Daily Archives: October 23, 2007

Annals of Closet Skeletons: Putin’s Secret Outrage at Dubrokva

The Moscow Times reports on yet another skeleton in “President” Vladimir Putin’s closet, yet another facet of the neo-Soviet horror of Dubrovka:

When Svetlana Gubareva woke up in the intensive care ward of a Moscow hospital, one of the first things she heard was President Vladimir Putin offering condolences to the families of the 129 hostages who died in the Dubrovka theater. Gubareva wondered what had happened to her fiance, a U.S. citizen, and 13-year-old daughter, who like herself was from Kazakhstan. But Putin did not utter a word about the foreign victims of the 56-hour stand-off, which began five years ago this Tuesday when 42 Chechen rebels stormed the theater in southeastern Moscow during a performance of the “Nord Ost” musical.

The omission would have been insignificant if it were not for the fact that it encapsulates the way that authorities have blithely ignored the foreigners taken hostage in the attack, refusing to assist them in any way or even offer them the small compensation handed out to Russian citizens, Gubareva and others said.

The government says 75 foreigners were among the 800 hostages. Nine foreigners died in the attack, including Gubareva’s daughter, Sasha Letyago, and her fiance, Sandy Booker, of Oklahoma City. No government representative broke the news to Gubareva. While in the hospital, she found out from media reports that they had died. Still later, she learned from media reports and people who had helped identify her daughter’s body that the girl had been crushed to death as she was sent by bus to the hospital under a pile of unconscious bodies.

Gubareva said she struggled alone after losing the two. No assistance came from Russian authorities, her hometown of Karaganda or the Kazakh steel mill where she worked. Hundreds of sympathetic letters, however, poured into her mailbox from the United States, offering much-needed support, she said. “They were my psychotherapists because I did not have any professionals nearby and did not know how to go on,” she said in a telephone interview from Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The only financial assistance came from a Pennsylvania-based foundation set up by U.S. citizen Andrew Mogilyansky to help terrorism victims.

Gubareva said her life was filled with joy in the months before Dubrovka. She met Booker, a 49-year-old electrical engineer, through a friend, and after many e-mails and telephone calls made plans to fly with her daughter to Oklahoma City to live there permanently as a family. An interview at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow went well, and she was told she and her daughter would get visas. To celebrate, Gubareva, her daughter and Booker went to watch “Nord Ost” on the night of Oct. 23, a Wednesday. The second act of the musical had just begun with “The Dance of the Pilots” when a masked man charged onto the stage, shooting an automatic rifle in the air. “I thought at first that it was a bad joke, but Sandy immediately understood what was going on,” Gubareva said. She saw a group of men with assault rifles drive the actors off the stage and force musicians from the orchestra pit and ushers into the audience. Booker cautioned the two to keep their heads down if shooting broke out. He prayed a lot, but at times he looked as if he had accepted the possibility that he would not make it out of the theater alive, Gubareva said.

Rebel leader Movsar Barayev told the hostages from the start that the attack was part of the battle over Chechnya and that the rebels had no grudge against foreigners. He promised to release anyone who showed a foreign passport. Government negotiators, however, were reluctant to accept the offer to release the foreigners, saying they wanted women and children to be freed first. “Furthermore, we insist that everybody be released, without any distinction between foreigners and Russians,” FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said Oct. 25, the third day of the crisis, RIA-Novosti reported. Gubareva, her daughter and Booker had no passports to show anyway. Booker had left his passport back at the hotel, while Gubareva’s and her daughter’s passports were at the U.S. Embassy awaiting visas. Booker, however, had his Oklahoma driver’s license, and he handed it over to Barayev, Gubareva said. Barayev apparently had never seen one before and he examined it carefully. He did not let Booker or anyone else out that first night. “We won’t let you go today, only tomorrow. I do not want your own people to shoot you and say later that we killed you. That’s what happened at Budyonnovsk,” he said, according to Gubareva.

In June 1995, Chechen rebels seized a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, taking more than 1,500 people hostage. More than 100 civilians died in the standoff.

Gubareva said she feared for her daughter’s life from the very beginning. When Sasha asked permission to go to the theater’s restroom, she had to cross the foyer, putting her in the sights of Chechen gunmen who were covering the exits. Later, so many people were demanding to visit the restroom that the attackers ordered them to use the orchestra pit instead. The stench slowly made its way through the theater, Gubareva said, but a broken window in the foyer provided some relief. The captors freed 15 children under the age of 12 in the first hours of the siege, but Sasha, at 13, was too old. The girl soon grew hungry and thirsty, Gubareva said. The attackers brought some food from the theater snack bars and distributed it among the hostages. They also brought along a box of cash and asked the hostages, “Who needs money?”

