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Secretive Moscow Reminds Some Russians of Soviet Era

Information about the hostage crisis and its deadly resolution remains murky.

October 29, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — When it was over, state television showed the slain leader of the Chechen hostage takers, Movsar Barayev, posed with a cognac bottle near his hand. Officials declared that the women who had threatened to blow themselves up in a crowded theater were drug addicts with needle tracks on their arms and syringes at their feet.

And for more than a day, officials stonewalled, refusing to release the information that a mysterious gas used by rescuers was the actual cause of death for all but two of the hostages who were killed.

Authorities still have not told doctors any details about the gas used to subdue Chechen militants and their hostages inside a Moscow theater, so the knowledge could be used to treat the former captives.

Control of information by the government from the seizure of the theater during a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost" on Wednesday to the Saturday rescue that left more than one in seven hostages dead has struck many people here as a retreat to Soviet-era methods of propaganda, evasion and half-truths.

While many Russians accept that the loss of many hostages might have been unavoidable, there were signs Monday of increasing bitterness that authorities were not open throughout the crisis and its aftermath.

Sergei Karpov gave one example of a Kafkaesque distortion of the facts after the death of his son, Alexander, 31, a well-known libretto writer.

"You wouldn't believe the absurdity of it," Karpov said. "Today in the morgue they handed me my son's death certificate. [It] stated as cause of death: 'murder.' And the diagnosis: 'victim of banditry and terrorism.' What kind of medical document is that?"

Statements in the official media during the crisis seem at variance with what hostages later reported, especially regarding the decision by special police to storm the theater and details concerning the health effects of the gas.

When the raid began about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, officials told reporters it was because the Chechens had begun to carry out their threat to execute captives. In one published report, the first two executions even took place on the auditorium's stage.

Former hostages, however, later said they remembered nothing of the kind.

There were no summary executions. A shooting in the auditorium had been hours earlier, between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m., when one hostage gave in to stress and threw a bottle at a female captor.

A Chechen then shot at him, but instead killed a man and fatally wounded a female hostage sitting in the hall.

Two other incidents cited in the early morning hours Saturday -- that there were explosions going off inside the theater and that a large group of hostages had staged a breakout attempt that caused the Chechens to open fire as they fled -- also remained uncorroborated.

Reports that the Chechens inside were drinking and using drugs contradicted later recollections.

"They didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't swear," said one hostage, Mark Podlesny. "They were very disciplined."

Soon after the special police moved in on the theater, government officials launched a steady stream of statements portraying the operation as an unqualified success.

Reporters were told initially that all the hostages were saved and that all the foreign hostages were safe. At a time when workers were piling up dozens of bodies of those already dead from the gas on a sidewalk outside the theater, a deputy interior minister, Vladimir Vasilyev, was stating for the cameras that only about 10 might have been killed.

In his updates to reporters, he at first made no reference to the fact that a chemical agent had been used, or that virtually all the hostages found inside were unconscious and needed urgent medical attention.

Also, initial reports did not say that the female hostage takers, unconscious in the auditorium from the effects of the gas, were shot to death while they slept to prevent them from regaining consciousness and setting off explosives they had strapped to their bodies.

While the number of dead Chechens was revealed almost instantaneously by Vasilyev, the scale of death among the hostages was released piecemeal over two days, allowing state broadcasters and government officials to drive home the idea that the operation had been an overwhelming success.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II declared that he was pleased the seizure had ended "without bloodshed."

And instead of being shown the wards overflowing with unconscious former hostages struggling to breathe, TV viewers saw President Vladimir V. Putin in a white hospital gown chatting with a group of released hostages who looked to be in near-perfect health.

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies, called the official behavior "simply disgusting."

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