14 July 2004

Paranoiastan

Khodorkovsky, the FSB, and Me

When the country’s richest man goes to jail, that must mean something. Back in November, when Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and then arraigned on seven different charges ranging from tax evasion to fraud, I spoke at two different roundtables devoted to the question of why he was arrested. (Not, obviously, because he was guilty.) At the same time a friend of mine, a journalist in Moscow, compiled a list of seventeen different theories. The reasons for Khodorkovsky’s arrest proposed by these theories included: his political views (liberal), his wealth (excessive), his provenance (Jewish), his business stance (aggressive), his plans for his oil company (international), his willingness to share the wealth with the country’s rulers (insufficient), his enemies (jealous), his friends (disloyal), his political contributions (unsanctioned), and several other, related factors. The list also included the possibility that Khodorkovsky was guilty as charged and the prosecutors could actually prove it as well as connect him to two murders, as they also promised to do—but this possibility was Number 17, a humorous afterthought. It was also the only option that raised more questions than it answered.

If Khodorkovsky is guilty, he has committed crimes that characterize his generation of Russian businessmen: they all cheated on their taxes; they all navigated the maze of Russian and Soviet laws by obeying some and violating others; they all engaged in a variety of practices that were questionably legal, indisputably unethical, and obviously common practice. So why was he the only one arrested? Could it be that the prosecutors had collected evidence on him but not on the others? Then why? Could it be that he was guiltier than the others? Then how (it certainly wasn’t evident from the charges)? And since the charges date back many years, did something happen to trigger the arrest? Or did the information on a variety of misdeeds suddenly land in the prosecutors’ laps at this particular moment—why? Or could it be that he was singled out for some reason that had little or nothing to do with his alleged crimes? Go back to Versions 1 through 16: any—or, in fact, all—of them could be true, and, if true, would raise no further questions.


When you live, as I do, in a country where things just seem to happen because they do, with no apparent plan or reason, you can do one of two things. You can accept that bad things happen to good people, bad people, and in-between people at random. This is difficult. Most of us don’t like to live with the idea that we could get arrested or killed or kidnapped at any moment. So we make up explanations, not so much for why someone has been nabbed, as for why we haven’t: because we are not as inconsiderately rich, as politically opinionated, or as conspicuously Jewish. You might object that any country, even one as big as Russia, is bound to run out of the filthy rich and the screamingly Jewish sooner or later, rendering our defenses obsolete, but if you said this, you’d be missing the point. The point is to convince yourself that you are safe.

So, welcome to the world of the truly paranoid. Paranoia, according to Freud, is a hyperrational system within a given framework. The system makes sense; it’s the framework that’s crazy. That’s how it worked in his world. In our world, too, the framework is crazy—so the system had better make sense.

Here is how it works. One night an apartment building on the outskirts of Moscow blows up—rather, several bags of explosives in the basement blow up, and the building crumples in, burying over one hundred residents under a pile of broken concrete. A week later, another building goes down, in a different Moscow suburb. In between, there is an explosion that brings down a building in a small southern city. There are 316 dead. The government quickly identifies the culprits as Chechen terrorists, and a new war in Chechnya is unleashed.

This happened almost five years ago, in August and September of 1999. At first, most Russians seemed to believe that the Chechens did do it. Muscovites spent a few weeks patrolling the streets of their city at night, on the lookout for suspicious people and pets (there was a rumor that some dogs had been found carrying explosives). Then they went home and felt helpless. Because you can’t spend every night outside looking for terrorists. And even if you do, you might not catch all the terrorists. Or the terrorists might come during the day, when you are asleep after catching them all night. And then they might pick your building and blow it up, because they would have no less reason to blow up your building than to blow up the original three buildings (note that these were not the Twin Towers; they were not even distinguishable from any of the thousands of identical buildings that make up the suburbs of every post-Soviet city). Nor would the Chechens have any less reason to do it now, in 2004, when they are being massacred by Russian soldiers, than they did in 1999, when Chechnya was more or less left alone.

On the other hand, they may not have done it at all. The government still hasn’t produced a shred of evidence linking Chechen terrorists to the apartment-building explosions. Maverick investigators, on the other hand, have uncovered some evidence linking the FSB, the secret police, to the bombings, or at least one foiled bombing of an apartment building in the provincial city of Ryazan. This is an altogether more comfortable and sensible theory. There is motive: the government wanted a new war in Chechnya, and the explosions created instant public support for it. There is opportunity: the buildings were all located in cities easily accessible to any FSB agent. There is the fact that people who wonder what happened have a way of getting into trouble: two deputies from the Duma committee investigating the explosions have been killed in the last two years; a lawyer for the committee was arrested, then fled abroad. Most important, though, there is the promise that it won’t happen again, since the mission of the original explosions was accomplished long ago. Such are the spoils of paranoia: if you believe that your own government’s secret police killed 316 civilians by blowing up suburban apartment towers, you can feel safe as a civilian going to sleep in a suburban apartment tower.

Back to our shifting framework. If the FSB blew up the apartment buildings, is it to blame for all the other acts of purported Chechen terrorism? Thirty-five honest-to-goodness Chechens took more than 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater in October of 2002. One could say that these were desperate Chechen men and women who really wanted to show Muscovites what war was like so that they would pressure their government to end the war. But that would have a number of troublesome implications. It would mean that it is unsafe to go to the theater or, possibly, to any public place. It would also mean that the Chechen terrorists, if they actually thought they could succeed, are insane, and this would be troubling. Alternatively, we could suppose that it was the FSB that organized/trained/funded a group of ethnic Chechens to go stage a hostage-taking because support for the war was waning (it was) and the government wanted to boost it (it worked). This theory has the added benefit of explaining how several vans filled with armed people and explosives could travel unmolested all the way to Moscow. So if the FSB did it, you can feel safe going to the theater.


