How Russians Got Used to Terrorism

If there’s too much of it, it stops being terrifying.

Russian president Vladimir Putin puts flowers down outside Tekhnologicheskiy Institut metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Russian president Vladimir Putin puts flowers down outside Tekhnologicheskiy Institut metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Grigory Duko / Reuters)

The last time a Russian subway was bombed, it was almost exactly seven years ago in Moscow. That time, in March 2010, it was two young Dagestani women who blew themselves up on two spots on the red line, one of them just under Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. Some 40 people died and dozens were injured, and, because it was the first time in years that Moscow had been attacked, observers predicted that it would be a game changer. Some said that it would mean a massive operation in the North Caucasus regions of Russia where the suicide bombers were from. Others said it would mean that the population would get angry at the government for not protecting them; or that, like after the 2004 hostage bloodbath at the elementary school in Beslan, when Vladimir Putin canceled gubernatorial elections, the government would crack down even harder on political freedom in Russia.

After Monday’s blast in the metro of St. Petersburg, which claimed the lives of 14 people and injured 40, the talk is similar. With less than a year to go before Putin is sure to be reelected to his fourth term as president in 2018, and the blast coming as Putin visited his home city of St. Petersburg, Russian observers began to speculate. Some remembered the suspicious blasts that went off in apartment buildings in Russia, killing hundreds, in 1999, a year before Putin was elected to his first presidential term. Several people, like former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, wrote later that the bombings were carried out by Putin and the FSB in order to help Putin get elected—and gain legitimacy as a strongman. (Though many people have written about this possibility, the jury is still on out on whether such claims are true.)

“Someone really wants to get elected, just like in 1999,” wrote Alfred Kokh, who oversaw much of the highly controversial privatization of Soviet industry in the 1990s. “Someone really wanted to get elected then, too.” Pro-Kremlin observers noted the proximity of the attack not just to the 2018 presidential election, but to the anti-corruption protests of March 26, which grabbed headlines around the world. They speculated that it was a false flag operation carried out by the opposition to discredit the government, or that the opposition would manipulate the attack for other political gain. Others, like the Eurasia Group, warned that the terrorist attack would also create an opening to crack down on dissent.

In 2010, none of what was predicted came to pass. Save for a few small, tactical operations in Dagestan going after people allegedly associated with the bombers, life went on as usual in Russia. In 2017, it is likely to do the same.

Consider how little changed in Russia after the 2013 terror attack in Volgograd, weeks before the Sochi Olympics, or after a bomb brought down a plane outside of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015 with 224 people on board, most of them Russians. Unlike Americans and Europeans, Russians are unfortunately used to terrorism. Nearly three decades of their lives, beginning in the 1990s, have been punctuated by attacks. In Putin’s first term, they were a regular occurrence as he waged the second Chechen War and then years of so-called anti-terror operations in the North Caucasus. In 2002, nearly 200 people were killed when Russian special forces gassed a theater full of Russians held hostage by Chechen terrorists. In 2004, hundreds of children and teachers were killed in Beslan. That year, two female suicide bombers simultaneously brought down two passenger planes, killing about 90 people. The Moscow metro has been bombed repeatedly, as have outdoor concerts.

In the areas of southern Russia that border the country’s restive Muslim regions, attacks of one sort of another—a truck plowing into a police post, a suicide bombing—were near daily occurrences, even as Dmitri Medvedev temporarily took over the presidency. In 2011, on his watch, terrorists bombed Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, one of the busiest in the world. Russia’s Investigative Committee tallied 31 terrorist attacks in 2013 alone. In the following years, blasts continued in the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. (None of this is a coincidence, given Russia’s brutal, scorched-earth war against Chechen separatists and Muslim insurgents, as well as the reportedly 5,000 Russian citizens fighting alongside ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Russians have become largely inured to terrorism. According to a sociological study conducted by the independent Levada Center in 2016, most Russians view terrorism—as well as the wars they’re told are prophylaxis against it—as “background noise and routine.” The center’s polls show that, even though anxiety about terrorist attacks briefly spikes after high-profile attacks like those in Paris or Sharm el-Sheikh, the overall level of worry is not very high. The majority of Russians both expect terror attacks and feel their security services are doing enough to fight terrorism. They also strongly approve of Russian operations in Syria, largely buying the Kremlin’s public argument that it is fighting terrorists before they hit Russia. The fact that, last night, Islamists allegedly killed two policemen in the Russian city of Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, barely registered in Russia. If there’s too much of it, it seems, terrorism stops being terrifying.

On the campaign trail, the opposition leader Alexey Navalny (who is trying to run for president in 2018) asks his supporters why Russia, given that it has one of the highest rates of police per capita in the world, cannot protect its citizens. This was before the attacks in St. Petersburg. Yet, even after them and even considering reports that the Russian security services knew of an imminent attack but failed to prevent it, this argument likely won’t get much traction outside the opposition, which joked that the police were too busy arresting school children and college students to pay attention to “details” like terrorists.

Rather, it is most likely that the Russian state will continue its bloody fight against terrorism with continued mixed success. Most likely, Putin will continue to press the line that Russia and the West need to join forces to fight terror, and that for that, Russia needs to be at the big boys’ table. Most likely, the Russian government will crack down further on dissent—not because of the St. Petersburg bombing but because of Navalny’s anti-corruption protests. And most likely, this attack will fade into the violent timeline of terrorism in the country, to be mentioned in a long, bloody litany the next time something—or someone—explodes somewhere in Russia.