“We all remained silent, and they threw the box on the floor,” Gubareva said. She said she later saw the money in the orchestra pit, used and discarded as toilet paper. Gubareva said she was too scared to eat but was very thirsty. Bottles of Fanta, Cola-Cola and mineral water from the snack bars ran out quickly, and hostages were offered tap water from the restroom. The problem was solved on the third day, Oct. 25, when investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya convinced the attackers to allow the delivery of water canisters, Gubareva said. Politkovskaya, who was murdered last year, had rushed to Moscow from an awards ceremony in Los Angeles when the captors indicated that they would like her to act as a mediator. In the theater, all the hostages avoided sitting next to an enormous bomb placed in the ninth row, leaving a large circle of empty seats around it, Gubareva said. A female suicide bomber told Gubareva that it was “stupid behavior.”

“The bomb will not hurt some people more than others. There’s enough here to destroy three buildings.” she said. Gubareva said she saw a mother with children in the theater’s balcony. The children were released, but the mother was told to stay. “I saw her crying and begging Barayev: “Yassir, they are little. They do not know their way in the city, and they will get lost.” The hostages addressed Barayev as “Yassir,” a polite form of address, after hearing the other captors address him this way, Gubareva said. Barayev finally let the woman leave with her children, she said. The captors did not allow loud conversation or movements around the hall, so the theater was eerily quiet except for the shooting, she said. The Chechens shot at the doorways every time they heard a rustle outside. At one point, a young man near the back row got up and started to jump over the backs of the seats, and shots were fired directly into the hall, wounding a woman. Her husband’s shriek at the moment she was shot was terrifying, Gubareva said. He was crying, “Liza, my daughter, they have killed Mommy!” But the woman was alive, and a female hostage with a relative in the Red Cross was given back her cell phone to ask a doctor to visit. “It was an accident, and as far as I know they did not kill any hostages on purpose,” Gubareva said.

About seven hours after seizing the theater, the rebels did kill a 26-year-old Moscow woman who had somehow entered the theater. On the last night of the siege, Oct. 25, Barayev ordered the rebels to separate the Russian and foreign hostages into two groups. A total of 75 were counted as foreigners, and since Gubareva’s documents were at the U.S. Embassy, she and her daughter were initially identified as Americans. “They gave Sandy a phone so that he could call the American Embassy and get them to send a representative from the embassy the next day,” Gubareva said. An agreement was finally made with the U.S. and Kazakh embassies for their release at 8 a.m. on Oct. 26, she said.

Gubareva recalled Barayev announcing to the hostages that negotiations would finally begin at 10 or 11 a.m. on Oct. 26. “He said that everyone could relax until then, because there would be no assault until negotiations began,” she said. The hostages settled down to sleep, Gubareva said. The last time she saw her daughter and Booker was at 3:20 a.m. “They were asleep in each other’s arms,” she said. Gubareva also fell asleep, only to wake up in the intensive care ward at Hospital No. 7. All the hostages and rebels fell unconscious at around 5:30 a.m. when special forces pumped a mysterious gas into the theater and then stormed it. The gas knocked out the attackers and the hostages without a shot being fired or a bomb detonating.

A U.S. Embassy representative officially notified Gubareva about Booker’s death two days later, on Oct. 28. When she went to the morgue to identify him the next day, doctors told her that he had died after not being treated for complications from the gas. Gubareva — and many other former hostages and their relatives — firmly believe that many lives could have been saved if the rescue effort had been better prepared. “We insist that there was a real mess when the dead bodies were being transported to hospitals, with live people mixed with dead bodies to die with no medical assistance,” said Tatyana Karpova, head of Nord Ost, a nongovernmental organization. Her son died in the attack. She said a state investigation into the death found that a contributing factor was “the absence of a specific antidote to the substance that was used” to gas the theater. Prosecutors, however, decided not to bring charges against health-care workers or special service officers, despite complaints filed by relatives.

