There are some questions that some nations avoid asking themselves just because they subconsciously know the answers. For a clearly articulated answer could become destructive for the state and therefore we shall never hear it. And that is correct.
The question that I am going to analyze is quite complex. It is so complex that it was not directly formulated even once last week when we were all talking about Beslan, or even at the meeting of the Beslan mothers with Putin. It dissolved into a mass of other questions—about the number of hostages, the number of terrorists, about flamethrowers and tanks, about the circumstances of the first explosion, disarray in the headquarters etcetera.
Here is the question: Why wasn’t the scenario of inviting Aslan Maskhadov (Akhmed Zakaev) with a demand (request) to win the release of hostages carried through to its conclusion and the scenario of the storming of the building implemented?
I repeat that the question is very complex, but it does not belong to the category of the forbidden ones. Unlike the incidents mentioned above, it is not about a supposed evil act of the authorities or its autonomous structures. It is merely about the mentality of the authorities—or, rather, the mentality of society.
The question arose for the first time during the tragedy of Nord-Ost. I remind you—and this is fundamentally important—that neither in Nord-Ost nor in Beslan was inviting Maskhadov or his representatives a demand of terrorists: it was the authorities’ initiative.
The demands of the terrorists in both cases were globally undefined and therefore unrealizable from the very beginning. The authorities found themselves with a classic irresolvable dilemma: What is of primary importance—rescuing the hostages or annihilating the terrorists?
The idea of inviting Maskhadov and giving him—a military adversary, an enemy—the chance to rescue our hostages signified an existential breakthrough out of the closed circle that doomed hundreds of people to death and shifted the problem to an absolutely different dimension.
During the Nord-Ost incident, it did not imply any damage to the reputation of the authorities. At that moment there was an official structure for negotiations – the contacts between Victor Kazantsev and Akhmed Zakaev, within the framework of which the problem of Maskhadov’s arrival could have been resolved. Kazantsev and Zakaev met more than once, including in Moscow.
The idea was seriously discussed, along with other alternatives of action, at the highest level for several hours. The arrival of Kazantsev to Moscow, which was supposed to happen in the morning, was related to a possible realization of this plan. At night, however, another approach prevailed. Perhaps representatives of force structures managed to convince Putin that their gas attack would not lead to the deaths of the hostages. But had Maskhadov succeeded and rescued the hostages, that certainly would have legitimized him even more, something that did not suit either the representatives of force structures nor Putin, who had pledged to “rub terrorists out in the toilet” and became a hostage to his own rhetoric.
This situation repeated itself in Beslan. And Zakaev, who was a legitimate partner in negotiations before that, had by then been declared a criminal, whose extradition Moscow had been seeking. But it was him whom Moscow contacted with the same request—to help release hostages.
On September 3, 2004, at 12 noon, Zakaev called the headquarters about the release of hostages and confirmed Maskhadov’s readiness to come to Beslan if he were provided the security guarantees. The details were to be discussed at 2 PM. At 1:05 PM, the storming happened.
I am convinced that Putin was much closer to the alternative of using Maskhadov in the Beslan crisis. It was discussed for several days. On the evening on September 2, Putin made an amazing public statement on TV, one not characteristic of him, which has somehow been forgotten today by everyone, in which he stressed that an unconditional priority in the resolution of the Beslan crisis would be the rescue of the children. This could not have been anything other than a way to prepare public opinion for the fact that no aim other than saving the children would be pursued.
I am frequently accused of demonizing Vladimir Putin. That is not so. Being his political opponent, I never denied that he has some merits – patriotism, for example. I wrote, for example, in Novaya gazeta in September 2001: “V. Putin knows the truth about his ascension to power and about who has brought him to power, and about what role the Chechen war, Basaev’s raid into Dagestan, the blasts in Moscow, the ‘training exercises’ in Ryazan, played in the operation ‘The Heir.’ If he did not know before, then now he is figuring it out. As an officer and a Russian patriot, and he really is that, this truth is painful and unbearable. He drives it away from his head, imposes a taboo on it, expels it into the subconsciousness. And, in accordance with the laws of psychoanalysis, it gushes out of it in its inappropriate explosive reactions any time Chechnya is mentioned. That is the personal human drama of Vladmir Vladimirovich Putin. And this is the tragedy of the country he is leading.”
