Letter From Moscow

Moscow is a city in a state of shock.

The explosion at an apartment building just after midnight local time Thursday has depressed — and infuriated — the residents of RussiaÂ's capital. Everyone is talking about it. No one can believe it. And people want to know why President Boris YeltsinÂ's government could not prevent it.

Russian apartment buildings tend to be very long, with numerous entrances. In this case, the blast was so powerful that two entryways were completely decimated, as if they were simply ripped way. The explosion — with a force equal to more than 400 pounds of TNT — turned nine stories into a pancake.

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An empty space stands where hundreds used to live. The sight is horrific.

Russian officials cannot yet say what caused the blast — and they are not likely to until nine stories of rubble are cleared. Officials say the explosion took place on the first or second floor of the blast site, and thatÂ's where the evidence lies.

None of the local residents believe it was a gas leak — which was floated as a possible cause — because nobody smelled kitchen gas. Most suspect foul play – terrorism, or a commercial dispute involving a small store on the first floor.

MoscowÂ's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is among those who suspect terror. He insisted to reporters at the scene that the blast was not the result of a gas leak. But he also warned that it is too early to say for sure or to guess the identity of the culprit.

But suspicion in Moscow is tightly focused on the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, where Islamic rebels – some from neighboring Chechnya — have been fighting Russin troops for several weeks. The fighting is fierce, and over 140 Russian servicemen have been killed.

No one is sure whether the rebels would terrorize Moscow. During RussiaÂ's first war with Chechen separatists, the rebels repeatedly threatened to set off bombs in Moscow, but never actually dared.

In any case, suspicion of the darker skinned people of the Caucasus is rife in Russia, and officials are searching for a link between ThursdayÂ's bombing and the rebellion in Dagestan.

But back on Guryanov Street, scene of ThursdayÂ's explosion, many wonder why Yeltsin has not come to survey the damage for himself — even after MoscowÂ's mayor visited twice. Some express anger at the Russian president because they feel unsafe in their own homes. Others are embittered by a sense that Yeltsin and his cronies have impoverished Russia with their alleged corruption.

Even at a tragic moment, shadows of corruption are everywhere. Many survivors of ThursdayÂ's blast have removed their possessions from the building to keep them from being stolen by the firemen and policemen working at the scene.

No one on Guryanov Street can believe what Russia is coming to.

Written by Beth Knobel
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