Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Russia’s highest military award, the order of “Hero of Russia,” has been bestowed on five people for their roles in the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of October 2002. But a member of the federal Duma learned that only two of these medals went to soldiers who actually took part in the storming of the theater. Another two went to top leaders of the secret police, and the fifth went to the chemist responsible for releasing the gas that killed about 200 of the hostages (see Chechnya Weekly, December 17, 2002).

In an outraged letter published by Novaya gazeta on March 3, Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin, who is the vice chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Security, summarized a letter that he himself had received from several soldiers of the elite Alpha group. The Alpha group, together with the Vympel group, which is also a special force under the command of the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) secret police, has been responsible for liberating the hostages. One soldier from each of these two detachments received a “Hero of Russia” star for that night’s work. But the Alpha soldiers told the deputy that the same stars had also been awarded to Vladimir Pronichev, first deputy director of the FSB, and to FSB General Aleksandr Tikhonov, to whom the Alpha and Vympel units are subordinate.

In their letter to the deputy, the Alpha soldiers noted that both of these officials are responsible for counter-terrorist operations in Russia. “Not only were they not subjected to any punishment for the fact that terrorists had penetrated into the center of Moscow,” wrote the soldiers, “but they even received the stars of Heroes of Russia–in essence taking them away from worthier men, from men who really had risked their own lives.” They described the remaining medal recipient, the chemist, as “a man who became both a savior and a murderer for many hostages.”

Shchekochikhin wrote that, upon receiving this letter, he had investigated and found that it was “absolutely true.” It turned out that Russian President Vladimir Putin had himself ordered the awards in a secret decree, and had personally bestowed them on his former colleagues of the secret police. What especially outraged the troops of Alpha and Vympel is that they themselves had agreed in meetings with their officers, which were attended by their top superiors, that medals should go only to those who had actually been physically present “in that building, in that darkness and nightmare.”

“But as usual,” wrote Shchekochikhin, “in darkness and nightmare others are arranging their own bright futures.” The deputy highlighted especially the secrecy of Putin’s decree. He could understand why past medals for nuclear scientists or undercover intelligence officers had to be awarded in secret. But why, he asked, have recent decrees bestowing “Hero of Russia” medals on the director of the FSB, the secretary of the federal Security Council, and the country’s top prosecutor all been issued in secret?

Shchekochikhin noted that these last three medals were awarded to honor the “success” of their recipients in the Chechen war. He wondered how many other official “Heroes of Russia” from that war have been recognized, but when he made his inquiries he was told that the total number is a secret. He did learn that throughout the entire nine-year war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s 40th Army won only 44 such awards. The KGB received six and the Interior Ministry one.

The deputy remains unreconciled to this new practice, preferring that high honors should be awarded “to those who have actually done something” rather than to the president’s supporters. The latter, he wrote, is “what usually happens in African or Latin American countries during periods of military dictatorship.”