In 1999, persons unknown set off a bomb in a Moscow apartment building. Chechen terrorists were quickly blamed for the blast that ended up killing almost 300 people, and a massive Russian assault on the breakaway republic followed. Many in Russia, however, believe that the bombings were the work of the Russian government itself in order to help Vladimir Putin win the 2000 presidential election and justify all-out war against Chechnya.
“Disbelief” follows the lives of two sisters affected by the bombing and its aftermath. The first, Tanya Morozova, is a teacher living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who learns that the bomb has killed her mother. Alonya, her sister, was actually in the apartment at the time of the attack and barely escapes with her life. Alonya ends up moving to the United States, and together the two attempt to get their lives back together.
Both women initially believe their government’s story that Chechen separatists planted the bomb, but rumors begin to filter out that Russia’s secret police, the FSB, engineered the bombing to facilitate ex-KGB hawk Putin’s election and justify the renewal of war. A TV report about FSB agents being caught planting a bomb in an apartment in the city of Ryazan won many converts to the FSB bombing theory, including former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, David Satter. Alonya travels to Washington D.C. to hear Satter speak about the FSB’s involvement in the Moscow bombing. Soon after, the sisters are approached to appear in Andrei Nekrasov’s documentary.
Tanya ends up returning to Russia with her son to meet with other family members, investigators, and survivors of the attack. Throughout her travels, she asks everyone if they believe the government could possibly be responsible for such a heinous crime. By and large, they answer, “yes” (the exception being a nationalist friend of her mother’s who is convinced of the duplicitous nature of the Chechen people). She speaks with a Chechen man falsely accused and imprisoned for the bombing, a Chechen official, and an ex-KGB agent who is acting as the attorney representing the victims against the government.
“Disbelief” never gives a definitive answer to the question of who actually masterminded the 1999 Moscow apartment bombing, because there isn’t one. The movie spends an inordinate amount of time with Tanya, when it seems like Nekrasov could’ve gotten more mileage out of examining the suspicious deaths of certain key figures in the investigation, as well as the arrest of Mikhail Trepashkin, Tanya’s attorney. Tanya’s story provides a needed personal angle, but the facts of the case are almost sinister enough to carry the documentary by themselves. A subtler touch is not what was needed here, but rather a relentless flow of incriminating evidence against the government. That’s why “Disbelief” is ultimately a bit of a disappointment.