Remembering the Nord-Ost Siege

Peter Pomerantsev

On 23 October 2002, between 40 and 50 Chechen men and women drove in a blacked-out van through the early evening central Moscow traffic, out to a suburb once home to one of the world’s largest ball-bearing factories. They pulled balaclavas over their heads, strapped belts of dynamite across their bodies, and walked briskly into the main entrance of a concrete, brutalist theatre known as Palace of Culture Number 10.

The show that evening was a performance of Nord-Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was sold out. The terrorists came on stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought they were part of the play. When they realised they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the exits. But they were blocked by ‘black widows’ with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on stage ordered the audience back into their seats: if anyone moved they would be shot.

By the time I arrived the next morning, as a fixer for tabloid hacks and documentary crews, the theatre was surrounded by soldiers, medics, TV cameras, cops and onlookers. Journalists high-fived, police sucked on cigarettes with teenage girls bunking off school. Baked-potato and hot-dog vendors had come from across town and were having a field day. ‘Get your sausages here!’ they called. A hundred yards between jolliness and terror, between hot dogs and hostages. I was surprised. Weren’t we all meant to sit in silence, or something? Bite our nails? Pray?

Meanwhile inside the theatre the hostages were losing hope. The terrorists demanded that the president pull all federal forces out of the North Caucasus. The Kremlin said there was no way it would negotiate. The orchestra pit was being used as a toilet, the people in the front row were sweating from the stench. Rows of seats rattled as the hostages shook with fear. ‘When we die, how will I recognise you in paradise?’ a seven-year-old girl asked her mother.

The terrorists said they would welcome TV crews inside to give interviews live for Russian TV. The men spoke in heavy southern accents, usually used in Russian comedies. ‘We’ve come to die here for Allah. We’ll take hundreds of unbelievers with us.’

One of the black widows spoke to camera. She said she was from a secular family, but joined a sect when her father, husband and cousin were killed during the war with Russia. ‘If we die it’s not the end,’ she said calmly. ‘There are many more of us.’

My job was to stay outside and wait to see if anything went off while my bosses went back to their hotel. It drizzled. The rain was cold and salty. I drank warm beer, listening for an explosion or gunfire. There wouldn’t be any. At 5 a.m. on 26 October, the fourth day of the siege, special forces slipped an anaesthetic blended with an aerosol spray gas into the theatre’s ventilation system. A grey mist rose through the auditorium. Everyone was knocked out. Special forces in gas-masks went in and killed the Chechens. The soldiers celebrated a perfect operation. The darkness around me was lit up with the spotlights of news crews reporting a miracle of military brilliance.

Medics rushed in to resuscitate the audience. They hadn’t been warned about the gas. There weren’t enough stretchers. Weren’t enough medics. No one knew what the gas was so they couldn’t give the right antidote. Unconscious hostages, fighting for breath, were carried out and placed face up on the steps of the theatre. They choked on their tongues, on their vomit. In front of a thousand TV cameras, they were dragged through the puddles and dumped inside city buses. The buses pulled past me, the hostages slumped and sagging across the seats and on the wooden floors. In all, 129 hostages died: in the seats of the auditorium, on the steps of the theatre, in the buses. The news crews reported a self-inflicted catastrophe, victory turned to disaster in one news flash.

The Nord-Ost theatre siege was when television in Russia changed. No longer would there be anything uncontrolled, unvetted, un-thought-through. The conflict in the caucasus disappeared from TV, only to be mentioned in presidential announcements that the war is over, that billions are being invested, that everything is just fine, that Chechnya has been rebuilt, that tourism is booming, that Putin got 98 per cent of the vote, that the terrorists have been forced out to the hills and forests.

And yet, despite all the good news, black widows still regularly make the journey to Moscow and central Russia: last week one blew herself up on a bus in Volgograd, killing six people. When I lived in Moscow my journey to work in the morning took me along the underground line that black widows attacked in 2010, killing 38. The line stops by the coach station where the hot, overcrowded buses finish their fifty-hour trip from the Caucasus. The bombers got on the underground and blew themselves up a few stops into town. The buses get in early; the black widows completed their business by 8 a.m. The blood and glass and flesh and metal were quickly cleaned away. By the time I got on an hour later, the trains were up and running, the whole thing if not forgotten then out of mind.