In a decision made almost a year after the attack, prosecutors concluded that the deaths were “caused by a combination of unfavorable factors that were dangerous to life and health … and by respiratory disorders caused by the action of the unidentified chemical substance.” The decision also blamed the attackers, saying, “They refused to release children and foreigners as they had previously agreed to.” The decision was not immediately released to the public, and Gubareva and the other relatives only obtained access to it through a court order. Gubareva said the attackers did not break any agreements. Her conclusion is at least partially supported by Kazakhstan’s former ambassador to Russia, Altynbek Sarsenbayev. “We agreed that the release of the Kazakh citizens would be at 8 in the morning, but we did not know that there would be an assault that night,” he said on the Kazakh television program “The Condition of KZ” on Oct. 26, 2003. Gubareva lost a final appeal to open a criminal case into the rescue operation in 2005. The court also refused to compensate her for the loss of her daughter. “I do not know why the court refused all the applications of foreigners,” said Igor Trunov, the lawyer for Gubareva and three other foreigners who lost relatives.

Most Russian citizens accepted small government-ordered compensations, said Karpova, who lost her son. She said she was offered 615 rubles (about $25) a month but refused to take it. “The amount was just insulting,” she said. Booker’s relatives did not want to seek legal action in Russia, Gubareva said. Some relatives, however, have turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is now considering their appeal. Karpova said she had received a copy of the Russian government’s reply to an inquiry from Strasbourg. “They say that everything was done just fine and everyone who needed help got it,” Karpova said.

She is sure, however, that the court will not agree.

Gubareva plans to commemorate her daughter’s death this Oct. 26 as she does almost every year — at her graveside in Moscow’s Troyekurovskoye Cemetery. Politkovskaya is buried not far away. “She always dreamed about living in this city. That’s why I buried her there, not in Karaganda,” Gubareva said. She has never visited Booker’s grave, however.

She said the United States is too far away.

EDITORIAL: Speculating about Darwinian Russia


Speculating about Darwinian Russia

An interesting article appeared last week the the Economist magazine. It reported a theory attempting to explain why women dominate men in the lifespan contest — which could arguably be the most important single contest human beings ever wage.

The theory, advanced by Tim Clutton-Brock of Cambridge University and Kavita Isvaran of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengalooru based on some research studies among birds, is that Darwinian evolution selects men for their ability to attract women. Since this ability is largely based, because of men’s inherently violent nature, on physical confrontations that, at least in the distant past, often led to fatalities, evolution found no use for the capacity for long lives among men (they’d be killed off fighting over women anyway, so what would be the point). Instead, evolution vested them with the ability to collect women by possessing such things as “antlers, aggression and alloy wheels” and, having done so, to live long enough for a few key breeding seasons before perishing. With no such obligations, women could focus on longevity, and have done so to great effect. The study found that in certain species where competition over females does not occur and monogamy is the rule, the difference in lifespan between male and female was far less pronounced.

In another article, which we publish today, the Economist asks what the affects of Stalin’s purges and famines, which murdered tens of millions, have been on the modern Russian man — an speculates that today’s Russian may have become genetically afraid (another word would be cowardly) as a result of such systematic attacks. There are two great ironies in such a theory. First, one of the most bizarre features of modern Russian life is the country’s xenophobia, now rendered totally irrational in this light (its own leaders have been far more dangerous to Russians than all the imperially-minded depots of other lands combined). Second, Russians routinely depict themselves as a heroic nation, bravely defending themselves against outside invaders. How is that to be squared with such craven cowardice towards their own rulers?

Note, too, that a vicious circle is created: Genetically cowardly Russians will not stand up to their rulers, who then, free from supervision, murder and torture even more brutally, giving rise to even more deep-seeded paranoia.

If one then reflects upon the Clutton-Brock–Bengalooru thesis, one can’t help notice that if Russia is viewed as an inherently violent society where mass murder is common, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the country’s average lifespan suffering in comparison to that of other countries — and Russian men, still beset by the standard need to compete for women, would receive a double whammy. This would explain, of course, why the average Russian man does not live to see his 60th year.

It’s another vicious circle. The more violent Russians allow their government and their society to be (today’s Russia has the fifth-highest murder rate in the whole world, and that’s based on the data the Kremlin will admit; Russia’s true rating could well be even higher), the less Darwinian evolution feels they need longevity. But the less longevity they have, the less time they have to make babies. A population-crushing vortex could result.

But under that thesis, evolution should vest Russians with extreme fertility. Russian should breed like rabbits in the short term, and Russian men should be particularly potent. Mother Nature always looks to achieve a balance. Yet what we actually see in Russia is the opposite, Russians are getting less and less interested in having babies, to the extent that the Kremlin has actually decided it needs to bribe them to do it.

