The forgotten victims of 'Russia's 9/11'

Those injured or who lost loved ones in a wave of Sept. 1999 bombings in Russia feel that they have been abandoned by the Russian public, media, and government.

By , Correspondent

They are Russia's forgotten and abandoned victims of terror.

A small, forlorn-looking knot of people gathered on Moscow's Kashirskoye Shosse this morning, as they do every year at this time, to mark and mourn the anniversary of the wave of devastating apartment bombings that are widely referred to as "Russia's 9/11."

In September 1999, terrorists struck four times in three Russian cities, blowing up almost 300 people as they slept in their beds. The tragedies sowed panic across urban Russia, galvanized the nation, consolidated political forces behind a tough-talking new leader named Vladimir Putin, and were the primary reason given for a fresh Russian military invasion of the rebellious southern republic of Chechnya.

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Though the 1999 bombings led to vast upheaval and changed Russia fundamentally, not a single politician was on hand Tuesday to show solidarity with those who survived or lost loved ones in the 5 a.m., Sept. 13 blast on Kashirskoye Shosse, which killed 119 people and injured 200. No major Russian media covered their brief, tear-filled memorial service.

"We were abandoned and forgotten," says Sergei Kalinchenko, a businessman who lost his daughter when the eight-story building collapsed after a powerful bomb exploded in the basement. "We still have no clear answers as to how it happened, and probably we never will. It's as if our sorrow doesn't concern anyone at all."

Many of the families say they received little or no state assistance in the wake of the tragedy. But what hurts the most, many add, is the complete lack of public solidarity with them, for what they endured at the hands of terrorists as fellow Russians.

"After it happened, I had no strength to do anything or go anywhere," says Valentina Gudkova, a pensioner who lost her son, daughter-in-law, and little grandson in the attack. "Friends took me around to offices where I had to get all sorts of documents (to deal with the final formalities), and officials treated me so coldly. I had to pay for everything. Eventually some bank sent me a letter to say that I'd been awarded 6,000 roubles (about $200) in compensation."

'Here we have very short memories'

Mr. Kalinchenko says he was astonished to see extensive Russian TV coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in the US last weekend.

"Of course we feel compassion and grief for what they went through; we went through it ourselves," he says. "But it was surprising to see how people are respected in the US, and what a big public ceremony they had to commemorate the tragedy. They named every single victim!"

The people of Kashirskoye Shosse waited seven years before the government permitted a small monument to be erected on the site, including a stone engraved with the names of the dead.

"I watched the coverage of the 9/11 anniversary in the US, and saw how everybody treated the grief of those affected as their own grief," says Vadim Rudnev, a construction worker who lives next door to the destroyed building in this working-class neighborhood. "I think Americans must be a much more consolidated nation than we are. Here we have very short memories, and we're distracted by a screen of everyday worries."

The still largely unexplained wave of bombings hit during a volatile political season in Russia, as the regime of then-President Boris Yeltsin was winding down amid charges of incompetence and corruption, and a major challenge by opposition politicians was gathering steam. On Aug. 31, a powerful blast hit a shopping mall under Moscow's downtown Pushkin Square, injuring 40 people.

Within days, a string of early morning explosions hit apartment blocks in the Caucasus town of Buynaksk, two Moscow locations, and the southern city of Volgodonsk. A sixth bomb was uncovered in the central city of Ryazan, but the evidence was removed by Russia's FSB security service which later described the event as an "exercise" to spur public vigilance.

"These tragedies helped to install the regime that's still in power, reshaped Russian politics and re-started the Chechen war," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "It was absolutely pivotal in making today's Russia."

But Russia's government, state-led media, and public have failed to engage with the people who endured those attacks for a variety of reasons, he adds.

"This is not a society that cares much about its members," says Mr. Kagarlitsky. "Politicians have little incentive to get involved, because voters don't matter in our political system. The outcome of elections is basically predetermined, so why should a politician get up in the morning to go out and meet people?"

Doubts about the state's role

The 1999 bombings remain essentially unsolved, and suspicions persist that the state, or some official faction, may have had something to do with it.

A 2002 poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 43 percent of Russians believed the bombings had been carried out by, or with the participation of, Russian special services. Thirty-eight percent said they "excluded" that possibility.

"Two people were eventually caught and imprisoned for those bombings, but they were simple accomplices," says Igor Trunov, a lawyer who does pro bono work for victims of terrorist acts. "Not a single organizer or financier of these terrorist attacks has ever been named. In general, the state appears to have excused itself of all responsibility."

Another problem for Kremlin authorities is that "Russia's 9/11" was not a unique event, but one that inaugurated an era of terror attacks against Russia's heartland that has since killed over 1,000 people. Most notably, in 2002 Chechen insurgents seized a crowded theater in central Moscow, leaving 130 dead after security forces stormed the building. Two years later terrorists took over 1,000 hostages at a school in Beslan. More than 300 people – half of them children – died.

In the past two years suicide bombers have struck in Moscow's crowded metro system and an arrivals lounge in Moscow's Domodedovo airport, killing scores.

A survey released last month by the Levada Center found that 73 percent of Russians fear falling victim to a terrorist act, against just 9 percent who thought nothing like that could happen to them.

"After the 1999 bombings, Putin promised Russians that he would protect them, but in fact he didn't," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"So it's no wonder that neither he, nor anyone in authority wants to draw attention to the victims of these acts. What would the message be? People already know that they are vulnerable and do not trust the authorities to protect them," she says.

Olga Podolskaya contributed to this report.

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