Author Topic: Russian Apartment Bombings - Trepashkin's story  (Read 3009 times)

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Russian Apartment Bombings - Trepashkin's story
« on: April 03, 2015, 02:57:38 pm »
At Trepashkin's request, our first meeting took place at a crowded coffee shop in central Moscow. One of his aides showed up first, and then twenty minutes later Trepashkin arrived in the company of his bodyguard of sorts, a muscular young man with a crewcut and an opaque stare.

Trepashkin, while short, was powerfully built - a testament to his lifelong practice of a variety of martial arts - and still very handsome at 51. His most arresting feature, though, was a perpetual amused grin. It gave him an aura of instant likability, friendliness, although I could imagine that anyone who sat across an interrogation table from him back in his KGB days might have found it unnerving.

For a few minutes, we chatted about everyday things - the unusually cold weather in Moscow just then, the changes I'd noticed since my last visit - and I sensed Trepashkin was trying to figure me out, deciding how much to say.

Then he began to tell me about his career at the KGB. He'd spent most of his years as a criminal investigator who specialized in antiques smuggling. He was, in those days, an absolute loyalist to the Soviet state - and most especially the KGB. Trepashkin was such a dedicated Soviet that he even supported a group that attempted to thwart the ascent of Boris Yeltsin in favor of preserving the Soviet system.

"I could see that this was going to be the end of the Soviet Union," Trepashkin explained in the coffee shop. "But even more than that, what would happen to the KGB, to all of us who had made it our lives? I saw only disaster coming."

And that disaster came. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia plunged into economic and social chaos. One particularly destructive aspect of that chaos stemmed from the vast legions of Russian KGB officers who suddenly entered the private sector. Some went into business for themselves or joined on with the mafiyas they had once been detailed to combat. Still others signed on as "advisers" or muscle for the new oligarchs or the old Communist Party bosses who were frantically grabbing up anything of value in Russia, even as they paid obeisance to the "democratic reforms" of President Boris Yeltsin.

Of all this, Trepashkin had an intimate view. Kept on with the FSB, the Russian successor the the KGB, the investigator found it increasingly difficult to differentiate criminality from governmental policy.

"In case after case," he said, "there was this blending. You would find mafiyas working with terrorist groups, but then the trail would lead to a business group or maybe to a state ministry. So then, was this still a criminal case, or some kind of officially sanctioned black operation? And just what did ‘officially sanctioned' actually mean anymore, because who was really in charge?"

Finally, in the summer of 1995, Mikhail Trepashkin began work on a case that would change him forever, one that placed him on a collision course with the senior most commanders of the FSB and, Trepashkin says, would lead at least one of them to plot his assassination. As with so many other incidents that exposed the malevolent rot in post-Soviet Russia, this one centered on events in the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya.

By December 1995, rebels fighting for the independence of Chechnya had fought the Russian army to a bloody and humiliating stalemate after a full year of war. The Chechens' success was not as simple as mere force of arms, however. Even during the Soviet era, Chechen mafiyas had controlled much of the Russian criminal underworld, so when Russian society itself became criminalized it played beautifully to the Chechen rebels' advantage. For their steady supply of sophisticated weapons with which to fight the Russian army, the rebels often had only to turn to corrupt Russian army officers who had access to such weaponry, with the funds for such "purchases" supplied by the Chechen crime syndicates operating throughout the nation.

Just how high up did this cozy arrangement go? Mikhail Trepashkin got his answer on the night of December 1, when a team of FSB officers stormed a Moscow branch of Bank Soldi with guns drawn.
The raid that night was the culmination of an elaborate sting operation, one that Trepashkin had helped supervise, designed to finally bring down a notorious bank-extortion team linked to a Chechen rebel leader named Salman Raduyev. It was a huge success: Caught up in the Soldi dragnet were some two dozen conspirators, including two FSB officers and a Russian-military general.

But inside the bank, the FSB men found something else. To ensure they weren't walking into a trap, the conspirators had planted electronic bugs throughout the building, and those were linked to an eavesdropping van parked outside. While their precautions obviously needed some fine-tuning, it begged the question of how the gang got their hands on bugging equipment.

