ryazan. Yulia, did you ever see that wars and exercises began at the same time? The “exercises” in Ryazan were carried out a day before the beginning of the Second Chechen War. Has something like that ever happened in world history?
What happens a day before the beginning of a war anywhere in the world is not an exercise but a provocation. The war started on 23 September 1999 because another bombing was scheduled for 22 September in Ryazan. The bombing did not take place because while one group of secret agents were busy planting the bomb, another group was busy looking for it — a thoroughly Russian story. Yet the regime decided to launch the war anyway as planned, so that journalists would not have time to put the facts together and realise who is carrying out terrorist attacks in Russian cities and why.
It saddens me that you do not want to understand what happened, but instead make loud statements that the FSB was not behind the bombings. […] All of the premisses of your grandiose conclusions that the FSB did not blow up the houses are false. All of them. Let us begin with your main premiss: “I regard the version that the FSB was behind the bombings as not only totally absurd. I think that the version was concocted on purpose by Boris Berezovsky afted he was ousted from power.” You then assert that Berezovsky would have never brought Putin to power had he known that Putin was behind the bombings.
[…] Berezovsky did not come up with theories about the apartment bombings. Neither did Litvinenko. I did. I wrote the book. Once the manuscript was ready, I took a flight to New York to talk about it with Berezovsky, with whom I was acquainted since 1998. It took me several days to convince him to set aside some time to talk with me about something important. I so wanted to tell Berezovsky who exactly he had helped to power. When, after four days, he finally agreed to talk to me on his way to Nice, I told him the whole story.
Berezovsky listened to me, very long and attentively. At one point, he asked me: “Wait a minute, what about Ryazan?” I replied: “Ryazan? I won’t even begin to talk about it. It’s all so obvious. In Ryazan, they were caught red-handed, while attempting to set up a bomb.” Berezovsky asked me to keep quiet for a moment, and for a few minutes, we just drove without saying a word. Then, Berezovsky said the following (I am quoting him word for word): “My God, what an idiot I am. I can see it all now. What an idiot I’ve been.” He repeated it over and over.
Berezovsky asked me, whether anyone else could have more knowledge more about the matter. I offered to talk to Litvinenko about it. Berezovsky asked me to fly to Moscow to talk with him, which I did. That is how Litvinenko got involved in this. I arrived in Moscow on 23 September 2000. Litvinenko, however, fled to Georgia on 1 October 2000, where I catched up with him. After that, we began to work on this question together.
[…] No one who read the manuscript considered the story “absurd.” Guess who Berezovsky showed the manuscript to? He decided to bring it to Moscow and give it to Putin for him to read. […] After he had promised me that he would not talk about the manuscript to Putin, Berezovsky then took a flight to Moscow. (I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it was his last visit to Moscow.) In Moscow, Berezovsky met Putin.
Putin asked Berezovsky why he was attacking him, referring to the story about the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine, Kursk. (Back then, Russia’s First Channel, which was partly owned by Berezovsky, did indeed “attack” the government, in line with the best traditions of free journalism.) Berezovsky replied: “Vladimir, I am not attacking you. Kursk is nothing. If I wanted to attack you, I would ask you about something completely different. I would ask you, for instance, who blew up the apartment houses in September 1999.” Putin fell silent.
[…] Berezovsky called himself an “idiot” because he had not known about who was behind the bombings. He understood at that moment that […] Putin felt so confident in ascending to power because he had the support of two forces: both the Yeltsin-era power elite known as the “Family” and the FSB. With this support, he was able to secure his presidency in 2000. Berezovsky did not know this. He thought that no one besides the Family supported Putin. He really thought that it was he who was putting Putin in charge, he, Berezovsky. That is what everyone thought.
The whole country, from Berezovsky to you, Yulia, believed that Berezovsky was ruling the country. The fact of the matter was, however, that Berezovsky ruled nothing, he never had any power. Never. This is what he realised. The power was in the hands of people like Roman Abramovich, Alexander Voloshin, Anatoly Chubais, and Yuri Luzhkov. Please note that all these people are still in power. Berezovsky, on the other hand, had no power. That is the only reason he ended up in exile.
