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Muscovites Bid Farewell to a Bright Talent

Alexander Karpov survived the torment of Chechen rebels, only to die of gas used in rescue.

November 01, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- Alexander Karpov faced death twice in the last days before he died, one of the hostages held by Chechen rebels at a Moscow theater.

Twice during the siege, Chechen gunmen led Karpov, 31, into a corridor for execution. A gun was put to his back. He was told he would be killed and he heard the gun fire.

Both times, the gunman shot into the air, near his head.

Karpov survived that cruelty, only to die of the sleeping gas used in the rescue operation. Officials admit that 117 of the 119 hostages who died were killed by the gas.

Karpov had planned to take a large group of friends to see the popular show "Nord-Ost" at the theater. But when he went to the ticket booth, there weren't enough tickets for everyone.

He later called his friends to say he had bought the last two tickets for the Oct. 23 performance and apologized that he couldn't take them along.

He took only his wife, Svetlana, 29. She survived, and buried him Thursday.

Hundreds filed past his open coffin, piling the casket so high with flowers that most of the blooms had to be taken away.

Karpov, who had volunteered to act as a translator for the Chechen terrorists, bore the brunt of their anger and frustration.

His first ordeal during the siege came as the terrorists divided the audience of more than 750 into men and women. Karpov and his wife had to part.

He reached for her and waved in a gesture of love, which angered some of the terrorists, who perhaps mistook it for a signal.

He was immediately taken out and subjected to his first "execution."

Karpov, who spoke excellent English, acted as a translator for the Chechens when they spoke to foreign hostages and when they made certain calls, possibly to foreign diplomats.

His wife told family members she believed that the second faked execution was an attempt to frighten him because of information he had gained through the calls.

After the initial separation, she was able to sit with him again. She was with him when the gas flowed into the auditorium, just before Russian commandos stormed the theater.

When Svetlana Karpov smelled the gas, she tore her T-shirt in two and covered her mouth and face, giving him the other half.

But he refused it.

"I want to have a clear head to the end," he told her. It was a decision that may have cost him his life.

The gas snuffed out an extraordinary talent. Karpov had translated the musical "Chicago" into Russian. He had a Celtic band and wrote songs and poems. He so loved Irish music that he recorded a CD, "Road to Dublin," and called himself O'Karpov.

"Author, singer, writer of humorous stories, poet, bard, translator," began the testimonial placard posted at his funeral.

A Celtic ensemble played Irish dirges at the ceremony as Karpov's widow sat near his coffin, heaving with sobs.

Oleg Gorodetsky, a friend, described Karpov as "a brilliantly talented person. He could speak in verse. He was a master at inventing tongue twisters and rhymes. He was one of the people who could actually invent jokes."

At 5 a.m. Friday during the siege, Karpov called Gorodetsky and asked him to organize a rally to end the Chechen war.

"He said: 'We're alive. We're sitting on a mine. Get people out to a rally,' " Gorodetsky said.

At about the same time, Karpov called his mother to make the same request.

"He rang at 5 in the morning," said his father, Sergei. "At that point, he was at gunpoint. They made him say all the things about rallies. The fighters told him to organize the rallies.

"That was the only time he called."

Igor Bely, 31, a musician who played music with Karpov, said his friend was always the heart and soul of the party.

"He loved life. He had the unique talent of seeing the bright side, even in the most ugly and disgusting things," he said. "He could infect other people with that feeling too."

After the siege ended, authorities provided so little information that relatives had to comb dozens of hospitals and morgues to find their loved ones.

Bely helped coordinate about 200 friends in a search of hospitals and, later, morgues. Bely used his Web site to keep friends and loved ones updated.

Grigory Maltsev, 43, found Karpov's body in a morgue Sunday afternoon.

"When I saw him lying there, I thought, 'It's not him.' I just didn't want to believe this hard fact that I had found him and he was dead," Maltsev said.

Russian pop star Philip Kirkorov, who is starring in "Chicago," arrived in a gold stretch Mercedes limousine to pay tribute to Karpov at his funeral. As he walked into the room where the coffin lay, a woman shouted at him to remove his hat.

As dusk fell in Nikolo-Arkhangelskoye cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, white petals were scattered on the ground like early snow. The only sound was the weeping of Svetlana.

"I blame the terrorists and the war in Chechnya," said Sergei Karpov.

It was dark by the time Karpov was buried. A circle of spades dug deep into the loamy soil, which rained upon his coffin.

The moment recalled another funeral for a young man named Sultan Zalayev, eight years ago, in Chechnya, in the opening days of the 1994-96 Chechen war. In 1996 the Russians withdrew; in 1999 they invaded again.

Zalayev, 24, was one of the first casualties of that war. A similar ring of spades bit into the soft soil to bury him.

One of the mourners said that a forest of gravestones would grow in Chechnya because of the war. But he warned that a forest of gravestones would grow in Russia too.


Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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