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‘While we rushed between morgues the authorities gave each other medals’ 20 years ago, terrorists captured a Moscow theater. The father of one of their victims speaks about how the events changed Russia (or didn’t).
Interview by Kristina Safonova. English-language version by Emily Laskin.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, on October 23, 2002, terrorists seized Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater during a sold-out showing of the musical Nord-Ost. They took more than 900 people hostage. The terrorists mined the building, keeping people inside. On the morning of October 26, authorities pumped a toxic gas into the theater and then stormed it. They called the operation a success, despite the fact that 130 people died during the siege and the government’s assault, including 119 deaths in the hospital after the theater’s liberation. Among the hostages were Dmitry Milovidov’s two daughters – the older of them, 14-year-old Nina, was killed. Now Milovidov is acting chairman of the Nord-Ost organization, which brings together the surviving hostages and victims’ families. For many years, he has openly criticized the Russian government, which did not conduct a standard investigation into what happened in the Dubrovka Theater. Meduza spoke to Milovidov about why Russian society hasn’t learned any lessons from the Nord-Ost siege, and how those events are connected to the war in Ukraine today.
Meduza: How many interviews have you given in the past few days?
Dmitry Milovidov: Close to ten already.
Does it upset you that most people remember Nord-Ost only on the anniversary of events, but you and your family live with it?
I’m more worried about the authorities’ attitude. To this day, there are no laws about assistance for victims of the attack. On September 2  – the only day of the year that’s designated as a Day of Solidarity with the victims – there was supposed to be a roundtable with 50 people in the Legislative Assembly in St. Petersburg. [It was supposed to be attended by] interested official parties and representatives from organizations which bring together victims of terrorist attacks (there are a lot of them now, unfortunately, and their numbers are growing). But the roundtable was canceled, ostensibly because of a COVID-19 outbreak. At the same time, the “We will live!” concert, scheduled for 2,000 people the next day, took place in October Hall. It’s a double standard.
People want answers from us. In those first, frightening October days [in 2002], random people would come up to us in the cemetery and say, “It’s not old [Soviet] times anymore. You have to figure out [why people died at Nord-Ost]. Otherwise how can we raise our children?”
Every October 26, people bring flowers to the Dubrovka Theater in memory of the victims. Have you ever missed a year?
There was one year , when we did a “walk through” version of the traditional commemoration, because of COVID-19. Small groups of people could approach, I announced a minute of silence every half hour, people laid flowers and left.
On normal days do you go to the Dubrovka on purpose? Or do you avoid it?
It’s not on my normal route. But I try to do interviews there, so that people will understand the space, what happened, and maybe even try to get information themselves.
There are some very clear examples: while we were cleaning up [flowers, candles, and photographs of the victims] the day after the event, a young man came up, pointed at the banner with victims names and asked “who are these people?”
“They were killed in the Nord-Ost terrorist attack.”
“And where was that?”
“In the building whose steps you’re standing on.”
“What do you mean – when? They didn’t tell us anything about that in school.”
And how do you react when you meet people who don’t know about Nord-Ost?
If they ask about it, I answer. We have answers, but there usually aren’t questions – Ray Bradbury described this situation in The Martian Chronicles. Armageddon already happened, the end of history already happened. This means that the biomass is ready for new terrorist attacks, for new deaths – it’s very convenient for the authorities.
The social commission of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) tried to investigate the situation [of the hostage rescue operation], and put forward three questions. The first was: how did it happen that terrorists entered Moscow? This was farmed out to the official investigation, anticipating that they would have results. The second question was: why were people killed? And the third: why was all of this kept quiet?
The SPS commission didn’t want to give a clear answer to the third question. Putin gave the direct answer to Mr. Nemtsov when he said “we won’t do anything, they can no longer be saved.”
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What were your feelings when you went to the Dubrovka this year?
My feeling was that a lot remains undone.
