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 inquiry were stopped by forces loyal to the government.) So far, in fact, efforts by the authorities to resolve lingering questions about the storming of the theater have often ended up raising new ones. At a press conference five days after the storming, an expert from the FSB made an elaborate visual-aids presentation that described the enormous quantity of explosives, equivalent to about 253 pounds of TNT, that the terrorists had placed around the theater. But when a journalist asked why the terrorists failed to set off their bombs even though the gas took several minutes to take effect, the expert could only say: “It is hard for me to answer that question.”

On the day of the storming, official sources claimed that fifty terrorists had been killed. A few days later the figure suddenly dropped to forty-one. What happened to the other nine? Were some of them, perhaps, hostages mistakenly regarded as hostage-takers and treated accordingly? Originally, official sources said that two of the terrorists were captured alive (and members of a television crew claim to have witnessed someone being taken into custody by authorities shortly after the building was stormed). Now the authorities say that all the terrorists were shot. Since the bodies of the terrorists have been secretly disposed of, we may never know how many there were, or in what manner they died. The various discrepancies in official accounts cannot be satisfactorily investigated or resolved. Oddly, and a bit suspiciously, not a single terrorist was left alive for intelligence purposes.

This sort of confusion on the part of the Putin administration has been typical. Throughout the crisis and its aftermath, official information policy has ranged from conspiratorial reticence to clumsy obfuscation to outright lying. Vladimir Vasiliev, the deputy minister of internal affairs, declared in the first hours after the storming that sixty-seven hostages had been killed during the assault on the theater—and that not a single one of them had been a casualty of the “special means” used to neutralize the people inside the building. Only days later, indeed, were the authorities even willing to concede that the “special means” used had been gas, and it was only four days after the special forces raid that the minister of health finally explained that the gas was “based” on fentanyl. Despite the admission that a volatile and potentially lethal gas had been dispersed throughout the theater building, other officials persisted for days in blaming the casualties among the hostages on their poor state of health after their fifty-eight hours in captivity rather than on the gas itself. (Among the motives for this campaign of disinformation, aside from the fear of the negative effects on public opinion, was nervousness about the international implications of using gas, which is regulated by the Chemical Weapons Convention.1 )


Coverage of the crisis by the government press and television also treated us to an ominous reprise of Soviet-style propaganda tactics aimed at discrediting the enemy. Shortly after the assault on the theater, state-run TV began airing footage of the dead terrorist leader, Movsar Barayev, lying in a pool of blood; an intact cognac bottle, nearly full and visibly dusty, was shown next to his extended hand. Viewers were informed that the terrorists, “so-called Muslims,” had actually whiled away the hours in the theater drinking booze and injecting drugs; the theater was said to be littered with syringes, which were never shown.2


And yet, however hard it may be for outsiders to comprehend, President Putin has emerged from the recent events stronger than ever. The hostage crisis gave him an opportunity to replay one of the most dramatic moments in his political career. In the fall of 1999, a series of mysterious terrorist attacks killed more than three hundred people in Moscow and other Russian cities. The government placed the blame squarely on the Chechens, and Putin, who was then prime minister, retaliated by sending the army back into Chechnya, which had had a three-year interlude of de facto independence following the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996.

It is true that the reign of the separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov (chosen in a 1997 election that even the Russians recognized as fair), was marked by criminal anarchy, hopelessly negligent administration, and the growth of dark Islamist aspirations. Putin argued that there could be no consolidation of central authority in Russia unless Chechnya were restored to Moscow’s control. At the time, in late 1999, there was support for this position even among some Chechens, who were sick of the Maskhadov chaos. The hopeless ineptitude of Maskhadov’s rule had left the hard-line separatists and Islamic adventurers isolated. For many ordinary Chechens, sacrificing the symbolic benefits of self-rule seemed a small price to pay in return for the promised restoration of electric power and functioning schools—assuming that Moscow rule would be accompanied by a measure of civility. In Russia at large, Putin’s unyielding position on the Chechnya question, and the earthy language in which he couched it, made him hugely popular among people of all persuasions, who contrasted his forcefulness and brutal clarity with the muddle and chaos of the Yeltsin years.

