The Day the War Came Back to Moscow

Thoughts after Russia's subway attacks.


When I turned on the radio this morning, I forgot about my breakfast. The newscaster was reporting that dozens of people had been killed in a subway stop right by my house. Just a couple of minutes later, the news reported another explosion in the Park Kultury metro station a few stops down the line. I immediately remembered Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov’s promise about a month ago to bring jihad home to Russia, and I thought: The war is back in Moscow.

I remember all too well the years when the city’s subway stations blew up one after the other: Pushkinskaya in 2000, Belorusskaya in 2001, and Avtozavodskaya and Rizhskaya in 2004. The years when Chechen militants took their conflict to the Russian capital, when young women exploded themselves and other young women were exploded on their way to work, when we reporters would race to the scene of the latest disaster.

But, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped — and for six long years Moscow enjoyed booming wealth and stability. Without the explosions. The 10-year-long war with Chechnya was just a vague memory, only occasionally brought to mind by a rare news broadcast. After all, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared final victory over the guerrillas in Chechnya just a year ago. War? What war? Until this morning, when the helicopters flying over our roofs, the police and fire brigade sirens whining outside, the dozens of ambulances zipping across downtown brought the memory screaming back into life.

I walked from my house to Lubyanka Square, the site of the first attack, which took only 15 minutes because the streets were so deserted. Right on the corner of the square, which is famous for its former KGB prison, site of Stalin-era disappearances, I overheard two older men talking in quiet voices.

"That was a message to them," one said to the other, nodding to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, Russia’s modern-day version of the KGB. His companion made a quizzical gesture, as if to ask, "From whom?" The first man replied: "From the Caucasus Emirate," Umarov’s self-proclaimed Islamist state, which aims to unify the Muslim republics of the North Caucasus.

The entrance to the Lubyanka metro station, scene of the first blast an hour before, was blocked by a few police trucks. Police officers milled around, looking pale. The injured had already been taken away to Moscow’s hospitals. "There is no hurry now; they are dead," a young policeman guarding what was left underground said. About 15 feet away from the metro, I saw a young woman crying in a parked car. Another woman was looking for her husband. Others tried to reach their friends or family on cell phones. "I cannot reach two of my friends. I really hope they are OK. How much longer are we going to suffer through this?" asked a middle-aged woman who worked at a cafe on the corner of the square.

Moscow seemed to freeze and take a short pause — but it was very short. Already in the afternoon the metro was full again. And though radio station Ekho Moskvy had called on taxi drivers to give free rides to pedestrians evacuated from the metro, the price jumped tenfold to $30 just for a short ride inside the city’s Garden Ring road. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories were spreading rampantly. "I do not believe that the Caucasus was involved," said Asia Shulgina, 25, who missed riding the metro this morning because the lecture she was planning to attend with her young daughter was canceled. "Here in Moscow, the terror attack was fabricated by some inside clan of men in power to build up more authority."

Other Russians were concerned by the fact that today’s bombers, North Caucasus nationals, were both women — a trademark tactic of the Chechen war. Seven years ago, Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, 22, had trouble setting off the bomb in her shoulder bag in a Moscow cafe. The young Chechen woman put her bag down and walked outside, where police arrested her. The only "black widow" to survive an attempted suicide bombing, Muzhakhoyeva turned informant and gave useful information to the Russian authorities about the house in the Moscow suburbs where she and other suicide bombers trained for their terrorist attacks. Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who died in 2006, commanded his people to leave Moscow, as Muzhakhoyeva knew too much about his future plans. Now, it seemed, the women were back.

"These women are moved by some religious motive; they must be [brainwashed], united by some purpose to kill people here. I do not think that somebody could go and die without being drugged first," said Anna Polushkina, 32, who was visiting from St. Petersburg today. "I think metros will blow up as long as the issue in the Caucasus remains unsolved."

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

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