Thursday, August 25, 2016


A Decade On, Still No Closure for Families Of Russian Theater Siege Victims

A woman looks at photographs of victims at a commemoration ceremony recalling the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, which resulted in 130 deaths.
A woman looks at photographs of victims at a commemoration ceremony recalling the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, which resulted in 130 deaths.
By Claire Bigg and Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW -- Time has not eased Dmitry Milovidov's grief over the death of his 14-year old daughter, Nina, in the Moscow theater siege.

Milovidov stills struggles to contain his anger as he recounts Nina's 57-hour ordeal at the hands of Chechen rebels and the botched rescue operation that took her life 10 years ago.

Like most of the 130 hostages who died in the siege, Nina was killed by the knockout gas pumped into the Dubrovka theater to subdue the militants.

"The chemical affected her respiratory system and halted her breathing," Milovidov says. "How long can a person live without breathing? Then her heart stopped beating. That's what was done to our children."
Nina Milovidova with her brother MaksimNina Milovidova with her brother Maksim
Nina Milovidova with her brother Maksim
Nina Milovidova with her brother Maksim

Milovidov was not in the Dubrovka theater on the fateful evening of October 23, 2002, when some 50 armed militants barged onto the stage during a performance of the Nord-Ost musical and took the actors and audience -- more than 700 people -- hostage to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

Nina had gone to the show along with her 12-year-old sister, Yelena. When the militants agreed to free some of the children, Nina pleaded for her and her sister's release.

Only the younger Yelena was freed.

"Nina remained in that hall...forever," Milovidov says. "They never took her to a hospital, they never offered her any medical help, as the documents show. They just threw her into a bus to hide her from television cameras."

Lingering Anger

Relatives say many of the victims died because they were denied medical help and accuse the Russian government of covering up its role in the carnage.

Ten years on, the probe into the deaths is still under way and investigators have failed to release even preliminary findings. To the anger of survivors and victims' relatives, authorities have consistently refused to disclose the content of the gas.

At the time, authorities claimed no child died in the siege.

The families of the dead, however, say as many as 10 children were killed and another 69 lost at least one parent in the tragedy that unfolded on October 26, 2002.

Officials also initially praised a successful operation during which all the militants were killed with no loss of life among security forces.

But soon, the grisly details began to emerge.

PHOTO GALLERY: The four-day siege at Moscow's Dubrovka theater
  • Chechen rebels took over the Dubrovka theater on October 23, taking some 900 theater-goers hostage and demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. Here, Special Task Force troops surround the building.
  • The Dubrovka theater was staging a performance of the musical 'Nord-Ost.'
  • Special Task Force troops surround the building in the first hours of the crisis.
  • Police surround the theater on October 23.
  • Interior Ministry troops stationed outside the theater
  • These patients were evacuated from a nearby hospital during the crisis. The militants were armed with explosive devices, threatening to blow up the theater.
  • Police stand by on alert on October 24.
  • Representatives of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) wave a white flag in an effort to gain access to the hostages.
  • Doctors remove a victim who had been shot by the militants.
  • Reporters gather at the police cordon to wait for news from inside the theater.
  • Hostage Maria Shkolnikova leaves the theater with a letter in which the hostages urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet the militants' demands and withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya.
  • People gathered outside volunteer to take the place of the hostages.
  • Special task forces gather nearby on October 25.
  • An ambulance and a priest stand by.
  • Relatives of the hostages await news.
  • Police officers update their lists of the hostages and their relatives. 
  • Representatives of the Red Cross gain access to the theater on October 25.
  •  Commandos with dogs patrol outside.
  • Security officers keep the area cordoned off.
  • On October 26, the fourth day of the hostage crisis, special forces stormed the theater. Here, doctors help a hostage wounded in the raid.
  • Troops carry out hostages, many of whom were badly affected by the gas pumped into the theater to subdue the militants.
  • Ambulances rush some of the victims to nearby hospitals. Some 130 civilians died during the raid. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that Russian authorities took too little care to protect the hostages and treat them for exposure to the narcotic gas.
  • A militant killed during the operation to free the hostages
  • The main explosive device planted by the militants, all of whom were killed in the raid

Footage showed how unconscious hostages were clumsily dragged out of the theater and dumped into buses.

The few doctors at the scene, not knowing what type of gas they were dealing with, were unable to save many lives. Countless hostages choked on their own vomit, others swallowed their tongues or suffocated to death in cramped buses.

