Which is worse: (a) The terrorist attack by Islamic radicals on the Dubrovka theater; (b) the mass-murder of those inside by the Kremlin, or (c) the Kremlin’s shamless attempt to bury the whole matter in the aftermath? You decide. The Times of London reports:
The buried truth
Our correspondent meets families fighting the apparatus of the Russian state to find out why 129 hostages died in the 2002 Moscow theatre siege
“I asked to see the body. It was covered in a blue sheet. Only her face and her fingers were visible. I was not allowed to inspect her. I asked to straighten out the hair covering her face. I noticed a large swelling beneath her nose, also that her hands were almost black and hugely bloated.”
This is Dmitri Milovidov, a middle-aged Muscovite, describing the body of his 14-year-old daughter Nina, discovered two days after her death. If we are to take Vladimir Putin’s word for it, Nina died as a result of “dehydration, chronic disease or the very fact that she had been confined in the building” during the stand-off between Chechen terrorists and the Russian security services at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, which came to a sudden and messy end on October 26, 2002.
Not the least remarkable thing about Dmitri Milovidov’s story is the fact that it happened on October 28. That is to say: 48 hours after having been reassured that there had been no fatalities among the hostages; 46 hours after having been told that fatalities had occurred but that there were no children among them; 31 hours after having been notified of a government helpline for frantic relatives, a number which, when dialled, was never answered; and 24 hours after Dmitri and his wife, Olga, bewildered by the official silence, began their long search for their daughter, at first through the chaotic hospitals of the capital and then, as hope drained, through its morgues. “I was feeling Nina’s existence until 10am on the 26th,” Olga told me. “At 10am there was no connection with my daughter. I can’t prove that’s when she died, but that’s what I felt.”
The story of the Moscow theatre siege is well known, up to a point. On October 23, 2002, during a packed performance of the Russian musical Nord Ost, around 40 armed Chechen terrorists gained access to the Dubrovka theatre. The 800 or so audience members and theatre staff were held hostage while the notoriously brutal terrorists demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. The world’s gaze swivelled on to the Dubrovka. On that mythical level where acts of violence gain or fail to gain the world’s attention, the audacity of the collision engineered by the terrorists — between the blithe metropolitan theatregoers and the hardest edge of ultra-nationalism — captivated the global media.
Three hostages were killed, probably inadvertently: 200 other hostages were released during negotiations. Unlike at Beslan two years later, the siege of the Dubrovka wasn’t a slaughterhouse. But at around 5am on the 26th, the state security forces began to pump an opiate-based gas through the theatre’s air vents. The Russian Government has refused to name the gas, but medical experts believe it was fentanyl. In Britain fentanyl is used primarily in intensive care wards as an analgesic: in excess it can be fatal. It disarmed the terrorists, certainly, and most probably killed some of them: those who weren’t fatally poisoned were shot dead when the theatre was subsequently stormed. What Dmitri and Olga want to know is this: what did the gas do to the hostages?
And here we come up against the first of many riddles and contradictions that surround the events of October 26. Although a plaque recently erected outside the Dubrovka numbers 129 dead among the former hostages, officially none of them was killed by gas. Shortly after the building was stormed, Russia’s health minister at the time stated: “Similar preparations are widely used in medical practice and as such cannot cause a lethal outcome.”
Mr Putin vigorously denied any connection between the gas and the subsequent fatalities: “Those people did not die because of the effects of the gas, for the gas is not harmful,” he emphasised in an interview with American journalists in 2003. “And we can say that none of the hostages were injured in the course of the operation.”
The 26th was a terrible day for the Milovidovs, followed by a terrible night, and then another terrible day among thousands of other desperate relatives (there were still at least 600 hostages inside the theatre when the security services stormed it) and at the end of it all there was Nina, her face and hands swollen as if she had choked, her internal organs “ flooded with liquid” as a doctor confided to them, and on her death certificate, along with Time of Death and Place of Death, was a simple entry next to Cause of Death: “Terrorism”.
