Not so long ago, an armed group of Islamist militants seized a theater in a major European city during an event with roughly a thousand people in attendance. After special forces finally raided the building and killed the hostage-takers, more than a hundred civilians lay dead. This was Moscow’s 2002 Nord-Ost siege, when at least 40 Chechen separatists took 850 people hostage at the Dubrovka Theater. The siege lasted four days and three nights, resulting in a controversial decision by Russia’s special forces to flood the theater with knockout gas, which accidentally killed 130 hostages.
With the tragic attacks in Paris earlier this month (particularly the massacre at the Bataclan Theater, which claimed 89 lives), many Russians are now remembering how bullets and bombs littered their own capital thirteen years ago.
On November 15, 2015, blogger Anastasia Nikolaeva published an interview with a man who says he was one of the hostages who survived the Nord-Ost siege. The man, another LiveJournal user who writes under the name Maksi2278 (and provided a scan of his hospital release papers from October 2002), described what it was like to be held captive for days, how he came to feel about the men and women who promised to murder him, and how the experience helped shape his support for Russia’s military intervention in the North Caucasus. Runet Echo presents Nikolaeva’s interview translated into English.
Anastasia Nikolaeva: Were you there the whole time? Were you alone? What happened with the use of the gas? As I understand it, you believe that the Russian special forces actly correctly? How were you helped afterwards?
Maksi2278: Yes, I was there from the very beginning all the way up to when the theater was stormed.
I wasn’t there alone—I was with two female friends. One of them died. Her name was Masha Panova. You can Google it. My other friend survived, and she’s fine now.
Using the gas was the right call, I think. And I think our special forces handled themselves like true professionals. Admittedly, I didn’t see the assault itself. I passed out. The last thing I remember is how this smoke started pouring out from the orchestra pit, and Mr. Vasiliev ran over there with a fire extinguisher. Everyone thought there’d been a short circuit (there was a bathroom in the orchestra pit and things had gotten quite wet).
The next thing I remember is waking up in intensive care at Hospital Number 13. Clinically, I’d actually died, but they were able to revive me.
At the hospital, everyone who could—even some patients—were helping out. It was pretty close to the Dubrovka Theater—walking distance even—and it’s where they brought most of the hostages [after they were rescued]. My friend was brought to Sklifosovsky Hospital, which is much farther away.
So everyone was helping out. Like they were helping to carry people from place to place, and so on. When I woke up, all around me were several doctors, and I remember that I wanted a glass of water desperately and needed to use the bathroom. I couldn’t go in a bedpan, though, and I couldn’t make it to the toilet on my own. A couple of women doctors basically had to carry me over their shoulders to the bathroom. :)
After a few hours had passed, I started feeling almost normal again. They kept me there another couple of days, and then I was released. The hospital was cordoned off. There were even special forces guys with automatic weapons in the hallways.
From what I understand, they didn’t take any hostages [at the concert hall in Paris]. The attackers just slaughtered those were were present. At the Nord Ost, the authorities aren’t criticized for storming the theater, per se, but for failing to save more hostages, which they theoretically could have.
Yes that’s true, but there were several dozen experienced fighters at Nord Ost, not four youngsters. The Nord Ost terrorists also mined the entire theater and controlled not just the main hall, but the whole building and even some of the street.
Could the authorities have saved all the gas victims? Who the hell knows. Here you’ve got to take into account the situation and the condition of the hostages. On the one hand, you need absolute secrecy, and for God’s sake you can’t let the journalists sniff out the preparation for the assault. On the other hand, the hostages had been in the building for a very long time, sitting in uncomfortable chairs in the same position, without food and without even enough water. For instance, I only got up and went to the bathroom twice during the whole thing. And the stress was absolutely monstrous, of course. In other words, everyone was extremely weakened. Could the authorities have taken all this into account? Could there have been more ambulances and first aid ready, with roadways to hospitals cleared, and enough doctors on staff? Sure, probably. And maybe not. In the end, they saved 90 percent of the hostages and that’s an enormous success. We were very lucky.
It wasn’t the people who organized our rescue or the “slow-moving” medics who killed the victims—it was the armed men and women who came to our peaceful city, to a theater, to kill civilians. Did you know that most of the people in the theater audience were women and children?
Of course, the situation [at the concert hall in Paris] is very different, but the fact is that three of the four terrorists blew themselves up, after they fired all their ammunition at the crowd and at police officers. In other words, the assault against these men failed. Of course, it’s impossible to blame [the police] for this—I think they did everything they could.
It just seems to me that, by the results alone, these two terrorist attacks are similar. Of course, the situations were different.
I want to ask you: did you see anything “human” in the terrorists [who seized the Dubrovka theater]?
Yes, I most definitely saw some humanity. I was sitting in the fifteenth row on the ground level, and not far from me stood a young woman suicide bomber. I tried to talk to her, and a couple of times she even answered me, but the older ones noticed and said something to her, and she stopped responding to me.
I remember her eyes. Afterwards, I often dreamt of them.
