On a chilly night last September, bus driver Alexei Kartofelnikov saw a suspicious car parked outside the 13-story apartment building where he lives in this working-class city. He called the police, who discovered three sacks of powder and a timing device in the basement.
The sacks tested positive for explosives. The building's residents were evacuated and, haunted by the knowledge that 300 sleeping Russians had been killed in recent weeks in a wave of early-morning apartment bombings, spent the night dozing fitfully in a nearby movie theater.
Late the next day, security officials in Moscow, about 100 miles away, announced that it had all been a civil defense drill. The sacks, they said, contained nothing but sugar.
Since then, Kartofelnikov and the other residents have kept asking themselves: Was it really just an exercise to test their vigilance? Or were they nearly the next victims of the bombers--whoever they might be?
The government has yet to find the bombers. Security officials insist the culprits are linked to fighters in the separatist republic of Chechnya but have produced no conclusive evidence. For the most part, Russians buy the explanation: They have little love for the rebellious Chechens and believe that their new war against them is just payback to the "terrorists."
But some Russians fear that the truth is darker, and the 250 residents of Kartofelnikov's building are among them. At a minimum, they believe that the government is covering up something. At a maximum, they fear that the government might itself have played a role in the bombings.
Kartofelnikov, 47, considers himself a sensible man. He is not prone to suspicions or conspiracy theories. He tends to give people the benefit of the doubt. But at this point, he has too much doubt.
"Somebody tried to blow us up," he says. "I have no doubt about that. But as for who did it, or why--I don't know what to think."
But he does know what came next. The government, citing the attacks, went to war against Chechnya.
"The government started bombing Chechnya the next day," Kartofelnikov says quietly. "I know Chechens. I served with them in the army. They are good people. How can one suspect them of such a thing? How can one suspect it of anybody?"
Ivan Kirilin, a scrappy 67-year-old who talks through a cigarette, also has his suspicions.
"Who should I believe--what the government says or what was in the basement?" he says. "I don't think the Chechens would blow up a residential house. You have to ask--who is responsible for the war? Who needed the war? The government, of course."
Government Moves to Quell Questions
Questions of government complicity in the bombing campaign are persistent enough that the Kremlin has taken steps to quash them. Just this week, the government's war press center released a video purporting to show a bomb-making factory in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan that security officials say manufactured the bombs.
The video showed sacks of chemicals that government investigators identified as ammonium nitrate, which they said was used in the Moscow bombs. The investigators also said they found instruction booklets from Casio watches that were used as the bombs' timing devices.
The government explanations have a polemic tone--lots of generalization, few specifics. And they beg the question: Even if the Moscow bombs were made in Urus-Martan, who ordered them in the first place?
In Ryazan, the government's assertions have made little headway against residents' suspicions. There are too many details that don't fit. And there's the undeniable fact that the bombings led to the war, and the war fed the rise of Vladimir V. Putin.
Putin was head of the KGB's main successor agency, the FSB, until just a few weeks before the bombings. He is now prime minister and acting president, and nothing appears to stand in the way of his becoming president in an election in March.
"The authorities are trying hard to hush it up and hide everything," says Tatiana Borycheva, 45. "I don't believe the Chechens were behind it. I think it's a big political game. People are fighting for power, and our lives are not worth a kopeck in their game. I think somebody wanted to set up the Chechens to start the war and grab power."
Nearly four months after the bomb scare, residents keep reviewing the sequence of events, seeking some kind of answers to their questions.
Kartofelnikov was returning home about 9:10 p.m. when he noticed an ordinary Russian Zhiguli automobile parked next to his building's entrance. The car had an unusual license plate number, however--as a professional driver, Kartofelnikov tends to notice such things. And when he got closer, he realized it was more than unusual--the last two numbers, which in Russia indicate the city in which the car is registered, had been pasted over with a hand-drawn piece of paper. The glued-on number was 62, for Ryazan. Underneath, he could see the real number--77, for Moscow.
At the time, the country was in near-hysteria over the bombing campaign, in which five bombs had wreaked havoc in three cities. Authorities had urged citizens to report suspicious activities near their homes.
So Kartofelnikov called the police. A few minutes later, so did Vladimir Vasiliev, a 53-year-old radio engineer, who not only saw the Zhiguli and the pasted-on license numbers but got a look at the people inside before it pulled away. There were two men and a woman, he says. They looked not like Chechens, who tend to be darker-skinned, but like Russians.
Still, Vasiliev wasn't taking any chances. After all, the building had many of the same characteristics as the apartment houses in Moscow. It was tall, with a single entrance, a store on the first floor, little security and open access to the basement.
By 9:20, the police were on their way. The car was gone by the time they arrived. They went straight to the basement and found the sacks of white powder and the timing device. The bomb squad did a quick test and detected explosive vapors.
"Our preliminary tests showed the presence of explosives," says Lt. Col. Sergei Kabashov, chief of the local police precinct. "We weren't told it was a test. As far as we were concerned, the danger was real."
The local branch of the FSB was also in the dark.
"We were not informed about the exercise in advance, and that's why we acted in full and by the book," says Yuri V. Bludov, spokesman for the security agency's Ryazan regional office.
The building was evacuated, with the exception of five invalids who could not be moved. Investigators from the police, the FSB and the federal Emergencies Ministry combed the building for more explosives. The residents were permitted to return to their apartments at 7 a.m. The timing device on the sacks had reportedly been set for 5:30 a.m.--the same time that the Moscow bombs had gone off.
Telltale Traces of Powder Disappear
Vasiliev, the radio engineer, watched the police load the sacks into the back of a police car. He says that they looked like ordinary 100-pound bags of sugar and that some of the white powder fell on the ground. But when a resident who works in a chemical lab went to take a sample the next day, the spill had been cleaned up.
It was late the next day, during the evening news, that FSB chief Nikolai P. Patrushev announced that the bomb scare had been just a drill. Nearly 24 hours had passed.
"Of course no investigation is going on now in relation to this case. It was just an exercise," says Bludov, the FSB spokesman in Ryazan.
Without an investigation to probe further, residents will keep asking themselves the same questions:
* If it really was a test, why did the authorities wait nearly 24 hours to say so?
* Who was being tested? The residents? The local police? The local FSB?
* Why haven't there been reports of tests in other cities?
And then there are larger questions concerning the overall bombing campaign:
* Why would Chechen terrorists kill defenseless civilians in anonymous apartment buildings instead of choosing public targets like train stations or government buildings?
* Why has there been no credible claim of responsibility? Chechen authorities have denied any involvement by the separatists.
* Why were the remains of the Moscow buildings razed so quickly?
In the days after the Ryazan incident, the local FSB chief came to speak to the apartment building's residents. He apologized but told them that filing a suit for damages would probably lead nowhere.
So the residents asked for--and got--a new entranceway of heavy white brick, with an intercom security system. And they haven't filed a suit or a formal complaint.
"The general opinion is that we'd better not challenge them or they will really blow us up next time," says Tatiana Lukichyova, 51.
Vasiliev would like to forget the whole thing: He can't believe that it was just an exercise, but he doesn't like the line of thought that follows.
"We have been manipulated.
But by whom, and for what purpose, I can't say," he says. "I'm afraid we'll never know what really happened."