The second question is, why did Putin fall silent, and what did it mean to Berezovsky. Putin fell silent because he had nothing to say, because he knew exactly who blew up those houses. Like the news anchors on Russia’s First Channel today, he could not claim in his private talk with Berezovsky that Chechens were behind the bombings, because they were not. At that moment, Berezovsky finally realised that the FSB really did blow up the houses. He began to realise this even before the visit to Putin. He now understood the most important thing: that Putin knew.
Berezovsky asked me what I wanted to do with the manuscript. I told him that I wanted to publish it in Novaya Gazeta, if possible. There was no other option that I could see. I called Novaya Gazeta reporter and member of the Russian State Duma Yuri Shchekochikhin, and it was the first time we had talked. I asked him to meet me somewhere outside Russia. That was my first and last meeting with him. I told him about my manuscript, and he was initially very sceptical, saying that Novaya Gazeta had investigated the bombings through and through. He did not believe we could have come up with anything new.
I told him I wanted the whole manuscript to be published in a special edition of Novaya Gazeta, and that the State Duma consider the establishment of a special commission to investigate the bombings. I asked him to read the manuscript overnight. The next morning, Shchekochikhin apologised for having underestimated me, and promised that Novaya Gazeta would publish a special edition. He was, however, worried about whether he would be able to get back to Moscow alive with the manuscript. “My immunity as a member of the State Duma will not save me from anything,” he said.
Shchekochikhin took the manuscript to Moscow, and gave it first to Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, and then to Mikhail Gorbachev, [current co-owner of Novaya Gazeta]. On 21 August 2001, Novaya Gazeta published the book in a special edition. […] The preparation of the edition was done in absolute secrecy; nobody except those responsible for its publication were aware that a special edition called “FSB blowing up Russia” would be coming out. Not even Berezovsky and Litvinenko. […] After its publication, Berezovsky warned me that I would face charges for libel. I said there would be total silence on the part of the authorities.
That is how it was. Total silence. Not a word. Like there never was any special edition. Then there was an article by Alexander Prokhanov, reminding his readers about the special edition of Novaya Gazeta accusing the Kremlin of blowing up the houses. Prokhanov noted that the Kremlin was keeping mum about the whole thing; he said the Kremlin was silent because Novaya Gazeta’s special edition was like a gunshot at the Kremlin, and that the gunshot had killed everyone in the Kremlin. I am very grateful to Prokhanov for his article and for breaking the silence.
This long prologue was necessary for me to refute your first premiss, the one about Berezovsky. He really took an active interest in the story and began to help me only after the publication of the special edition of Novaya Gazeta. Without his support, the special edition and a book would have been all there was. But then there was the documentary film, “Assassination of Russia,” which Berezovsky used to support his political project, the [now defunct] Liberal Russia party.
[…] Let me now turn to [those accused of involvement in the apartment bombings]: Achimez Gochiyayev, Timur Batchayev, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov, and others. These people were living without any worries, even though they were on Russia’s wanted list, until I found them. And when I found them and began to tape their statements, […] that is when things started to get interesting. Let me remind you that in the official account of the bombings, not a single Chechen is mentioned. Not one.
You seem to base your theory on a single article that appeared in business daily Kommersant on 10 December 2002. You seem to take the information contained in the article totally at face value. The article does, in fact, contain many interesting details: […] “Russia’s Prosecutor General turned to its Georgian counterparts for help in the detention and extradition of Karachai Wahhabites wanted for terrorist attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk: Adam Dekkushev, Yusuf Krymshamkhalov, and Timur Batchayev,” Kommersant reported.
Please answer this: Why did Russia’s Prosecutor General turn to its “Georgian counterparts” in summer 2002? Why not before? Why, it was because in summer 2002, Krymshamkhalov and Batchayev began making statements to me. Only then did Russia’s Prosecutor General react, given that the statements were very disadvantageous to the FSB. […] I must point out that the article’s author, Olga Alenova, did indicate quite clearly that the information came from the official investigation. I should not have to tell you that the information was one-sided, and that one would have to read it very carefully.
You claim that if the terrorists detained in Georgia and extradited to Russia would have been working for the FSB, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze would have questioned them and used them as a bargaining chip with Russia. […] Why would Shevardnadze do that? After all, he is and has always been a wise man. Let me tell you a story what happened. Please consider it carefully.
