top of page
  • Beatriz Gutierrez

St. Petersburg Bombing: Russian old ghosts?.

Year 2 -Week 11

Once again, mass media opens frontlines with the news of a terrorist attack, this time in the second biggest Russian city, Saint Petersburg. In historical terms, terrorism as procedure and as political manifestation also appeared in the last stages of Russian Empire. As we mentioned in a previous –and somehow premonitory- post, it was Piotr Kropotkin and his pre-Soviet, anarchist-nihilist followers who coined a term to set a difference between a common criminal and a practitioner of political violence in pursue of the social and political change of the Tsarist regime. The term “terrorism” expressed the use of terror –standing for fear- in a dual way, as a tool to overthrow the system and as a grassroots mobilizing action based on the notion of “propaganda by the deed”. The anarchist wave spread by the Old Continent as the first international terrorist movement, claiming casualties in the higher echelons of the European governments in a wave of assassinations and magnicides that tried, with the example, to overthrow both monarchies and a capitalist and colonial expansionist economic model, common enemies of modern nihilist.

The monster of war annihilated the figure of anarchist nihilism. The Russian civil war, the Russian Revolution along the WWI, and the formation of the USSR and the subsequent dynamic of blocs deactivated the first international terrorist wave to give pace to two further ones, under the auspices of the red giant. National liberation movements first and new-left, anticapitalist ones counted on the ideological, economic and logistic support of the Soviet Union, in an attempt to establish a network of proxy satellites to face the Western-like own network. Inner stability, especially in the core Soviet countries was a fact, based on a strong monopoly of the use of force as an external defense but also as a repressive force of every deviant activity.

The change of paradigm, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in the rest of the world, arrived in 1989, first with the Berlin Wall fall and secondly in a longer process, with the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolarity dynamic. By 1992 the international arena had change with new actors and new patterns: a core central Russia fought its way out of an acute economic –and identitarian- crisis, while a wave of independence went through all the former satellite countries, raising a new set of challenges for Moscow. Especially interesting are in this sense the peripheral new States and territories absorbed along the imperial years and consolidated as a security buffer during the Soviet Union, but with clear identity, national and religious differences that surfaced in the form of civil unrest, ethnic struggle and, especially, fundamentalisms and terrorism.

The nineties are considered in Russia as one of the darkest ages in its history. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought extreme poverty, raising criminality and, especially, the military conflict of the North Caucasus, and between the multiple spots of conflict, especially one: Chechnya. The small region, of Muslim majority and fighting for its independence, was a second Afghanistan for the newborn democracy of Moscow. The once conceived as Chechen freedom fighters first turned into guerrillas and after a bitter fighting in battles recorded in collective psyche such as Grozny in 1994 and 1999, they changed clothes into an entirely new threat striking in the heart of Russia: jihadist terrorism.

Between the first and the second Chechen war (1999) the traditionally Chechen Sufi Muslims started to adopt more radicalized views closer to Wahhabism, in a context of expansionism of the global jihad doctrine after the mujahidin victory over –life has these twists and turns- the Soviets in Afghanistan. And in their struggle against Russia, Chechens started to move closer to al-Qaida ideological framework. The operative change took finally place after the allegedly pacification of the region under Vladimir Putin government: Chechens moved from a guerrilla-type insurgency, which was neutralize on the spot by Putin’s troops, to strike back in the very same Russian capitals and cities using the procedures of combat designed more than a century before by Kropotkin: terrorism.

Since 1999 Russia became a target of Chechen Islamist-clothed terrorism. Probably two milestones marked the escalation. First, the Dubrovka Theater of Moscow hostage taking by a group of fifty Chechen operatives who retained around 900 hostages between actors and spectators and claim the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya; the 2-and a half days siege ended with the Russian special forces pumping an undisclosed chemical agent on the air circuit to subdue the Chechen terrorist and storming the facilities, killing in the process at 130 hostages. The second –and no less dramatic event- was the hostage taking of Beslan school, where another Chechen commando stormed the school on North Ossetia’s town of Beslan, taking as hostages to more than 1000 people between children, siblings and teachers; the 32 heavily armed gunmen and women barricaded with the hostages in the gym and mined the building with explosive devices, in addition to two women armed with explosive belts ready for a suicide operation. After four days of siege, the casualties toll raised over 380 people between the Chechen militants and hostages, mainly children, due both to the detonation of some of the explosive devices set by the terrorist and to the gunfighting between them and the Russian security forces.

Why the link of this post in the aftermath of St. Petersburg underground bombing with the Chechen terrorist history on Russian ground? Put it simple, because it sounded familiar. In 2010 the world assisted in surprise to a terrorist attack at the Moscow underground: the perpetrators were two Chechen women, popularly known as “Black Widows”, meaning the loss of a close relative –as husband or brother- in the fighting against the Russians; they blew themselves up causing 40 people killed and over 100 injured. Though Chechens, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack was the Islamist Caucasus Emirate, at the time under the leadership of Doku Umarov, also a Chechen Islamist nearby to al-Qaida environment.

Despite the fact that by now no group has claimed the responsibility over last Monday terrorist attack in St. Petersburg underground, the pattern seems clear, and it is undeniable that the ties between North Caucasus Islamist groups have been reinforced. Terrorist attacks as Volgograd one in 2013, with 32 casualties, and the presence of leading figures in groups as the so-called Islamic State as Omar al-Shishani (the Chechen) are good proof of that. The first Russian security services theories pointing out to Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen are not a blind chance.

Interestingly enough, Volgograd suicide bombings took place also in a train station, making this week attack in St. Petersburg the third with the same tactic and over a very similar target involving a critical infrastructure as transport network and mass casualties potential, especially at the rush hour. Even though we can’t foresee which group is going to claim responsibility –if any-, it seems undoubted that there is a pattern which moves even further than merely ideological jihadism to dig deep into national identities, geopolitical considerations and the role of the Russian giant in Asia, from the Caucasus to the Middle East, including a determinant role in Syrian war that, as we saw also in live TV last December 2016 with the assassination of Russian ambassador in Ankara, won’t come for free.

bottom of page