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The ruins of the school in Beslan

‘He wanted to make sure those monsters don’t come back’ Alexey Ptakh, a hostage in the 2004 Beslan school siege, is now fighting in Ukraine. Meduza spoke to his mother.

Source: Meduza
The ruins of the school in Beslan
The ruins of the school in Beslan
Scott Peterson / Getty Images

On September 1, 2004, terrorists took 1,128 people hostage inside a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, including children, parents, and teachers. 333 people were killed and 783 were injured, making the siege one of the largest terrorist attacks in Russian history. Hostage No. 281 on the list compiled by Beslan teachers after the siege was then-15-year-old Alexey Viktorovich Ptakh. In 2022, his name appeared on a different list: the list of soldiers in the 34th Brigade from Vladikavkaz, which, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, is participating in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter spoke with Alexey Ptakh’s mother, Tatyana, about how her son ended up in the war.

— How old was your son when he was taken hostage in Beslan?

— He was in the ninth grade and he was 15 years old. He only managed to survive thanks to the friends and teachers he had around him. He had strength of mind — his guardian angel didn’t leave his side for three days.

It’s difficult to say how he took it all; we just learned to live with it somehow. He’s still in touch with his classmates, he has a lot of friends, and he still goes to visit his teachers, including the first teacher he ever had.

— What does Alexey do for a living?

— He’s an electrical engineer. He's a college graduate — he has a degree.

— How did he end up joining the army?

— I mean, have you been to Ossetia? Do you know how many jobs we have there? How many businesses there are? There’s the answer to your question.

After graduating from college, he joined the army and stayed there. There are basically no jobs at all here, just like in a lot of towns in Russia’s heartland. He’s a contract fighter — serving under contract is his job. Before the “special operation,” he signed a five-year contract. If he broke the contract, he’d lose all respect for himself; it's his career.

A lot of kids from the school here became either soldiers or doctors. They want to make sure what happened back then in their school doesn’t happen again. And to make the country better than it was when that happened.

terror in beslan

The siege through journalists’ eyes 15 years after a horrific terrorist attack in Beslan, ‘Meduza’ asks reporters on the ground what they remember

terror in beslan

The siege through journalists’ eyes 15 years after a horrific terrorist attack in Beslan, ‘Meduza’ asks reporters on the ground what they remember

— And do you think him serving in the army right now will help make the country better?

— That’s not for you and I to judge. But he put it like this: “My grandfather served in the army, my great-grandfather was a decorated soldier, my father served, and my uncle served. Why shouldn’t I join the army?

The way he sees it, being a man means being a defender. He decided he needed to do whatever it takes to make sure the kinds of comrades — not comrades, monsters —who came to his school don’t come to our country again.

— Did the state provide financial assistance since he was a victim of the Beslan terror attack?

— There were some benefits. They gave him money and we used it to buy an apartment.

— Have you been living in Beslan ever since then?

— We live right next door to the school. When they captured the school, when my son was there, it happened right before my eyes. We all saw it with our own eyes. We saw it straight from the balcony. As soon as it began, I ran to the school.

— You didn’t want to move away when it was all over?

— No, we’d already settled down here. And people treat us well here. We’re Russians; we live in a multiethnic republic, but I never feel unwelcome here. 90 percent of my son’s friends are Ossetians.

Relatives of the hostages with a sign reading “Putin!!! At least 800 people are being held hostage!” outside of the school. September 2, 2004. The authorities initially underreported the number of hostages in the school.
Eduard Kornienko / Kommersant

— Your son is currently serving in the Russian army on Ukrainian territory, if I’m not mistaken.

— We can’t give you any details about that — better for you to call the army headquarters. They can tell you exactly where he’s located. All we know is that he’s alive and healthy.

— Have you been in touch with him?

— Barely. We’re trying not to bother him; we’re just praying and waiting for him to come home.

— Are you able to get regular updates about how he’s doing?

— We were at the headquarters fairly recently. They’ve set up a special area where you can make an authorized call. If he happens to be nearby when we call, they call him over and we talk.

— For a long time?

— Five or ten minutes. I make sure he’s alive, he’s healthy, and everything’s fine. There’s nothing else to say; that’s enough for me as a mother.

— What is your son like as a person?

— He’s good-natured. Smart. A patriot. He’s a family man and a wonderful son. Attentive. He recently had a daughter.

— How do you view the events in Ukraine?

— How do you think I view fascists? How do you think I view the fact that during the Second World War, they locked my mother in a barn and wanted to burn her alive? Or the fact that they kidnapped infants and took their blood? How is this fascism any different from what happened in 1945?

— Have you seen the news about Russian war crimes in Bucha and Mariupol?

— I don’t believe those things. Knowing my son, I know he’d share his last bit of bread with you, and his comrades would, too. All that stuff is a false flag operation; my son would never shoot a child or a woman, I just know it. Do you trust your children? I trust my son 100 percent.

I remember how after the terrorist attack, they sent the two of us to relax and recover in Kislovodsk. There was a wedding there, an Armenian one. In the Caucasus, they use gunshots instead of fireworks at those kinds of events. They didn’t warn us about that. My son was 15 years old then. We had kids with us — the same age as him, a little younger. And when they started shooting behind the gate at the health resort, Alexei was the only one who didn’t run for cover. He grabbed two children in his arms and pulled them away from the gate.

In other words, he witnessed men getting shot in front of him at his school, and now you want to say he could do these things? I’ll never believe it. He has a completely different relationship to those kinds of things.

— Where do you get your news about the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and its progress?

— On television. Where do you get yours? Do you have a your own special informant? What, you think my son’s going to call me and say, ‘Mom, I feel awful, it’s so difficult here?’ He’s a warrior. I know he’s going to fight to the last to protect his Russia. It’s his Motherland, his mother; it’s a non-negotiable for him.

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Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Translation by Sam Breazeale