“I learnt about Sasha’s death on the radio on 27 October 2002. I learned about the circumstances of her death, that she was crushed while being taken to hospital by bus, later on from the press and people who were present during formal identification.” Svetlana Gubareva
It isn’t wholly inaccurate to say that terrorism killed Nina Milovidova, Sasha Gubareva and the other 127 victims. But terrorists didn’t. A Kremlin investigation into the hostages’ deaths has been quietly shelved. The gassing and subsequent storming of the Dubrovka theatre was a success: all the terrorists were killed there and then. And it was also a failure: by late on the 28th more than 100 hostages had died, directly or indirectly as a result of “terrorism”.
Compensation has been derisory: the coffins provided for the dead were so undersized that one victim’s mother broke one trying to bend her son’s rigid corpse into it. And that, in Russian life, would tend to be that, a country which, by official reckoning, suffered only 41 casualties from the Chernobyl disaster; a country where, 24 hours after the Kursk nuclear missile submarine sank with the loss of 118 lives, Mr Putin was photographed hosting a barbecue on holiday.When, subsequently, a mother of one of the men killed in the disaster shouted abuse at a senior minister on television, she was forcibly sedated. In Russia you don’t tend to respond to calamity by devoting four years of your life to pestering the government for answers.
But four years after the theatre siege a group of survivors and relatives called Nord Ost, has presented a case against the Russian Government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Crucial to its case is a book, published just in time for the St Petersburg G8 summit, also entitled Nord Ost: a 192-page volume of testimonies from survivors, relatives, ambulance drivers, doctors, journalists and anyone who witnessed the theatre seige. The book, although harrowing, doesn’t simply mourn the victims: it is a reconstruction. The testimonies, taken together, build a case against the Russian Government. Even five years ago, such a campaign was inconceivable.
Here are some of its grim highlights. Witnesses recall how, once the theatre was stormed, bodies were piled up on the pavement outside, before being loaded into ordinary buses — the living, in the instance of one 13-year-old girl, crushed to death beneath the dead. It quotes an ambulance driver, Dmitri, who watched as medically untrained and panic-stricken policemen haphazardly injected survivors, sometimes repeatedly, with antidote; how, in other cases, lack of antidote and plain ignorance led to others being left to die on hospital floors. Several witnesses describe seeing hostages emerge from the building, their skin sickly green and blue. They conjecture that acutely sick former hostages were prematurely discharged from hospital so as not to create a scandal, and that their medical documents were falsified. Survivors describe their ensuing and still unexplained kidney, heart, breathing and memory problems. One woman, four months pregnant at the time of the crisis, later gave birth to a disabled child: was there a connection? She wants to know.
The abiding impression is of the collapse of state competence in the face of a self-inflicted calamity. It’s thought that several hostages died of asphyxiation, having been left on their backs on the pavement. If the Russian Government had wanted to broadcast the statement “The destruction of our enemies is more important than the protection our citizens”, it could not have done so more clearly.
Naturally the viewpoint of most contributors to the book is skewed against the Government. After a while the reader begins to hunger for the other side of the story — and yet there isn’t one. Three weeks after The Times contacted the Kremlin for a response there has been only silence. A member of the British Embassy staff in Moscow who witnessed the evacuation scene at first hand told me: “The security services made a very calculated decision to pump that building full of synthetic narcotic morphine. But there was simply no preparation for what would happen next: there was no fleet of ambulances; none of the hospitals had been notified; bodies, alive and dead, were being dragged along the street by their hands, there were grazes on their backs from this. Many people died needlessly. It was botched. In a country like Britain there is no doubt in my mind that it would have brought down the government.”