I flew over to Georgia to meet with Gochiyayev, [whom the Russian authorities claimed was the “mastermind” behind the apartment bombings]. I got in contact with him through a go-between. I did not like the whole setup from the very beginning. I really had no idea who this Gochiyayev was; was he a terrorist or an FSB agent; was he even alive. I had no way of knowing whether I was really dealing with Gochiyayev or whether it was all a provocation. I had really no idea what I was getting into, yet here I was flying to Georgia to meet with a person who claimed to be Gochiyayev and who said he wanted to meet me.
There are no direct flights from Boston to Georgia; I therefore took the flight via London. I had a few hours between flights, and decided to meet with Berezovsky in his office. He invited Akhmed Zakayev, and Alexander Litvinenko joined us as well. I asked Zakayev, what did he think, who was the person who wanted to meet me, and would I be killed. Half-jokingly, Zakayev said they would hardly kill me, but could cut my ears off. I tried to imagine myself without ears, and realised that such a state of affairs would be unacceptable.
Suddenly, Litvinenko said he would fly with me to Georgia. I was happy; after all, Litvinenko was a former officer, and would certainly protect my ears if necessary. We then realised that we will miss the flight, given that Litvinenko had to go home to get his passport and luggage. We took a taxi and finally did manage to catch our flight. Berezovsky told us on our way to the airport that Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili’s people would meet us at Tbilisi airport and ensure our safety.
[…] Patarkatsishvili was clearly unhappy that Litvinenko had come with me; he was told that I would be alone. Now he had to provide protection to two people. We had 24-hour security, and it later turned out that the bodyguards were members of the security staff of the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. Gochiyayev sent word by courier that I would have to meet him in the Pankisi Gorge in north-east Georgia. Patarkatsishvili said Shevardnadze was unable to guarantee our safety outside Tbilisi, and he told me I would not come out of the Pankisi Gorge alive. We sent our questions and a video camera to Gochiyayev by courier.
Later in the evening, the courier called and told us he had arrived safe and sound, and that he would return tomorrow with Gochiyayev’s reply. He told us, however, that he was followed, but managed to shake his followers. What is more, he told us that when we met in Tbilisi, he saw some cars that were not from the presidential security team had tailed us. Litvinenko said he felt that we were being led.
The following morning, a guy from Patarkatsishvili’s security team told us that we should leave Georgia immediately: during the night, our driver, a member of Shevardnadze’s security staff, had been abducted. The first flight available was to Frankfurt. Security people flew with us to ensure that we got to Frankfurt alive. When we arrived in Germany, Patarkatsishvili called us and told that the driver was found killed. What was it again that you said about Shevardnadze’s “bargaining chip”?
[…] Do you not think it strange that absolutely all “terrorists” — Khattab, Basayev, Krymshamkhalov, and Batchayev — had taken to arms, but the alleged “mastermind” of the biggest terrorist attack in Russian history (until then), Gochiyayev, was hiding somewhere and had never even written any “extremist” leaflets? […] Unlike Krymshamkhalov and Batchayev, Gochiyayev never appeared in photographs or videos brandishing an automatic rifle. Gochiyayev only repeated over and over again that he had nothing to do with any bombings. By the way, he risked a great deal by contacting me. He risked his life, had someone followed me and then killed him.
I could go on and on about the details of what actually happened in the apartment bombings. Yet there comes a moment in any text when one has to make a conclusion. I recognise that we are not in an equal position. My book, “Blowing Up Russia,” has still not been published in Russia. You said you had read the 2004 edition; yet no such edition has ever been published. The documentary film, “Assassination of Russia,” has still not been shown on Russian television. Radio Echo of Moscow, which gives you ample time to air your opinions about the apartment bombings, has never turned to me for an interview.
[…] If I had a negative opinion of you or regarded you as a bad journalist, I would not have written this letter. I wrote this letter because I have very high regard for you, and because I know that people in Russia listen to you and read your articles. People believe you. Yet it is exactly because people in Russia believe you, whereas I have no way to express my views directly to the Russian audience, that you should be very careful about what you say. Otherwise people will stop believing you.
21 September 2009
[Translation: Kerkko Paananen]
Read the original letter:
Письмо Юлии Латыниной
Юрий Фельштинский, 21.09.2009