Because the human brain is a very powerful thing, maybe even powerful enough to overcome evolution. Possible Russian parents look at the society into which they are being asked to bring children, and they balk. They ask themselves if it would be fair to bring children into a neo-Soviet state. They ask themselves if they want to take on an additional responsibility in a dog-eat-dog world where many don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Having a child is an optimistic act, and Russia, especially these days, is a fundamentally pessimistic place.

So even if they have the fertility bug, they choose not to use it.

And what if they don’t have it? Who says Darwian evolution is perfect? The dinosaurs went extinct, didn’t they?

Gulp. Maybe the Russians will too.

Neo-Soviet Fear (another word for cowardice): Is it Genetic?

The Economist says it just might be:

ONE of Russia’s most popular television shows is “Wait For Me”, a true-life tear-jerker that finds and reunites separated couples and families. Sometimes the stories it tells are run-of-the-mill melodramas that could have happened anywhere. But often they are tragically Russian, combining huge distances, lavish and indiscriminate cruelty and impenetrable bureaucracy: siblings separated 70 years ago when their parents were executed; lovers who lost one another in prison camps.

“Wait For Me” takes its name from the most famous Russian poem from the Soviet Union’s war with Germany. Konstantin Simonov, its author, was part of the first generation to grow up with the Soviet system’s mock classroom trials, playground games of “search and requisition”, and the “cult of struggle” inherited from the civil war. His aristocratic family was wrecked by the revolution; but like many children of undesirables, he disguised his background, transmuting the values he inherited into devout Stalinism.

Simonov wrote admiringly of the redemptive power of slave labour and the White Sea Canal, one of the gigantic Stalinist infrastructure projects built on the skeletons of prisoners. But it was “Wait for Me” that brought him fame, a dacha, foreign travel and the affections of the actress (herself hiding a tainted biography) to whom the poem had presumptuously been addressed. He copied Stalin’s pipe and moustache, and lent his voice to the dictator’s post-war anti-Semitic purges. The torture and exile of relatives did not dislodge his faith; nor did Stalin’s discombobulating death. Yet Simonov was also a brave war reporter, a generous friend and, eventually, conscience-stricken and remorseful.

His is the most prominent of the hundreds of lives described in “The Whisperers” by Orlando Figes, a professor of history at London University. The aim is to reconstruct “the inner world of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Stalin’s tyranny”: to resuscitate, using letters, diaries and interviews (gathered partly by the heroic human-rights group Memorial) the human beings buried beneath the headline death tolls that dominate understanding of Stalinism, as they do the Holocaust. With his dissimulation and compensating zeal, his accommodations and rationalisations, his mix of motives (careerism, but also fear and genuine belief) and his proximity to the suffering he nevertheless condoned, Simonov provides exemplary answers to the questions that weave through the book. How did people survive Stalinism? And why did they go along with it?

This is an exhausting, even numbing encyclopedia of woe—characters miraculously survive one cataclysm only to perish in the next—made bearable by the compassion its subjects show one another and Mr Figes’s own rigorously compassionate treatment of their compromises. For many readers, the section on the insane campaign against the kulaks (allegedly rich peasants) may be the most enlightening. It concentrates on the Golovin family from Obukhovo, a village renamed when the new serfdom of collectivisation arrived, the church bells taken away to be melted down as peasants ululate. Denounced by a drunk teenager, the Golovins are resettled a continent away in Augean conditions.

Also hitherto underchronicled is the grim struggle for housing in Stalin’s newly overcrowded cities, where people married, stayed together and denounced each other for a few precious square metres of floor. Mr Figes relates the squalor and spying that prevailed in the communalki—communal apartments designed to erode families as well as to economise on space— in which millions of Russians once lived and a few still do.

After deaths from overwork and starvation, there is the plain mass murder of the 1937-38 terror: the sleepless nights spent waiting for the knock on the door; the bags kept by the bed in readiness for arrest. Again, the motives of the informers are mixed: grudges and envy, but also fear and blackmail. “Enemies of the people” confess because of torture or a desire to protect families (often killed or exiled anyway); but also, sometimes, out of a conviction that conniving in their own deaths will help the Party.

Then there is the carnage and heroism of the war and the wartime hopes of a better life, soon extinguished by yet more famine and repressions. Finally, Stalin dies—and, as the poet Anna Akhmatova put it, two Russias confronted each other: “the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back”.

