Nothing you see on television this week will provoke as many contradictory thoughts and emotions as Terror in Moscow (HBO, Thursday). A British-made documentary on the hijacking of a Russian theater by Chechen rebels, this 54-minute film brings you about as close to terrorism as you can get without being a victim of it yourself.
Almost exactly a year ago, some 850 Muscovites had just sat down for the second half of a musical comedy when a man dressed in paramilitary fatigues appeared onstage. Brandishing a Kalashnikov, he ordered the actors (who were also dressed as soldiers) into the wings. At first, the audience believed this was all part of the play. One survivor recalls thinking it a “clever theatrical concept, very trendy.” But reality soon set in. The man had 41 accomplices with him — 22 masked gunmen, and 19 masked female suicide bombers dressed from head to toe in black — and he swore that they would blow up the theater unless Russia announced the immediate withdrawal of its troops from Chechnya.
As most people already know, the siege ended 57 hours later when police killed the Chechens after subduing them with sleeping gas. Unfortunately, the gas was so potent that many Russians died also. Proving that Donald Rumsfeld isn’t the only one who has trouble planning for a post-conflict situation, the Russians didn’t have enough doctors on hand to inject all the victims with an antidote to the gas. Having staged a brilliant rescue, they had to watch 129 hostages expire while a handful of medics rushed around frantically with needles.
About the rights and wrongs of the Chechen conflict, Terror in Moscow has almost nothing to say. Instead, director Dan Reed focuses our attention on this one terrorist drama in the midst of a larger war. He interviews survivors and makes liberal use of footage shot on a camcorder by one of the Chechen gunmen. There is also a video feed from the theater’s in-house camera, along with recordings of cell-phone calls and shots of what was going on outside the theater while the siege was in progress. No terrorist act has ever been documented so fully.
But this is more than a riveting historical record. At times, the film enters a gray, almost mystical area between life and death, captor and captive, faith and agnosticism. “Everyone was dozing, waiting for the end, whatever it might be,” we are told, and those who were destined to die seemed to know it in advance. They “all had this look in their eyes,” says a young man, a guitarist from the orchestra. “They weren’t there anymore, as if they’d already gone.” And the musical’s co-writer asks: “Why so meek? Why so willing to be led to slaughter?” And the answer: “Because our spirits were broken.”
One way the Chechens broke the Russians’ spirits was by forcing them to use the orchestra pit as a toilet. Men on one side, women on the other. Soon the pit was awash in urine and feces, and the stench was so overpowering that some of the hostages began to pour with sweat.
After 24 hours a British reporter received permission from terrorist-in-charge Movsar Barayev to enter the theater and interview the terrorists. “So how are things going?” he asked one of them. “Excellent! Never better!” came the reply. “This is a dream come true for us.” The Chechen sounded eerily like an athlete whose team had just won a championship.
As that snippet of dialogue suggests, the terrorists were motivated by more than politics (the brutal Russian occupation of Chechnya) and revenge (many of the women involved in the attack had seen their husbands and children killed by the Russians). There was also ideological and religious motivation. As one said: “I want to say to our enemies, we desire death in the path of Allah more than they desire life.”
If there’s one hopeful thing you can take from this documentary, it’s that fundamentalists may not be quite so willing to kill as they apparently are to die. At the end, the men could have turned their guns on the hostages, but fired them at the approaching Russian soldiers instead. The women could have detonated their bombs before succumbing to the gas, but chose not to do so. The Russians were less merciful, and shot the women where they lay in their gas-induced sleep. There’s a terrible beauty in the image of those dead women spread-eagled on the floor, bombs still strapped around their waists. It’s like a mad Benetton fashion spread on radical Muslim chic.
“I remember those girls’ faces so well,” says one musician. “I don’t think I’ll ever see faces like that again, or the look in their eyes.” He sounds just a little bit like a man in love.
Terror in Moscow airs Thursday, October 23 on HBO and will be repeated on October 26, 29, 31 and November 3.