On January 8, 1977, a blast was set off in the Moscow underground, the first terrorist act in the Soviet Union’s semi-centennial history, injuring 44 people and killing 7. Charged with the offense was Stepan Zatikyan, Akop Stepanyan, and Zaven Bagdasaryan, members of an Armenian liberation organization, were executed two years later, but there are still a lot of holes in the story.
The explosive detonated at 17:33 Moscow Time, between Izmaylovskaya and Pervomayskaya metro stations. The blast was scheduled for rush hour to inflict as much damage as possible. The explosion also killed several children returning from the traditional New Year parties at the Kremlin. People standing on the platform of Pervomayskaya metro station and passengers of several other passing trains witnessed several torn-apart carriages and blood-spattered passengers while the blown-up train was transported from the tunnel. There was no coverage of the event in the media, giving way to gossip and causing fear to spread among Moscow citizens.
The instigators of the explosion were caught shortly after. The investigation ruled those responsible for the blast were Armenian citizens Stepan Zatikyan, Akop Stepanyan, and Zaven Bagdasaryan. Zatikyan headed a group of Armenian students who called themselves the National United Party of Armenia. This body lobbied ideas of independent Armenia and circulated leaflets protesting against Russian prejudice. The court hearing was secret and closed, even the day it started remains unclear. None of the suspects’ relatives were informed of the hearing. Therefore, the convicts were only able to see their loved ones after the verdict had been passed. All three suspects were said to have pled guilty and were sentenced to death; although none of the suspects admitted their guilt.
Stepanyan later confessed, “We were convicted in only ten minutes.” When his brother asked him: “Tell me, are you really a part of this crime?” Zatikyan only replied, “My only fault is that I left my two children alone in this world. There is no other fault on me.” The verdict was put into effect in a few days, even before the cassation period was over.
The suspicious secrecy of the case, the speed of the proceedings and the sheer violation of human rights attracted much attention; not to mention the fact that not one of the suspects denied their involvement in the case until the end prompted human rights advocates to look into the case.
Andrey Sakharov, the famous Soviet dissident and human rights activist, suggested that “the explosion in the Moscow metro and the tragic deaths of people is a new and most dangerous attempt of provocation on the part of the law enforcement agencies in the last several years.” He made an appeal calling for an open investigation of the explosions in the metro, attracting observers and lawyers from the West.
Sakharov’s idea was substantiated by the fastness of the news being given away to the Western media, while normally it would be some time before the Soviet authorities agreed on the proper interpretation of the event. In the case of the explosion it looked like everything had already been decided before. The other proposed explanation was that the real criminals were simply not found, or, if they were, they were “politically inconvenient”.
An alternate version states that the terrorist attacks were performed by workers from a Moscow suburban town as an act of protest against the empty shelves in the stores. If that version was true, the authorities might have chosen to keep quiet about the workers’ discontent with the critical economic situation and spinned the explosion for their own purposes to discredit the inside enemies of the KGB.
The KGB chose to discredit the Armenian movement, because blaming the Soviet prominent social activists, as was the first intention, was moot, since their peaceful intentions were well-known throughout the Western world. As for the Armenian liberation movement, it played right into their hands: Armenia was the only country with a liberation movement which enjoyed wide support and sympathy among the people. Despite many KGB efforts to clamp down on the party, it kept acquiring new adherents and getting rid of the movement’s leaders could have become destructive for the party.