"All these sorts of devices have serial numbers," Trepashkin explained in the Moscow coffee shop, "and so we traced the numbers back. We discovered that it had all come from either the FSB or the Ministry of Defense."

The implication of this was staggering, for access to such equipment was severely restricted. It suggested that high-ranking security and military officers had colluded not only with a criminal gang but with one whose express purpose was to raise funds for a war against Russia. By the standards of any country, that wasn't just corruption, it was treason.

Yet no sooner had Trepashkin started down that investigative trail than he was removed from the Bank Soldi case by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB's internal-security department. What's more, he says, no charges were brought against any of the Russian officers implicated, and nearly all of those caught in the initial dragnet were soon quietly released. Instead, Patrushev ordered an investigation of Trepashkin. That investigation lasted nearly two years, at the end of which Trepashkin had reached his personal breaking point. In May 1997, he wrote an open letter to President Yeltsin detailing his involvement in the case and charging much of the senior FSB leadership with a host of crimes, including forming alliances with mafiyas and even recruiting their members into FSB ranks.
"I thought that if the president knew what was happening," Trepashkin said, then he would do something about it. This was a mistake on my part."

Indeed. Boris Yeltsin, it turned out, was fabulously corrupt himself, and the letter alerted the FSB that they now had a serious malcontent on their hands. The very next month, Trepashkin resigned from the FSB, burn out, he says, by the harassment he'd been subjected to. But that didn't mean Trepashkin was going to go quietly into the night. That summer he brought a lawsuit against the FSB leadership and began filing complaints that extended all the way to the FSB director himself. It was as if, even at this late date, the investigator imagined that the honor of the Kontora (Bureau) could still be redeemed, that some as yet invisible reformer might step forward. Instead, his persistence apparently convinced some senior FSB officials that it was time for a permanent solution to their Trepashkin problem. One of the first people they turned to was Alexander Litvinenko.

On paper, Litvinenko looked just the man for the job. Having just returned to Moscow from a stint on the brutal Chechen battlefield as a counterterrorism operative, he had been transferred into a new and highly secretive of the FSB called the Office for the Analysis of Criminal Organizations, or URPO. While Litvinenko didn't know it at the time, it seemed the URPO had been formed to serve as a death squad. As reported in the book Death of a Dissident, by Alex Goldfarb and Litvinenko's widow, Marina, Litvinenko learned of this when he was summoned by the URPO commander in October 1997. "There is this guy, Mikhail Trepashkin," the commander allegedly told Litvinenko. "He is your new object. Go get his file and make yourself familiar with it."

When he did, Litvinenko learned of the criminal investigator's involvement with the Bank Solid case, as well as his lawsuit against the FSB leadership; it left him puzzled as to just what he was supposed to do with Trepashkin.

"Well, it's a delicate situation," Litvinenko quoted his commander as saying. "You know, he is taking the director to court and giving interviews. We should shut him up, director's personal request."
Shortly after, Litvinenko claimed his target list expanded to include Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch and Kremlin insider whom apparently someone powerful now wanted dead. Litvinenko stalled for a time, making continual excuses for his inability to carry out the assassination orders.

According to Trepashkin, at least two attempts were made on his life during this period: a failed ambush on a deserted stretch of Moscow highway, and a rooftop sniper who couldn't get off a clean shot. On other occasions, he says, he was tipped off by friends still in the Kontora.

In November, the alleged FSB plot against Trepashkin and Berezovsky was exposed in dramatic fashion when Litvinenko and four of his URPO colleagues appeared at a Moscow news conference to detail the kill orders they'd been given. Also in attendance was Mikhail Trepashkin.

And there, somewhat anticlimactically, the matter seemed to end. Litvinenko, the ringleader of the dissident officers, was summarily dismissed but otherwise suffered no immediate retribution. As for Trepashkin, after improbably winning his lawsuit against the FSB, he married for a second time and settled into his new job with the Russian tax police, determined, he says, to quietly serve out his term until he was eligible for retirement.

