There was a vile terrorist attack in Russia on April 3rd, 2017. Some coward who believes his cause is greater than human life put a bomb on a metro car. It exploded while the car was in transit, passing between two of the busiest stations in St. Petersburg. A blast of fire filled the dark tunnel as a box full of people sped through. What terror. Many are dead; many injured.

Following the blast on the 3rd and throughout the days that followed everyone was talking about terrorism. Which, of course, means talking about Islamist terrorism. Everyone is speculating, after all, and the usual suspects are the Muslims. Duh. But who? Some Chechnyans? Syrians? Iraqis? ISIS veterans or not? Lone wolf or directed? Are there more? What should we do?

For one, let’s not be imperialist racists. Since 9/11, white-power terrorists have killed more people in Amerika[1] than have Islamist terrorists. There are other kinds of terrorists than Muslim — they didn’t invent this particularly horrific tactic. It was Irish Catholics who invented terrorism in the late 1800’s, throwing bombs at civilians to extract the political concessions they so desperately wanted.[2]

And it is not only persons who can be terrorists. States can be terrorist, too. The Fascist and Communist states used Terror (it’s a capital T, because it’s so grand, systematic, and intentional) as an integral pillar. Mass Terror is used in such states to neutralize opponents, scare everyone else, and raise the ideological fervor of the Party and all the true believers.[3]

It’s here we must take note that Putin’s Russia is a terrorist state. For one, it uses Terror internally. The Chechnyan government kidnaps and murders people who are gay.[4] Putin arrested hundreds of protestors on March 26th — many of them young, even teenagers. Putin’s system uses bribes, threats of violence, repressive laws, and brute force to control the media and civil society. Those not willfully loyal to Putin are cowed into self-censorship. Even more, oppositional voices are largely ignored, because Putin’s propaganda state has made at least at least 8/10 Russians true believers.[5] Such true believers listen neither to opinions nor facts which contradict their beliefs, and will never change their position.

But Putin’s Russia is not only an internal terrorist state, it is also externally terrorist. He invaded Ukraine.[6] In the occupied areas, the rulers of his colonies use Terror as a governing tactic. The invasion itself — aside from being aggressive, imperialist, et cetera — was a terrorist act because he had the Russian military remove its insignia, thus making their origins unclear. Force by anyone other than a state is terrorism, pure and simple. So when a state’s military pretends to not be from that state as it fights, that is by definition terrorism.

And then there is Syria. Putin’s interventions there have had nothing to do with ISIS. They are all about strategy, the growth of Russian power in the Middle East. In order to accomplish such growth, Putin is supporting what amounts to a Fascist state (Assad’s Syria is a one-party state, and that party is Arab Nazis).[7] By propping up Assad, Putin prolongs Assad’s Terror. Even more, Putin’s own military itself commits acts of Terror within Syria, bombing civilian targets rather than those of armed rebels. The goal of such bombings is to demographically cleanse opposition cities and towns. Putin has killed thousands. During the fall of Aleppo, “the attacks were so frequent, and some key hospitals were struck so many times, that the incidents appear to constitute a systematic attempt to destroy the city’s medical support.”[8] Statements from the Russian government or the military cannot change the reality for the victims, and the reality is that the goal is Terror, to force people to flee. Europe is well aware that this tactic has been a successful one.

The Terror from Putin’s forces in Syria is a literal Holocaust. It is mass, industrial death of people because of their supposed allegiance. The goal is to kill, humiliate, torment, and remove from the country all who may be supportive of the anti-Assad cause. Putin’s intervention is illegal; it props up a Terror state; and the intervention’s method of operation itself is Terror.

As if all of this were not enough, Putin’s Russia has committed similar acts of Terror elsewhere. The same thing has been happening in occupied parts of Georgia since 2008. It just seems that everyone who is not presently in these places, not being raped, tortured, robbed, humiliated, and killed at the moment, has forgotten this fact. And the same is true for Transnistria — a separatist region of Moldova propped up by Russian troops. And the same for Chechnya, where Putin carpet-bombed cities and put thousands in concentration camps in the early 2000’s.[9] Since then, the region has been a police state.

Putin does all of this because he has an ideology. He has a vision of how the world should be. He thinks he is a good person because he is making the world right. It is the ones who are killed and tortured who are enemies, not him. It is they — the Ukrainians, or the liberal Syrians, or the liberal Russians, or the gays — who are upsetting society.[10]


Back to the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. It happened. It’s despicable. Someone did it. But who?