I talked to her about letting the women and children go: “What did they ever do to you? If you’re burning so bad to fight, take it to our officials. They’re the ones who started the war.”
To this, she said, “Our families—everyone’s families—have died in the war that you started. They weren’t guilty of anything, either, and there were women and children among them, too.”
Then I said, “Well, let’s say you kill us all right now. Can you imagine what the Russian Army, in retaliation for our deaths, would do next?” And this suddenly had an effect on her. She was thinking about it, and then they shouted her out of it.
There was another terrorist there, Yasser, who walked around without a mask, and was sort of a “good cop,” as opposed to this complete thug they called “Abubakar.” Yasser talked to people like a normal human being, and he listened carefully to people who, for instance, were asking something on behalf of the sick. But if Abubakar said anything, it was just a bunch of threats: we’ll cut your heads off, you’re all gonna die, you swine, I hate you, and so on. And on the first night, he executed a young woman. They just stood her up in the exit way and he emptied his automatic weapon into her.
I also remember hearing a conversation between other hostages and a woman suicide bomber. She grabbed a mobile phone from one of the hostages and said, “Hmm, this thing is cool. How nice that you have such phones, and we don’t.” The thing is, she was genuinely impressed and honestly thought it was “cool.” This is back when mobile phones were still really basic.
And there was their commander, Movsar Barayev. Now, at the time, we were completely overwhelmed and we didn’t know it was Barayev. We just heard them call him “Movsar.” The name sounds strange to Russian ears, and I remember thinking it must have been his nickname—something like “Mozart.” :) Generally speaking, he was relatively calm—the way he behaved. He wasn’t especially rude, and he didn’t kill or beat anyone himself.
Maybe that’s how we saw that not all the terrorists were complete thugs, and “Stockholm Syndrome” set in, and people started believing that they could reach some deal with the terrorists and we could all survive, if right now we could send just one message or make just a single phone call.
I’ll tell you about another moment: after a failed assault on the theater (on the first morning, they sort of tried to storm the building), they blew up a wall somewhere and knocked out some windows, not in the main concert hall, but nextdoor. And there was a strong draft, and it was very cold. The hostages begged for clothes from the coat check. Eventually, [the terrorists] gave in, and a few guys brought the coats over, dropped them in a pile where we were sitting, and started handing them out. I saw my coat and I stood up, saying, “Please give me that one—it’s my coat.” Then one of the terrorists poked me with his automatic weapon and said (verbatim), “You’ll manage without it, buddy. Take a seat. You’re pretty enough already.” :) And I really was quite “dressed up.” I was in a good suit. :) I’m not sure what you make of it, but at the time we all thought this was pretty funny, and people all around had a good laugh.
And I can tell you about another time: there was a moment in the main concert hall, when suddenly in the radio room (the window above the auditorium, where the theater’s operator sits) the news broadcast stopped and a rather cheerful song by the band Scooter started playing. And people in the theater noticeably started to perk up—some of them were even singing along. But this didn’t last long, of course.
It’s just impossible to imagine: people are living, while there’s still life, and they’re even singing along to the radio… I read about this before, but I’ve never heard it before from an eyewitness.
Well, we were there for a very long time. We didn’t sleep and we didn’t eat. We just sat there and waited. Mostly it was just numbness and panic attacks, when you lost feeling in your feet or you had a spark of hope that we’d be rescued, and you’d start twitching all over. You’d start talking quietly with someone next to you, but you’d put as much energy into speaking in a whisper as you’d normally use to scream. You’d think over all your options, choose every word carefully, listen insatiably to every word the terrorists uttered and every phrase that you could overhear on the news. Then the apathy would return, and there’d suddenly be more gunfire. For a moment, people would fall to the ground between the rows of seats, and Barayev would yell at us to stay standing, otherwise they’d execute anybody who ducked down. But everyone would still fall to the ground. It was like an instinct.
Did you find yourself having any feelings of sympathy toward the terrorists? Maybe something like, “Damn, this girl’s actually really cute.” Was the girl cute, by the way?
Her face was covered. Only her eyes were visible. They were hazel and very beautiful. She was clearly very young. But I didn’t feel any sympathy, except maybe toward Yasser. Thanks to him, we got bottles of water, for instance. I didn’t feel hatred, either. I experienced only two things: fear and the desire to survive. My brain was racing at a hundred miles a minute, searching for ways to live. And the absolutely strangest ideas came into my head: escape plans, plans to get the hostages together to attack the terrorists, or even a way to give the terrorists what they wanted, so they’d let us go.
Although, they took the men’s passports and looked at our military service records. If you were in the army reserve, it meant you’d be first in line to be shot. That’s what they said to us, so I didn’t have much hope of surviving.
Was there anyone without a passport? What happened with these people?
Not only were there people without their passports, but there were people who hid them. Some men had military cards with them, not passports, and they either hid them or tossed them away. I myself saw a few military cards tossed into the orchestra stalls from the balcony. You see, the terrorists promised to execute or behead any soldiers or KGB agents on sight.