During the hostage crisis Putin invoked the terrorist attacks of 1999 to explain why he refused to negotiate with the hostage-takers: “The criminals, of course, are provoking us to introduce the same order in the country as they once imposed in the Chechen republic. We will not give in to this provocation.” It was clear from the first that he would not agree to the primary demand of the hostage-takers that Moscow declare an end to the war and begin a troop withdrawal. Had he done so, indeed, he would have surrendered the principle on which he had based his political career.

Now Russians have awarded Putin with some of the highest popularity ratings he’s ever had. In one poll following the storming of the theater, 85 percent approved of Putin’s handling of the crisis. According to another survey, his personal approval rating was as high as 77 percent. Interestingly, 35 percent in one of the polls blamed the crisis on the security services, which had somehow managed to allow dozens of heavily armed terrorists to invade a building just under three miles from the Kremlin. (Some 45 percent blamed the terrorists themselves.)

This result partly reflects a widespread assumption that, had the gas not been used, the terrorists, with their large quantities of explosives, might have succeeded in blowing up everyone inside, as they had threatened to do from the outset. But in judging the appropriateness of the Putin administration’s response to this threat one should emphasize that the use of gas evidently left the terrorists capable of setting off their explosives. Putin’s officials may have succeeded in deflecting blame from the President by insisting that he had ceded the decision to use the gas to the security service official who was in charge of the operation. In such reactions one can discern a specifically Russian tradition of mystical authoritarianism, where the supreme leader is viewed as a kind of infallible god on earth while all earthly faults adhere to his subordinates—a thought neatly expressed in a proverb that one hears more frequently of late: Tsar khorosh, boyary plokhi—“the Tsar is good, the aristocrats are bad.”


Of course, it is easy to be a good tsar when the only criticisms of your conduct do not get a wide hearing, and that is exactly what is happening in Russia today. If anything, this latest crisis is already giving a huge boost to the tide of authoritarianism that has intensified under Putin’s rule, in reaction to the perceived permissiveness of the Yeltsin era. To be sure, during the crisis it was possible to encounter courageous criticisms of the President and his cronies in a few independent newspapers, on the Internet, and in the broadcasts of the almost heroically outspoken independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. One of the station’s commentators harshly criticized Putin for failing to say or do anything about the crisis for several long hours after it began. Still, such critical voices are beginning to look increasingly beleaguered and they have limited reach outside Moscow. Just a few days after the theater was stormed, Russian lawmakers approved new limitations on press reporting of situations related to terrorism—situations defined so broadly that the restrictions can be applied largely as the government dictates.

Naturally, in the several cases when the government intervened to restrict press coverage during the crisis, it always said it did so out of concern for the security of the hostages.3 As the press ministry argued at one point, legitimately enough, “Saving people is more important than society’s right to information.” But, as became dramatically clear in the aftermath of the storming, the Kremlin’s attempts to control the press were not entirely motivated by concerns about the safety of the hostages. Nor does the desire for curbs on the press originate solely in the Kremlin. When a group of parliamentary deputies met with Putin the day before the storming, they apparently surprised him by pressing him to reintroduce censorship.


It is likely that the most enduring consequence of the hostage crisis and its grim outcome will be a highly emotional climate, in which war against Chechen rebels and their Muslim supporters will have wide support. The terrorists4 may have died without seeing their demands fulfilled, and yet on one count they succeeded dramatically. Before October 23, when they took over the theater, the war in Chechnya was an oddly nebulous affair—a war that was never officially declared, and then was declared over, but went on. For years now Putin and his generals have been claiming that the “military phase” of the conflict ended long ago, even though Russian soldiers have been dying in the republic at the steady rate of two or three per day. But strict government censorship of war coverage has helped to sustain the myth of a low-intensity police action on the distant margins of national awareness.

