Russian bombs set off whispers

Was it just a training exercise or a plot to kill hundreds?

January 14, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RYAZAN, Russia -- As far as Yulia Kartofelnikov sees it, she's supposed to be dead.

The same goes for her parents, Aleksei and Lyudmila Kartofelnikov -- and for Vladimir Vasiliev, who lives on the eighth floor, and Klara Rysyova, on the third, and for the 250 other people who live in the haunted apartment building at 16/14 Novosyolov St.

They believe that almost four months ago someone tried to blow up their building in the early morning hours and that it was only by chance that the plot was discovered by alert residents. They believe that the chief of the Federal Security Service was lying when he announced, two days later, that the whole thing was a training exercise. They believe he was heading off an investigation and providing cover for whoever was behind the attempt to kill them all.

They don't believe Lt. Col. Yuri Bludov of the Federal Security Service (known by its Russian acronym FSB) when he says their suspicions are groundless. He says it was all a test -- one that may have been a little excessive but was justified by the circumstances. Residents may have had to spend the night in the cold, and they may have lived for two days thinking they had been the target of a terrorist attack that almost succeeded, but the lessons learned were valuable. Case closed.

Two versions of reality -- either the authorities tried to kill a couple of hundred Russian residents, or they simply tried to scare the daylights out of them and spread panic through a city for two days to see what would happen.

The incident in Ryazan took place a week after the second of two bombings in Moscow that killed more than 200 people. The bombings unleashed anxiety throughout the country and were blamed on Chechen separatists. The day after Ryazan, Russian jets began bombing the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Today, nearly four months later, Russia has a new president, Vladimir V. Putin, who rose to popularity after his tough response to the alleged terrorist bombings, and a war in Chechnya that is starting to look increasingly bloody and difficult.

Now, more and more questions are being raised about the apartment house bombings, and accusations are being heard that the FSB may have been behind them.

Stark contrast

Lots of people were rounded up after the bombings, but no one has been charged. In Moscow, the rubble was cleared within days. Kirill Mazurin of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department said sufficient evidence had been gathered and that no further sifting of the buildings' ruins was needed. But the contrast with the painstaking work done after the explosions at the World Trade Center in New York and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is stark.

In Ryazan, fortunately, there was no rubble. But the evidence is gone nonetheless. It is just about impossible to know what really happened.

The police -- who are not connected to the FSB and, in fact, are rivals -- have acknowledged that through an inadvertently overheard phone call, they had obtained strong evidence linking the "special service" to the Ryazan incident less than 24 hours after it occurred, when they thought it was genuine. But, while tantalizing, it proves nothing. The police also say they were unable to detonate a small sample of the purported bomb ingredients found in the building, but that doesn't prove much, either.

What remains is an enduring Russian riddle. Rightly or not, the people of Novosyolov Street believe that they have been abused and lied to by the authorities -- and they accept that this is what authorities do. The residents have been unable to channel their anger into any kind of action, political, legal or otherwise. Today, they have new problems. What's the point in dwelling on past injury?

And even if they wanted to pursue it, Vasiliev said this week, "How?"

"With whom?" asked Rysyova.

"It's just a waste of nerves, arguing with the authorities," said Aleksei Kartofelnikov. "It's useless."

Suspicious license plate

On the evening of Sept. 22, a chill was in the air in Ryazan, a city of 700,000 about 130 miles southeast of Moscow. Aleksei and Lyudmila Kartofelnikov had spent the day working in the vegetable garden of their country dacha; she had wanted to stay over another day, but he insisted on returning to their apartment in the Oktyabrsky region, a 20-year-old district of 12-story brick apartment houses connected to the rest of the city by a long trolley bus line.

Aleksei Kartofelnikov unloaded his car about 8:30 p.m. and then parked it some distance away. He walked back home and, as he approached the building, a white Russian-made car, a Zhiguli, headed toward the entrance, then swung around and backed in. He noticed that the license plate was partly covered by a piece of paper, on which someone had written 62, the registration number for Ryazan.

A young woman was standing in the doorway, glancing left and right. He passed her, went up to his sixth-floor apartment and decided that he had better call the police.

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