There are incredible reunions in this book, achieved through impossible stamina and ingenuity. But there are also homecomings as terrible in their way as exile: parents who finally reclaim children from orphanages, but live out their relationships in stigma and silence, for ever hoarding food and quailing before policemen. Husbands and wives remarry, thinking their spouses are dead. Sometimes those left behind remain true believers; sometimes it is the returnees who still are. Some hide their pasts from families for decades, as the authorities obfuscate and lie to cover up the extent of their crimes.

It is perhaps a failing—though a fitting one—that people sometimes get lost in this book, disconcertingly reappearing after long gaps, just as they reappeared in reality after alienating absences. Some of Mr Figes’s judgments are cursory. But this is a humbling monument to the evil and endurance of Russia’s Soviet past and, implicitly, a guide to its present.

He writes of the “genetic fear” that percolates through generations, and the need to believe in bad rulers because the alternative, believing in nothing, could be worse. “Either they were guilty”, Simonov says of Stalin’s victims, “or it was impossible to understand.” The terror, Mr Figes notes, “tore apart the moral ties that hold together a society.” It is still recovering.

China Renders Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway Obsolete

Paul Goble reports:

The expansion of China’s railroad network into the western portions of that country earlier this year means that those who want to ship goods between Europe and Asia are likely to use the quicker and cheaper Chinese route rather than Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, a Vladivostok newspaper has warned. In an article published last Friday, Vladivostok said that this new Eurasian land corridor will deliver massive quantities of goods 20 days quicker than the sea route and 10 days quicker than the Trans-Siberian and that shipping costs will be significantly lower as well.

The economic consequences for Russia’s railroads and ports are both immediately obvious and potentially large, the paper warned. But the article in the Russian Far Eastern daily was especially agitated about the psychological and geopolitical impact of this latest transportation development. On the one hand, the paper said, “if earlier [Russians] with pride could call [their country] the master of virtually the only real transportation corridor between Europe and Asia, then today, this geographic monopoly is obviously coming to an end.” That is all the more a matter of concern because of the extreme sensitivity of Chinese activities affecting the Russian Far East both there and in the Russian capital. (For the latest example, see yesterday’s “Noviy region” agency report about Chinese “seizure” of land in the Urals. And on the other, China’s use of this route, bypassing Siberia and the Russian Far East, will certainly affect both relations between Moscow and many Asian and European partners as well as between European Russia, whose railroads will still carry traffic originating in China, and Asiatic Russia, whose railroads won’t.

Not surprisingly, the paper blamed officials of the Russian railroads for raising prices significantly over the last few years, especially on longer runs. That disturbed many shippers, Vladivostok said, and made them especially open to the new Chinese possibilities.
More to the point, the paper concluded, “the market is the market,” and when sellers compete in terms of price and quality of service, the winner will not be the one with historical bragging rights but rather to those who can offer the best service and the best price, something China but not Russia can now do. Price changes on the Trans-Siberian are not the only ones affecting the Russian Federation’s transportation system at present. Over the past 15 years, prices for domestic Russian air travel have trebled, and they are set to go up another 20 percent or more by next spring. That has reduced the number of Russians who are able to travel from their home regions to other parts of the country, something that has the effect of undermining a sense of community among people living in parts of the country, for whom Moscow and other cities are now even more distant than they were before.

While many Russians continue to use domestic airlines, the percentage of the population doing so has fallen dramatically since Soviet times, when virtually everyone made use of Aeroflot’s heavily subsidized but extraordinarily extensive route system to move about the country. And as a result, one news agency has suggested, “it is the rare Russian [who] flies to the middle of the country” from its edges. And in some distant areas, flights either have been cancelled altogether or occur only when at irregular intervals the number of passengers reaches a certain percentage of the seats. For people living in European Russia, that is not a major problem: train travel there is not too time consuming or expensive, especially after Moscow decided last month to up its subsidies for passenger rail traffic. But the situation in Siberia and the Far East is very different. There travel by rail is enormously time-consuming or not possible, and travel by plane is out of the question for many Sibiryaki. As they travel back and forth to the center less often, they are likely to decide to move away from the Far East – something Moscow does not want – or focus on local identities – something the center also opposes.

Thus, quite below the radar screen, changes in transportation arrangements both around Russia and inside have taken place that are likely to have a far greater impact on the economy and polity of Russia than the far more public debates in advance of the parliamentary and presidential elections.

October 22, 2006 — Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: How We See It

(2) Putin and Kosovo

(3) Uh-oh: Here Comes Stalin

(4) Russian Internet Corruption: Pervasive and Demonic