When Ilya Blokhin, a surgeon heading downtown to his job in a private Moscow clinic, heard what sounded like a firecracker go off on his metro train last Friday, a commuter near him muttered, "I'll be late for work." It turned out to be far worse than that. A blast ripped through the second car of a packed train at the height of the morning rush hour. Within minutes, at least 39 people were dead and 134 injured. Wreckage and human remains were spread along 50 meters of the tunnel. "We're taking out the dead, or what's left of them," said a rescue worker. "You don't want to know what happened to them."
The death toll was expected to rise, but could have been even higher but for the heroics of the train's driver, Vladimir Gorelov, who slammed on the brakes and contacted engineers to shut the power off so that people could get out of the train without risking electrocution. Some 500 people escaped. Despite the darkness, fire and the acrid smoke, witnesses said passengers were remarkably calm.
Could they be getting used to such atrocities? The underground carnage was yet another reminder of how dangerous Russia has become since President Vladimir Putin came to power. While Putin has imposed draconian curbs on the media and created a tame parliament some of whose members are now urging him to extend the presidential term from four to seven years he has not been able to pacify Chechnya, the breakaway republic whose separatists were swiftly blamed for the subway bombing. In 1999 Putin, then a new and little-known Prime Minister, [an error occurred while processing this directive] made his name by ordering the re-invasion of Chechnya. Military commanders promised a speedy victory; instead, a radical, fundamentalist wing of the guerrilla movement has brought the war to the heart of Russia. In the past nine months, over 200 people have died in a wave of terrorist attacks, including the bombing of commuter trains in southern Russia and blasts at a Moscow rock concert and outside a luxury hotel opposite the Kremlin. Many of the attacks are the work of suicide bombers, often women.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the latest atrocity, but Putin and his allies had no doubt as to who was to blame. At a joint press conference with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, a rattled Putin accused Chechnya's deposed President and secessionist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, of being behind the bombing. Putin also denounced European politicians who had earlier called for negotiations with Maskhadov. "Russia does not negotiate with terrorists," he said. "It annihilates them."
Maskhadov's main overseas representative, Akhmed Zakayev, denied responsibility for the bombing and claimed instead that Russian security had been "directly or indirectly" involved. "We condemn all forms of terrorism," Zakayev told TIME shortly before the bombing. "It's a death sentence for our cause if we are associated with terrorism." The one Chechen commander who in the past has admitted ordering similar attacks, Shamil Basayev, has so far been silent. (Maskhadov claims to have broken all links with Basayev and denounces his tactics.) This did not stop loud calls by nationalist politicians for tough new antiterrorist measures, including the expulsion of Chechens from Moscow, declaration of a state of emergency and the lifting of a moratorium on the death penalty. Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy speaker of the Duma, demanded the postponement of next month's presidential elections.
The audacity of the subway attack has again exposed Russia's vulnerability to terrorism. While Russian law requires nonresidents of Moscow to report to police on arrival and state their business, Russian police and security structures are so corrupt that Chechen fighters can move around the capital with little fear of getting caught. Any unofficial visitor, including young Chechen males, can easily stay as long as they want merely by paying the odd $3 to $6 bribe. The guerrillas who carried out the Moscow theater siege in October 2002 even had their own weapons and explosives trucked in from Chechnya.
Last week's bombing, says Lilia Shevtsova, a top analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, "ruins the Putin image of the President in control and on top of things." One thing it will not do, though, is damage his chances of re-election next month. His poll ratings are still around 80% and he seems set to sail back into power by a landslide. But after the bombing, the mood of those who turn out to vote for Putin may be more fatalistic than triumphant. Just after last Friday's blast, Oksana Petrova, 32, shrugged when a reporter asked her if she was now afraid of taking the metro. "Of course, I'm scared," she said. "But what we can do? We're ordinary people. We don't control our lives. It's up to them at the top."