But then, in September 1999, the apartment-building bombings would shake Russia's political foundations to their core. Those attacks would also propel Trepashkin and Litvinenko back into the shadow world, this time with a common purpose.


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Re: Russian Apartment Bombings - Trepashkin's story
« Reply #1 on: April 03, 2015, 03:07:39 pm »
In the Moscow coffee shop, Trepashkin grew uncharacteristically somber, staring into the distance for a long moment.

"It just seemed incredible," he said finally. "That was my first thought. The country is in an uproar, vigilantes are stopping strangers on the streets, there are police roadblocks everywhere. So how is it possible that these bombers are moving about so freely, that they have all this time to set up and carry out these sophisticated bombings? It seemed impossible."

Another aspect that Trepashkin had a problem with was the question of motive.
"Usually, this is quite easy to find," he explained, "it is money or hatred or jealousy, but for these bombings, what was the Chechens' motive? Very few people thought about this."

And there was something else that gave the former criminal investigator pause: the composition of the new Russian government.

In early August 1999, just weeks before the first bombing on Buynaksk, President Yeltsin had appointed his third prime minister in less than three months. He was a slight, humorless main, virtually unknown to the Russian public, named Vladimir Putin.

The chief reason he was so little known was that, until a few years earlier, Putin had been just one more midlevel KGB/FSB officer toiling away in obscurity. In 1996, Putin was given a position in the presidential-property-management department, a crucial office in the Yeltsin patronage machine that gave Putin leverage to grant or withhold favors to Kremlin insiders. He apparently put his time there to good use; over the next three years, Putin was promoted to deputy chief of the presidential staff, then to director of the FSB, and now to prime minister.

But though Putin was still obscure to the general public in September 1999, Mikhail Trepashkin already had a pretty good sense of the man. Putin had been the FSB director at the time the URPO scandal went public and had personally dismissed Alexander Litvinenko for provoking it. "I fired Litvinenko," he had told a reporter, "because FSB officers shouldn't hold press conferences ... and they shouldn't make internal scandals public."

But equally alarming to Trepashkin was who had been chosen to be Putin's successor as FSB director, Nikolai Patrushev. As head of the FSB internal-security department, it was Patrushev who had removed Trepashkin from the Bank Soldi case and who was now among those government officials most vehemently claiming a Chechen connection to the apartment-building bombings.

"So what you saw was this dynamic building," Trepashkin said, "and it was the government promoting it. ‘The Chechens are behind this, so now we must take care of the Chechens.'"

But then something very strange happened. It happened in the sleepy provincial city of Ryazan, some 120 miles southeast of Moscow. Amid the state of hypervigilance that had seized the nation, several residents of 14/16 Novosyolov Street in Ryazan took notice when a white Zhiguli sedan pulled up to park beside their apartment building on the evening of September 22. They became downright panicked when they observed two men removing several large sacks from the car's trunk and carrying them into the basement before speeding away. Residents called the police.

Discovered in the basement were three 110-pound white sacks wired to a detonator and explosive timer. As police quickly evacuated the building, the local FSB explosives expert was called in to defuse the detonator; he determined that the sacks contained RDX, a explosive powerful enough to have brought the entire apartment building down. In the meantime, roadblocks were established on all roads out of Ryazan, and a massive manhunt for the Zhiguli and its occupants got underway.

By the following afternoon, word of the incident in Ryazan had spread across Russia. Prime Minister Putin congratulated the residents on their vigilance, while the interior minister lauded recent improvements by the security forces, "such as the foiling of the attempt to blowup the apartment building in Ryazan."

There the matter may well have ended, except that same night two of the suspects in Ryazan were apprehended. To the local authorities' astonishment, both produced FSB identification cards. A short time later, a call came down from FSB headquarters in Moscow that the two were to be released.

