In Russia, Conspiracy Theories Become Plausible

In a famous speech to the Russian Duma delivered as Russia was being bled dry during World War I, Pavel Miliukov, a leading Russian liberal, inquired whether the Russian government’s incompetence stemmed from stupidity or treason.

This is the key question raised in Alexander Litvinenko’s and Yuri Felshtinsky’s Blowing Up Russia. Litvinenko is the former agent for the FSB, the post-Soviet successor of the KGB, who died in England in November 2006 after being mysteriously poisoned with polonium. In his book, Litvinenko attributes much, if not all, of the crime, terrorism, war, and social chaos that plagued Russia after the fall of communism to elaborate FSB conspiracies.

In addition to orchestrating a series of terrorist attacks against Russian apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities that killed hundreds, Litvinenko claims the FSB also provoked the Chechen invasion of the neighboring republic of Dagestan. All this, according to Litvinenko, was part of a successful plot to provoke a war with Chechnya in order to forestall Yeltsin’s democratic reforms, expand the power of the FSB and other security organs and, ultimately, to put the entire country under the FSB’s control through the election of former FSB chief Vladimir Putin.

Litvinenko especially focuses on an incident in which sacks of explosives were discovered in an apartment building in Ryazan. The entire building was evacuated and the explosives were safely removed. After investigators connected several FSB agents to the explosives, the FSB claimed that the sacks only contained sugar and a fake detonator, and that the entire episode was a training exercise designed to test the local authorities’ preparedness to deal with a terrorist attack. Following the Ryazan affair, the FSB conducted similar “exercises” throughout Russia, planting fake explosives in various locations. Litvinenko describes these as an FSB attempt to erase suspicions about the Ryazan exercise by demonstrating that the FSB was merely stupid, as opposed to being actively engaged in terrorism against its own people.

So was this stupidity, or was it treason? In Russia, it’s always hard to tell. But there is one lesson of Russian history that applies across the imperial, Communist and post-Communist eras: One should never underestimate the stupidity of the Russian government. Is it possible that the government was brazenly stupid enough to approve anti-terrorism drills conducted without warning among the general population? I would say it’s within the realm of possibility.

Furthermore, Litvinenko’s argumentative style—something had to be a conspiracy because it would make sense if it was one—is part and parcel of a longstanding tradition of conspiracy theories in Russia. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that a Bolshevik conspiracy to seize power in Russia resulted in 70 years of largely self-inflicted misery, armed conflict and mass murder.

Many of Russia’s popular conspiracy theories today involve the CIA. These are oftentimes fanned by the Russian government, which regularly attributes the democratic revolutions in neighboring states as well as the activities of liberal Russian organizations to the machinations of U.S. intelligence agencies. We’ve all heard wild conspiracy stories about the CIA, such as its supposed involvement in the 9/11 attacks. In America, these fairy tales gain no credibility, except among the kook fringes of the far-left and the far-right—or Rosie O’Donnell.

But is it really impossible to believe that the Russian government orchestrated various acts of murder and terrorism? It is quite remarkable how critics of the Russian government such as Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya have a strange tendency to end up poisoned, dead or, in the case of Litvinenko himself, both. In the book’s foreword, written after Litvinenko’s death, Felshtinsky names three other Russians assisting in the book’s publication who were murdered—two gunned down and one poisoned. The book itself is banned in Russia.

Most likely, we’ll never know for sure who gave the orders for all the bombings and killings that Litvinenko attributes to the FSB. It’s doubtful that any of the plotters left behind a smoking-gun document that is now collecting dust in the archives, waiting to be unearthed by some intrepid graduate student. But with every step that Putin’s government takes to strangle Russian democracy, and with every Putin critic who turns up dead from some exotic poison, the more wild conspiracy theories like those told by the late Litvinenko seem plausible.