It was probably Islamists. It probably was. But it could have been the FSB; it could have been Putin’s secret police.

That obviously sounds crazy. But people thought the Holocaust was impossible even though such denials meant ignoring the massive amount of evidence available during the war. Even after the war, people still refused to accept that the killing had been on such a grand scale. But of course all of it was true. We had evidence then — evidence of very public atrocities across Germany and Europe. We had two decades of Hitler’s quite candid speeches.

There is evidence in Putin’s history, too, if we care to look.

For one, Putin has done this before. It is almost conclusive, no matter how well the trail was covered, no matter how limited our evidence therefore is, that the FSB killed hundreds of Russians in 1999.[11] As Putin became president, the FSB bombed apartment blocs all over Moscow. Hundreds of people were slaughtered as they slept at night, and fear raced throughout the city. Of course the bombings were blamed on Chechnyan terrorists… which led to Putin launching that brutal war… which lead to his popularity shooting up… which lead to the cementing of his power.[12]

Although we are not sure if Putin ordered these ’99 bombings, there is damning, conclusive evidence that the FSB did it.[13] And though we are not sure if Putin ordered it, we do know that he was the FSB chief just before it happened and that it benefitted him greatly. So was it him? Or people loyal to him? We do not know. But this hole in the puzzle does not change what a tragedy it is for the slaughtered, and what a crime it was by the Russian state.

So, it is highly likely that Putin and his agents have bombed their own people before. And it sure paid off then. Which makes it entirely possible that they did it this time — especially because Putin will probably obtain huge benefits from this attack. It may help soothe the rift between he and Trump. It will partially refocus the Russian people’s attention and gratitude toward him just as mass protests began to spring up in Russia for the first time in five years. It will make Europeans already sympathetic to the far-right even more likely to support it. It will make Amerikans — legislators and citizens — more concerned with Islamist terrorism and Russia’s usefulness, rather than with international liberty and Russia’s threat to the same. While it is too soon to tell, and there are other factors affecting Putin’s sway in global public opinion (for example the Syrian chemical attack and Trump’s response) it is likely the effects from the St. Petersburg bombing will be significant, perhaps long-term, even if not quantifiable.

This attack could have incredible, potentially world-changing benefits for Putin. And it would have required so few people, been such a small operation compared to what he has already done. It is entirely possible that he and the FSB did it.

But why allege this? Why accuse Putin? After all, I have admitted that Islamists may well have carried out this attack — they probably did, in fact.

I allege it because, as we all jump to that tired conclusion and rush to change our opinions about Putin, we must remember that it could have been him.

The timing is so perfect — the Russian protests, the Trump rift, the recent far-right electoral defeats and their loss of support in Europe, the fading of Syria and ISIS from Western headlines — that it has to be suspicious. Even more so since it is an easy, simple thing for them compared with what they have done before.

Regardless of whether Putin did it, if our sympathies, our priorities, change because of these bombings, the benefits for Putin and the far-right everywhere may be unimaginable. If the global far-right is even more successful in 2017 than they were in 2016, it could be our present gullibility that marked the turning point. March 2017 was a good month for liberals: the anti-Muslim Geert Wilders was rejected in the Dutch elections, Trump reached “a new low in the polls,” the Russian people were protesting for the first time in years, liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron’s poll numbers caught up to nationalist Marine Le Pen’s in the French presidential race. Because Putin has no limits to what he will do, and we have strict limits to what we will imagine,[14] the Fascists may get away with it again, just like in 1933.

Let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s try to find the truth. But let’s also not forget to imagine the cruelty of which Fascists are capable. And even if it was Islamists, we must not forget Putin’s crimes. This is what we must learn from these days, these bombings. This is for the people of Russia.

We are humans on Earth. If we care for people, even if they live far away from us and we will never personally meet them, our attention span and our politics must be able to consider more than one bad guy.


[1] The spelling comes from two sources: Kafka’s Amerika, a 1927 novel, and a 1980’s ABC series Amerika. In the novel, Amerika fails to provide opportunity and freedom, and in fact inflicts constant humiliation and destitution onto a young — but hardworking — immigrant. In the show, Amerika is taken over by the Russians because “’Nobody wanted to risk anything for anybody else…[even though] they knew it was bad.’” From Politico. Accessed: April 9, 2017.