The following morning, FSB director Patrushev appeared on television to report a wholly new version of events in Ryazan. Rather than an aborted terrorist attack, he explained, the incident at 14/16 Novosyolov Street had actually been an FSB "training exercise" to test the public's alertness. Further, he said, the sacks in the basement had contained not explosives, but rather common household sugar.
Contradictions in the FSB's account were manifold. How to reconcile FSB headquarters' sacks-of-sugar claim with the local FSB's chemical analysis that had found RDX? If this truly had been a training exercise, how was it that the local FSB branch wasn't informed ahead of time, or that Patrushev himself didn't see fit to make mention of it for a day and a half after the terrorist alert was raised? For that matter, why did the apartment-building-bombing spree suddenly stop after Ryazan? If the attacks were truly the handiwork of Chechen terrorists, surely the public-relations black eye the FSB had received over the Ryazan affair would spur them to carry out more.

But the time for such questions had already passed. Even as Prime Minister Putin gave his speech on the night of September 23 praising the residents of Ryazan for their vigilance, Russian warplanes began launching massive air strikes on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Within a few more days, Russian armored battalions that had been massed on the border for months crossed into Chechnya, marking the start of the Second Chechen War.

Events moved very quickly after that. On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin stunned the nation by announcing that he was stepping down from the presidency effective immediately, which made Vladimir Putin acting president until new elections could be held. And instead of holding them sometime in the summer, as originally scheduled, those elections would now occur in just ten weeks' time, leaving Putin's many competitors for the position little time to prepare.

In a presidential poll taken in August 1999, Putin had garnered less than 2 percent support. By March 2000, however, riding a wave of popularity for his total-war policy in Chechnya, he swept into office with 53 percent of the vote. The reign of Vladimir Putin had begun, and Russia would never be the same.


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Re: Russian Apartment Bombings - Trepashkin's story
« Reply #2 on: April 03, 2015, 03:15:55 pm »
For our next meeting, Trepashkin invited me into his apartment. I was a bit surprised by this - I'd been told that, for security reasons, Trepashkin rarely brought visitors to his home - but I guess he figured all his enemies knew where he lived, anyway.

It was a pleasant enough place, if a bit on the spartan side, on the ground floor of a high-rise tower surrounded by other high-rise towers in southern Moscow. Trepashkin gave me a quick tour, and I noticed that the only space with even a hint of clutter was the tiny, paper-filled room - a converted walk-in closet, really - he used as his office. One of his daughters was home, and she brought us tea as we settled in the sitting room.

With a vaguely embarrassed smile, Trepashkin offered that there was actually another reason he rarely had work-related meetings at his home: his wife. "She wants me to stop all this political stuff, but since she is away this morning..." His smile eased away. "Well, it's because of the raids. You know, they came charging in here - he waved toward the front door - with their guns, shouting orders; the children were terrified. It really affected my wife, and she is always worried it will happen again."
The first of those raids had occurred in January 2002. Late one night, a squad of FSB agents burst in and proceeded to take the apartment apart. Trepashkin maintains they found nothing but instead planted enough evidence - some classified documents from the FSB archives, a handful of bullets - to enable prosecutors to hang three "pending" charges over his head.

"It was their way of putting me on notice," he explained, "of letting me know they would come after me if I didn't straighten up."

Trepashkin had a good idea of what had sparked the FSB's attention: Just days before the raid, he had started getting telephone calls from the man regarded by the Putin regime as one of Russia's greatest traitors, Alexander Litvinenko.

Lieutenant Colonel Litvinenko's fall from grace had been swift. After his 1998 press conference alleging the URPO assassination plots, he'd spent nine months in prison on an "abuse of authority" charge and had then fled Russia as prosecutors prepared to move against him again. With the help of the now exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Litvinenko and his family settled in England, where he joined forces with Berezovsky to expose to the world what they claimed were the crimes of the Putin regime. A primary focus of that campaign was getting to the truth of the apartment-building bombings.
"So this is why he was calling," Trepashkin explained. "Litvinenko couldn't come back to Russia, obviously, so they needed someone here to help with the investigation."

Easier said than done, for by January 2002, Russia had become a very different place. In the two years since Putin had been elected president, the once-thriving independent media had all but disappeared, while the political opposition was being steadily marginalized to the point of insignificance.

