On February 14, 2011, the Moscow prosecutors have reversed the decision to close the criminal case into the Nord-Ost terrorist attack in October 2002, Igor Trunov, a lawyer and representative of the victimes, told the Interfax news agency. According to Trunov, the Moscow’s Investigative Committee is due to check whether all of the terrorists were killed during the storming.
By Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan
In September 2002 several small groups of Chechens, three or four each, began arriving in Moscow by bus from Makhachkala and Khasavyurt in the republic of Dagestan. For many years this route was taken by North Caucasian traders who moved between Moscow and the regions. It was faster than a train, and there was no need to buy a railway ticket, which required a passport. Most of them came on September 16, and some came a few days later, on September 19. Simultaneously, a vehicle laden with explosives hidden under apple crates and another carrying three bombs disguised as brake mechanisms for Kamaz trucks were driven into the city.
The Chechens gathered in three rented apartments outside the city center, which were to house them for the weeks ahead. Their explosives were carefully hidden in garages in different districts of Moscow. There were fifty-two people in total, most in their twenties. The women among them were instructed to await orders in the apartments while the men, disguised as construction workers, were sent to a huge building at no. 7 Melnikova Street, in the southeastern part of the city. Once the theater of the Moscow Ball Bearing Factory, it was known as the theater on Dubrovka.
The hall and nearby premises were rented by the Link Production Company, which had launched Russia’s first Broadway-style musical Nord-Ost in October 2001. A significant part of the building was occupied by the Institute for Human Self-Restoration and a gay club frequented by members of Parliament, prominent businessmen, and politicians.
In its heyday, the three-story club was visited by more than 1,500 people a night, but starting in May 2002, it was under construction. Chechens were hired as workers in the last stage of the reconstruction. Few paid attention to what they were doing. The door between the gay club and the theater hall was never closed.
On October 19, 2002, a small car exploded near a McDonald’s restaurant on Pokryshkina Street; one Muscovite was killed and eight people were wounded. A second car bomb near the Chay- kovsky Concert Hall failed to explode. This tactic of a diversionary attack was to be repeated many times over the years ahead, no- tably in 2004, when the Beslan tragedy was preceded by the sui- cide bombing attack in the Rizhskaya metro station in Moscow. But in October 2002 it was the first time the FSB had come across such tactics.
On Wednesday, October 23, the first act of Nord-Ost was coming to a close at 8:45 P.M. when three minivans approached the main entrance of the theater: a Ford Transit, a Volkswagen Car- avelle, and a Dodge. In a few seconds a large group of Chechens armed with Kalashnikovs and pistols rushed into the theater shooting in the air. Some members of the Chechen group were al- ready inside, disguised as normal theatergoers.
The Chechens, with only forty-one people, didn’t have the manpower to capture and guard the whole building. Instead they focused solely on the area occupied by Link Productions, about 40 percent of the structure.
The entire audience of 920 people, 67 foreigners among them, was taken hostage by the Chechens, who ordered the captives to call relatives to ask them to organize a demonstration against the Chechen war. Amongst the hostages were journalists and law enforcement officers, who promptly called the news media and the secret services. When the Chechens understood that Russian au- thorities knew what was going on inside the theater, they ordered all hostages to relinquish their phones. A few managed to hide them.
At about this time the FSB leadership was celebrating the achievements of its Dynamo volleyball club at the Lubyanka head- quarters. They were called away from the celebration for what was to become one of the gravest terrorist attacks in Russia during the decade.
At the outset, it was unclear to the authorities how many terrorists were in the theater and how many guns they had. (The forty-one hostage takers included nineteen women and were armed with seventeen Kalashnikovs and twenty pistols.) The terrorists had brought dozens of explosive charges, including twenty-one explosive belts and two massive bombs that could easily have destroyed the theater hall and everyone in it. During the preceding weeks these had been carefully collected in the premises of the gay club.
On the first day of the siege, a 22-year-old Chechen named Movsar Barayev declared himself the leader of the terrorists.
Barayev was the nephew of the notorious Chechen warlord Arbi Barayev, who had been killed in 2001. (Movsar, whose real name was Movsar Salamov, adopted the name Barayev after the killing of his uncle.) The Nord-Ost attack, as it came to be known, appeared at first to be an act of personal revenge. Barayev had two deputies: experienced Chechen fighter Ruslan Elmurzayev, 29, nephew of the Akhmadov brothers, who were famous warlords; and“Yaseer the Assyrian”(no further identity was ever established). Elmurzayev turned out to be the real commander of the operation. The women were headed by Esira Vitalieva, a 42-year-old Chechen who had been a cook for another nationalist leader, Shamil Basayev, during the first Chechen war.
