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Blowing Up Russia: A Book Review

Updated: Mar 23

By Manoel Chavanne

Don't get your hopes up dear reader! In this article I will not explain how to blow up Russia or even advocate for it to happen; this is just the title of today's book. As I'm sure you know, Putin won another “election” this past weekend. I'm using the term very loosely here, so I thought it'd be good timing to revisit a bit of history and see how he got to power in the first place.

This historical essay was written by Alexander Litvinenko who was an FSB (former KGB) officer in charge of organized crime with the help of a historian, Yuri Felshtinsky. Litvinenko's name might sound familiar as he made front page news in November 2006 when he was poisoned with polonium-210 in London. It goes without saying that his assassination was most likely ordered by no other than Vladimir Putin himself and the revelations made in the book I'll recommend in these columns have a lot to do with it.

Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror by Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky

As I've already discussed in this piece, Russian imperialism is unfortunately well and good to this day. This is an important point to keep in mind. Another idea to remember is that despite Russian elections clearly not being neither free nor fair, a majority of the population does support the regime, as explained previously. Building on this knowledge, we can now go take a deeper look at Litvinenko's essay and accusations. Side/unsurprising note: This book was, and still is, banned in Russia.

The main idea of the book is that when Boris Yeltsin named Putin Prime Minister in August 1999, the latter was virtually unknown in the country. In order to help him gain public support, the FSB organized terrorist attacks throughout Russia claiming that Chechens were responsible. This gave Putin the opportunity to act as a strong man, enabling him to gain popularity by saying things like: “We’ll follow terrorists everywhere. We will corner the bandits in the toilet and beat the hell out of them.” He was talking about alleged Chechen terrorists. Between the month before this quote (August 1999) and a couple of months into the war in Chechenya, Putin's approval rating skyrocketed from 31% to a whopping 80%. Even if these approval ratings are to be taken with a pinch of salt, I believe they're still revealing to an extent.

Putin's approval rating from August 1999 until December 2023

Just before continuing and getting into the details of Litvinenko's publication, it's interesting to note that the other two upward spikes in Putin's approval rating, in data covering close to a quarter of a century, in 2014 and 2022, happened as he attacked Ukraine which tends to prove the point that going to war increases Putin's popular support.

In September 1999, the month after Putin became Prime Minister, numerous bombs exploded in various Russian cities, including Moscow, killing over 300 people and injuring 1,700 by blowing up apartment buildings at night while civilians were asleep. Then, a vigilant man noticed a suspicious bag in the underground parking lot of his building in Ryazan on September 22nd. The bag turned out to be explosives planted by FSB agents who quickly got arrested by local police... and released the next day when the head of the FSB claimed that the incident was an anti-terror drill to check if residents of Ryazan were vigilant enough. This unbelievable version of events is heavily criticized and thoroughly debunked by Litvinenko and his co-author. First of all, it makes very little sense to have random FSB agents drop bags next to the foundations of a building late in the evening to check if civilian residents are watching for potential terrorists. Second of all, the official story claims that the bag was full of sugar bought by the FSB agents at the Ryazan market. However, the Ryazan market closes way too early for the agents to have time to drive from Moscow to Ryazan and buy the sugar given the time at which they left the Russian capital. More details are in the essay for those who'll read it, but I'm sure you get the gist.

Another outlandish example highlighted in Litvinenko's account is the fact that Seleznyov, speaker of the Duma (national parliament) at the time, made a public announcement about another terrorist attack having just happened in the city of Volgodonsk on September 13th. The problem is that the bombing didn't happen until September 16th, or three days after the announcement. Unsurprisingly, the bombing was blamed on Chechen militants and no conceivable explanation was ever given by the authorities or Seleznyov to clarify how he knew about the attack three days before it happened.

The book, and Russian official statements, are full of preposterous stories each more far-fetched than the next. Starting with how the alleged Chechen terrorists could have obtained or made the explosives, to timings and locations not matching official accounts, as well as taped over license plates and an explosive expert defusing a bomb. Then said Russian officials changed the version of the story to claim the detonator was a shotgun shell that couldn't have exploded anyway.

All this for what? To help Putin gain popularity in 1999 and win the 2000 presidential election after Yeltsin resigned on December 31st 1999. If there's one thing to remember from this read, and these series of bombings, it's the lengths that Putin was, and is, willing to go to for power. He murdered hundreds of his own citizens and started a war which resulted in 50,000 to 80,000 deaths according to the best available estimates. Knowing this, it is unfortunately not surprising to see what the Russian army, under Putin's leadership, is currently doing in Ukraine, bombing hospitals, maternity wards, schools, universities, restaurants, museums and more. If reading this makes you angry, vengeful or feeling helpless, please channel this energy toward something useful. Come help Ukraine and I've previously exposed reasons to do so.


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