The Moscow Theatre Siege: How NOT to Conduct a Hostage Rescue

On 23 October 2002, 40 Chechen gunmen took 912 theatre-goers hostage at Dubravka Theatre in Moscow. Following a three-day siege, the crisis ended in calamity when an FSB Spetsnaz unit released an unknown chemical agent, killing 132 hostages. 

Thus, callousness and corruption scar the Moscow Theatre Siege. Especially, as the FSB attempted to cover up their heavy-handed response. [source] The Russian state strangled Independent investigations into the Moscow Theatre Crisis, with the Duma passing legislation restricting press coverage of the event. 

Russia’s concealment and deflection has, however, only brought more attention. Many questions remain unanswered and murmurs from Russian defectors have increasingly suggested that the FSB’s complicity goes beyond their clumsy response on the day. 

1. Pretext to the Moscow Theatre Siege

The 40 gunmen who stormed the Dubravka Theatre in October 2002 claimed allegiance to the separatists movement in Chechnya. [source] Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Chechens had sought to break away from Russia as an independent state, clashing with Russian forces in 1994 and 1999. 

By 2002, the Second Chechen War had entered an insurgency phase. The conflict devastated Chechnya, with the UN designating the Chechen capital, Grozny, the most destroyed city on earth in 2003. [source] Radicalised by religious fervour and Russian brutality, extreme elements of the Chechen separatists movement planned to bring the distant war closer to home for the Russians.

The Chechen city of Grozny destroyed by Russian forces. The FSB had recently taken control of Russian ground operations.
Advancing Russian forces relied on heavy air and artillery bombardments to avoid mass casualties in urban combat, a lesson learnt from the First Chechen War. Grozny, 1999. [source]

In 2002, Moscow was an affluent cosmopolitan city, a far cry from the hopeless destruction in Grozny. The Russian metropole had recently inaugurated Vladimir Putin as President of Russia and economic stability gave ordinary Russians hope the chaos of the 1990s was finally over. [source]

The Russian public was aware of the conflict in Chechnya but, authorities downplayed the true brutality. And, made to feel distant from the lives of Russians. [source]

Downtown Moscow was beginning to flourish after the chaos of the 1990s. The former FSB man, Vladimir Putin, had recently been elected President of Russia.
An image of Downtown Moscow in 2002. The Russian metropolis was worlds apart from the rubble of Grozny. [source]

2.Chechen Storm the Theatre: The Moscow Theatre Siege Begins

The lack of a formal public inquiry into the events of 23 to 26 October 2002, makes establishing the facts of the siege difficult, with many accounts contradictory. The following account of the Moscow Theatre Siege is based on hostage testimonies, media reports, and international investigations:

2.1 23 October 2002: Chechens Break an Entry

  • 1900: Theatre-goers gather for a sold out performance of the Russian musical Nord-Ost at Dubrovka Theatre, four kilometres south-east of Red Square, Moscow.
  • 2100: During Act II of Nord-Ost, 40 masked men and women entered the theatre shooting Kalashnikov assault rifles in the air. The masked gunmen identify themselves as a “suicide squad” from the 29th Division. The attackers are led by Movsar Barayev, a 22 year old Chechen. 
  • 2200: Barayev demands Russia withdraw all its troops from Chechnya immediately or else the gunmen would begin executing hostages. The attackers released approximately 150-200 children, pregnant women and muslims. Also, Hostages holding a foreign passport could leave.
The Moscow Theatre Siege begins as Chechens storm a showing of Nord-Ost
Graining images of the masked Chechen patrolling the theatre began to reach the outside world. [source]

