"Assassination of Russia"- Film Screening and Panel Discussion
In 1999, a series of apartment bombings rocked the Russian people. The blasts, which killed over 200 Russian civilians, were blamed on Chechen separatists and helped trigger the second Chechen war. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's popularity rose sharply with the prosecution of the war in Chechnya, helping him to win the Russian presidency in March 2000. Russian tycoon Boris Berezovksy, once a Kremlin insider and now living in exile in London, financed "Assassination of Russia," a documentary produced by French journalists that purports to show that the Russian secret services were complicit in the 1999 apartment bombings. This film, shown for the first time in the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, has never been broadcast in Russia.
In her introduction of the film, Elena Bonner emphasized the importance of viewing the film and debating its findings. According to Bonner, the reluctance of the Russian government to acknowledge the film, and the Russian State Duma's refusal to view it, echoes the reaction of Soviet officials in the wake of Boris Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for literature: "I have never read Pasternak, but I condemn everything that he has written." A healthy government and society will uncover and examine its scandals and crimes, Bonner continued, citing the American experience with the Watergate scandal as an example. The instinct of the Russian government and society, Bonner said, is to cover up scandals and crimes. The failure to conduct inquiries into credible charges of government wrongdoing, including into the charges made in the documentary, constitute a "betrayal of society," according to Bonner. She concluded by applauding the work of an unofficial public commission investigating the 1999 bombings headed by Sergei Kovalev, a Deputy in the Russian State Duma.
The English-language version of the film that was shown at the Institute centered on the events in the Russian city of Ryazan in September 1999. Two residents of an apartment building, vigilant after four previous blasts had already struck in different Russian cities, reported a suspicious car outside their building. Police sent to investigate did not find the car. They did find in the basement of the building three suspicious bags with a homemade detonator attached. Demolition experts were sent in to remove the bags. The residents of the building were evacuated and allowed to return the following day. Late the next day the Russian secret service (FSB) announced that the bags planted in the basement of the building contained only sugar and were part of a civil defense test. The evidence from the case, including the bags and detonator, were sealed and further investigation curtailed. Probing the facts surrounding these events, the film pointed out numerous discrepancies in the FSB's account of events raised by the residents of the building as well as by Russian investigative journalists. While the film failed to conclusively prove FSB involvement in a plot to blow up Russian apartment buildings, it did raise serious questions about the FSB's role in the events in Ryazan and their suspicious conduct afterwards.
Commenting on the film, Russian Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov decried the lack of civilian control over the armed forces and especially over the secret services in Russia. Following the events of September 11, Yushenkov stated, many Russians waited with concern to see how the United States would react – whether or not the Americans would forget Benjamin Franklin's admonition that those would sacrifice freedom for security would gain neither. Those fears were not borne out; even after the terrorist attack, democratic institutions functioned normally, including civilian control over the military and secret services. Russia's experience was different, and the movie showed three things clearly, according to Yushenkov. First, there is no civilian control over the secret services in Russia, which is clear from the refusal of the Russian Duma and government to investigate the suspicious events in Ryazan. Second, the Russian authorities, especially the FSB, are prone to lying. And third, even if FSB claims that the Ryazan incident was a civilian defense exercise were true, such an exercise involving unsuspecting civilians would be a gross violation of Russian law. Without civilian control, Yushenkov concluded, the FSB will continue to get away with violations of law and telling lies to society.
In criticizing the film, panelist Sergei Markov acknowledged that the film was "a well-made professional example of the propagandist and psychological war that Boris Berezovsky is notoriously good at." He dismissed the accusations made by the film as a conspiracy theory, declaring further that it is difficult to dissuade someone who believes in such theories with rational argument. Markov pointed out that there are similar conspiracy theories in Russia and elsewhere that the United States and/or Israel organized the terror attack of September 11 in order to justify military actions. Markov also drew parallels between the Russian and U.S. reaction to terror (attacks on terrorist camps) and between the evidence subsequently discovered at these camps (pamphlets and weapons). Markov concluded that he agreed with the principles of civilian control over the FSB and armed forces, but strongly disagreed with Yushenkov's assertion that such control is not in effect.