“The hostages were already lying on the floor outside the theatre. There was a box of syringes and antidote capsules. Some man cried out, ‘Begin injecting!’ We began opening up packaging and collecting syringes. Injections were given to hostages both by those who knew and who did not know how to give them: special forces soldiers, city rescue workers, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) soldiers, even militiamen from the cordon. Nobody took notes about injections administered: two, three injections were given. And these are lethal doses. The chaos was unimaginable.”
In a run-down café in a Moscow suburb I meet Tatiana Karpova, her enormous squat frame wedged between those of her two sons, Nick and Ivan, who sit like respectful bouncers on either side of their mother while she talks and smokes and jabs the smouldering point of her slimline cigarette into the air for emphasis. Her third son, Sasha, died during the theatre siege, or so she thought until she somehow she got her hands on a note written by the driver of the ambulance in which Sasha had died. It read: Time of Death: 12.45pm. Place of Death: This ambulance. “Seven hours after the theatre was stormed,” she rages angrily at me. “And this is what they call a ‘brilliant military operation’.”
Karpova used to be a teacher and one can well imagine the effect her fierce rhetoric might have had on her students. Now, as the driving force behind Nord Ost, the woman who personally collated the information in the booklet, scraped together the money to have it published and then had it delivered to each of the G8 embassies, she is an intimidating, uninterruptible presence, even, one guesses, to the officials who tell her to wind up her peaceful demonstrations or try to talk her out of publishing controversial booklets.
She tells me that Sasha was a talented musician, the translator of the musical Chicago into Russian, and how, on hearing of his death, the American Embassy sent a letter of condolence and how she received nothing from her own Government. “Between 1998 and 2006 there have been 16 terrorist acts and after every terrorist act the government tries to cover it up,” she says. “They hoped the same would happen after Nord Ost. They didn’t expect that the people would be brought together by this tragedy.”
But in post-Soviet Russia that is just what happened. And these were people reeling from a whole series of events, not just Nord Ost. Karpova’s organisation now includes survivors of all sorts of tragedies of the old Soviet Union: the explosion in a group of Moscow flats in 1999; another bomb attack, this time in the Moscow Underground in 2004; when Chechen terrorists bribed their way on to two planes at a Moscow airport before blowing them up, Karpova was there; Beslan; even the families of soldiers killed through maltreatment in Russia’s armed forces are in touch with Karpova.
Last month she attended the second anniversary of the crash of one of the planes and flew out to Beslan to mark the second anniversary of the tragedy. Next month she is organising a memorial ceremony at Dubrovka. “Normal people are supporting us,” she says proudly. “The Government doesn’t understand. They are rich, they don’t understand us poor. Dubrovka wasn’t an operation to save hostages. It was an operation to save the reputation of the state. Many people don’t realise that the state is actively keeping secrets. You have to understand that when you lose your family and nobody says anything, you want to die. A lot of people just wanted to die. They got no support, nothing.”
Under her arm Karpova carries a lever arch file with the medical histories of 34 former hostages: 14 of them are now categorised as invalids. She can’t know everything, she says. Of course there are people who wanted to put the past behind them. And she doesn’t know for sure if there’s a correlation between that gas and what’s happened to these invalids, but they’re sick nonetheless, with kidney problems and memory loss. Karpova has obtained 117 of the official post-mortem reports: 68 of these contain the phrase “No medical help given”. Another 12 of the survivors have totally or partially lost their hearing. Why?
“The attendants seized the dead body by its hands and legs and carried it to a special room. I saw how this young woman, thought to be dead, waggled her head. ‘She’s alive!’ said a male nurse, crossing himself.” Yuri Snegiryov
A day later, in another run-down Moscow café, Alexander Shalmov turns up to meet me. He wears a pinstripe suit, although since the siege he is practically unemployable. Shulmov miraculously survived the siege with both his son and wife, but he is not well. “I do not feel like a father,” he says. “I feel like a ghost.” Perhaps the most terrifying part of what Shalmov has to say is about what he experienced when he first came to after the siege. His theory is that there were two gases pumped into the building. “I remember a strange atmosphere for several hours before we were knocked out,” he says. “I think we must have been sedated because there was a feeling of nobody being afraid. Then I remember seeing what looked like dust coming through the air vents. I remember trying to cover my son’s nose and mouth with cloth, nothing more.”