Tatiana Karpova, the mother of well-known songwriter Aleksander Karpov, claims he died in an ambulance after spending seven hours in a bus packed with corpses. He was 31.

"My son died an awful death that I would not even wish on my enemies," she says. "He spent seven hours lying alive among dead bodies without any medical help. There were many such instances, and we will never forgive this."

Legal Redress

Karpova has been spearheading efforts to seek legal redress for the botched rescue.

Relatives of the victims pin the blame squarely on President Vladimir Putin, who they say gave the orders to use the poisonous gas and helped cover up the deadly rescue operation.

They got a boost last December when the European Court of Human Rights upheld their complaint and ordered Russia to pay the 64 plaintiffs a total of 1.3 million euros ($1.7 million) for moral compensation.

The court, in particular, rejected the Kremlin's claim that the gas was not directly responsible for the hostages' deaths, which authorities have blamed on various illnesses, food and water deprivation, psychological stress, and a lack of fresh air.

Emboldened by their victory, relatives this month formally asked Russian investigators to open a new probe taking into account the European Court's decision.

Ten years on, however, their chances of uncovering the whole truth about the rescue operation appear slim at best.

"Public interest has faded, and finding leads is very difficult from a procedural point of view after so many years," says security specialist Ivan Sukhov. "Of course, they keep their relevance as a group that seeks to draw attention to the low regard for life in the Russian Federation. But, as regards the investigation, I don't think they are in a position to achieve anything."

Nonetheless, families of the Dubrovka victims say it's not only the truth they have been fighting for over the past decade.

"No one can guarantee that such a situation won't repeat itself and that these same people won't conduct another botched rescue operation," Karpova says. "We are doing all this to make sure there aren't any more tragedies like the one we endured, any more broken families. That's what we are fighting for."

Written and reported by Claire Bigg in Prague with additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow

Claire Bigg

Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​


Tom Balmforth

Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.


This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
October 23, 2012 20:42
Brilliant execution of the plan by russians. Keyword execution.

by: saucymugwump from: USA
October 23, 2012 22:47
The Russian military is unprofessional. Hazing is common, with one recruit losing both legs and genitals after a severe beating. Officers use conscripts as grunt labor for their private businesses. Officers treat civilians much the same. Military officers and police officers often get drunk and run pedestrians down in the street or shoot people at random in grocery stores.

The Dubrovka Theatre siege ended in a tragedy, just like the Beslan School No. 1 siege two years later. In both cases, Putin should have taken personal command and ensured that decisions were the proper ones, but he prefers to be seen taking off his shirt and/or driving various vehicles over all types of terrain. The Russian military and government made horrendous mistakes in both situations, but then covered it up in an attempt to save face. The Beslan killers bribed their way through roadblocks and the Dubrovka killers probably did the same. Another siege is guaranteed to happen again soon with the same results because Russia never learns and never punishes the incompetent people in charge.

This is not to let Islamists off the hook, however. These murderers came equipped with explosives and weapons, killing a good number of hostages long before the Russians ended the siege. Islamists proved in Moscow, Beslan, Budyonnovsk, and many other locations that they are willing and able to kill large numbers of civilians, including many children. Islamists are savages and need to be killed, but Russian authorities need to differentiate between Islamists and innocent people.
In Response

by: Anzhi from: Daghestan
November 09, 2012 05:09
"These murderers came equipped with explosives"
Explosives that didn't detonate: not in Beslan or Nord-Ost, not in Budenovsk or Komsomolskoye.
Another pagan-russian-atheist liar. Ask Ossetians and they will tell you, they were liberated with HEAT fired from T-80 and 3 Shmel portable thermobaric flame thrower shots.
"The President also admitted that the Special Forces used 'Shmel' flamethrowers (banned by international conventions) when they stormed School Nº1."
Name me one operation in the world where you liberate hostage kids with thermobaric weapons? Just one? That's right Beslan school #1.
In Response

by: saucymugwump from: USA
November 10, 2012 15:51
"These murderers came equipped with explosives"
"Explosives that didn't detonate"

The world will never have sympathy for people who carry weapons and explosives and kidnap hundreds of children. Russia's reaction was murderously incompetent and violent, to be sure, but the hostages would never have died in Moscow, Beslan, Budyonnovsk, etc, if Islamic killers had not first created a siege situation.

If someone points a gun at you and demands your money, do you think to yourself "the gun has not gone off, so it is not a threat" or do you think "he might shoot me, so I had better take this situation seriously"?

Most Popular

Editor's Picks