One indication of this chilling effect was the revisions performed on the shakiest aspect of the government's bombing story, the FSB "training exercise" in Ryazan. By 2002 the Ryazan FSB commander who had overseen the manhunt for "the terrorists" now supported the training-exercise explanation. The local FSB explosives expert who had insisted before television cameras that the Ryazan sacks contained explosives suddenly went silent on the whole matter and disappeared from sight. Even some of the residents of 14/16 Novosyolov Street who had appeared in a television documentary six months after the incident to angrily deride the FSB's account and insist the bomb was real now refused to talk with anyone beyond allowing that perhaps they'd been mistaken after all.
"I told Litvinenko that the only way I could become involved was in some kind of official capacity," Trepashkin explained in his sitting room. "If I just went out on my own, the authorities would move against me immediately."

That official capacity was fashioned at a meeting held in Boris Berezovsky's London office in early March 2002. One of those in attendance, a Russian member of Parliament named Sergei Yushenkov, would organize a blue-ribbon committee of inquiry into the bombings and make Trepashkin one of his investigators. Another attendee was Tatiana Morozova, a 31-year-old Russian émigré living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Morozova's mother had been killed in the Guryanova Street blast, and under Russian law that gave her the right to review the government's records on the case; since Trepashkin had recently obtained his license to practice law, Morozova would appoint him as her attorney and petition the courts for access to the FSB's Guryanova Street files.

"So I agreed to both of these ideas," Trepashkin said, "but the question was where to look first. So many of the reports were unreliable, and so many people had changed their stories, that my first goal was to get access to the actual forensic evidence."

Also easier said than done, for a hallmark of the government's response to the bombings had been a peculiar haste in clearing away the ruins. Whereas, for example, the Americans had spent six months sifting through the remnants of the World Trade Center after September 11, regarding it as an active crime scene, Russian authorities had razed 19 Guryanova street just days after the blast and hauled everything away to a municipal dump. Whatever forensic evidence had been preserved - and it wasn't clear that any had - was presumably locked away in FSB storehouses.

While what he discovered didn't pertain to the specifics of the bombings, Trepashkin did soon manage to come up with something quite interesting.

One of the odder footnotes to the whole affair was a statement that Gennady Seleznyov, the Speaker of the Duma, had made on the floor of Parliament on the morning of September 13, 1999. "I have just received a report," he had announced to legislators. "An apartment building in the city of Volgodonsk was blown up last night."

While Seleznyov got the basics right - an apartment building had indeed just been blown up - he had the wrong city; the blast that morning had been at 6/3 Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow. Which put the Speaker in kind of an awkward spot when an apartment building in Volgodonsk was blown up three days later. At least one Duma member found that puzzling.

"Mr. Speaker, please explain," he had asked Seleznyov on the Parliament floor, "how come you told us on Monday about the blast that occurred on Thursday?"

In lieu of an answer, the questioner had his microphone quickly cut off.

To many observers, it suggested that someone in the FSB chain of command had screwed up the order in which the bombings were to take place and had given the "news" to Seleznyov in reverse.
Searching around nearly three years after the fact, Trepashkin says he determined that Seleznyov had been given the erroneous report by an FSB officer, though he won't say how he knows.

But with progress also came the potential for danger to Trepashkin. One of those who had attended the London meeting, human-rights activist and Berezovsky lieutenant Alex Goldfarb, became concerned enough about Trepashkin's welfare that he arranged a meeting with him in Ukraine in early 2003. The two had never met before, and Goldfarb found it an odd encounter.

"He was one of the stranger people I've ever met," Goldfarb recounted. "He had no interest in the philosophical or political implications of what he was doing. To him, this was all just a criminal case. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Is this guy crazy? Doesn't he appreciate what he's up against?' but I finally concluded he was this kind of supercop - you know, a Serpico figure. He was determined to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do; it was just that simple." Still, Goldfarb felt it his duty to at least alert Trepashkin to the deepening peril, the very little that could be done if the authorities decided to go after him. The more he pressed on this, though, the more Trepashkin seemed to bristle.

"He didn't care about any of that," Goldfarb remembered. "I think he still believed he was fighting to reform the system, rather than that he was up against the system itself."

