The Moscow Theater Siege
November 6, 2002

Maria Tomchick

Now that Vladimir Putin has gassed his own people, we can expect the Bush administration to start bombing Moscow any minute, right?

Wrong. The speed with which the Bush administration and the US press have accepted the explanations of Putin and the Russian military for the deaths of 119 hostages in the raid on a Moscow theater is appalling. The spread of lies and justifications has been breathtaking.

The first lie that deserves to be shot down immediately is that the Russian military pumped gas into the theater in a desperate attempt to knock out the Chechen rebels because they had already begun to shoot hostages.

In fact, only two people had been shot. At 2 AM on the morning of October 26, one of the male hostages cracked under pressure and tried to attack an armed Chechen woman; he was shot in the eye and another hostage was seriously wounded. Both were carried out of the theater at around 2:30 AM to the waiting arms of the Russian military. At that point, the military must have known what happened and that the Chechens had not begun to summarily execute the hostages. After all, it wasn't until 5:30 AM--three hours later--that the military began to pump gas into the building. The elaborate raid had been planned well ahead of time, with the military conducting a rehearsal the day before on another theater building in Moscow.

Another lie that needs to be refuted is that the effects of the gas came as a total surprise to the Russian military planners. In fact, Fentanyl is a calmative agent that has been tested by other nations for use in riot control, and it has been abandoned by many countries because of its potential lethality (although the US Department of Justice continues to do research on similar opiate gases, with funding from the Pentagon). Research on opiate gases like Fentanyl is highly controversial, with many experts asserting that opiate gases should be banned under the International Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention permits only the use of gases whose effects wear off in a short time period. The fact that 145 people are still in intensive care in the hospital--many on respirators and dialysis machines because they have no lung or kidney function--is testament to that fact.

Now, Russian military planners have argued that they needed to do something to save the lives of the 750 people held hostage in the theater. The Chechens were armed and had explosives strapped to their bodies and other bombs planted inside the building. It was important to knock them out to prevent them from using the explosives to destroy themselves, the hostages, and the military personnel surrounding the theater.

Okay, but what about negotiation? The Chechens had already released some hostages, including all the children in the theater. Some of the surviving hostages described their Chechen captors as "polite," passing out water to the hostages and saying "if you please" and "you're welcome." One Chechen woman sought to reassure the captives by saying that they would all soon be allowed to leave, while the Chechens themselves would have to stay and die blowing up the building. One Chechen woman captor was so frightened of her own impending death that she often forgot to point her gun at the hostages and spent all of her time praying to God. Many of the hostages learned the names of the their captors and engaged in conversation with them. Meanwhile the Chechens continued to negotiate over the phone with the Russian military up until the hour that the gas was pumped into the building. Even when it became apparent that a raid was under way, the Chechens who didn't fall immediate prey to the gas decided not to detonate their bombs. And, yes, some of them wore gas masks.

The biggest lie of all is the important question that's never been asked: why were the Chechens in the theater in the first place? The US is happy to believe Vladimir Putin's assertion that they were just Muslim terrorists trying to kill lots of people.

While Chechnya is a largely Muslim nation, it's not a fundamentalist nation along the lines of the Taliban. The women soldiers in the theater were clear evidence of that. In fact, the Chechens are rebel combatants fighting a war for independence.

If we visit the Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch websites and look up "Chechnya," we can read all about what the Russian military and President Putin have been doing to that little republic for the past three years. Right now human rights workers are busy unearthing mass graves near former Russian military command posts. These graves are filled with suspected Chechen rebels and suspected civilian "collaborators," whose bodies show signs of torture, beating, and execution without trial. As I write this, the Russian military is sweeping through Chechen towns and villages, scooping up all the men for "questioning." Undoubtedly, a certain number of those men will disappear, only to be dug up later.

The war in Chechnya has been brutal. Civilians have been targeted, homes destroyed, whole communities displaced, and thousands of refugees driven out of their towns and into the mountains. The elected head of state of Chechnya has been branded a terrorist by Vladimir Putin and is now on a Russian military hit list.

Meanwhile, the whole international community has promised to ignore the human rights abuses in Chechnya in order to get access to Russia's markets and Russian oil and gas. The Bush administration, in particular, is using Chechnya as a bargaining chip to win Putin's support for a war in Iraq: you give us the okay to kill Iraqis, and you can have our okay to murder Chechens. That's why so many Chechens were in a Moscow theater with bombs strapped to they're bodies. They're desperate, because their agonies have been largely ignored or used for cynical political ends.

Here in the US, few reporters and press outlets have questioned Putin's use of gas or examined Russian human rights violations in Chechnya. It's easier, instead, to reprint Russian assertions that the Moscow theater siege was their September 11th, while overlooking how Russia's assault on Chechnya is similar to Saddam Hussein's repression of Kurdish rebels in Iraq. At the same time, our press lets the Bush administration off the hook. If our government wants to condemn Saddam Hussein as a torturer and mass murderer who has gassed his own people, then surely Vladimir Putin deserves a closer look, too.

As a relative of one of the hostages told a British reporter: "We have to start talking to the Chechens now. Russians want peace, not war. But Putin is from the KGB. He does not negotiate."

Meanwhile, Chechen rebel leaders have already vowed to stage more sieges in Moscow and other Russian cities. Continuing to ignore the problems that underlie these desperate acts is not only bad reporting, it's simply irresponsible journalism.


Some sources for this article: "Standoff in Moscow theater had horrific finale," Susan B. Glasser, Washington Post, reprinted in The Seattle Times, 10/27/02, A4; "The Survivors Dribble Out, All With a Story to Tell," Sabrina Tavernise and Sophia Kishkovsky, The New York Times (online), 10/27/02, ; "Hostage Toll in Russia Over 100; Nearly All Deaths Linked to Gas," Michael Wines, NYT (online), 10/27/02, ; "Moscow Gas Appears to Be Opiate, US Says," Jeanne Whalen and John J. Fialka and Marc Champion, Wall Street Journal (print), 10/29/02, A20; "Fresh questions over killer gas," BBC (online), 10/31/02, ; "Q&A: What is Fentanyl?" BBC (online), 10/31/02, ; "Doctors: Immediate Aid Could Have Saved Lives," Moscow Times (online), 11/1/02, ; and "US Agency Set to Issue Report On Nonlethal-Weapon Science," John J. Fialka and Marilyn Chase, WSJ (print), 11/1/02, B2.