During the Russian assault on the terrorists, gas was released into the theater, and its exact composition is not known to this day. For many years Vladimir Putin, who ordered the assault, said that the gas was harmless, and that people died of “dehydration, chronic diseases, and the fact that they were trapped in the building.” However, survivors continue to experience health problems – loss of memory, vision, and hearing, headaches, and other consequences. During the 2018 presidential campaign Putin discussed another possibility: “They should have been given an antidote injection – that’s all. Some received two or three, some didn’t get any. We conducted a very thorough investigation. In these conditions it’s difficult to punish anyone, people went to their deaths themselves.” How do you assess the change in his rhetoric?
It wasn’t a gas, it was quite a heavy aerosol. I can tell you the components of this substance. Let’s say I say “C24H30N2O3,” or “krokodil,” or “angel dust.” I’m describing the same thing – carfentanil. That was one of the components.
In answer to the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian government said it was a “composite chemical substance, which led to multiple organ damage with aggravating factors.”
If we analyze an interview that Putin gave to The Washington Post, so not for a Russian audience, three things stand out. First, he called the gas harmless. Experts consider carfentanil and similar substances weapons of mass destruction. Second, he said “We didn’t how to treat [carfentanil exposure] in Russia.” We took advantage of that, and reported to the prosecutor’s office that this new information should enter the legal record. But it didn’t go anywhere.
Third, the president has said that it’s too easy to blame the people who freed the hostages. Excuse me, Mister President, but we blame you personally. Not the men who carried out your orders, and who then went further, violating the order and dragging our loved ones out of the theater, poisoning themselves. Fortunately they were taken to hospitals specializing in toxicology. Why wasn’t that done for the hostages? That’s a question for you, Mister President.
And then the main question is whether Putin skated through the Paris or Geneva conventions banning chemical weapons. Carfentanil was only added to the list of narcotic substances recently (in 2013). Before that, it was like it didn’t exist. After the attack, we were waiting for some scientific research on the topic. We couldn’t find anything ourselves. In 2005, we discovered a new column in the medication register for remifentanil. It said “do not use on dehydrated patients, do not use on young children.” Where does that scientific information come from? We realized this was a report on Nord-Ost.
Naturally, we brought a case against Putin the citizen, not the president, who has immunity. But we were told that only the people harmed can bring this case. That is, our dead loved ones.
Do we know whether the antidote that Putin spoke about was effective or not?
Doctors figured out, through experience, to use Naloxone and similar things, whatever they had. But if more than two hours have passed since exposure to a narcotic substance, these don’t always work. People were doomed from the start. Specialists who have worked with that class of substance are surprised that some survived at all.
68 of the victims had no signs of medical treatment, and more than 100 died before medics arrived. Forgive me, but it’s not the doctors deciding to grab a stretcher and run out to save people. Everything is decided by headquarters in antiterrorist operations – this is a question for them.
According to official figures, 130 people died in the attack (five were shot by terrorists, and 119 died after being freed from the theater). According to relatives of the hostages, 174 were killed. What accounts for the discrepancy?
174 comes from records from hospitals where the hostages were taken. We suspect the figure may be higher, that some people were unaccounted for. The chaos of the rescue operation is a different story. There were cases of people dying in ambulances and being returned to the scene, or of people who were still alive being thrown into a pile of corpses. Such cases may have been counted twice.
Do you know the specifics of Nina’s death?
We weren’t allowed to copy the excerpt from the medical examination. But when we showed it to experts without indicating Nord-Ost, we were told she showed “signs of suffocation with a pillow.” It’s frightening. Her death certificate says “Victim of terrorism, the cause of death is being established.” The majority are like that.
Describe the creation of the Nord-Ost public organization.
At first the attitude was relaxed: some lawyers, Oleg Mironov, who was then the human rights commissioner, promised to get involved, the SPS commission seemed to be working. But we quickly realized, when the prosecutor’s office refused our personal appeals, that we couldn’t get anywhere alone.
The relatives of the victims had already started to seek each other out, but just to help each other. We had to leave each other notes on the victims’ graves, because we were forced to hold the funerals in different cemeteries and on different days, so that Muscovites wouldn’t get a feeling of mass horror.
