Conspiracy Theories & the St. Petersburg Metro Tragedy

Everyone likes a good conspiracy. Conspiracies explain a complicated world.[1]


“Some things are so wrong,” wrote Karl Kraus nearly a century ago, “that not even their opposite is true.”[2]

The day after some number of Islamist terrorists carried out a suicide bomb attack in the St. Petersburg metro system, Russian social media abounded with Putin-as-protagonist conspiracy theories. Speculation was not limited to the intellectual fringes. Consider this statement by the well-known Russian political commentator Andrey Piontkovskiy:[3]

For more than two thousand years, the world’s lawyers, brought up in the tradition of Roman law, began any investigation by asked this question: Cui bono? There is a person, and you all know this man, to whom the attack in St. Petersburg is extremely beneficial. Faced with (for him) the unexpected scale of protests extending to all strata of Russian society, he sees salvation in twisting the screws and sharply tightening political repression. He can be credited with a history whose bloody trail extends from apartment building bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, and then attempted one in Ryazan where he was stopped. The NKVD Major repeats himself ineptly.[4]

Piontkovskiy is not alone. The inveterate Putin critic and former banker cum political blogger Slava Rabinovich wrote the following in the online Ukrainian newspaper Apostrophe under the header “Why Putin can continue to blow up Russians, like in 1999:”

Putin and his OPG [note: acronym for organizovannaya prestupnaya gruppa or “organized crime group”] have a reputation, on the basis of which the principle of the presumption of innocence cannot be applied to them. Today’s explosion in the St. Petersburg metro is not a terrorist act, but a special operation of Putin and the FSB, until proven otherwise. And now it’s time to take to the streets. Otherwise, Putin will continue to blow us up, like in 1999. We know the methods and techniques used by gebukhi. Today’s tragedy, like the one in 1999, is just another phase in yet another special operation so secure another Putin reelection. I repeat: it’s true until the opposite is proven.[5]

Rabinovich sets up the classic Verschwörungsfalle [6] or “conspiracy trap.” Henryk Broder elaborated the notion.

After 9/11, a talented conspiracy theorist posed the question Cui bono? He answered his own question, stating, “If the question, just six months after the attacks, is which countries and governments benefitted, there are only two: the United States and George Bush, and Israel and Ariel Shimon.[7]

A conspiracy trap leads one to commit two fundamental errors. The first is to ignore the plain facts of the case, in this instance, the internal threat posed by Islamist fundamentalism and the Russian government’s long running battle against Islamist-inspired terrorism. The second is to ascribe to the Russian government the ability to pull off a false flag event and evade discovery. It is paradoxical because Mr. Putin’s most vociferous critics seem, at one and the same time, the most determined believers in his ability to orchestrate events. What conspiracy theories miss is this: the common character of the threat across Europe—from St. Petersburg to Paris—posed by alienated young men who become ensnared by the siren’s song of Islamic fundamentalism.

In her much discussed New York Review of Books essay, Russian scholar Masha Green warns those determined to find a Putin-Trump nexus about falling onto the conspiracy trap.[8] The same warning might extend to those determined to find Mr. Putin’s fingerprints on the St. Petersburg metro tragedy.

[1] From Gary DeMar’s essay, “Don’t Be Caught in a Conspiracy Trap.” Last accessed 4 April 2017.

[2] The quote reads in the original German: “Es gibt Dinge, die sind so falsch, daß noch nicht einmal das absolute Gegenteil richtig ist.”

[3] The author of the 2006 book Another Look Into Putin’s Soul, Andrei A. Piontkovsky wrote this about Russia’s 1994-1996 and 1999- 2006 wars with Chechen separatists in his May 2011 essay, “The Caucasian Dark Circle:”

In reality, Russia has lost the war against the Chechen separatists . . . The resulting mayhem has served only to spawn new suicide bombers willing to bring fresh terror to Russia’s heartland. Indeed, the paradox today is that Islamists seem to be losing influence in the Arab world while strengthening their position in the North Caucasus, where the Kremlin has fought a twelve-year war without understanding the scope of the tragedy taking place – a civil and ethnic war for which the Kremlin itself bears significant responsibility.

See: Last accessed 5 April 2017.

[4] Andrey Piontkovskiy (2017). “On ukhodit ot vlasti tak zhe, kak vkhodil v neye.” [published online in Russian 3 April 2017]. Last accessed 5 April 2017. His “NKVD Major” allusion is to Mr. Putin’s rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet-era KGB, also known as the “Committee for State Security”.

[5] Slava Rabinovich (2017). “Krovavyy boy: pochemu Putin mozhet prodolzhit’ vzryvat’ rossiyan, kak v 1999 godu. Rossiyane dolzhny massovo vyyti na ulitsy, chtoby predotvratit’ budushchiye terakty.” Apostrophe [published online in Russian 3 April 2017]. Last accessed 5 April 2017.

[6] Regarding German compound words, Mark Twain wrote that some “are so long that they have a perspective.” Twain (1880). “The Awful German Language.” In A Tramp Abroad. (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company) 611. Last accessed 5 April 2017.

[7]  Henryk M. Broder (2017). “Mit dem Ersten bombt man besser.” WeltN24 [published online in German 23 July 2011]. The quoted text reads in the original German:

Einer der begabtesten “Verschwörungstheoretiker” hat es nach 9/11 gar geschafft, beide Tätergruppen zu amalgamieren. Er fragte “Cui bono!?” und antwortete: “Bezieht man knapp ein halbes Jahr nach den Anschlägen diese Frage auf die Länder und Regierungen, denen sie genützt haben, bleiben nur zwei: USA und George Bush sowie Israel und Ariel Sharon.

[8] Masha Gessen (2017). “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap.” The New York Review of Books [published online 6 March 2017].

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