Something blows up in Russia before any election. There have been trains, subway cars, rock concerts, and just plain sidewalk bombings. Now it wouldn’t make much sense for Chechens to stage these explosions, which could only lead to anti-Chechen protest voting, would it? But it would make a lot of sense for the FSB, which strives to support not only the government but the most nationalist elements within it. A bomb is a good way to ensure turnout. Sometimes, though, there are actual Chechens linked to the crimes. But there is always something wrong with that picture. For example, in June 2003, when a bomb went off just outside a major rock festival in Moscow, killing sixteen people, the name of the supposed suicide bomber, whose passport was ostensibly found on the scene, came over the newswires at the very same time as word of the explosion itself. Who could believe that? An intact passport at the epicenter of a deadly explosion? Obviously, the passport was in the hands of the FSB, while the person it represented may have been martyred by the secret police or may never have existed in the first place. Or consider the case of a woman who wandered around the center of Moscow for hours before being apprehended by the police. She claimed to be a Chechen terrorist carrying explosives and taking directions by cell phone from more-senior terrorists. She surrendered her bomb, which she claimed she was unable to disarm. A robot was also unable to disarm the thing, which was sitting for hours on the sidewalk of Moscow’s main street. Then a human FSB demining specialist arrived and was blown to pieces with not one but two Russian State Television cameras rolling. After state television broadcast the footage of the 29-year-old officer being pulverized, it released a recently banked interview with the same officer, being all personable, handsome, and articulate. An accident? Hardly.

Speaking of accidents. They happen. The country is in shambles. In fact, the science of these things told us that it was supposed to fall apart completely last year, when all its buildings, pipes, and communications networks should have collapsed from lack of regular maintenance. It didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen to everything everywhere at the same time. But some buildings did collapse. Some blew up, apparently as a result of natural-gas leaks. It used to be this sort of thing was explained one of two ways. Either the building was poorly maintained and there were indeed leaks, or some of the occupants had had their gas cut off for nonpayment and resorted to illegally connecting to the mainline, causing a leak.

Obviously, these are unsatisfactory explanations, suggesting this sort of thing could happen anywhere (it does). So recently we in Russia have chosen to assign blame for missing valves. The term social terrorism has been born. A social terrorist is a person who is maybe angry about something, like maybe having his rent raised by the state, so he blows up the whole damn building. Someone just like this was recently arrested for allegedly loosening the valves on the gas pipes of a building in the northern city of Arkhangelsk; the building promptly blew up. This seems like a more controllable phenomenon than poor maintenance, if only because the enemy can be personified, but it’s still not localized enough. I personally think the social terrorist is a phantom created by the FSB to drum up support for housing reform, which results in higher rents and gas payments—and perhaps a few buildings have been sacrificed in the name of preventing rent riots.

Go ahead. Call me paranoid. I challenge you to explain why one of the candidates in the March presidential election, a faceless bureaucrat named Ivan Rybkin, suddenly disappeared in February, only to show up four days later, babbling incoherently about being drugged and dragged off to Kiev. There were those who thought he’d had too much to drink and taken a long weekend. But then why did he drop out of the race and move to London? I think he was kidnapped by the FSB, which wanted him quiet the night after a bomb went off in the subway, killing about 40 people. Rybkin is connected to the people who have worked to publicize the theory that the FSB blew up the apartment buildings in 1999. He may have said the same thing about the subway explosion, so he had to be discredited, which was why his disappearance and blathering re-appearance were staged.

Or consider the case of Khodorkovsky, the jailed tycoon, who a few months ago published a very bizarre open letter in a Moscow business daily. The letter said liberalism in Russia had failed and this was the fault of the liberals and the oligarchs, Khodorkovsky included, and this meant liberals should now maybe support Putin. There were those who thought the letter was a blatant plea for clemency from the president. There were those who thought the letter reflected what was really going through Khodorkovsky’s head after five months in solitary in Matrosskaya Tishina prison, which is probably enough time for someone to start thinking he did something wrong somewhere. But then there were those who were asking the really important questions. Who actually wrote the letter? Khodorkovsky first said he did, then said he didn’t, and then again said he did. He didn’t write all the physical words in the letter, he said (that’s what writers were for), but he took responsibility for all the words, making him the author. But then a political spin master named Stanislav Belkovsky said he didn’t write it either, which was indicative of something, since Belkovsky, unlike Khodorkovsky, hadn’t been asked. And if it was Khodorkovsky, then why did the letter, or what was clearly an earlier draft of it, appear on a Russian website a full 11 days before it got to the paper—and why, on the website, was it signed with a clearly fictitious name? Had someone intercepted the letter and leaked it? Had someone been engaged by Khodorkovsky to write it and leaked it? Or—you guessed it!—was it the FSB writing a letter to be passed off as Khodorkovsky’s letter of atonement and test-driving it first on a website? Well?

If you know the answer, read no further. I don’t. I have, however, written stories discussing the possibility that the FSB blew up the apartment buildings, trained the Chechen hostage-takers, and probably even engineered the on-air destruction of a demining specialist. I’ve written them because I think they’re true. Someone recently broke into my apartment in Moscow and took an old laptop, plus the hard drive from my computer. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Chechens. Becoming the sort of person who believes that the FSB is responsible for a number of things the FSB could not, in a decent state or decent universe, possibly be responsible for—changes you. Because your reading of events is based on a set of beliefs rather than on evidence—the belief that these people are capable of this—and because it seeks to create logical constructions to fit a shifting framework, it resembles a worldview. And once people know your worldview, they conclude that they know what you’ll think of everything. But you just want to shake them. These aren’t my beliefs, you want to say. This is just what is. And isn’t that exactly how crazy people think?

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