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Chechens Seize Moscow Theater

Chechens Seize Moscow Theater

"The Shooting Began, We Covered Our Heads, But Then Everyone Fell Asleep"

Newspaper article

By: Julius Strauss, Ben Aris

Date: October 28, 2002

Source: "The Shooting Began, We Covered Our Heads, But Then Everyone Fell Asleep," published in the Daily Telegraph.

About the Author: The Daily Telegraph newspaper has been published in London since 1855.


Just after 9:00 p.m. on October 23, 2002, the second act of Nord-Ost (Northeast), a popular romantic musical play, was just beginning after an intermission at a theater in the Dubrovka area of Moscow, Russia. Suddenly, about forty to fifty heavily armed Chechen terrorists, more than a third of them women, stormed the theater and took some 800 audience members, actors, and staff hostage. Firing rifles into the air, the terrorists announced a single demand: that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from the largely Muslim republic of Chechnya in the Caucasus Mountain region.

The terrorists were clad in black with only their eyes exposed. Many, particularly the women, held pistols and had cables running to explosive packs attached to their belts. Most of the men bore Kalashnikov rifles as they worked their way through the building, attaching explosives to walls, pillars, and patrons' seats and threatening to blow the theater up if they met with resistance. The hostages later noted that the women, some of them likely widows of Chechen separatists who had been killed by Russian troops during years of warfare, seemed almost more determined than the men—and more willing to sacrifice their own lives.

The terrorists were led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of a slain Chechen military leader. During the siege, Barayev released a videotaped statement announcing the terrorists' demands.

On October 24 and 25, the terrorists released about fifty-four hostages, including Muslims and preteen children. Some hostages were shot to death as they tried to escape through windows, but a few succeeded in getting away. The terrorists set a deadline of October 26 and threatened to begin killing hostages if their demands were not met.

Early in the morning of October 26, commandos from Russia's Federal Security Service launched a raid on the theater by pumping an aerosol anesthetic into the building to render the terrorists unconscious. The commandos then stormed the building. By the time the raid had ended, they had shot some forty of the terrorists, many of whom were already unconscious. Approximately 120 hostages lost their lives; some had been shot by the terrorists, but others died from a combination of dehydration, the aerosol, and inadequate medical treatment in part because the Russian government initially refused to disclose the nature of the anesthetic. The Russian health minister later revealed that the aerosol contained fentanyl, an opiate that is eighty times more powerful than morphine.


In the end it was a frightened little boy who triggered the end of the Moscow siege. "Mummy, I don't know what to do anymore," he shouted. Then he threw a bottle at a Chechen woman guarding him and fled towards the exit.

For the terrorists it was too much. One casually raised his Kalashnikov and fired, missing the boy and hitting a row of hostages.

Olga Chernyak, a journalist who had been among the hostages from the beginning, said: "They opened fire but they missed. Instead they hit the people sitting around him.

"One man was hit exactly in the eye and there was a lot of blood, bubbling blood."

For the Russian special forces monitoring the unfolding drama from the tunnels under the theatre, the killing was the signal to move.

Authorities had decided early in the siege that they would attack if hostages were executed and a plan had been readied.

For days they had been secretly practising at the Meridian Theatre on nearby Profsouznaya Street. Plain-clothes policemen had been deployed to guard the perimeter and keep curious onlookers away.

Gas was pumped into the building's ventilation system and one hostage, Sergei Novikov, said: "I didn't know what was happening. We heard shouts and explosives and then we felt a tightening in our throats.

"The terrorists had warned us that if we tried to hide under the seats when an attack came they would blow up their bombs. So everybody just covered their faces with their arms. I was paralysed, I couldn't breathe. I thought the end had come."

Oleg Zyogonov said. "The rebels knew that an assault was coming. They forced the hostages to pray. At that time we really thought we were done for."

Then a light mist began to fall from the ceiling. The hostages smelt gas.

"A panic started among us and people were screaming, 'Gas, gas!' and, yes, there was shooting," said the theatre's technician, Georgi Vasilev.

