Fear stalks Russia after Moscow massacre as Putin’s allies play blame game

Russia is reeling from its bloodiest attack on civilians in more than a decade after gunmen burst into a music hall on the outskirts of Moscow, opened fire, and detonated explosives, killing at least 137 people.

“I had friends in Crocus, thank the gods they are OK,” Diana, a schoolteacher in St Petersburg, told Al Jazeera, referring to the massacre at Crocus City Hall, just before a concert by the rock group Picnic was to take place on Friday evening.

“[Friday] night was the worst. We were all sat down, constantly updating our news feeds and writing to all the Muscovites we know, just to check if they were OK. And today I was supposed to go to a concert in the largest hall in St Petersburg, it’s good that they postponed it … it’s scary.”

The mood across Russia is gloomy.

“There’s a general depression, what else can I say?” said David, a university staffer from Moscow. “You can see it in your neighbours, on the streets.

“Everyone feels this fear… or not even fear, just this numbness. There are increased security checks, and many people are heading out of town.”

In the Russian capital, mourners have been passing by the hall, which is a mere 20km (12.4 miles) from the Kremlin, to leave flowers, balloons and stuffed toys, and light candles in memory of the victims. At least three children were among the dead.

Responsibility for the attack was officially claimed by the Afghan branch of ISIL, also known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province or ISKP. Four suspected men, all Tajikistan citizens, have since been arrested but Russia has not confirmed whether they are linked to ISIL.

Earlier in March, another cell of the organisation plotting to strike a synagogue was liquidated during a gun battle in Moscow.

Addressing the nation on Sunday, an official day of mourning, President Vladimir Putin condemned the “bloody, barbaric terrorist act”.

“All the perpetrators, organisers and those who ordered this crime will be justly and inevitably punished. Whoever they are, whoever is guiding them. I repeat, we will identify and punish everyone who stands behind the terrorists, who prepared this atrocity, this strike against Russia, against our people,” he said.

The four “perpetrators” had “tried to hide and moved towards Ukraine, where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them from the Ukrainian side to cross the state border”, Putin said.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he would not comment on ISIL’s claim of responsibility while an investigation was under way.

Nevertheless, figures close to the Kremlin have been quick to point fingers towards Ukraine, the country Russia has been attacking for the past two years after launching a full-scale invasion in February 2022.

They have provided no evidence to support their speculation, while Ukraine was quick to deny any involvement.

“This was not ISIS. This was the hohli,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-owned RT news channel, wrote on X, using a pejorative term for Ukrainians.

“And the fact is that just yesterday, even before the arrests, even before the names and names of the perpetrators [were revealed], Western intelligence services began to convince the public that it was ISIS.”

“Terrorists understand only retaliatory terror,” former President Dmitry Medvedev, infamous for his hawkish takes, wrote on Telegram.

“If it is established that these are terrorists of the Kyiv regime, it is impossible to deal with them and their ideological inspirers differently. All of them must be found and mercilessly destroyed as terrorists, including officials of the state that committed such atrocity. Death for death.”

Konstantin Malofeev, owner of the ultranationalist Tsargrad channel on Telegram, told over 500,000 subscribers, “Let’s give the peaceful population of Ukraine 48 hours to leave its cities, and finally end this war with a victorious rout of the enemy.”

But it is uncertain whether these narratives are being accepted by everyday Russians.

“Yes, most likely it really is ISIS,” Diana reflected. “It’s their signature style, plus in March they took losses in Russia.”

Meanwhile, Kirill Martynov, chief editor of Novaya Gazeta Europe, criticised Putin’s priorities, saying the president dismissed warnings from Western intelligence and was too busy instead focusing on “LGBT extremists”.

Washington said that earlier in March, it had warned Russia of a possible attack.

“It is clear that they fought with the wrong people,” Martynov wrote in a column for the newspaper that now operates from Latvia because of Russia’s wartime censorship laws.

“The Russian dictator is directly responsible for the fact that, having started a war with Russia’s neighbours in 2014 and 2022, he now has no resources left to protect the country’s citizens from real threats.”

After the identity of the attackers was revealed, some Russians channelled their anger in an entirely different direction.

Russia is home to millions of immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia who routinely face harassment from law enforcement and discrimination.

After a bombing on the St Petersburg metro in 2017 carried out by an ethnic Uzbek, hundreds of Central Asians were detained or deported.

Since Friday, police have raided hostels hosting migrant workers, while passengers have refused to be picked up by Tajik taxi drivers.

“Hello, if you are Tajik, cancel the order, I will not go with you, or I will call the traffic police, let them check your licence to transport passengers,” reads one text screenshot that has circulated online.

In the city of Blagoveshchensk on the Chinese border, a drunken man set fire to and shot at a newspaper stall occupied by Central Asian workers, the independent Russian news outlet SOTA reported on Telegram.

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