It was ten years ago to the day that we found ourselves stationed in a theatre complex in Moscow’s suburbs, reporting on how terrorists had taken about a thousand theatregoers and actors hostage. We observed the dramatic scenes: from the very first hours of the terrorist attack, right up to the fateful conclusion. We saw the storming of the building, the bodies of the dead that piled up by the entrance of the theatre, and the traffic jams that formed from buses attempting to transport the injured, many now motionless, out of the emergency zone.
Officially, 130 people died as a result of the terrorist attack. We know that only five were killed directly by the terrorists. The rest were killed by a chemical agent of unknown origins, released into the auditorium by security services in the hope that it would send the terrorists to sleep instantly. The so-called invisible gas was noticed by everyone inside. Some hostages managed to phone the press and friends, to tell them what was going on; few managed to save themselves from the effects of the secret gas. The gas proved lethal even for those in rude health. Among those who died that day was 32-year old Igor Finogenov, a former OMON special forces officer, who had successfully completed gas training exercises without a gas mask.
Victims, many of them unconscious, were piled on to buses to be taken away to hospitals. Odds were heavily against survival: doctors were not told anything about the chemical agent used, first-aid response was poor, and the evacuation operation was hampered by appalling organisaion.
Ten years later, we are still none the wiser about the gas that killed Finogenov. We are still to find out who recommended the use of the gas, who promised its instant effects, and why doctors administering first aid were not warned.
What we do know for certain is that not a single member of the emergency operations centre has been held accountable for their actions. Indeed, several of the generals in charge have received awards and honours (the first deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Vladimir Pronishev, received the title ‘Hero of Russia’, the country’s highest decoration). On 25 October, Moscow’s Lefortovo court will consider an application by Nord-Ost victims to raise a criminal case against the officers that served in the emergency operations centre. There is little doubt that the outcome will be negative.
In the ten years since Nord-Ost, Russian authorities have resolutely turned their backs on any notion of public accountability. This wasn’t an accidental development: marginalisation of media opinion and public institutions was carried out largely with the approval of the country’s middle class. Recipients of illusory security guarantees via crude operations in the North Caucasus, and beneficiaries of the lowest tax rates in Europe — Putin introduced a flat 13% ceiling in place of a progressive tax scale — the Russian middle class was absolutely content to support the President’s brutal politics.
‘Not a single member of the emergency operations centre has been held accountable for their actions. Indeed, several of the generals in charge have received awards and honours’
Many Russians were taken in by Putin. One of those early supporters was 28-year-old Maria Baronova, one of the most colourful participants of the Moscow protests, and now the subject of a criminal investigation for it. She has put her support for Putin on the record, describing how she used to admire him and was attracted to his sharp sense of humour. (We might note, of course, one of Putin’s most celebrated ‘jokes’ was his strange offer of circumcision to a journalist who dared to ask a question about operations in the North Caucasus). Likewise, when we talked to participants of last summer’s ‘Occupy Abai’ protests’, many revealed they had, in fact, voted for Putin in 2004, and that disappointment came much later.
Some years after the tragedy, we sat in the studio of the Ekho Moskvy radio station and shared some of the details of our own investigation with listeners. We questioned the official version of a ‘successful’ special operation, and explained how our own data suggested many more than 130 died that day. This was confirmed several years later by Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer acting for the victims’ families, who discovered a list of 174 dead in investigative documents.
We described to listeners how FSB officers had conducted searches of our editorial offices at Versiya, how they had removed a server and Andrei Soldatov’s computer, and how, together with colleagues, we had been persistently summoned for questioning. It was an obvious attempt by the special services to put a stop to a newspaper investigation. However, judging by questions sent in to the radio host, the majority of listeners reacted in a negative way. Their message could be summed up simply: get these blabbermouths out of the studio, the operation was a success, the authorities did everything they could to secure the release of the hostages. Even the victims’ relatives, who to this day continue their never-ending battle for the right to know what happened to their loved ones, have admitted that for a long time they too considered journalists to be jackals and their investigative activities to be useless.
Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin, the ‘United Russia’ ruling party and the security services made use of such cynicism to ramp up governmental unaccountability, both in a legal sense and de facto. Throughout the decade, we received no answers to our old questions on Nord-Ost, and were unable to ask new ones.
Pincered by the authorities, the Russian media almost completely lost its power over these years. Back in 2002, it was still possible for the ‘cleansed’ NTV station, already missing its best journalists, to file professional reports from the hostage taking. Today, the same TV channel shows pseudo-documentary films about opposition activists preparing a governmental coup, with the protagonists of said films being sent behind bars soon after broadcast. Back in 2002, journalists were able to work from the emergency zone operating near the theatre in Dubrovka. Today, such reporting would be illegal — a 2006 law, ‘On combatting terrorism’, explicitly forbids journalists from entering a ‘counter-terrorist operation zone’.
‘Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin, the ‘United Russia’ ruling party and the security services made use of cynicism to ramp up governmental unaccountability’
With every passing year, our ability to get information about the activities of government and security services has decreased. In 2006, the list of official government secrets was increased from 87 categories to 113. Data on personnel not only in secret services, but also operational subdivisions of the police is now considered a state secret. The way in which the Kremlin reacted to the deaths of activist-journalists Anna Politkovsksya and Natalya Estemirova has also essentially eradicated the flow of independent information from the North Caucasus.
In a strange coincidence, on 23 October 2012, i.e. exactly 10 years after the Dubrovka hostage taking, the Russian State Duma passed amendments broadening the definition of high treason. The amendments, which were suggested by the FSB, were carried at once in second and third reading. The new formula means anyone found passing information to international organisations, even in a consulting capacity can now be considered a spy. As with the law on ‘international agents’, passed in summer 2012, this law makes the Russian government machine even more non-transparent, and essentially rules out the possibility of external control on the workings of government.
It is against such a backdrop that the protest movement — made up in large part of the Russian middle class — must battle to recover the democratic positions they themselves surrendered ten years ago.