"But then everyone quickly fell down. I was told later by a woman while we were in hospital together that she didn't fall asleep immediately because she covered her mouth and nose." She said it was very strange to look at everyone.

"When the shooting began, they told us to lean forward in the seats and cover our heads. But then everyone fell asleep. And the rebels were sitting there with their heads thrown back and their mouths wide open."

Another witness said: "After the first shots the gas came in. I saw a terrorist sitting at the scene jump up and try to get a gas mask. Then he convulsed, tried again to put the mask to his face and fell."

Olga Chernyak said: "We assumed that there would be an assault, when gas started to come in, and we were happy. After this I don't remember anything because I regained consciousness only in hospital."

By the time of the attack, many of the hostages were at their wits' end. Yesterday they painted a picture of increasing psychological terror as the siege progressed.

Throughout the three days they had been threatened by the Chechens with decapitation. Sometimes they were beaten or shouted at. Whispering conversations of encouragement amongst themselves was all they had to keep their moral up.

They had not been allowed to move out of their seats except to go to the lavatory in the orchestra pit under the stage. That became so loathsome that the hostages tried to drink as little water as possible to reduce the need. One man was beaten because he climbed out of the orchestra pit the wrong way. "He was beaten, kicked, it was awful," said a witness.

Day and night the rebels wandered among the hostages. Sometimes they said nothing, at other times they threatened or cajoled. As time went on the hostages were increasingly tormented.

"They wouldn't let us sleep and they harassed us with music and light. 'Don't sit like that, sit up straight,' the rebels shouted at us," said Olga Chernyak.

"Their music was Islamic music and they had tapes. The tough men slept a few hours, taking turns on mattresses that they brought from somewhere. The guards weren't worn down, but they were wearing us down, to break our will."

Many said that the 18 Chechen women were worse than the men. They talked constantly of becoming martyrs and taking all the hostages with them. Each had 4.5lbs of explosives around their bodies packed with nails and ball-bearings, designed to inflict maximum damage.

The Chechens marched among the hostages, threatening to kill 10 an hour if the authorities did not meet their demands. When they heard noises from outside, late on Friday evening, they dispersed themselves among the hostages, preparing to blow themselves up. In the event they didn't get the chance.

When the attack came, the gas appears to have confused the rebels. By the time they decided to act it was too late.

Another witness said that, crucially, the batteries to trigger the explosives and bring the building down were kept separately. The Chechens had no time to reach them. As the special forces poured into the theatre there was a series of explosions. Alpha special forces troops blew a hole in the side of the theatre to gain access at the back while others climbed out of the sewers in the basement.

Anya Andreyanova, a reporter for the Moskovskaya Pravda, was on a mobile phone and talking live to a radio station as the attack was launched.

"We are begging," she screamed into the phone as a stunned Moscow listened in. "Please guys, don't leave us." There were more shots and explosions. "Can you hear this?" she yelled. "We are about to be blown to the devil."

At the time of the attack, the terrorist leader, Movsar Barayev, was on the phone with Ali Asayev, a Chechen in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku who was trying to secure the release of three American hostages.

"I heard the shooting, and the American representative heard it too," said the negotiator. "Then the phone went dead."

The elite Alpha forces headed the storming of the theatre. In an interview given to a Russian newspaper one of the soldiers said: "The main thing was that we managed to eliminate the kamikaze women."

The Russians shot them, point blank, in the head. "I understand that this is cruel," he said. "But when there are two kilos of plastic explosive hanging on a person, we saw no other way of rendering them safe."

As the fumes cleared, experts rushed into the theatre to defuse the explosives in the building. Bodies and unexploded ordnance were strewn around, the floors stained red with blood.

Barayev lay dead, sprawled in a bloody mess. A Russian soldier placed an unopened bottle of brandy in his hand, apparently a crude attempt to discredit him in the eyes of Muslims.

Other rebels appeared to be sleeping. A female militant dressed in black was slumped forward on her hands. The head of another had fallen back, her mouth slightly open.

Rescue workers arriving in the main hall found it littered with bodies of dead and unconscious hostages. They began sorting through the crowd to find survivors.