The attackers made hundreds of calls to different countries, which led to rumors that they were being controlled from outside. Barayev said he was subordinate to the famous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, and a week after the storming, Shamil Basayev took responsibility for planning the attack. The Chechens’ strategy at Dubrovka was similar to Basayev’s approach in a notorious terrorist attack in 1995 on a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk. First, Chechens intimidated authorities with threats to kill hostages while appealing to public opinion. The Chechens allowed a few people to visit the theater during the siege. Some were journalists, including Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times of London, an NTV crew, and Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta; the others were famous Russian doctor Leonid Roshal, politician Irina Khakamada, and popular singer Joseph Kobzon.
The terrorists chose Marina Shkolnikova, a physician who happened to be at the performance, to make statements on their behalf. She left the theater repeatedly with lists of demands before returning to the building. The terrorists soon adopted the practice of releasing a few hostages with every visitor. By the end of the second day of the crisis, more than 150 people had been freed, mostly children, women, and foreigners.
In 1995 in Budennovsk, having taken hostages in the hospital, Basayev immediately killed some men to show that he was serious in his claims and didn’t intend to stop. Basayev’s fighters were also able to sustain the storming, which turned into a fierce battle with special forces. Basayev eventually took the hostages and fled with them. But Movsar Barayev’s group was unable to sustain its initial impetus. It could not turn the theater into a fortress, as Shamil Basayev had done with the Budennovsk hospital, when his two hundred fighters placed hostages as human shields in every window.
Within hours of the start of the siege, most of the building was occupied by special forces. For Movsar Barayev, the only real option was to convince the Kremlin that the terrorists were ready to de- stroy the theater and die alongside the hostages. To frighten the authorities and demonstrate their will, Barayev posed for the television cameras accompanied by women dressed as female suicide bombers, wearing suicide belts and black veils.
The Chechens’ number one demand was to end the war in the republic within a week. They hoped to repeat the success of Basayev in Buddenovsk and leveraged the attack to negotiate with the Russian leaders by telephone in Moscow. By the end of that crisis, Basayev had succeeded in garnering a promise from Moscow to cease its military presence in Chechen territory. Russia’s leadership, however, was criticized for its handling of the incident, in which more than one hundred hostages died—a number at the hands of Russian special forces— and more than four hundred were wounded. In Chechnya, Basayev was credited with having brought the first Chechen war to a close. In Moscow, Budennovsk was viewed by the authorities as an enormous defeat.
As they gathered at the theater on the first day of the Nord-Ost attack, Russian authorities realized that they must avoid anything like the events at Budennovsk seven years earlier. Putin appointed Vladimir Pronichev, deputy director of the FSB, and Vladimir Vasiliev, deputy minister of the Interior Ministry, to lead the operation at the theater. They were given a free hand by the Kremlin to plan an assault on the theater, and to negotiate if necessary.
The Russian troops assembled in the area included hundreds of soldiers from the Interior Ministry, who were used to establish a security perimeter around the theater building. Dozens of FSB offi- cers meanwhile set about interrogating all people everyone found in the area, in case there might be terrorist informers. A screening checkpoint was established in a nearby school.
The only forces to come face-to-face with the terrorists were officers from the FSB special purpose center, headed by General Alexander Tikhonov. The special purpose center comprised three departments: antiterrorist Group Alpha (or A department), which is the Russian equivalent of the elite U.S. Delta Force; Group Vympel (V department), a second antiterrorist unit; and the service of special operations, a small elite FSB team formed to pursue criminals in dangerous situations.6 Only departments A and V had the training for an operation to free hostages.
Traditionally, servicemen at departments A and V held the rank of officers of the FSB. Department A had four sections; Department V had five. In times of crisis, the sections become assault groups, with more than thirty fighters each. At the time of the Dubrovka siege, two sections were on permanent deployment in Chechnya, with one section left in reserve. The special purpose center deployed all the remaining sections to the operation—three from Department A and three from Department V. The commander of one Department V group was Colonel Sergei Shavrin.
Tall, reserved, and soft-spoken, with a mustache and angular face, Shavrin, then 37 years old, was no typical FSB man. He had come to the special purpose center in the 1980s from the border guards. Although considered to be part of the old KGB, the border guards always kept their distance from the Lubyanka, being more soldiers than operatives. Shavrin was a decorated officer and a deputy commander of the section at the Vympel. By the time of the Dubrovka crisis, Shavrin had made fourteen trips to hot spots and had received the Hero of Russia medal in 1996 after he led his troops safely out of a siege during the storming of Grozny.