2.2 24 October 2002: Negotiations Begin

  • 0130:Olga Romanova, a 26 year old civilian, slipped through the police corden unnoticed and entered the theatre. Romanova confronted the armed attackers and called on them to immediately release the hostages. Fearing Romanova was an FSB agent, the Chechens executed the civilian on the spot.
  • 0900: The Russian government offered the hostage takers leave for any country other than Russia and Chechnya if they release the hostages immediately.
  • 1320: The Chechen gunmen demanded to talk with Joseph Kozbon, a Russian member of parliament and singer. Once known as the “Soviet Sinatra”, Kozbon entered the building as an intermediary. 
  • 2100: A hot water pipe bursts inside the theatre flooding the ground floor. The Chechen attackers called the incident a “provocation”. The FSB used the theatre’s sewage system for listening purposes – a revelation that came following the event.
Chechens prior to the Moscow Theatre Siege
Home made footage filmed by the perpetrators prior to the attack. [source]

2.3 25 October 2002: Negotiations Falter

  • Various prominent Russian figures negotiated with the attackers such as Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Govorukhin and Mark Franchetti. The Chechens however demanded a representative of President Vladimir Putin.
  • In a video recorded prior to the attack, the gunmen expressed their willingness to die for the Chechen cause.
  • Russian news channel NTV managed to interview the leader of the attackers, Barayev, mid-siege. In the interview he stated:

“We have nothing to lose. We have already covered 2,000 kilometres by coming here. There is no way back. We have come to die. Our motto is freedom and paradise. We already have freedom as we’ve come to Moscow. Now we want to be in paradise.”


2.4 26 October 2002: Spetsnaz Enter and Tragedy Strikes

  • 1200: An envoy from the Chechen separatist President urged the attackers to “refrain from rash steps”.
  • 0300: Russian security services intentionally leak information that Spetsnaz will raid the building at 03:00 am. The information initially encouraged a flurry of gunfire from the Chechens but when no special forces breach the building the gunmen go quiet again.
  • 0500: Russian special forces pumped an incapacitating opium-based gas into the theatre ventilation system. The gas rendered the hostages and most of the attackers unconscious. A small number of Chechens wearing gas masks began firing blindly at Russian positions.
  • 0530: 200 Spetsnaz equipped with gas masks stormed the theatre. The special forces unit entered from multiple entry points including the roof, basement and front door.
  • 0700: Spetsnaz entered the main auditorium eliminating conscious and unconscious hostage takers. The special forces units eliminated all hostage-takers
  • 0900: The reports emerge of mass civilian casualties. Media reporters noticed that many of the civilian bodies carried out of the theatre showed no signs of gunshot wounds.

[source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]

3. FSB Cover Up and Unanswered Questions

3.1 Why was nobody arrested?

On 23 October 2002, 40 Chechen entered Dubravka Theatre with more than 100 kg of explosives, around 100 hand grenades, three heavy bombs, 18 Kalashnikovs and 20 pistols. Not a single Chechen would leave the theatre alive. [source

Although some attackers were equipped with gas masks, hostage testimonies reveal that some Chechens did succumb to the gas. So then, why did Spetsnaz’s Alpha and Vympel teams execute incapacitated Chechens instead of arresting them? 

Only one arrest was made in connection to the Moscow Theatre Siege. In 2003, a Russian court charged Zaubek Talkhigov with assisting the Moscow attack and sentenced him to eight-and-a-half years in prison. Talkhigov’s testimonies of course reveal nothing about what happened inside the theatre on the day of the siege. 

Anjai Nirmal has suggested that hostage reports from inside the theatre gave rescue planners the impression that the hostage takers had explosive devices strapped to them. This could have prompted Spetsnaz operatives to be less open to taking prisoners. However, Nirmal reveals that by terrorist standards, the Chechens were not all they were cracked up to be:

“The hostage-taking operation… was conducted in an amateurish manner. A majority of the [hostage takers explosive devices] were later found to be dummies. The remaining ones had no detonators or the batteries had been taken out.”


3.2 Why were emergency services not altered?

Russian security services did not warn the emergency services of their plan to use gas. By prioritising secrecy over public safety, police officers did not clear the streets of parked cars so ambulances arrived at the theatre nearly two hours after the operation. [source] There was initial confusion over why so many hostages were carried out the theatre unconscious by policemen. 