We started to organize at the end of 2002 – our joint trips to court and to the prosecutor’s office, where we made sure that the medical reports we were writing out were exact copies, helped. We convened our first meeting in March, 2003. By October, we had legal status. We’re a regional organization that’s not allowed to accept members from other regions. This limits our possibilities a bit. We haven’t been able to register the organization at the federal level.
You got the European Court of Human Rights to Admit that Russian authorities didn’t conduct a proper investigation of the rescue operation. But the court’s ruling was never implemented. Do you think anything will happen anytime soon?
The court’s ruling is half-hearted, and also convenient for authorities. They didn’t assess the assault itself. They wrote that they don’t believe it’s within their rights to restrict the actions of a government fighting terrorism. But there’s a dilemma: the court also holds the right to life as inalienable, including for children. There were 121 children among the hostages. 10 were killed, and those who were school-aged kids at the time and survived are still living with health problems. The authorities abandoned them. All we’re asking is that they complete the rescue operation. But without rehabilitating victims’ health, that’s a fiction.
You got access to the case files through the European Court of Human Rights. Was there anything shocking in them?
I’m a Soviet man, I’ve seen it all. But some victims who got the files from us were shocked by a phrase stating that [the government assault] was done in order to avoid “undermining Russia’s authority in the international arena.”
Many people remember that the beginning of Putin’s presidency was marked by a series of terrorist attacks. And even then many felt that for authorities, an ordinary human life means nothing. Do you agree with the sentiment?
That’s completely true. All we want is the right to life.
You can see the authorities’ attitude yourself. We have repeatedly said that it’s impossible to prevent future terrorist attacks without investigating past ones. While we rushed between morgues and the prosecutor’s office, the authorities gave each other medals. But terrorists studied Nord-Ost and changed their tactics. There were explosions on the metro, at music festivals. And then the school siege in Beslan. And the public announcements said “there will not be another Nord-Ost, we’re prepared.”
Why do you think Russian citizens put up with it? Nord-Ost, Beslan, explosions in multiple cities, and now, of course, war.
People have “gazelle syndrome” – we didn’t get eaten, so we’ll graze a little farther. They read about it and nod, “yes, it’s happening, but I have to go to work tomorrow so I better go to bed.” Or a more frightening way to put it, which I overheard on a tram: “Too much disturbance among the livestock reduces the quality of the product.” Sorry to be gross.
Are you surprised by events in Ukraine, given what you and the other survivors lived through with Nord-Ost?
We have no official position since we’re not a political organization. About Ukraine, I can say that the rift between the parts of one Slavic people doesn’t run along the front in Belogorod or the Mariupol-Volnovakha line. It runs at times through families, and through the heart of every decent, thinking person. I have nothing else to say about it because, as the acting chairman of an organization, this is all I can say.
We’ve seen an increasing number of reports of terrorism since the end of February – the murder of Daria Dugina, the Crimean Bridge explosion, the training grounds in Belgorod. Do you think the war in Ukraine could lead to a new wave of terrorism, like we saw during the Chechen Wars?
Yes, it could lead to new terrorist attacks.
Many have only belatedly realized that Russian authorities are inhumane. Are you surprised that for some people that realization has come 20 years after Nord-Ost? And for some it hasn’t come yet?
I wouldn’t say so. People don’t understand that the government lies. There’s an agreement between people and the government (I don’t say “society,” because society had just begun to emerge, and now that’s interrupted): the government lies, and people eat it up.
At the beginning of the interview, you said you have many answers but people aren’t asking the questions. Is there a question I didn’t ask that it’s important for you to answer?
There are too many such questions. The first, of course, is why did authorities use means that could not and did not resolve the hostage situation?
I heard something interesting recently: the more deeply a person studies a specific part of history, the more surprised he is that everything turned out as it did. Everything is clear to a person who knows nothing. That’s the situation with Nord-Ost – the more information you have, the more surprising it is. But, unfortunately, society, the biomass, is abstracted from this information. It’s easier to live that way.
English-language verion by Emily Laskin
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