| Russian officers carry the coffin containing the body of Col Konstantin Litvinov, who was killed during the theatre siege, in Moscow on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Moscow, Oct. 29: When the standoff was over, state television showed the slain leader of the Chechen hostage-takers, Movsar Barayev, with a cognac bottle near his hand. Officials announced that the women who had threatened to be suicide bombers in a crowded theatre were drug addicts with needle tracks on their arms and syringes at their feet.
And for more than a day, officials stonewalled, refusing to release the information that a mysterious gas used by rescuers was the actual cause of death for 116 of the 118 hostages who were killed.
From the seizure of the theatre during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost to the Saturday rescue that left one in seven hostages dead, the Russian government’s control of information about the standoff has struck many people here as a retreat to Soviet-era methods of propaganda, evasion and half-truths.
While many Russians accept that the deaths of many hostages might have been unavoidable, there were signs yesterday of increasing bitterness that authorities were not open throughout the crisis and its aftermath.
Sergei Karpov gave one example of a Kafkaesque distortion of the facts after the death of his son, Alexander, 31, a well-known libretto-writer.
“You wouldn’t believe the absurdity of it,” Karpov said. “Today in the morgue they handed me my son’s death certificate. (It) stated as cause of death: ‘Murder.’ And the diagnosis, ‘Victim of banditry and terrorism.’ What kind of medical document is that'”
Statements in the official media during the crisis seem at variance with what hostages later reported, especially regarding the decision by special police to storm the theater and details concerning the health effects of the gas.
Reports that the Chechens inside were drinking and using drugs contradicted later recollections. “They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear,” hostage Mark Podlesny said. “They were very disciplined.”
Soon after the special police moved in on the theatre, government officials launched a steady stream of statements portraying the operation as an unqualified success. Reporters were told initially that all the hostages were saved, and that all the foreign hostages were safe.
At a time when workers were piling up dozens of bodies of those already dead from the gas on a sidewalk outside the theater, a deputy interior minister, Vladimir Vasilyev, was stating for the cameras that only about 10 might have been killed.
In his updates to reporters, he at first made no reference to the fact that a chemical agent had been used, or that virtually all the hostages found inside were unconscious and needed urgent medical attention.
While the number of dead Chechens was revealed almost instantaneously by Vasilyev, the scale of death among the hostages was released piecemeal over two days, allowing state broadcasters and government officials to drive home the idea that the operation had been an overwhelming success.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexi II declared that he was pleased the seizure had ended “without bloodshed.”
And instead of being shown the wards overflowing with unconscious former hostages struggling to breathe, TV viewers saw President Vladimir V. Putin in a white hospital gown chatting with a group of released hostages who looked to be in near-perfect health.
Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies, called the official behaviour “simply disgusting.”
“All these lies about terrorists beginning to execute the hostages, etc. They didn’t even admit at the beginning that they used gas.
“But when it was no longer possible to hide it from the public, they had to admit they did. But they never told the people — even the doctors — what gas they used,” he said. Doctors said the government’s actions needlessly endangered patients.
“No one is asking the authorities to disclose military secrets and inform the public about the chemical formula of the agents used,” said one doctor, allowing himself to be identified only as Valery, who treated dozens of the patients at a central hospital.
“But authorities could have at least told the people in common parlance what is being done to them, to prevent the hostages from feeling like guinea pigs. But, as often in Russia, nobody thought about people’s feelings and bothered to inform them.”