But in the cold, slushy rain outside the Dubrovka, Shavrin was uncertain he would be able to save his troops.“Everybody feared that the terrorists would let us into the theater and then someone on the outside would blow the place up with a remote,” Shavrin told Soldatov. “That would have been the end. We were waiting for it. We even said goodbye to one another. But it turned out differently.” The special troops had orders to kill all the terrorists. Shavrin recalled, “The order was signed prior to the beginning of the storming. Knowing that the building is mined, that the explosives would be enough to raze the building to the ground, and that the mining system setup had duplicating systems so that one surviving terrorist could set it all in motion, trying to catch someone alive could lead to tragic events. Somebody would have time to ignite an explosive, and in that case we would rescue nobody,” Shavrin recalled.
On Friday night, October 25, at about 11:00 P.M., the authors entered the school building next to the theater, where the rela- tives of the hostages were waiting. A list displayed on one of the walls enabled us to establish the exact number of hostages that had been reported missing by relatives. At the time it was 698, though that figure eventually rose to 920. At about 2:00 A.M. on the morning of the 26th, a friend got a call from one of the hostages, a journalist from Moskovskaya Pravda. She relayed that the terror- ists had announced their plan to start shooting captives at six in the morning. In an effort to move closer to the theater, the authors with two colleagues gained entrance to a neighboring apartment building. Fifteen minutes later we were welcomed into one of the apart- ments of the building situated to the right of the main entrance of the theater, on the corner of Melnikova and First Dubrovskaya Streets. From the windows of the upper floors we had an excellent view of the theater and the square in front of it. We had a pair of binoculars and two cameras.
We didn’t notice any particular changes in the distribution of the armored vehicles and troops as compared to the previous night, when the terrorists had insisted that the special forces be kept away from the area. Right in front of the theater entrance were two minivans, a red one and a white one, in which the terrorists had arrived. The only difference was that the van headlights had finally gone out. The terrorists had left the minivans with their engines on, which meant that they could have been mined. An attempt by two Internal Ministry troopers on the second night of the crisis to switch off the engines led to tragic consequences: One was wounded by a terrorist who fired at them from a theater window.
The following is based on notes taken by Soldatov and Borogan at the time:
- 3–4 A.M. A silence pervades the illuminated square. 5:00 A.M. Suddenly the theater’s entrance lights go out, which is a bad sign: The previous day, the Chechen terrorists stated that if these lights were turned off, they would re- gard it as the beginning of an attempt to storm the build- ing, and they would start shooting the hostages.5:35 A.M. A grenade explosion is heard, followed by the sound of shattered glass. The storming of the theater has begun. Bursts of gunfire come from the factory facade opposite the side entrances of the theater, about 200 meters away, followed by machine-gun fire.
6:05 A.M. The radio says that the operations staff claims to have received a call from a hostage. He says the terrorists have run out of patience and are beginning to execute hostages. Ac- cording to the official version, all the shooting comes from the terrorists. By now it is obvious to us that this is the be- ginning of a storming on the initiative of the Russian forces. For a while everything is still; we can see the inter- nal troops being repositioned. Temporarily, the theater is silent. A blue Jeep with its lights off and engine running comes up to the main entrance, and four fully armed sol- diers appear on a bridge to the left of the building. Their uniforms indicate that they belong to Vitiaz, the special troops of the Internal Troops (the armed forces subordi- nated to the Interior Ministry).
6:35 A.M. A group of six to eight soldiers from the Internal Troops runs across the square to the main entrance, kicks it in, and fires at the glass. Meanwhile, vehicles and ambulances have been filling the square. A minute later they are joined by the armored carrier that had been waiting on the corner of the First Dubrovskaya and Melnikova Streets. It stops about 120 meters away from the theater entrance. Two shots are audible from within the building. The shots are answered by heavy machine-gun fire from the armored carrier.
The FSB special purpose center troop appear to be ac- companying two women out of the building when all of a sudden the building is lit up and the sound of gunfire fills the air. About ten soldiers are hiding in the grass to the right of the building, with another group to the left of the theater.
We hear two explosions inside the building, accompa- nied by a white light. These must have been grenades. After that the groups located around the car park all run across the square to the main entrance.