Alexander was unconscious for 15 hours. When he came to the first thing he saw was a clock on the wall. He became aware of an overwhelming animal terror. “I’ve been put under general anaesthetic before and I know how it feels to come out of that: a sort of joyful feeling and an urge to talk. This was absolutely different. I was shaking so hard that I felt people holding me so that I wouldn’t fall off the bed. My body was shaking so hard that it was impossible for me to even say my own name. Somebody gave me an injection which must have been a sedative because I became unconscious. But I was so disorientated I could only just make out human forms. I couldn’t tell whether the person who was giving me the injection was a man or a woman.”
Relieved to have survived the ordeal, Shulmov carried on with his life. Three months later began a series of health problems, mostly related to his kidneys and heart. Since the siege he has spent a month in hospital every year. His greatest dilemma is whether to use his dwindling financial resources to pay for a heart operation or to bribe the authorities not to conscript his son. Alexander worries that in the army his son will suffer a nervous breakdown.
“In the theatre a group of us had a long conversation. Either way, we thought were going to die,” says Shulmov. “We knew that we were going to be killed: either by the people inside the theatre, or by the people outside, the Government. Our Government would never think about saving a life: everyone, the ordinary people, knows that. The Government has a separate existence.”
“State security representatives were already waiting for us. They said that if we wanted to bury her quickly and without any problems, we should not ask unnecessary questions. I agreed. According to protocol, she died in the theatre. But as we learned later, she died in hospital because she was not given any medical help.”
Tomorrow sees the premiere of a play about the siege. Banned from Moscow (as is a film commemorating the events), the play has come to London. Natalia Pelevine wrote In Your Hands after conversations with survivors. For the campaigners, one or two of whom will be in the audience in the New End Theatre in Hampstead, this is a huge moment, an acknowledgement of their efforts and perhaps another step towards embarrassing their Government into a proper investigation.
Is it enough? Zoya Chernetsova is not sure. I met Zoya in Moscow, her face a concentrated frown of grief. Her son Danila had been killed in the siege, three months after his wedding. She explained how her daughter-in-law, pregnant at the time, lost the child; how she met Olga at the graveyard where her son is buried. The two mothers struck up a friendship, a friendship cemented by a determination to uncover the truth.
Zoya says: “We don’t forget despite our Government’s best efforts. The Government has tried to forget the tragedy and whitewash the memory. I have waited four years to get this far. Time is nothing to me: my life is over. I can wait another ten years, twenty. I want to see the Government understand what they have done: they are guilty.”
If an opiate like fentanyl was used in the theatre its effects would include respiratory depression, which could lead to death. Fatalities occurring at the time, or in the immediate aftermath, were almost definitely caused by the agent used. A cut-off of two to four weeks would be my guess for exposure-related death, unless the patient was in hospital for the whole time.
For the size of space in the theatre it is likely that a similar but more potent opiate than fentanyl could have been used. Again, too much of such a drug would cause a fatal suppression of breathing. The after-effects in survivors could include brain damage due to lack of oxygen. At smaller doses this might cause intellectual and memory loss, with a mixture of intellectual and motor impairment in severe cases. If there is not a spectrum of these effects, depending on the degree of acute damage, this is very unlikely to be the explanation for the reported impairment of higher brain function.
There are reports of a period of mood change in the audience, preceding the end of the siege. It seems likely therefore that some attempt at pre-treatment was used. The agent causing death could have been one of a number of chemicals.
Small pupils are a feature of nerve agent and opiate poisoning, and this may have caused some confusion. Nerve agents kill quickly, and have a clear set of symptoms, such as excess salivation, abdominal cramps and blurred vision.