But as it turned out, the hammer first fell elsewhere. In April 2003, Sergei Yushenkov, the Duma member who had hired Trepashkin for his committee of inquiry, was murdered in front of his Moscow home, shot down in broad daylight. Three months later, another committee member died under mysterious circumstances. The two deaths effectively ended the independent inquiry - which also meant that Trepashkin was now essentially on his own. Still, acting as Tatiana Morozova's attorney, he soldiered on - and in July 2003, he finally hit pay dirt. It hinged on another loose end in the case, one that no amount of cleaning up after the fact could quite tie off.

In the hours just before the Guryanova Street bombing, the FSB had released a composite sketch of a suspect based on information provided by a building manager. But soon after and with no explanation, that sketch had been withdrawn and replaced with that of a completely different man. This second man had long since been identified as one Achemez Gochiyayev, a small-time businessman from the region of Cherkessia, who had immediately gone into hiding. In the spring of 2002, Alexander Litvinenko had tracked Gochiyayev to a remote area of Georgia where, through an intermediary, the businessman steadfastly insisted that he had been framed by the FSB and had only run because he was sure they would kill him.

It made Trepashkin very curious to learn the identity of the man in the first sketch, even more so when, going through the voluminous FSB files on Guryanova Street, he discovered there wasn't a copy of it to be found anywhere. As a last resort, he started sifting through newspaper archives to see if any had run that sketch before the FSB had pulled it from circulation. And there it was.

It depicted a square-jawed man in his mid-30s, with dark hair and glasses. Trepashkin was convinced he knew the man, that in fact he had arrested him eight years before. He believed it was a sketch of Vladimir Romanovich, the FSB agent who had manned the electronic-surveillance van for the Raduyev gang during the robbery of Bank Soldi.

Trepashkin's first thought was to find Romanovich and try to compel him to reveal his role in the apartment bombings. Not likely. As far as Trepashkin could determine, shortly after the bombings, Romanovich had left Russia for Cyprus and died there in the summer of 2000, killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Trepashkin then tracked down the original source of the sketch, the Guryanova Street building manager.

"I showed him the sketch of Romanovich," Trepashkin said in his sitting room. "And he told me that was the accurate one, the one he had given to the police. But then they had taken him to Lubyakna [FSB headquarters], where they showed him the Gochiyayev sketch and insisted that was the man he saw."

With his bombshell, Trepashkin planned a little surprise for the authorities. the FSB had long since released the names of nine men they claimed were responsible for the Moscow and Volgodonsk bombings. Ironically, considering that the bombings had been the chief pretext for embarking on the Second Chechen War, none of these suspects were Chechen. By the summer of 2003, five of those men were reportedly dead, and two others remained at large, but the trial for the two in custody was slated to begin that October. As attorney for Tatiana Morozova, Trepashkin intended to attend the trial and introduce the Romanovich sketch as evidence for the defense.

He took an added precaution. Shortly before the trial's start, he met with Igor Korolkov, a journalist with the independent magazine Moskovskiye Novosti, and described the Romanovich connection in detail.

"He said, ‘If they get me, at least everyone will know why,'" Korolkov explained. "He was apprehensive, tense, because I think he already knew they were coming for him."

Sure enough, shortly after meeting with Korolkov, Trepashkin was picked up by authorities. while he was being held, the FSB conducted another raid on his apartment, this one involving a whole busload of agents.

"I understand it was very exciting for the neighbors," Trepashkin said with a laugh, "the biggest thing to happen around here in a long time."

They brought him up on an old FSB standby - possession of an unlicensed gun - but the judge, apparently familiar with that tired cliché, immediately dismissed the charge. Prosecutors then turned to the charges they still had pending on Trepashkin from the raid two years earlier and the classified he maintains were planted. It wasn't much, but it was enough; tried in a closed court, Trepashkin received a four-year sentence for "improper handling of classified material" and was shipped off to a prison camp in the Ural Mountains.

In his absence, the two men tried for the apartment bombings were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Declaring the matter officially closed, the government then ordered all FSB investigative files on the case to be sealed for the next seventy-five years.