Death in Moscow: The Aftermath

Vladimir Putin is a very lucky man. He lives in a country with a passive public, a weak and demoralized independent press, and a subservient political elite. All this helps to explain why he and his government have managed, with little apparent damage to their credibility or popularity, to avoid telling the Russian people exactly what happened during the disastrous rescue of the hostages from a Moscow theater three weeks ago.

Of the 128 hostages now declared dead, all but five were victims of the gas used to save them, a gas the precise composition of which has yet to be revealed and which has only been vaguely identified as “based” on fentanyl, an opium-derived anesthetic sometimes used in hospitals but apparently notorious among anesthesiologists for its volatility and its potentially lethal effects. Most of these 128 deaths occurred, it seems clear, because of the negligence of those involved in the rescue operation, including, particularly, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic successor of the KGB and the governmental body responsible for the operation to free the hostages.

Among myriad other lapses, many rescuers and medical doctors clearly knew nothing about the gas that had been used and were unable to make proper use of antidotes that the government claims to have made available for this purpose. Images of sick and dying former hostages, some dazed and some unconscious, being ferried to hospitals on schoolbuses with no medical attention whatever on board seemed to raise a host of questions that the Putin government would be obliged to answer.

And yet as I write, three weeks after the storming of the Dubrovka House of Culture, no satisfactory explanation has been given either by the FSB or Putin himself, and none appears to be forthcoming.

To be sure, it is the hostage-takers, their instigators, and their adherents who bear the primary moral responsibility for the ordeal imposed upon hundreds of entirely innocent civilians. But this does not mean, of course, that the Putin administration should not be held accountable for its negligence in bringing this ordeal to an end. About two dozen former hostages remain hospitalized, while hundreds of others who have already been discharged will undoubtedly suffer for years from the various physical and psychological side effects of their captivity and its startling denouement. (Nine members of the assaulting forces are also officially listed as injured by the gas.) Meanwhile, Moscow continues to be deluged by rumors—mainly circulating on Russian Web sites—of other former hostages who remain unaccounted for. Some accounts put their number as high as seventy-seven. If the final death toll rises above two hundred, perhaps more Russians will ask—as a few brave critics already have begun to do—whether the method used was really well chosen.

If Russians, and their press and television, had the will and the means to debate such anomalies, there would still be plenty of them to dwell on. (Attempts by liberal deputies in parliament to set up a commission of …

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