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Russia: Musical Reopens Three Months After Hostage Crisis

  • Gregory Feifer

Three months after last October's hostage crisis, which left nearly 130 people dead, the Moscow theater in which Chechen rebels held audience members captive has premiered the resurrected "Nord-Ost" musical. Currently billed in its advertisements as "a story of the country's history, a story of love," the musical -- Russia's first fully homegrown production -- has been etched into the consciousness of a public who will forever associate it with last autumn's tragic events. Production members and theatergoers alike say the weekend reopening represents a significant moment of catharsis.

Moscow, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Audiences applauded the reopening of the "Nord-Ost" musical this weekend, a little more than three months after some 50 Chechen rebels took over 750 Moscow theatergoers hostage during a three-day ordeal.

One hundred twenty-nine hostages -- including members of the production and people in the audience -- died in the siege, most from the effects of a sedative gas used by special forces before storming the theater.

National television showed grim images of the aftermath: dead Chechen rebels, including female hostage takers wrapped with explosives, still in their seats after being shot in the head while unconscious. They had extensively wired the building with bombs, saying they would kill all the hostages if Russia did not end its war in Chechnya.

Now, the blood-splattered red seats have been replaced with new blue ones. The orchestra pit -- which hostages were forced to use as a lavatory -- has been raised to audience level and a new "Nord-Ost" sign outside has taken the place of the old torn one in part of a general $2.5 million renovation.

Director Grigorii Vasiliev, who was among the hostages last fall, told reporters this weekend that the theater was so changed he could not find the seat he had occupied when the operation to free the hostages began. He said he was happy to be back in the theater "not as a hostage but as a free person."

Politicians and celebrities turned out for the official 8 February premiere of the lighthearted musical -- a three-hour production of nonstop song and dance offering a nostalgic look at the Soviet era.

Security was tight, with a bomb squad, sniffer dogs, and metal detectors on the premises.

It was a bittersweet experience both for those attending and those taking part in the production. Twenty-seven cast members, including two children, died during the crisis.

Vasiliev said ahead of a 7 February showing that the hostage crisis had interrupted a successful year-long run. "Nord-Ost" is Russia's first homegrown, Western-style musical housed in a dedicated theater.

"It was a very heavy blow, which we lived though with great difficulty -- I'll say that honestly," Vasiliev said. "But from the very beginning, we had no doubts that the production has to live, that we had to resurrect it."

Lead actress Yekaterina Guseva said she was happy to be back in her role on stage. "I began to miss [the production] very much. I acted in it every day for a year, and [after] three months, I just began to miss it very much," she said.

Lead actor Andrei Bogdanov said he was proud the "strength and resources" were found to reopen the production. "I think it's very important for the country because this is our musical, a Russian musical -- if you like, our first 'stationary' musical. And I think this is a musical that must live regardless of any acts -- political, terrorist, or whatever kind."

Audience member Olga Fuksova said she saw the musical twice before the hostage crisis. "I can't see it without tears anymore because the [hostage-crisis] tragedy affected me very much. I'm seeing the production for the third time. I very much respect the actors' decision to continue putting it on. I think that if they decided to return to the play after having lived through the tragedy, it's their right and it has to be respected," she said.

Based on the popular 1947 novel "Dva kapitana," or "Two Captains," by Venyamin Kaverin, the love story-musical follows the exploits of a pilot searching for traces of a prerevolutionary polar expedition.

Vasiliev said the musical did not move to another theater because none was available. "Nord-Ost" leases the Dubrovka Theater in which it is housed; the city government footed the premises' reconstruction bill.

State funds also went toward the musical itself, although private organizations and individuals contributed 80 percent of the cost of reopening. Vasiliev said the theater and stage props alone suffered 23 million rubles' ($719,000) worth of damage.

As "Nord-Ost" gets back under way, 61 hostage crisis victims are suing the Moscow city administration for more than $60 million in compensation. Vasiliev said although he is not suing the city for damages himself, he supports the right of other victims "to defend their interests."

Lead actor Bogdanov, meanwhile, said a bullet hole in one of the props continues to remind him of the hostage crisis. "We were here then, too," he said of the three-day ordeal.