We may never find out what was onboard the Arctic Sea, the Russian-crewed vessel hijacked by Estonian pirates last month, but my guess is it wasn’t Algeria-bound timber. I’m not sold on the conspiracy charge it was carrying illicit arms bound for Tehran either. But then again, this is Russia, where anything is possible.
Take the 1999 bombings of apartments, which the authorities used as a pretext for war in Chechnya. Some KGB agents later got caught red-handed planting bomb materials near an apartment compound, sparking intrigue that the bombings had been an inside job conjured up by the Kremlin. Even a new GQ article revisiting this episode (with an on-the-record interview with a former spook confirming people’s worst fears about what happened) was nixed from overseas and online editions. Or take the Beslan tragedy, in which terrorists in 2004 killed over 300 children in a school in southern Russia. There has been widespread criticism of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed Waco-like storming of the school, which may have escalated the casualty count.
I’ve always believed that most criticism of Russia in the media is unwarranted and mostly just fulfills our wildest fantasies of a world of mafia and KGB villains, that Moscow was unfairly maligned abroad, that all Russian tragedies were somehow some dark subplot cooked up by Kremlin insiders. Russia, in reality, is a much more boring place and its leaders, even if they wanted, could not carry out an operation of any sophistication (e.g. a fake hijacking by pirates aboard one of its vessels).
But a few years back I was reminded of Russia’s darker side. A pair of FBI investigators dropped by my office and quizzed me about a Russian journalist I met for lunch with occasionally. The writer, Sergei, was not a journalist on a one-year assignment living in the Bronx, as he claimed. He was a KGB spy. Of course, why he was bothering to quiz me for government secrets perhaps shows how incompetent and desperate the Russian government had gotten. In a previous era, Russia would have actually duped somebody of stature with useful information. I was just interested in the free lunch.