VLADIMIR Putin’s almost quarter century in power in Russia has been characterised by brutality, cunning, and ruthlessness.
And Vlad‘s viciousness began before he was even in charge when he allegedly had a role in the deaths of three MPs who were investigating him.
In 1999, a series of shocking terror attacks rocked Russia.
Between September 4 and 16, explosions hit four apartment blocks in the cities of Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk.
In total, 307 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured, as panic spread across the country.
The attacks were blamed on terrorists from the breakaway region of Chechnya and that, coupled with the invasion of Dagestan, triggered the Second Chechen War.
Putin, who at the time was the Prime Minister of Russia, was praised for his handling of the crisis, boosting his popularity in the crucial few months before the presidential elections which saw him take power.
But a number of experts who have studied the attacks believed that they were in fact coordinated by Russian state security services who wanted to bring Putin to power.
Independent investigations into the bombings have been almost impossible due to obstruction from the Russian government.
One insider who believed Putin was at least independently behind the attacks was Alexander Litvinenko.
The former FSB agent defected to the UK and produced a report on the bombings.
Speaking to The Sun Online, Yuri Felshtinsky, a friend of the late Alexander Litvinenko, explained how they had been digging into Putin’s shadowy FSB connections.
Yuri, co-author with Litvinenko of Blowing up Russia, said that following their investigations they came under pressure from Russian authorities.
He said: “As a result, Litvinenko had to escape Russia, technically he was a defector. We finished our work in London, it was published in 2001 and became a major success.”
Yuri went on: “It was published by the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya worked.
“When we tried to publish the book in Russia, a court order was issued banning the book from publication.
“It was the first order of its kind since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s.”
Both [Yushenkov and Golovyov] were gunned down. After that, no one investigated the attacks
The pair later produced a documentary based on the book.
This was before Putin had clamped down on freedom of expression and the free press to the degree he would in later years.
“Russia’s parliament was trying to investigate the terror attacks,” Yuri added. “It was the Russian security services who were behind the attacks that sparked the Second Chechen War.”
Even an official investigation failed to find any blame that could be attached to Chechen terrorists.
“After the Russian government and even the FSB conducted an official investigation, not a single Chechen was found to be involved,” Yuri said.
Several Russian MPs took a particular interest in investigating the attacks, Yuri explained.
One of those was Yuri Shchekochikhin, who was in charge of the security committee and was also deputy head of the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta.
Yuri described his meeting with Mr Shchekochikhin.
He said: “I gave him the manuscript of the book in the summer of 2001 in Zagreb, Croatia.
Shchekochikhin died suddenly on July 3, 2003, from a mysterious illness.
The timing of his death came just days before he was scheduled to fly to America where he planned to meet with FBI investigators.
A Novaya Gazeta investigation found that his medical documents were either “lost” or deliberately destroyed by Russian authorities.
The suspected cause of death was radiation poisoning, a near-identical method of attack to that which would be used on Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
As Yuri said: “He was poisoned with something similar to that used against Litvinenko.
“It happened in Russia so there was much less investigation than there was of Litvinenko’s death.”
He added: “He died after two weeks in a coma, it was a terrible death.”
Two other MPs were killed at around the same time.
Sergei Yushenkov and Vladimir Golovlev were both investigating the terror attacks at the time of their deaths.
Yushenkov was assassinated on April 17, 2003, just hours after registering his political party to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Just before his death, he allegedly received threats from a high-ranking FSB general, Aleksander Mikhailov.
He had ties to exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who put in much of the funding for his political party before the two had a falling out.
After his death, Berezovsky told Kommersant newspaper: “Whatever my disagreements with Sergei may have been, he is after all my comrade. I’m lost for words.”
Golovlev was found shot dead in a wooded area close to his home in Moscow while walking his dog in August 2002.
At the time, he was under investigation for corruption.
Some suspected that he was killed as a result of his business dealings, but Yuri believes he knows where the blame for the death lies.
He said: “Both [Yushenkov and Golovyov] were gunned down. After that, no one investigated the attacks.”
Putin went on to win a landslide victory in the Russian presidential vote in 2000, just eight months after being thrust into the national limelight by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.
At 47, he was the youngest person to rule Russia since Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Despite his controversial past as an officer in the feared Soviet secret police, the KGB, he won over the majority of Russians with his tough stance on law and order.
The collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s led to almost a decade of chaos and economic instability, and many Russians yearned for a strong leader.
But even at the time, his critics denounced him as a warmonger over his brutal prosecution of the war in Chechnya.
Yuri says that the bloody war in Ukraine has shattered any illusion that may have been held about whether Putin could be capable of killing his own citizens.
“The war destroyed the last people who gave Putin the benefit of the doubt [over coordinating the apartment bombings],” he said. “It shows that the 1999 attacks were definitely carried out by the FSB.”