Early that October 26 morning, when Russia's elite Alpha commando force began to pump a mysterious gas into the besieged theatre on Melnikova street, Modest Salin remembers the air had begun to reek of a peppery smell and the skin had started to burn. Soon he saw a greenish gas spewing from under the stage. A veteran of the Afghan war, where Russian troops had used sleeping gas, Salin knew what he needed to do: cover his face with a wet cloth and try not to lose consciousness.
The Chechen guerrillas—and indeed many of the 763 Muscovites they were holding hostage—were oblivious of such simple precautionary measures. As soon as the gas wafted across the theatre, the militants on the stage began swaying back and forth and soon collapsed on the floor. Recalls Salin, "I saw one Chechen grab his automatic rifle and I thought, 'That's it, he is going to fire at us.' But he, too, fell down. There were gunshots in the corridor. I looked around to find our soldiers shouting, 'Guys, come out quick.'"
It took the Alpha commandos less than 90 minutes to overcome the Chechen terrorists, extricate Moscow from the gloom it had slipped into and send President Vladimir Putin's popularity ratings soaring overnight. But those who were quick to hail the Alpha operation as "brilliant" were soon sent into shock by the death toll. George Vasilyev, producer of Nord Ost, the musical the theatre on Melnikova Street was hosting, points to the irony: "It was this gas that saved people, and it was this very gas that killed many."
The death count has aroused tremendous controversy. The authorities say 119 people, including 50 hostages, were killed in the operations. But many put the toll closer to 200. The officials were naturally keen to portray the operation as an unmitigated success—and low casualty figures were crucial for this. This prompted them to deny the relatives of hostages access to the hospital and to bury the dead in separate Moscow cemeteries. This has made it impossible for independent observers to put a precise number to the dead.
For four days, the Russian media debated furiously over the nature of the gas the Alpha commandos used. A Russian TV channel quoted ambulance teams to claim that medics were ordered to inject rescued but unconscious hostages with Naloxone, a powerful antidote administered to those who overdose on morphine and heroin. The hostages also showed symptoms typical of opiate overdose cases—poor motor coordination, memory loss, fainting, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting. Adding to the gas mystery, a spokesperson of the US embassy in Moscow said, "A western embassy in Moscow had their physician examine surviving hostages and they concluded that the agent they were exposed to appears consistent with an opiate rather than a nerve gas."
It was only a day later, on October 30, that Russian health minister Yuri Shevchenko confirmed that the gas used in the theatre was based on fentanyl, a powerful opiate which a Belgian company had developed in the '60s for intravenous anaesthetic purposes. Fentanyl is considered 50 times more potent than heroin and is known to abruptly paralyse the respiratory system.
In Moscow, though, experts are chary of accepting Shevchenko's claims, arguing that fentanyl and its sister compounds lose their potency quickly. Considering the hostages' prolonged incapacitation, they feel fentanyl was perhaps only one ingredient in the deadly cocktail of the gas used. Perhaps Moscow is concealing the truth because it fears it has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention. Says John Tucker, a chemical warfare non-proliferation expert of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, "The convention allows signatories to possess chemical riot-control agents which can produce rapid but very short-term physical disabilities.But the convention seems to ban those chemicals that have more persistent effects lasting for hours and days. It's a subtle distinction, but I think Russia has violated it."
Moscow's obsession with secrecy was a factor behind the high toll. For one, doctors and health officials were told only minutes before the operation to prepare themselves for treating patients suffering from gas overdose. And despite the report about Naloxone, many were unaware of the nature of treatment to be administered. Says human rights activist Dmitry Yermoltsev, who talked to several doctors, "The hostages needed respiratory therapy but the doctors said they were not in a position to carry it out on such a large scale. The hospitals simply didn't have the means." Moscow-based Russian daily Kommersant was likewise scathing in its criticism of the authorities. "Moscow had nearly 60 hours to prepare for possible casualties. Why didn't the Emergency Situations Ministry deploy any of its mobile hospitals?" The debate over the mishandling of rescued patients is expected to persist.
For the moment, though, hundreds of mourners continue to pour into the theatre on Melnikova street, lighting candles and placing wreaths in the memory of those who died in the Alpha operation. They, as Russians elsewhere, believe Putin was justified in launching the rescue operation. This was reflected in a recent survey which claimed that 85 per cent of Russians supported their president's handling of the hostage crisis. But what divides those who visit the square is how to tackle the festering Chechen wound. "Tougher measures must be taken in Chechnya to stop terrorism," says businessman Andrei Selyutin. "Our president already seemed to be very tough but I think more should be done. And we should also listen less to these pseudo-human rights organisations. They simply don't have a clue to what is happening." Countering him are the likes of nurse Lyudmila Zavyalova. "I'm sure the operation was the right thing. But it is obvious that terrorism will continue to spread. I don't know what should be done in Chechnya. But I don't agree with those who say Chechens should be exterminated."
The theatre crisis has persuaded some to view Chechens—and their cause—with more sympathy than before. Among these new converts is Mark Podlesny, an actor in the Nord Ost musical. He went on TV to say, "They told us about the war in Chechnya, that they've had somebody killed, a mother, a brother, a son, in front of their own eyes, that they are used to hunger and cold. We didn't hate them, we felt sorry for them." The Alpha commandos were also condemned for putting a bottle of Hennessy cognac in the hands of the slain Chechen leader Movsar Barayev. The argument was that if Russian soldiers could behave deplorably in Moscow, then their conduct in Chechnya must be inhuman.
Says Boris Kagarlitsky, a respected sociologist, "The authorities did in Moscow what they've been doing for years in Chechnya: blocked the flow of information, lied and passed defeat as victory." He feels the authorities were not bothered about the casualties because it was politically necessary for Putin to launch the operation. "They needed the raid, and the casualties, to continue their war in Chechnya, contain the growing anti-war sentiments in society and display Putin's decisiveness," he argues.
Putin has already hardened his stance. He told the cabinet about his ordering the military to "reach terrorists, those who organise crimes and their ideological and financial sponsors, wherever they are located". In good measure, he added: "If somebody tries to use means comparable to the weapons of mass destruction against Russia, we could meet this with adequate response." Indeed, an unwarranted comment to crank up war hysteria—and thrive on it.