In practice, if someone was missing his passport, they’d just keep an eye on that person and promise to kill him later. But they never ended up doing this. There were no executions without clear reasons. They just never worked up to it, though they were finally ready to start executing hostages, just before the police raided the theater. If memory serves correctly, they wanted to shoot 10 people every hour. But they executed no one without a reason.
What do you mean “without a reason”? They shot and killed a young girl, you said…
Well, if you ask me, there was a reason. As I found out later, this girl had come to the theater after she learned about the hostage crisis. They caught her near the main doors and took her into the concert hall, where they brought her to Movsar Barayev, who started to interrogate her in front of everyone. The terrorists thought she was one of the FSB’s scouts. Later we learned that she was just someone who lived nearby—from basically the neighboring building. But none of this was clear then, and the terrorists didn’t believe a single word she said. At the same time, she made a show of defiance and bravery, acting like she was on the verge of hysteria.
The dialogue was something like this:
Movsar: Who are you and why did you come here?
Girl: And who are you and why did you come to my city?
Movsar (to the whole concert hall): Ah yes, she’s a KGB agent, come to scout out the situation!
Girl: Get out of my city and my country! I don’t give a damn about you, and you don’t scare me!
Movsar (to Abubakar): Shoot her.
Then Abubakar took her by the arm, put her at the theater’s exit way (imagine a theater’s standard arrangement, where, close to the stage and to the left of the orchestra, there’s an exit leading out to the street that opens when a show or movie is through), and that’s where she was told to stand. The doors were opened a bit and Abubakar shot her point-blank. The girl fell to the floor dead. This was the only execution the entire concert hall witnessed. When they killed other people, they took them into the lobby, upstairs.
By the way, later on, they made some people who needed to use the restroom go to the one near where her body was lying. But I didn’t go.
Do you have any advice for people who, God forbid, find themselves in a similar situation?
My advice is to remain calm, don’t lose your head, don’t succumb to their taunting, and don’t draw any attention to yourself. Well, don’t do these things, as much as it’s possible not to. If you think gas might be used, get a piece of cloth ready and try to figure out how you could wet it, if you needed to. But the main thing is to keep your head and not go out of your mind.
In the theater, there was one man who truly lost his mind. He suddenly jumped up and ran along the backs of the chairs, throwing an empty bottle of Coke at one of the terrorists. They fired at him a few times, missing him but hitting some of the other hostages who were sitting quietly. They caught him, of course, dragged him out from the hall, and executed him. The whole time, he was absolutely silent and looking around crazily in every direction. The whole thing was so stupid and absurd.
Can you tell us if any psychologists worked with you after all this? Are you able to attend the theater today for concerts? I think I’d never go to the theater another day in my life, if it were me. :(
I was fairly young back then—just a little over twenty. A month later, I was back at the Taganka Theater [in Moscow] with my family. I do remember being a bit off. My family, incidentally, didn’t understand how I was feeling, at all. They were just, like, “What’s going on?” And back then it wasn’t so much that I was scared, but that the confined space was weighing on me, and filled me with a sense of anxiety. Not to mention that the Taganka is a pretty drab theater, in terms of architecture. It was an interesting feeling to know that people just don’t understand how easily and tragically their entertainment can come to an end. And it’s all so easy—so many people relaxing in one place…
But if people really want to blow something up, they can blow up anything. I’m sure of this. And there’s nothing you can put at the entrances that will stop them. By the way, at the entrance of the Dubrovka theater on the night of the Nord Ost show, there were some very serious-looking guards. I remember them well. These days, I attend concerts and plays calmly enough, but I don’t go all that often.
There were psychologists while I was in the hospital. There was one woman who would talk to me, though I don’t know exactly who she was. She would just let me talk, and she’d listen. But I’ve already forgotten the details.
What was your attitude about the Chechen conflict before the hostage crisis? Did the experience change how you felt? (For example, did you want Russia’s troops to come straight home?) And what was your attitude afterwards and has it changed over the years?
As best I can remember, my attitude about Chechnya before Nord Ost was the same as everyone’s: yes, we need to wipe out all the terrorists. During the siege, my attitude became something entirely different. I thought, “They say it’s pointless going in there. Let them withdraw the troops. Let the Chechens live on their own, and we’ll be on own our, and there will be peace throughout the world. After we were freed, not immediately but gradually, I came to realize that the good side in this conflict really is Russia. Back then, I read a lot about the issue, talked with people about it, and took a big interest in the subject.
Whatever one makes of the Chechen conflict, I came to another important realization after Nord Ost. It’s something most people, not having lived through such an experience, never guess: the reality is that, somewhere right now, there are people willing to kill or maim you. You’d never guess it, but they already seriously hate you, just because you’re not of their faith and nationality. Or maybe it’s not that they hate you, so much as they don’t think of you as a human being. And often people still talk about the war in the Caucasus like it is something far away—like it’s something that never affects them personally. In fact, it’s all at our doorstep.