"We had to step over bodies to get in," said Vadim Mikhailov, one of the first rescuers on the scene. "We were trying to figure out how hurt they were, who was alive, who was dead. We would run up to each one and take their pulse to see if they were alive."

They began smashing the windows in the foyer to let air in.

Mikhailov said that when he made it into the auditorium there was blood everywhere, but what shocked him most was the smell. "It was a horrible smell, excrement and urine."

He added: "Some could walk, barely. Others had to be carried. But even the ones who had to be carried could-n't talk. They just signaled with their hands."

By 6.30 a.m., as the first light came into the sky, a scene of mayhem was unfolding on the steps of the theatre. Special forces soldiers carried the lifeless bodies of the hostages into the open air and laid them out on the cold stone, one by one.

In the auditorium the toxic gas had failed to disperse as quickly as predicted and many of the hostages were in rapidly worsening conditions. Some were already dead.

The gas was taking its toll on some of the soldiers too. One was on hands and knees on the tarmac in pain while another washed his face in a dirty puddle to clear the vomit from his mouth.

In an attempt to vacate the theatre as soon as possible, the soldiers simply dumped the lifeless forms as they brought them out, right by the front door. Soon there was a sprawling mess of dozens of hostages, lying dead and dying.

Some had their heads thrown back and eyes wide open in a grimace of death. Others lay twitching. Two soldiers passed among the bodies, one slapping faces to try to bring them back to life. The other administered heart massages with one hand.

A few minutes later the ambulances began arriving. Within the next half an hour, more than 100 were loaded with the sick, but it was still not enough and buses had to be commandeered to help with the task.

A few hundred yards away, the ambulances stopped to separate the dead from the living. Doctors quickly checked pulses. The dead were zipped into black body bags, while the living continued their journey.

Witnesses described how one woman was thrown in with the dead. A doctor checked her again on a whim and found a weak pulse. She was transferred back to the ambulance.

Amid the mayhem, Russian authorities were quick to claim that the operation had been a success.

They briefed diplomats that only 10 to 20 hostages had died. Later the figured was upped to 36, then 90. By yesterday night it had topped 120 and was expected to climb higher still.


The Moscow theater siege was the latest in a line of terrorist incidents involving Chechen separatists. The violence continued in 2004, when Chechens seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, and held up to a thousand hostages, most of them children, for three days before Russian special forces stormed the building.

In 2000, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin had been elected in part based on a campaign promise to end the violence in Chechnya, which had been mounting a terror campaign for independence since 1991. By 2002, many Russians had come to regard the campaign in Chechnya as a quagmire, similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979–1989).

In the aftermath of the Moscow theater siege, many Russians, as well as other nations, alleged that Putin was using Chechen violence as a pretext for strengthening his personal power, as well as that of the Russian state. The government, for example, tightened media censorship because of its displeasure about coverage of the siege and the raid that ended it. The Russian parliament passed a law restricting press coverage of terrorist incidents and refused to appoint a commission to investigate the incident—and perhaps ask troubling questions about why so many of the hostages died and the government's decision to withhold information from medical personnel treating victims. Foreign governments also objected to initial Russian secrecy about the nature of the gas used in the raid.

In the months that followed, Putin took a hard-line stance in Chechnya. On October 28, 2002, Russian forces reported killing about thirty rebels in a battle outside Grozny. The government also tried to have Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev extradited from England, believing that he had a hand in the theater siege, though this effort proved unsuccessful and Zakayev was given political asylum in England. Meanwhile, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for planning the siege and apologized to Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov for not informing him of the raid, although Russian authorities assert that they have evidence that Maskhadov knew that it was being planned.



Meier, Andrew. Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict. New York: Norton, 2004.

Web sites

Donahoe, John J. "The Moscow Hostage Crisis: An Analysis of Chechen Terrorist Goals." Strategic Insights 2, no. 5 (May 2003). <> (accessed July 2, 2005).

U.S. State Department. "Terrorist Designation Under Executive Order 13224 Islamic International Brigade, Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, and Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs." Press release dated February 28, 2003. <> (accessed July 2, 2005).

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