Eight hours after the siege authorities finally acknowledged they had used gas. In the meantime, many of the hostages went into a heroin-style overdose from the fentanyl gas, an aerosolized morphine derivative. A report by the US National Library of Medicine described the Russian strategy as a “medical failure” and the poor coordination led to the preventable deaths of “over 100 hostages”. [source

Fentanyl gas can cause a fatal heroin-style overdose. However the effects of Fentanyl are reversible if the patient is administered the drug Naloxone. Russian security services had two-and-a-half days to prepare for the rescue mission. Enough time to alert emergency and allow them to make the necessary provisions. Instead, efforts to try and, keep the formula of their gas secret created a fatal delay in medical treatment. In 2003, the families of the siege victims attempted to sue the Russian government but were ultimately unsuccessful. [source]

3.3 What was the FSB so desperate to hide?

3.3.1 Was the Moscow Theatre Siege one big FSB plot?

No formal independent inquiry followed the Moscow Theatre Siege which has allowed rumour to flourish. To what extent the FSB were complicit in the 2002 attack has been the subject of conspiracy in Russia and among Kremlin defectors. The FSB and Spetsnaz certainly had a lot to be ashamed of following the siege but could they really have had a hand in orchestrating it?

Six months after the siege, Anna Politkovskaya, a leading Russian journalist and human rights lawyer, met with a Chechen man who claimed to be close to the separatists. The meeting convinced Politkovskaya that the FSB had links to the Chechen gunmen and at some level enabled or assisted in the Moscow Theatre Siege. [source]

In April 2003, Russian defector, Alexander Litvinenko, claimed that Chechen journalist, Khanpach Terkipayev had infiltrated and helped to guide the 40 Chechen hostage-takers. Quoting a “reliable source within the intelligence services”, Litvinenko further asserted that Terkipayev was an FSB agent. The FSB, according to Litvinenko, orchestrated the Moscow Theatre Siege to deter western capitals from entering into negotiations with the Chechen separatists. [source] The story became even more enticing and mysterious when Russian politician, Sergei Yushenkov, died in a car crash a few days after receiving a dossier on Terkipayev from Litvinenko. [source]

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, were both killed in incidents likely connected to the Kremlin. Both Russian figures were highly controversial and it’s unlikely their investigation into the siege alone resulted in their assassinations.

3.3.2 Conspiracy or incompetence?

Hanlon’s razor is always a good place to start when unravelling any secret or mystery. 

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

Hanlon’s Razor

FSB complicity is not an impossibility. However, the reality is likely far less glamorous. More a story of bureaucratic failure and coverup than espionage and intrigue. 

The attack was marred by a litany of errors by the FSB. To start, the FSB failed to identify radical elements of the Chechen separatist movement as a threat to Russian interests outside of Chechnya. 40 heavily armed Chechens had managed to plan, organise and travel 2000 km across Russia without being detected by security services. The attack would have required complex planning and preparation; communications and resources that would have indicated a threat was likely. The failure to detect the Chechens reflects poorly on the FSB as an intelligence service whose main function as a security service is to root out internal enemies. [source] Despite declaring the Moscow Theatre rescue operation a success, the events of the 26 October were clearly a calamity for the FSB.

4. Conclusion

Although there was no public investigation into Russia’s intelligence, the fallout of the Moscow Theatre Siege did have serious and embarrassing repercussions for the FSB. As the military phase of the Second Chechen War wound down in late 2000, command of Russian military forces in Chechnya was transferred to the FSB. However following 2002 counterterrorism failure, overall command was shifted in 2003 to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). [source]
More broadly within Russian society, the Moscow Theatre Crisis inspired further restrictions on press freedoms. Despite mistrust of the official narrative of the event, the incident did not undermine Vladimir Putin’s authority. [source] Like other Russian crises in the 2000s, Putin strengthened his grip on power and  suppressed criticism through “anti-terrorism” legislation.

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