On the 23rd October 2002, a large group of Chechen separatists stormed the Dubrovka Theatre, Moscow, during a sold-out performance of popular Russian musical theatre production Nord-Ost. Around 850 audience members and performers were taken hostage. In a disastrous attempt to subdue the hostage-takers using an undisclosed chemical agent, Russian Spetsnaz special forces inadvertently killed as many as 300 hostages.
Russian control over the disputed state of Chechnya was re-established after a period of de facto independence during the Second Chechen War, which ended with a Russian victory in 2000 but continued as a prolonged campaign of insurgency by predominantly Islamist separatists. In an effort to force the Russian government to withdraw troops from Chechnya, militia leader Movsar Barayev led as many as 50 members of the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (SPIR) in storming the packed Dubrovka Theatre.
Shortly after 9pm, a bus parked in front of the theatre and armed gunmen poured into the theatre, firing guns in the air and taking most audience members and performers hostage. Around 90 people, predominantly those that had been working backstage, were able to escape or hide and summoned police help.
Barayev sent a video statement to Russian authorities and media, stating that unless Russian armed forces withdrew from Chechnya within a week he would begin to shoot Russian-born hostages. During the first day of what would become a four-day siege the separatists released between 150 and 200 people, including children, pregnant women, muslims and foreign nationals.
During the first night of the siege, a young woman who lived close to the theatre managed to cross the police cordon without being detected and entered the theatre. 26-year-old Olga Romanova made her way to the auditorium where the hostages were being held and began encouraging them to resist their captors. Assuming she was a FSB agent, the Chechens shot her dead. However, it was later confirmed that she was simply a civilian who had taken it upon herself to enter the siege.
Hostages were allowed to use mobile phones throughout the incident, reporting that the hostage-takers had planted explosives throughout the theatre and had improvised explosive devices and grenades strapped to their bodies. One female hostage called Russian authorities to plead with them not to storm the auditorium as increasing numbers of police and soldiers massed outside.
On the second day, October 24th, negotiations continued with the separatists reaffirming their demand that Russian troops be withdrawn from Chechnya. While the Kremlin stated that a withdrawal in just a week was impractical, they did (temporarily) cease the use of artillery and air strikes against insurgents.
Numerous high-profile political figures took part in negotiations, with the separatists also demanding the presence of representatives from both the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres. An offer to release 50 hostages if Akhmad Kadryov, the leader of Chechnya’s pro-Russian administration, came to the theatre was ignored. However, 39 further hostages were released throughout the day.
On 25th October, the Chechens asked to speak directly to an official representative of Russian president Vladimir Putin. On Putin’s authority FSB head Nikolai Patrushev offered to spare the lives of the terrorists if they released all of the hostages unharmed. The offer was ignored, but a further 19 hostages were released in two groups, including eight children. Doctors were allowed to enter the theatre and food, warm clothes and medicine were provided.
Late in the day, a man named Gennady Vlakh managed to slip through the police cordon and enter the theatre, much like Romanova had previously. He believed his son to be amongst the hostages. However, after finding that his son was not present, he was found by the Chechens, led away to another room and shot dead.
A few hours later, hostage Denis Gribkov is believed to have attempted to rush a number of separatists sitting near a large IED. One gunman opened fire at him and missed, badly wounding one hostage and killing another. He appears to have been quickly subdued and led away. His body was found after the auditorium was finally evacuated, having been taken to a separate room and executed.
Events came to a head on the morning of 26th October. Two Spetsnaz approaching the theatre were spotted and badly injured by shrapnel from a grenade thrown by the Chechens. Expecting a Russian assault the Chechens began firing their weapons, hitting nothing. After the shooting died down the Spetsnaz launched their raid, beginning at around 5am. Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev later stated that the raid was triggered by the execution of two female hostages.
The tactics used by Russian special forces became the most widely reported and controversial aspect of the siege. At around 5am, surviving hostages described a gas beginning to fill the theatre, with some stating it appeared from the ventilation system and others that it originated under the stage. Hostages and separatists alike quickly began to succumb to it, with panic spreading throughout the theatre as people began to lose consciousness. After leaving 30 minutes for the gas to take effect Russian forces stormed the theatre, finding the majority of the hostages and some Chechens overcome by the fumes.
A number of separatists had been wearing gas masks and were able to return fire, but the majority were gunned down in an intense firefight. Many of the attackers that had succumbed to the gas attack were shot dead where they lay. Russian Government reports state that fighting continued throughout the building for around 30 minutes, resulting in the arrest of three suspects and the deaths of the remainder.
At around 7am, evacuation efforts began. It quickly became apparent that the gas attack had a disastrous impact on the hostages. The foyer quickly filled with retrieved corpses that had no apparent gunshot or shrapnel wounds, but which foreign journalists described as possessing a waxy, pale appearance. An official press conference confirmed 67 hostages had been killed by the Chechens, but declined further comment. Armed guards were stationed around those hostages taken to hospital, on the grounds that some surviving gunmen could have hidden amongst them.
As a result of this many hostages remained unaccounted for, and accurate death figures are essentially impossible to come by. Researchers and media outlets have variously put the death toll amongst hostages between 200 and 300, including those that died due to complications from the gas attack in the subsequent twelve-month period. Official figures state 40 terrorists and 130 hostages were killed.
Up to 700 are thought to have survived the initial poisoning, with some suffering lifelong disabilities, termed second and third class disabilities by the former Soviet disability classification system that was still in use in Russia. The Director of the Russian Academic Bacteriology Centre has stated his belief that most, if not all, of the deaths from the gas were as a result of positional asphyxia, either from hostages’ heads slumping over the back of their chair or after they were left lying on their backs by rescuers, resulting in a tongue prolapse that choked them.
There has been much debate since regarding the type of gas used, which is assumed to be some form of aerosol anaesthetic. Some media speculated the use of a tranquiliser such as diazepam, or the anaesthetic halothane. Two days after the attack, Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko stated that they had used a derivative of fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for a growing number of fatalities worldwide and considerably more potent than diamorphine (heroin). Clothing samples from British survivors showed traces of remifentanil and carfentanil, both powerful painkillers derived from fentanyl.
Two days after the siege, Putin’s government launched unspecified ‘measures adequate to the threat’ to crack down on Chechnya. Plans to reduce troop numbers were cancelled, and over 30 resistance fighters were killed near the Chechen capital of Grozny. Wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation was introduced, including limits on media coverage of terrorist-related incidents, secret burials for terrorists and a ban on any media attempt to justify the aims of the hostage-takers. Warnings that such a badly bungled raid by Putin’s special forces would damage his popularity proved totally off the mark, with 83% of Russians reportedly stating they were satisfied with Putin’s handling of the siege and overall leadership in December 2002.
Feature Image: Members of Russia’s Elite Alpha Group, which took part in the assault. Note: image not taken during the 2002 crisis. Image: Wikicommons/SpetsnazAlpha