MOSCOW—It was the most sensational political advertisement of the Russian election season.
Erratic Russian presidential aspirant Ivan Rybkin―best known for going AWOL in the middle of the race―had prepared a campaign ad that attacked President Vladimir Putin's national security record.
Too bad no one would see it. Russia's main TV channels refused to air the commercial; Rybkin eventually dropped out of the election.
An acquaintance showed me a copy of the tape. While moody piano music swells in the background, a sequence of grim images appears on screen: explosions, demolished buildings, wretched civilians, soldiers' coffins.
The footage―from the Nord-Ost theater siege in October 2002, the war in Chechnya, and other tragic events around Russia―is interspersed with ominous, almost Stalinesque images of Putin: placards with his official portrait, even a marble bust.
It cuts to a Larry King interview from a few years back. The gravelly voiced interviewer asks Putin about what happened to the Kursk, a nuclear submarine that sank in August 2000 with 118 sailors on board. Putin smirks, and says, "It sank." ("Ona utonula.")
The ad concludes with a voiceover: "Four years of fear and pain. And that's what you're going to vote for?"
Tatyana Karpova knows that pain firsthand. Her son, 30-year-old Aleksandr Karpov, died in the Nord-Ost theater siege. But, surprisingly, she directs her anger not at the Chechen terrorists but at the Russian government.
"When my son died, I received condolences from the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Alexander Vershbow, and his wife," Karpova told me. "The Moscow city government didn't even bother."
The episode in brief: Chechen guerrillas―including a squad of female suicide bombers―took over Moscow's Dubrovka Theater during a performance of the nostalgic musical Nord-Ost, taking 800 theatergoers and performers hostage. Russian operatives stormed the theater after knocking out the Chechens―and their hostages―with an anesthetic gas. The hostage-takers were shot dead on the scene.
At least 129 captives also died, succumbing to the effects of the gas or asphyxiating from blocked airways. The authorities were not prepared to handle the evacuation of casualties; an adequate supply of antidote was not ready. And, in what seemed to be a reflex action, Russian officials were initially very secretive about the casualties.
"They hauled people onto the [emergency] buses, like cordwood, and stacked them inside on top of each other," Karpova said. "No one in the Russian government wants to take responsibility for this."
Karpova has founded an organization for the victims of the Nord-Ost theater siege (we need to follow the money here: The group received a $20,000 start-up grant from the Foundation for Civil Liberties, a fund bankrolled by exiled business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who also backed Rybkin's candidacy). It is pressing for a full and open investigation of the incident. For Karpova, a proper accounting―and full compensation for the victims and their families―has yet to come.
Varvara Sidorova, a psychologist at the Institute of Practical Psychology and Psychoanalysis in Moscow, has counseled some of the victims of the Nord-Ost theater siege and their families. She said that the secretiveness of Russian authorities―still an ingrained habit here―compounded the psychological trauma.
"While the hostages were in the [theater], their families knew where they were, they knew they were alive," Sidorova said. "The most difficult time for the families was immediately after the rescue operation. They didn't know where they were; they didn't know if they were alive or dead."
Authoritarian habits die hard. Sidorova told me, "The people who were supposed to be on their side―the police, the FSB [federal security service]―didn't give them any information. So in some cases, people felt that [the Russian officials] were worse than the Chechens."
The theater siege at Dubrovka is still a touchy subject in the household where I'm staying in Moscow. I've been friends with my hosts since 1991, the year of my first student exchange to the Soviet Union. A young relative, Pavel Kapitanchuk, was a member of the Nord-Ost orchestra. He survived the hostage crisis but has been physically and psychologically debilitated ever since.
The topic of Nord-Ost sparks a shouting match at the kitchen table, especially when I bring up the darker conspiracy theories about the incident.
"For the families of the hostages, [the days immediately after the rescue operation] was the most traumatic period," Sidorova said. "Understandably, that feeling of aggression, when it's directed toward the people on your side, is very difficult to treat, because people are very reluctant to talk about such things."
The hostage crisis paid a political dividend to Putin: Shortly afterward, the State Department placed three Chechen groups on a terrorist financing watch list.
Most recently, the U.S. government handed over seven Russian citizens who had been captured in Afghanistan and held at Guantanamo Bay as enemy combatants. A Chechen connection? According to the Russian press, none were ethnic Chechens (though some were from predominantly Muslim regions like Tatarstan and Kabardino-Balkaria and may have fought in Chechnya).
So, do we share a common struggle with Russia? Putin has successfully cast himself as an ally in the war on terror. The United States, for its part, has toned down its criticism of the Chechen war to relatively mild expressions of "concern."
On Sunday, Putin is widely expected to win four more years.