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Russian Emigres Hungry for News

Suspicious of the Russian media, they scrounge for reliable information about terrorist acts in their homeland.

September 14, 2004|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

In the continuing aftermath of the deadly siege of a school in southern Russia, only one thing can satisfy the cravings of Los Angeles' Russian-speaking community: news. But many wonder where to get information and, moreover, what to believe.

Scouring the Internet, reading Russian-language publications, tuning into Russian radio and television broadcasts via cable, and inundating international phone lines with calls to their homeland has provided some relief, but also caused confusion and frustration.

"It's a horror and people want answers," said Eugene Levin, host of a Russian-language radio talk show in Los Angeles that has been devoting six hours a day to the carnage in the southern Russian town of Beslan. Callers have flooded the station with questions, most of them beginning with "Why?"

Why were the Russian authorities releasing seemingly erroneous information in the initial stages of the siege? Why didn't the government do more to negotiate with the hostage-takers? Why have scores of missing people still not been accounted for?

At least 326 people are known to have died -- half of them children -- when explosions erupted inside the Beslan school and government security forces stormed the building Sept. 3.

"It's not new for our audience that such an event took place. But it's the scale of the event and the fact that children were involved," said Levin, who also publishes two local weekly Russian-language newspapers, Panorama and Friday Express, both of which saw their circulation spike after the tragedy.

Callers and readers are also grasping at how to help relatives back in Russia. "They want to know what they can do," said Levin, whose subscribers receive weekend editions of The Times in a partnership established in 2003.

Though some members of the Russian-speaking community have launched efforts to raise relief funds or have gathered to offer prayers for the dead and injured, many have become impromptu journalists, trying to collect or pass on information across the globe. Few in the community expect the true story of what really happened in Beslan to ever be revealed -- at least not by the Kremlin or the state-dominated media.

"The Russian government has continued to cover up these kinds of acts," said Sofia Komskaya, 72, a volunteer in the activity office at the West Hollywood Comprehensive Service Center of Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles. She emigrated from Russia in 1995. "People just don't believe the government anymore. And what our Russian television shows us, we don't know if it's true or not."

Indeed, the editor of Izvestia, one of Russia's largest dailies, said he was forced to resign last week because he questioned the casualty figures and ran harrowing full-page photos of the bloodbath. One state-run newspaper reportedly described the carnage more mundanely, with a tone reminiscent of the former Soviet era. There had been an attack on the school and some losses, it said.

Getting accurate information has been critical for Santa Monica resident Lyubov Burban, who has spent much of the last week on the phone with friends in Moscow. The calls have mostly ended in frustration.

"They know less than us in the U.S.," said Burban, who has doubted much of the information garnered from cable news beamed directly from Moscow. "There is no hope of getting the truth from news there. They try to hide information. The government tells lies."

When the terrorists took over the school in Beslan, Burban's access to U.S.- and Los Angeles-based Russian media drew her to immediately conclude that a major terrorist crisis was underway, but friends in Moscow were still wondering about the severity of the siege several hours after it began.

For Burban, 65, a naturalized American from Ukraine, the Beslan tragedy reopened a painful wound.

Her son Grigory, 39, was killed almost two years ago when Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater and Russian security personnel sprayed potent gas into the auditorium before storming the building. In the aftermath of the mayhem, 129 hostages lay dead.

"When I first heard about the situation in Beslan, the first thing I thought was 'Please, God, not again. Please, God, don't let them storm the building. Let those children live,' " recalled Burban. Her son, a former electronics salesman and permanent U.S. resident, left behind a 16-year-old son.

Russian officials say the decision to storm the building was unplanned and taken after the attackers started shooting children. But it is hard to find anyone in L.A.'s vocal and politically savvy ex-Soviet emigre community who believes that.

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