6:40 A.M. Three explosions follow one after another inside the building, accompanied by a red light, followed by bursts of gunfire.
6:45 A.M. A small group of soldiers carrying a powerful torch sets out across the hall of the ground floor in the direction of the wing of the building where there is a library.
6:47 A.M. At three points inside soldiers begin to break out the theater’s windows and cut the poster with the enormous letters“Nord-Ost,” which covered the glass walls of the entrance hall of the first floor.
6:50 A.M. Someone is dragged out of the building. A few seconds later we can see two soldiers carrying a young man dressed in a gray sweater. We can’t understand whether the man is a disguised terrorist, a hostage, or a journalist.
7:00 A.M. The doors of the main entrance are thrust wide open. Three Defender Jeeps are being driven up to the building. Empty buses are moving along Melnikov Street right below our windows. In front of the main entrance there are now dozens of people. Shouts of “Come on!”can be heard from all around. A woman hostage can be seen almost creeping out of the building. Someone else can hardly walk. A body is carried out, followed by another one.
7:03 A.M. Shooting can be heard. At the same time a group of people is being accompanied out of the building. A girl is being carried out, then a few bodies.
7:06 A.M. Bodies are still being carried out. Now rescue forces in white helmets join special forces troopers in the rescue. The bodies are being placed in a line right in front of the main entrance of the theater. There are more than twenty of them. Judging by their clothes and the way they are being carried mostly across the rescuers’ shoulders, most appear to be women or even young girls. Thank God, we think, because finally after all these dead, they’ve managed to find someone alive. A few ambulances packed with the wounded leave the square.
Four buses stop to the right of the building; we can clearly see them from our vantage point. In the meantime, to the left of the main entrance the rescuers continue plac- ing bodies; there are dozens, and the number of corpses increases rapidly. A few minutes later they occupy the whole area; all the steps on the left are covered with multicolour sweaters worn by the hostages. Just three days before these women dressed up in order to look good at the theater. There isn’t enough room, and the corpses are now placed one over another. We wonder if there is any hope left that among those bodies there could still be someone alive. It doesn’t look possible.
The first bus with freed hostages on board leaves from the entrance area. But the hostages looked strange, as though they are asleep or unconscious. A few minutes later some rags are carried out of the building (possibly tablecloths or curtains) and thrown over the inert passengers on another bus. At the main entrance the row of corpses is growing longer. Another bus leaves.
Meanwhile, television is reporting that a member of the operations staff has announced the end of the storming: The hostages are free, and the terrorists have been killed. Not a single mention is made of any victims. At the time of this announcement, two more bodies are carried outside the building.
7:43–7:50 A.M. Another two buses with the bodies of hostages, with the same strange look on their faces, are leaving.
7:50 A.M. A screen is placed in front of the theater entrance, blocking the view.
8:00 A.M. Vasiliev, co-chief of the operations staff, claims that thirty-six terrorists have been killed, Movsar Barayev among them. He also says that the operations staff was forced to storm the building after several hostages attempted to es- cape on their own.
Moments after Vasiliev’s announcement, one of our col- leagues shouts in alarm,“Look! They’re putting dead bodies on the buses—they are falling down from their seats!”And he passes us binoculars. At the same moment an NTV journalist reports that he can see buses passing by and that the hostages’faces are“livid.”
8:45 A.M. To the right of the car park we see black body bags being loaded onto a bus. A bus comes up, and the corpses are put on board.
11:00 A.M. The dead are still being carried out of the Dubrovka Theater. Even when we leave the apartment, some corpses still remain on the steps of the main entrance.
From the beginning, Russian authorities had been prepared for a massive explosion from one of the bombs brought in beforehand by the Chechens. But at the time of the storming, there was none. Instead of killing themselves along with the hostages, the female terrorists, loaded down with explosive belts, had simply covered their faces with head scarves and lain down on the floor among the hostages. Since special purpose fighters were under orders to kill all terrorists, there was no chance to later ask the Chechens why they hadn’t detonated their bombs. Shavrin said,“When we entered the hall, we saw a female suicide bomber. She was sitting on a chair. Her eyes were open, she was holding the electrodes, all she had to do was to connect them. Why she didn’t do that is un- clear. Perhaps she was waiting for some instruction or command. She had enough time.”
The day after the siege, it became known that the special forces had pumped into the theater fentanyl, an anesthetic gas, which they assumed would put the terrorists to sleep. The gas is three hundred times more powerful than morphine, but the effect on a person takes two minutes. When the gas was pumped into the theater, the terrorists were not knocked out immediately.
