Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 40

Though now overshadowed by the greater tragedy of Beslan, the October 2002 hostage episode at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater continues to raise questions. Some two years later, the federal authorities have still failed to make clear just what was the chemical composition of the powerful narcotic gas that they used in assaulting the theater, causing the deaths of as many as 200 innocent civilians. The authorities still insist that the gas was harmless, despite evidence of continuing health problems among the surviving ex-hostages.

In an article published in the October 28 edition of the Moskovskie novosti weekly, Anna Rudnitskaya reported that many of the survivors are now suffering disabilities of various kinds. Aleksei Minyaev, a cloakroom attendant in the theater, has had severe amnesia ever since the commando assault since the gassing and the commando assault that followed. When his relatives found him in a hospital’s intensive-care unit three days after the assault, he could not even recall why he was there. The memory problems continued as time went by, wrote Rudnitskaya: His mother “had to remind her son again and again where he was going to meet his friends, and at what time, and where he had put a textbook. After he was discharged from the hospital, Aleksei spent another six months at the Speech Pathology Center and only then was able to resume his studies: He is a student at the Moscow Social University School of Ecology.” Aleksei was only 18 at the time of the Dubrovka episode, and according to his mother had never suffered any illness worse than an ordinary cold before then.

Even younger is Ksenia Matashenkova, who was only 15 when she attended the fatal 2002 performance at Dubrovka with a boyfriend. He died; she was released from the hospital after a week but has since suffered a nervous breakdown and recurring bronchial asthma. A physician told her that he had no doubt that her condition was caused by the mysterious gas. He also advised her never to tell other health workers that she had been at Dubrovka, or she would not be able to get any medical treatment. Aleksei and his mother have had similar experiences: one bureaucrat hinted that they should continue his treatments if and only if they could afford to pay for it themselves, and then tried to insist that Aleksei was not disabled at all.

Another hostage interviewed by Rudnitskaya now has an enlarged thyroid gland that requires an operation. Yet another has vascular problems and recurring headaches. Another, who was pregnant during the Dubrovka ordeal, is now the mother of an infant with birth defects.

In fairness, one must grant that out of so many ex-hostages some would now have health problems even if no gas had been used. But both the city and the federal authorities have shown a callous lack of interest in monitoring their condition and considering all possible explanations. The head of the Moscow city public health committee, one Lyubov Zhomova, insisted to the Moskovskie novosti reporter that “there are no serious cases” even while admitting that her agency does not keep track of them. A press spokesman for the city government said curtly that “there are no disabled persons among the hostage survivors”—which is plainly untrue. The chief doctor at one city hospital admitted that 82 ex-hostages had liver disorders, 41 had heart conditions and 16 had kidney diseases; but he responded with what Rudnitskaya called a “well-known formula” when asked if these conditions could be linked to the 2002 gassing: “There is no direct relationship. The gas did not contain any toxic elements.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers have questioned the general who was in charge of the botched operation to rescue the hostages of Beslan in September. According to an October 28 article by Yelena Rudnieva for the Gazeta.ru website, a session last week of the special parliamentary commission to investigate the tragedy heard testimony from FSB General Aleksandr Tikhonov, who since 1998 has been nationwide commander of the secret-police agency’s elite “Spetsnaz” commando forces. Aleksandr Torshin, the head of the commission, confirmed afterward that it was Tikhonov’s headquarters that “directly commanded” the operations of the Russian forces in Beslan. That news would seem to make it harder for the federal center, including former FSB officer Vladimir Putin, to evade responsibility for what happened.