[Beginnings] Beslan (1)

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 3-4.

Then came Beslan, the most horrific attack yet. In the far-off capitals of the West, the realm Russians have taken to calling “the civilized world,” the headlines would scream in shock. The terrorists had descended to a circle of evil without precedent. To target a school – taking hostage more than a thousand innocent civilians, the majority of them women and children, was a nadir in the annals of terrorism. Russians watched the climax of the fifty-two-hour siege at Middle School Number One in horror. They remembered their Dostoyevsky. Etched in the collective memory was Ivan Karamazov’s nihilist dictum: he could not believe in any God who would allow children to suffer at the hands of sadists.

We may never know the identities of all the men who held the school in North Ossetia hostage. At first, the FSB, the post-Soviet heirs of the KGB, said that “ten Arabs” had taken part in the attack. Vladimir Putin even repeated the claim, before his defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, a fellow KGB alumnus and the president’s closest confidante, refuted it. Among the terrorists’ corpses identified, Ivanov said, there were no Chechens. Yet that statement too, in the days that followed, was amended. Like the implausible turns of a Gogol short story, the Kremlin line seemed forever shifting, an account under construction with each new proclamation.

Under pressure, Putin made a rare concession: he vowed to open the siege’s disastrous resolution –  the deaths of more than 350 civilians, half of them children – to an inquiry. Even in the loyal hands of the upper house of the Russian parliament, the investigation would mark a first for Russian history. In the wake of the seizure of the Moscow theater in the fall of 2002, when all 41 terrorists were killed but 130 hostages died from a military gas, Putin rejected any public reckoning. Instead, he promised an internal accounting that, somewhere in the years since it quietly stalled, was never to be completed.

Westerners look to a parliamentary inquiry and hope that the tragedy of Beslan may yield a salient lesson. Russians, however, being Russian, and still suffering the sins of Kremlin rulers past, have little faith in the state’s powers of self-examination. Putin, they knew, would rage on about the toll of terror. But the families of the hundreds who died at Beslan, and the millions of Russians who now faced a new fear from St. Petersburg to Vladivostock, expected little to change. The state would redraw its hard line across Chechnya, proclaim yet again a promise of protection, and, all too predictably, leave the survivors alone to search for solace. Putin, at the same time, in the name of the antiterrorism fight, would grab yet more power.

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