Putinology

The Ghosts of Beslan

Why the memory of a mass hostage-taking -- and the botched rescue attempt that followed -- continues to haunt Russia.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images
OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

On September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists seized a school in the town of Beslan in Russia’s North Caucasus region, taking over a thousand people hostage. Two days later Russian special forces stormed the school, triggering a full-scale battle with the hostage-takers. By the time it was all over, 334 people were dead, including 186 children.

The episode naturally deepened Russians’ hostility towards Chechen rebels and their fight to create an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus. But the massacre at School Number One also showcased the malaise at the heart of Russia’s system of government. The clumsiness with which security forces staged their attack on the hostage-takers seemed to attest to a complete lack of disregard for civilian life. Censorship and disinformation marred official communications with the public. Nor was anyone within the Kremlin ever brought to account for the disaster.

And so it was that many Russians came to hope that the aftermath of Beslan would lead to positive change, cleansing the country’s spirit and conscience. After Beslan, some believed, no officials in Russia would dare to remain corrupt or tell lies. Unfortunately, the tears shed that black September did not purify the nation’s heart. Beslan did not lead to a rethink. The authorities continued to mute the voices of victims, to crack down on whistleblowers, and to feed the population lies and propaganda.

The same bitter questions that victims of Beslan posed to the authorities during the days of funerals continue to linger today. (The photo above was taken at a memorial ceremony on a street in St. Petersburg earlier this month.) Today, the Kremlin talks grandly of a Russian Spring, of a new ideology that will buttress the defense of Russians everywhere, of a powerful state capable of standing up to the harshest critics of Vladimir Putin in the West. But the parents who lost their children during the botched rescue operation on September 3, 2004, don’t accept the premise that a leader can build a state without being honest with its people, by hiding facts and giving false information.

In Beslan, Emma Tagayeva still wants to know with all her heart why her husband and children lost their lives on that day. She wants to know the truth — just as Yelena Tumanova, from the northern city of Kozmodemyansk, wants to know why her son, 20-year-old Anton Tumanov, ended up in Ukraine, where he was killed last month. He was supposed to be doing his military service inside Russia. The lack of an official explanation for his death shows that the same lack of accountability brought to light in Beslan continue to plague Russia today.

There is a long list of questions from Beslan that still remain unanswered to this day. Who, for example, gave the order to launch rocket-propelled grenades at the main school building, which was stuffed with people and explosives? Why did the security forces allow 32 heavily armed terrorists to drive through a police checkpoint on September 1 in trucks loaded with weapons and explosives — despite official protestations that everything was being done to maintain security across the region?

Beslan was not the first instance of a mass hostage-taking in Russia (though so far it has been the last). Two years before Beslan, Islamic terrorists took some 800 hostages at the Moscow Dubrovka theater. The authorities responded with a special operation that filled the theater with sleeping gas. All 41 of the terrorists died — and 129 of the hostages. In 1995, Chechen separatists seized 2,000 hostages in a hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk, and a year later they repeated the same violent act by taking 3,000 hostages in a hospital in Dagestan’s Kizlyar. Mass hostage-taking incidents made heroes of the terrorists in the Islamic underground. But the fiasco in Beslan seems to have put an end to that pattern.

The challenge facing Russian commanders in all of these cases was to negotiate with the hostage-takers without giving them anything, a conundrum that few would have been able to solve. But critics say that something else was involved: The reputation of Vladimir Putin. "It was Putin who gave the command to fire at the school and now gave the command to fire at Ukraine, so the pattern repeats itself: the regime makes its own face and safety the priority, not the people’s safety," said political satirist Viktor Shenderovich. "Except that the scale of destruction and evil that this leads to in a foreign state is mind-blowing." Shenderovich told me that, since Beslan, he’s stopped making jokes.

Those who witnessed Beslan, still inconsolable, repeat the same words tens years on: "We mean nothing to them. They don’t care about human lives." Dozens of survivors agree that the first explosion launched by Russian counterterrorism forces broke through the ceiling of the gym, causing the roof to collapse on the hostages who were sitting beneath it. The authorities, meanwhile, insist that the Russian military refrained from using heavy weapons until the survivors had left the school. This debate between officials and the families of the victims goes on today.

A brochure distributed by the Memorial Human Rights Center, the Moscow-based civil society group, provides a detailed account of the battle. It makes a strong case that the first shots fired came from outside the school. It’s part of an investigation launched by Duma member Yuri Savelyev — an investigation that has never been completed, for reasons that remain unclear.

Why can’t the Russian authorities mark the 10-year anniversary of Beslan by completing the official investigation? Truth would also serve the memory of the brave special operation soldiers, from the elite Alpha group, who died rescuing the wounded Beslan victims. Suzanna Dudiyeva, who leads a local civic group called the Beslan Mother’s Committee, told me that the problem is "the corrupt liars at the very top who never change, hoping Russia will forget about their crimes." Officials respond that not everything has to have a conspiracy behind it, and that decision-makers sometimes get confused despite having the best intentions.

Beslan still lives in this crushing uncertainty. The mothers have not given up fighting for their rights. They’ve sued the authorities for negligence, and they continue to lobby for the compensation that they say was promised to them. Listing important points neglected by the official investigation, Savelyev also pointed out that some of the bodies of hostages allegedly killed by the terrorists later disappeared. "Such things were done to make the number of hostages smaller," Savelyev told the newspaper Kommersant earlier this month.

The town of 37,000 is still haunted by discrepancies in the official record. State television channels quoted President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, as saying there were only 354 hostages inside the school. To the relatives who crowded together outside the school, it was obvious there were far more inside on that hot stuffy day — people from almost every household in the town, hungry, dehydrated, exhausted by the heat, and terrified by the thought of death. In Beslan they believe that somewhere, someday, something will happen that will allow the truth to be told. There was no reason to hide it at the time. Back then the whole world was on Russia’s side.

Last week, Rain TV, Russia’s only remaining independent television channel, aired a film called The Committee, which told the story of the Beslan mothers’ 10-year struggle for the truth. In one of the scenes, Marina, a coordinator for a rehabilitation center, talks about her expectation that the searing experience of Beslan would somehow make the country change for better. But Russia has stayed the same. Evil and unfairness live on. "That made many of us depressed," she says.

Back in Soviet times, some dissidents believed that it would be enough to publish Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s expose of the prison camp system for the Soviet Union to fall apart, destroying the brutal machine of the KGB for all time. The book came out decades ago, but many of the harsh methods practiced in Soviet times remain Russian reality. Official indifference to Beslan’s pain may have depressed the mothers, but they’ve refused to give up. On October 14, the European Court of Human Rights will begin hearings on a case they’ve brought before it, demanding justice for the loss of their loved ones in September 2004. If they can’t find answers in Moscow, perhaps their testimony will count for something in Strasburg.

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

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