You know, some people are saying the FSB is behind the bombings,” my editor, one of the smartest people I knew, said to me when I walked in one afternoon in September 1999. “Do you believe it?”

For three weeks, Moscow and other Russian cities had been terrorized by a series of explosions. The first occurred on August 31 in a crowded shopping mall in the center of Moscow. One person died, and more than thirty people were injured. But it was not immediately clear that this explosion was anything more frightening than a giant prank, or perhaps a shot fired in a business dispute.

Five days later, an explosion brought down a large part of an apartment block in the southern city of Buynaksk, not far from Chechnya. Sixty-four people were killed and one hundred and forty-six injured. But all of the building’s residents were Russian military officers and their families—so, although the dead included twenty-three children, the blast did not have the effect of making civilians, especially civilians living in Moscow, feel vulnerable and scared.

Four days later, however, at two seconds before midnight on September 8, a giant blast sounded in a bedroom neighborhood outside Moscow’s city center. A densely populated concrete city block was ripped in half, two of its stairwells—seventy-two apartments in total—completely obliterated. Exactly one hundred people died; nearly seven hundred more were injured. Five days later, another explosion brought down another building, on the outskirts of Moscow. The eight-story brick building folded in on itself like a house of cards; the journalists in the crowd that rushed to the building that morning talked about the fact that concrete buildings apparently explode outward, while brick ones collapse inward. The blast came at five in the morning, which meant that most residents were home at the time; almost all of them were killed: one hundred twenty-four people were dead and seven injured.

Three days after that, on September 16, a truck blew up in the street in Volgodonsk, a city in southern Russia. Nineteen people died, and over a thousand were injured.

Panic set in all over the country. Residents of Moscow and other Russian cities formed neighborhood patrols; many people went out into the streets simply because it felt safer than sleeping in their apartments. Volunteers stopped anyone they considered suspicious, which often meant everyone who was not a part of the patrol. At least one group of Moscow volunteers stopped everyone walking a dog—to check the dog. The police all over the country were inundated with calls from people who thought they had seen suspicious activity or suspicious objects. On September 22, police responding to a call in Ryazan, a city about a hundred miles from Moscow, found three bags of explosives planted under the stairway of an apartment building.

In a country stricken with fear and grief, no one doubted that the Chechens had done it, and I was not an exception. I had spent the previous couple of days driving around Moscow visiting Chechen families: refugees, professionals who had settled there long ago, temporary workers living in dormitories. All of them were terrified. Police in Moscow were rounding up young Chechen men, detaining hundreds of them in connection with the bombings. Many of the men I interviewed not only stopped going outside but refused even to open their apartment or dormitory-room doors. One family’s child had come home from school saying the teacher had written the Russian words for “explosion” and “Chechens” side by side on the chalkboard.

I knew the police were detaining hundreds of innocent men, but I could easily imagine that whoever was guilty was a Chechen or a group of people who came from Chechnya. I had covered the 1994–1996 war in Chechnya from beginning to end. The first time I ever heard a bomb explode within yards of where I was standing, I was in the stairway of an apartment building for the blind on the outskirts of Grozny, the Chechen capital. It was January 1995—the first month of the war—and I had gone to that particular quarter of the city because the Russian army claimed it was not bombing civilians; I could imagine no one who fit the very definition of civilian better than the residents of that building: blind, helpless, unable to leave the city. When I stepped outside the building, I saw bodies and body parts strewn around.

The many children I saw on the streets of Grozny on that day and on subsequent days had seen the same thing. They were the children who would be hanging around the open fires on Grozny’s sidewalks in the coming weeks, watching their mothers prepare food. These were the same children who would then spend years cooped up in tiny apartments—packed half a dozen to a room, because so many of the buildings had been bombed out of existence—and forbidden to go outside for fear of hitting a land mine or a Russian soldier, who might rape a girl or detain a boy. And still they went outside and were raped, detained, tortured, disappeared—or saw it happen to their sisters, brothers, and friends. These children were young adults now, and I had no trouble believing some of them would be capable of horrific revenge.

Most Russians had not seen what I had seen, but they saw television footage of the explosion sites, each one more terrifying than the last. The war in Chechnya had never really ended: the arrangement brokered three years earlier by Berezovsky, among others, amounted to a cease-fire. Russians were very much a nation at war, and, like all nations at war, they believed the enemy to be both less than human and capable of inflicting unimaginable horror.

On September 23, a group of twenty-four governors—more than a quarter of all governors in the federation —wrote a letter to President Yeltsin asking him to yield power to Putin, who had been in office as prime minister for just over a month. The same day, Yeltsin issued a secret decree authorizing the army to resume combat in Chechnya; the decree was also illegal, because Russian law forbids the use of regular troops within the country’s borders. That day, Russian military planes once again began bombing Grozny, starting with the airport, the oil refinery, and residential neighborhoods. The following day, Putin issued his own order authorizing Russian troops to engage in combat in Chechnya; this time the order was not classified, though Russian law in fact gives the prime minister no authority over the military.

The same day, Putin made one of his first television appearances. “We will hunt them down,” he said of the terrorists. “Wherever we find them, we will destroy them. Even if we find them in the toilet. We will rub them out in the outhouse.”

Putin was using rhetoric markedly different from Yeltsin’s. He was not promising to bring the terrorists to justice. Nor was he expressing compassion for the hundreds of victims of the explosions. This was the language of a leader who was planning to rule with his fist. These sorts of vulgar statements, often spiced with below-the-belt humor, would become Putin’s signature oratorical device. His popularity began to soar.

BEREZOVSKY THE PH.D. and his small propaganda army formed of highly educated men seemed to see no contradiction between their stated goal of securing Russia’s democratic future and the man in whom they had chosen to vest their hopes for this future. They worked tirelessly on their campaign, using the might of Berezovsky’s Channel One to smear former prime minister Primakov and his governor allies. One memorable program explained Primakov’s recent hip surgery in repulsive anatomical detail. Another focused on Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s ostensible resemblance to Mussolini. But in addition to discrediting his opponents, Putin’s allies—who thought of themselves more as his authors than his supporters—had to create and put forth an image of their own candidate.

Strictly speaking, Putin was not running a campaign—the presidential election was not expected for nearly a year, and Russia did not have a political culture of protracted campaigns—but the people who wanted to see him become president were very much campaigning. An influential political consulting firm called the Foundation for Effective Politics, located in one of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings, just across the river from the Kremlin, was tasked with creating the image of Putin as a young, energetic politician who would advance much-needed reform. “Everyone was so tired of Yeltsin, it was an easy job to do,” a woman who had been instrumental in the campaign told me.

Her name was Marina Litvinovich, and like many people who worked at the Foundation for Effective Politics, she was very young, very smart (she had just graduated from one of the best universities), and very inexperienced in politics, even naive. She had come to work at the foundation part-time when she was still a student, and three years later she was a key person on the presidential campaign team. She believed herself to be entirely devoted to democratic ideals, and yet she saw nothing wrong with the way the future president was being invented and sold to

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