On October 23, 2002, militant Chechen separatists took over the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, Russia. For three days, they held some 800 hostages, demanding their voices be heard.
The Nord Ost Siege, as it is called on account of the show at the theater that night, was just another chapter in the long, violent relationship between Russia and Chechnya. During the 1990s, the separatist government of Chechnya, an Islamic state within the Russian Federation, called for Russia to withdraw its troops from Chechen borders. When the Chechen rebels entered the theater in 2002, they echoed this sentiment and brought about the wrath of the Russian government. To end the Moscow theater hostage crisis, Russian police piped gas into the Dubrovka Theater, but the end results were more devastating than the world – watching it live on television – could have imagined. After the gas cleared, the rebels were dead.
So were over 100 hostages.
To this day, Russian officials have not revealed a full account of the event, nor have they disclosed what chemical was used in the Moscow theater siege. And, in the end, Chechnya remains tied to the Russian Federation.
While the ongoing conflict between Chechnya and Russia originated in 1991, the people in what is now Chechnya have been fighting with Russia since the 18th century. The Caucasian Wars that lasted from 1714-1864 pitted the Russian empire against several states in the Caucuses, including Chechnya. In the midst of that, the Chechen leader at the time began a holy war against Russia. In 1785, the Islamic Sheik Al Mansur failed in his efforts and died in 1791 – but he remains a hero in Chechen history.
In the late 19th century, Chechnya was absorbed into the Russian Empire. Rebellions against Russia and the USSR took place through the 20th century, and, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya declared its independence. Internal political strife produced several coups, and the provisional government asked Moscow to help restore order in 1993. From 1994 on, there has been a great deal of political unrest punctuated by political acts on the part of the Chechens.
The hostage crisis at Dubrovka Theater was another chapter – albeit a particularly horrifying one – in this long history.
Russian troops invaded Chechnya in 1994, starting the so-called First Chechen War. Numerous cease fires between Chechen guerrillas and the Russian military were negotiated and violated until a peace treaty was signed in 1996. The war was devastating for both sides, with thousands of deaths and displaced people. But the peace didn't last for long.
In 1999, Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of the Russian Confederation, invaded Chechnya because he believed Chechen rebels were carrying out terrorist attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities. This began the Second Chechen War, and, while evidence that Chechens were actually the terrorists was sparse, it led to a five-year bombing campaign by Russia against the region. In 2000, Russia took the Chechen capital, Grozny, and declared rule. Then, Putin appointed Akhmad Kadyrov as an interim head of government. Kadyrov had previously been a separatist but turned Russian-loyalist and was seen as a traitor by many. Chechnya voted for and passed a constitution in 2003, one that kept them under the Russian Federation.
From 2000-2004, Chechen guerrillas carried out over 20 suicide bombings and attacks against the Russian-backed government, even killing Kadyrov in 2004. The Second Chechen War, according to Russia, ended in 2009 with the end of military operations, but violence between Chechen and Russian factions continue.
At the time of the Nord Ost Siege, Akhmad Kadyrov was president of Chechnya. The militant separatist resistance was led by Movsar Barayev, a 27 year old from Argun, a town near the capital of Grozny. Barayev was from a family of terrorists – his uncle died in a six-day shoot out with Russian forces in 2001, and his aunt killed two soldiers in a suicide bombing in 2000. Kadyrov had a limited amount of clout in Chechnya, and, according to one of his associates: "He came to Moscow to die."
Baravyev's young age and lack of experience, despite his own claims to counter the latter, have been the subject of speculation given the elaborate attack in October 2002. The Nord Ost Siege reportedly cost over $60,000, and Barayev may have been bankrolled by powerful rebels throughout Chechnya.
The play at the Dubrovka Theater on October 23, 2002 was Nord Ost, a Russian musical telling the story of Russian soldiers between 1913 and 1943. The play is based on the novel The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin and was the brainchild of Georgy Vasiliyev. He intended the production to honor Russian soldiers and emphasize the achievements of the Russian people. The cast included 180 performers and lasted three hours.
Vasiliyev spent millions getting the Dubrovka ready for the production and, after writing the music and lyrics with Aleksei Ivaschenko, was himself a hostage the night of the siege.