[2] See also Michael Burleigh’s Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism. Harper Press, 2008. “Green: The Fenian Dynamiters” is chapter one.

[3] This phrase comes from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, which looks at the diverse motivations of people who support such movements. Written over 60 years ago by a longshoreman, the book is vital in it’s importance. Also, regarding raising the ideological fervor, see Vladimir Tismaneanu’s The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, University of California Press (2012). Tismaneanu discusses how the Show Trials during Stalin’s Great Terror were used to ideologically rile up the people in support of Stalin.

[4] A Russian paper, Novaya Gazeta, first revealed this campaign.

[5] I lived in Putin’s Russia for a few months. The polls are accurate—most people have their own logical reasoning justifying their support for Putin. They truly believe.

[6] Saying “the Ukraine” is the old “a faraway land, people of which we know nothing” phrase. It means Ukraine as a topographical area, or at best runaway Russians (like Hitler said of the Poles or Czechs), rather than as an equal nation-state, which it is. Andrew Wilson’s The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation Yale University Press (2000) copiously documents and proves that Ukraine is a nation state no less historically real than Russia or any in Europe, just like the French or Germans. I know it’s not how people here mean when they say it, but it is a victory for Russian disinformation to say it the “the.”

[7] The Baath Party is the state in Assad’s Syria. Very close to Saddam Hussein’s Party, the Baath’s are an ideological movement. Their beliefs are similar to Hitler’s, except in the Middle East context. The ideology is racist against non-Arabs, anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-plurality (gays, freedom of expression, rock ‘n roll, bikinis, et cetera). Externally the ideology is imperialist, while internally it demands—and enforces—a strict uniformity. Islamic fanaticism is mixed in, but the core ideas are about the Arab race, the nation, and power. See Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, W. W. Norton & Company (2004) for an elaboration of this summary of Baathism, which I take from Berman.

[8] The Atlantic Council, Breaking Aleppo. Accessed: April 13, 2017

[9] Sources are numerous and plenty for this. Besides consulting with the tens of thousands who were either killed or put into concentration camps, look at Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia, Henry Holt and Company 2007. Politkovskaya was herself almost certainly killed by Putin.

[10] For more information on Putin’s ideology, and the Russian people’s agreement with him, see Kate Langdon’s 2017 masterpiece The Myth of Putinlandia: Reconsidering the Myth of Russian of Russian Ideological Authoritarianism in a Global Context, Vassar College (2017).

[11] The evidence is not complete; since the state did it, the state could pretty effectively cover it up. Looking at what evidence there is, it is clear, but multiple sources are needed to piece it together. Some of the greatest books on Putin’s Russia discuss the evidence that the FSB was behind the bombings. Consult Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Rules Russia, Simon & Schuster (2014), pp. 207-209, 212-218; David Satter’s The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin, Yale University Press (2016), dedicates its entire first chapter to the apartment bombings and the evidence implicating the FSB (pp. 1-39); Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Riverhead Books (2012) gives a gripping account of the events and the evidence. On October 1st 2014, giving a talk at the Wilson Center, Karen Dawisha stated, quite simply “yes,” she believes the FSB, and possibly Putin, are behind the bombings.

[12] Refer to those same sources to see the effect the bombings had on Putin’s popularity. He went from nobody to the savior almost instantaneously. See also Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Public Affairs (2014), for Putin’s rapid rise in popularity and institutional power in 1999 and 2000.

[13] For example, two pieces of evidence: 1) Duma Speaker Gennadiy Seleznyov announced, during a legislative session, a bombing in Volgodonsk that only happened three days after his announcement (Dawisha, pp. 215); 2) the bombs used hexogen, “This is the reactive agent for a new generation of artillery shells in Russia. There is only one factory that produces hexogen. It is in the Perm oblast and it is tightly guarded by the FSB. Every gram is registered.” Additionally, the explosions were all precise, bringing down entire apartment blocks—only experts could measure, build, and correctly place the hexogen bombs to bring down entire buildings (Satter, p. 13).

[14] Langdon 2017 discusses how traditional conceptions of mass politics—both the liberal and realist perspectives—fail to understand the role of ideology for Putin and the Russian people.