Now the hostage-takers have shattered that fiction. They picked as their target a theater in the center of Moscow that had been showing a hugely popular “home-grown” Russian musical, a naive recycling of a Soviet children’s book about Arctic explorers that has long been beloved for its patriotism. During the siege they transformed the theater, rhetorically and physically, into the same sort of urban battleground they knew so well from home—complete with boobytraps and Islamist kamikaze slogans. When negotiators begged the hostage-takers, who included about ten women, to release some of the teenage children in the theater, the Chechens responded that they considered anyone over the age of twelve an adult—not least because male teenagers in Chechnya are sometime victims of the brutal security sweeps, conducted by Russian troops, that often end in the disappearance or death of those detained and that have done so much to stimulate implacable hatred of the Russians among the Chechen population. The imagery of the siege has left a lasting impact. Again and again, during the crisis, I heard Russians wondering aloud what sort of atrocities their troops must have committed to drive the young women among the hostage-takers to take such a desperate action.

In a less polarized atmosphere, such thoughts might lead to a critical reappraisal of policy. The reality, unfortunately, is that the hostage-taking has sharply intensified the traditional hatred between Russians and Chechens—measured most dramatically, perhaps, by the despair of Anna Politkovskaya, the remarkable Russian journalist who has received countless inter- national awards for her brave coverage of the war, mainly for the Russian biweekly Novaya Gazeta, and who negotiated with the hostage-takers in the final hours before the storming of the theater. In the days after the crisis she published an essay criticizing members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow and elsewhere for their conspicuous failure to condemn the hostage-takers.

Ironically, Putin’s post-crisis popularity could easily enable him to start negotiations from a position of strength. But the depth of popular revulsion against Chechens has almost certainly wiped out any possibility that the government would conduct talks—direct or indirect—with the leaders of the rebels, a position forcefully re-iterated by Putin recently.5 These days the Russian–Chechen conflict is looking more and more like a reprise of the Middle East—two peoples fatally locked in a savage spiral of vendetta and reprisal.

And, as in the Middle East, this situation is charged with larger regional implications. Putin has repeatedly criticized the government of Georgia, which borders on Chechnya, for harboring some of the guerrillas; following the crisis Putin stressed that his government was prepared to retaliate against any terrorists who might attack Russia “no matter where they might be located.”6 No one disputes that there are plenty of contacts—organizational and financial—between the rebels and the worldwide “mujahideen establishment.” But these contacts were minimal before the Russian military intervention in the mid-1990s; the savage Russian treatment of the Chechen civilian population since 1999 has only served to drive previously moderate or apathetic Chechens into collaboration with the hard-liners, who have themselves treated Russian prisoners brutally.7 The core of the conflict in Chechnya is still a nativist revolt against the legacy of Russian imperial rule, and it can be solved only by addressing the specific political problems of Russian domination underlying the conflict.

Unfortunately, part of Putin’s larger dilemma is that there is no one to negotiate with effectively even if he suddenly decided he wanted to. The feudal and fractious nature of Chechen society, compounded by the Russians’ complete destruction of whatever rudimentary civil institutions once existed in the republic, now makes it almost impossible to find negotiating partners who could deliver on any promises they make. Even if Maskhadov had not been discredited by his ties to the international terrorist networks, his control over the various rebel forces is too tenuous—probably even more than it was in the chaotic days of 1996–1999. The solutions that remain are either politically impracticable—such as the creation of a Kosovo-style “international protectorate” while maintaining Moscow’s nominal sovereignty—or too grim to contemplate. And that, unfortunately, makes it easy to imagine that the October hostage-taking won’t be the last terrorist act of this scale to be carried out on Russian soil. Except that, next time around, the Chechen suicide fighters probably won’t start off by taking prisoners and proposing negotiations.

—November 20, 2002

This Issue

December 19, 2002