When he was assuring foreign journalists that not one of the Nord-Ost hostages suffered from the use of the gas, he was not lying to us. He was trying to deceive himself. Back then, if he did not know anything, he was starting to understand that he was deceived. He did not want the same outcome to recur in Beslan.
It was impossible to issue an order about storming the school. And he did not issue that order.
The events at Beslan represent an unordered storming, an accidental storming, a forced storming—and no Maskhadovs; no hostages. This suited too many people, including the scoundrel who organized Beslan: Shamil Basaev. He did not at all need the saving of the hostages that would have meant legitimizing Maskhadov to a significant degree in both Chechnya and Russia. He needed an Ossetian-Ingush conflict that would blow up the Caucasus once and for all. The terrorists, as we know, invited quite different people.
Two articles by the brightest and most talented—in my opinion—Russian commentators, Alexander Prokhanov and Leonid Radzikhovsky, appeared almost simultaneously a few days after the tragedy. They belong to the opposite ends of the political spectrum and, as far as I remember, they have never ever agreed with each other about anything. But those two articles seemed to be written by the same hand, in a condition of triumphant euphoria: “It came true! Miraculously, Russian statehood managed to avoid a catastrophe. Maskhadov was not allowed to save children and thereby humiliate the state. The fortress of the Third Rome weathered the storm.”
The most talented political poets of our epoch, followed by a bunch of Sokolovs, Leontyevs and Pavlovskys, spoke and wrote about it quite frankly, prompted by their hearts. It was the shared position of a majority of the Russian political class—as well as, probably, a majority of the population.
This gives a sense of the great resistance that Vladimir Putin, a son of his class and his nation, had to overcome both in his entourage and in himself in his shy and inconsistent attempt to make a breakthrough to an elementary humanism. He is not a villain at all. He is simply a weak man in tragic circumstances. Fate twice gave him a chance to rise above massive state gibberish for the sake of rescuing people and to demonstrate greatness of spirit and strength of character.
And it was not “territorial integrity,” or “the greatness of Russia,” or “geopolitical interests in the Caucasus” that had to be sacrificed. What needed to be sacrificed were petty bureaucratic ambitions—to return to political field the former Soviet artillery officer Aslan Maskhadov. And what made him worse than the hereditary bandit Ramzan Kadirov? In my opinion, he could have been much better as a potential partner of Moscow and a conductor of its interests in the Caucasus. Well, it’s a matter of taste. Were those differences in taste worth hundreds of children’s lives?
And Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin was called a “heavyweight” in vain. He saved hundreds of lives in Budennovsk. There was so much dirt poured on him again in the last days of his tenure. Of course! He let Basaev, who destroyed so many lives, slip away. But the duty of the prime minister of Russia, Chernomirdin, was to save Russian citizens. And he coped with it within the scope of his capabilities, and he will be remunerated for that at the most important trial. And destruction of the bandit Basaev was the responsibility of other people. And they, by the way, had ten years to carry it out.
And Aslan Maskhadov was killed soon after Beslan, in order to close his problem, but fate spares Basaev. The wonderful Chechen seems to have as many lives as the services he rendered to Moscow. He took Sukhumi and went to Dagestan along the corridor opened for him, and after each of his terrorist acts the vertical of power kept strengthening, and now the Kremlin has made him a leader of the Russian opposition.
And the last thing. About the Russian nation, to which I have both the honor and the misfortune to belong to. The reaction of Russians to Nord – Ost and the Ossetians to Beslan was demonstratively different. Russia forgot about Nord – Ost and does not ask the authorities any questions. Ossetia will never forget and will never stop asking the Russian authorities questions. Even the Putin-appointed president of North Ossetia asks complex questions and says that “he will never be able to be the same man as he was before Beslan.”
There is no civil society in Russia and any man remains absolutely defenseless, first of all mentally, before the vertical of power. He knows that he is no one and that he has no name. In the Caucasus, as in the East generally, there is no civil society in the Western understanding of this institution, but its functions are carried out by traditional clan structures. A man feels himself to be a link in a temporal chain of generations and spatial network of relatives. The mass tragic deaths of people touches the whole society.
We Russians seem to have fallen for good into some cultural black hole between East and West. There is no more atomized society than the Russian one. We are dust in wind. And Putin is our president.