According to Shavrin, the operations staff doubted there would be many hostages alive after the storming. Anticipating an explosion, the FSB used the deadly gas in a desperate attempt to sup- port the special troops when they went in, no matter how effective it might be. The operations staff, considering the situation hope- less, had used all available methods. When no explosion occurred, the storming was deemed a victory; at that moment the authorities had not given thought to the consequences of the poisoning for the hostages.
In the end, 130 hostages died, only five at the hands of terrorists. According to Russian authorities, fentanyl was a breath paralyzer, and the number of victims was so great simply because the hostages had been weakened by three days of the crisis. But Pavel Finogenov, who lost his 32-year-old brother in the Nord-Ost siege, told Borogan: “My brother Igor was an officer of the special forces and had recently undergone training, including an imitation gas attack, which he completed successfully. He was in excellent shape.” Virtually no preparation had been made for the afteref- fects of the gas. No temporary hospital had been set up, there was not enough oxygen on hand, and there was no antidote at the ready for those poisoned. It soon became clear that no one had been briefed on the use of fentanyl.“
At headquarters level the prediction was that there would be losses, there would be shoot- ing, there would be an explosion, there would be a lot of casual- ties. But what actually happened? The storming was over, there was no explosion, and eight hundred people or more had to be re- suscitated from the effects of the gas. It turned out that no one was prepared for this,”recalled Shavrin.“We anticipated the explosion. We thought less than 10 percent would survive.”
The operations staff of the FSB and other services had gravely miscalculated. They did not imagine that the threat to blow up the building might be a bluff. The FSB’s laboratory had provided the gas, but no one thought about how it could be ameliorated afterward. The operations staff was ultimately determined not to repeat the disaster of Budennovsk. The generals wanted to make sure Putin would succeed where Yeltsin had failed. On October 24, on the second day of hostage crisis, Mikhail Leontiev, a political com- mentator for TV Channel One, thought to be very close to Vladimir Putin, said on his show: “The sense of the event is that all of us are paying for Budennovsk—for the shame of the political agreement with gangsters and degenerates. When one speaks about the question of price and negotiations, let’s count how many lives we have paid during these seven years for Budennovsk and Khasavyurt. . . . We are guilty—all of us together are guilty who have allowed them to think for a moment that there could be a repeat of Budennovsk.”
After the storming the same mantra was repeated by FSB general Alexander Zdanovich, then a member of the operations staff. On October 26, asked to compare the storming of Nord-Ost with that of Budennovsk, Zdanovich replied, “The first thing I would say is that there have been times when our special forces have been ready to solve the problem. In my opinion, this time [in Buden- novsk] there was a lack of the political will to make a decision.”
Those who questioned the operation were punished. The radio station Echo Moskvy was officially warned by the Media Ministry that it could be closed down for airing interviews with the terror- ists. The television channel Moskovia’s broadcasts were temporarily halted. The NTV coverage of the crisis was personally criticized by Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile the clinics treating hostages suffer- ing from gas poisoning were prohibited from providing information about the victims to journalists. The authorities officially stated that they would not divulge all the circumstances of the operation. On Sunday, October 27, the day after the storming of the theater, the authors, then working for the weekly Versiya, realized the futility of waiting a week for their story to run and decided to publish it on the Web site Agentura.ru. On Monday, prominent Italian journalist Guilietto Chiesa republished their reportage in La Stampa. The following Friday, November 1, when Versiya was going to press, a group of FSB officers arrived at the editorial offices and began a search, claiming they were looking for information published in an article by Soldatov the previous May. A few computers, including the editorial server, were seized, and a number of journalists were ordered to visit the FSB for interrogation. A month passed with a series of interrogations of the authors and others from Versiya.
In the weeks after the siege, the Kremlin declared a victory against terrorism, and the generals who planned the operation were rewarded. The country’s highest honour—Hero of the Russian Federation — was bestowed upon FSB director Patrushev, his deputy Vladimir Pronichev, who had commanded the operation from the FSB, and Alexander Tikhonov, the commander of the special purpose center. The head of the FSB’s Moscow department was promoted.19 The authorities justified this decision by saying the security services, gravely weakened during the 1990s, now needed support, not criticism. Despite the authorities’ attempts to portray the Nord-Ost theater siege as a victory for Russia, in fact the operation illustrated the security services’ frightening lack of preparedness for a grave hostage situation.
Derived from The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, published by PublicAffairs, 2010