Dueling documentaries Russian state television airs new film about Beslan school siege in competition with independent investigators who say state officials bear responsibility for high death toll
On September 3, the Russian state television network Rossiya 1 premiered a new documentary film by journalist Alexander Rogatkin about the 2004 terrorist attack against a school in Beslan.
The promo for Rogatkin’s film, titled simply “Beslan,” is a barrage of upsetting questions: “How were cutthroats armed to the teeth able to reach the school and why was it guarded by just a single police officer — an unarmed woman? How was the attack planned and who was responsible? What does Nurpashi Kulaev, the one terrorist who was captured alive, say about this? Who’s spreading myths that the terrorists aren’t to blame for the deaths of children, and who really fired flamethrowers at the school?” The state TV network airing the documentary promises that it contains “unique testimonies from hostages and special forces agents who saved children.”
The film comprises excerpts from interviews with several dozen people directly involved in the school siege. Much of “Beslan” is devoted to criticizing the theory that most of the hostages who died were killed by shelling from grenade launchers positioned atop a nearby building and not, as the Russian government claims, by the explosions of bombs planted by the terrorists. Yuri Savelyev, a member of the Parliamentary committee that investigated the attack and who refused to sign its final report, was the first to allege that the authorities’ actions are what caused so much bloodshed. Savelyev’s comments also appear in Rogatkin’s film.
The documentary argues that later forensic experiments refuted Savelyev’s version of events, and Rogatkin warns that journalists and media outlets “funded by Western grants” are the main proponents of the theory that Russia’s special forces are responsible for the deaths of hostages. He singles out the reporters Arkady Babchenko (who now lives in Ukraine and faked his own assassination in 2018) and Elena Milashina (an investigative journalist who’s cataloged numerous human rights violations in the North Caucasus).
Before the film aired on television, it was screened at the school in Beslan where the terrorist attack actually occurred. “Mothers of Beslan” Committee Chairperson Susanna Dudieva told the news outlet MBK Media that this was done at the Federal Security Service’s behest, despite the fact that officials have prohibited screenings of other documentaries at the school in the past.
“I asked our district officials why they haven’t allowed us to show new films when we’ve asked, but they agreed to screen this one. They said it was on some kind of orders from the Federal Security Service, and they were just doing as they were told,” said Dudieva, adding that she believes that Rogatkin created his film to counter journalist Yury Dud’s hit documentary “Beslan: Remember,” released in September 2019.
Olga Allenova, the author of the book “Outpost: Beslan and Its Hostages,” has echoed this sentiment on Facebook, where she wrote: “Dud’s film has been viewed by more than 20 million people. They couldn’t just let that go. They had to cut it off. All’s fair in ideological war.” Allenova also said she spoke to several locals in Beslan about Rogatkin’s new documentary and everyone apparently hated it. She says some called the new film “a mockery of the dead and the hostages who survived.” In an op-ed published in the newspaper Kommersant, Allenova also argued that the Russian government “pretends that Beslan never happened,” treating the school siege like a weakness it must conceal.
Dud released his three-hour-long documentary in September 2019 on the Beslan terrorist attack’s 15th anniversary. In the video, uploaded to YouTube, Dud argues that the Russian state should provide comprehensive care to everyone who suffered in the siege if the authorities committed mistakes that caused their suffering. He also discusses the theory that the explosions responsible for killing many of the hostages may have been due to the uncoordinated actions of the Russian special forces who stormed the school.
When the film was released, it enraged many pro-Kremlin journalists and pundits, who called Dud a “hypocrite” and a “poor man’s [Leonid] Parfyonov” (the producer and author of many popular TV documentaries). Some critics even advocated legal action against Dud, proposing that Russia’s censor block access to the video under Russia’s law against “fake news” and prosecute Dud for spreading false information.
Alexander Rogatkin has in fact acknowledged that Yury Dud’s documentary influenced his decision to create his own film about the Beslan attack. “I wanted to get to the bottom of it,” Rogatkin told the state news agency RIA Novosti. “A year ago, we got films by Yury Dud and Novaya Gazeta, endorsing these alternative points of view. They raised important questions but, for some reason, they clung to biased theories.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock