Looking For Answers

The staff of the weekly Versiya had a scoop. They'd spent 10 days frantically reporting one of the biggest stories any of them could remember--the siege of the Moscow theater that ended in a dramatic assault by Russian Special Forces and the use of a knockout gas that killed more than 100 civilians. What they were publishing amounted to a sum of damning allegations: eyewitness accounts of dead and half-dead hostages piled on top of one another, charges that none of the victims received timely medical help, a report that the gas used was not civilian but military. Finally and most explosively, Versiya would disclose that unnamed sources in the Ministry of Health and the Interior Ministry had told it that the death toll in the crisis was two to three times higher than officially reported--as many as 300, rather than 119, the numbers swelled by hostages who remained unaccounted for.

Moscow is swirling with such rumors, but Versiya has been delayed from publishing its version of what happened. Shortly before it went to press, eight plainclothes investigators burst into the newspaper's offices in the center of Moscow. They were officers of the Federal Security Police, the domestic successor to the old Soviet KGB once headed by President Vladimir Putin. "They've already taken our correspondent's computer," Versiya's Editor in Chief Rustam Arifjanov told NEWSWEEK by mobile phone as he and 15 staff watched agents ransack the office. "Now they're carting away our server."

Was it a clumsy attempt at a cover-up? The security forces claim the raid was connected to a story on FSB corruption printed five months earlier. But conspiracy theorists (and bereaved family and friends of the victims) might be inclined to think otherwise. The aftermath of the theater siege has left many unanswered questions. Why wasn't the operation better planned? Why wasn't there an emergency medical team standing by, with ambulances to whisk victims to the hospital? Soon after the rescue, health officials said no antidotes were on hand to save the lives of innocents. Days later, authorities asserted that there were. If so, why weren't they used? Then there were the questions about the death toll: was it as authorities said, or was it much higher, as Versiya and Moscow's rumor mill suggest? Late last week families of "missing" people were still searching hospitals. "A person can't just disappear," said one friend of a 29-year-old man who had been at the theater. His wife had already been located. "But where is he?"

In most countries, a series of questions like this would add up to a very large scandal. There would be public hearings, popular hue and cry. Ministers would be under pressure to step down. But not in Putin's Russia. Whether Versiya's allegations are borne out, the raid on its offices reveals how far authorities are prepared to go in the way of spin control. As for Putin himself, he's still the hero of the day, the ultimate Teflon president. Not only has he managed to deflect or stifle all criticism, he's burnished his image as an unflinching, strong-willed leader--just the sort beloved by Russians. No wonder his approval rating stands at 77 percent.

Plainly, Putin has learned a lot since the first catastrophe on his watch--the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk two years ago. Then, he took an ill-advised working holiday at the height of the crisis; TV cameras caught him commenting on the disaster clad in vacation clothes. This time, aides say, Putin's security chief informed him of the hostage-taking as he was working in his Kremlin office around 10 o'clock that night. Within hours he canceled trips abroad (including one to the APEC summit in Mexico, where he hoped to confer with George W. Bush about Iraq) and didn't leave the Kremlin. He got his first sleep--"just a few hours," says an aide--more than 24 hours after the crisis began, repairing to an apartment directly above his office. After the raid, he went on television. "We were not able to save everyone," he said. "Forgive us."

But he didn't apologize for the gassing deaths, and his police and censors seemed determined to make sure he didn't have to. Apart from raiding Versiya, his Press Ministry temporarily shut down a regional TV station during the standoff--a move calculated to intimidate other journalists. The leading independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was forced to remove an interview with one of the hostage takers from its Web site. And private broadcaster NTV ran into trouble after a late-night program broadcast a dialogue between Putin and two of his ministers, which the station said it had acquired by using a lip-reader to analyze official footage of a Kremlin meeting.

The chilling effect was readily apparent. Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist who has made the Chechen war her passion, was summoned by the hostage takers to deliver their message to the world. But when she emerged from the theater, TV reporters told her that they had been forbidden from broadcasting any of the terrorists' demands. That same day Putin issued a warning to the media: "In these hours it is especially important to consider the price of every word spoken and every step taken."

In the aftermath of the assault on the theater, it was clear that the Kremlin's worries about the press were not entirely motivated by concern for the hostages' safety. As it turned out, many of those who died could have been saved had they received proper medical treatment. Despite official protestations to the contrary, hospitals and emergency personnel were catastrophically ill-prepared to receive the huge number of casualties, and in most cases they had no idea what sort of poison they were dealing with. Crucial hours were lost as the government refused to identify the type of gas used in the attack. Five days elapsed before officials named it as fentanyl, an opiate-based anesthetic used in hospitals.

Even then, other questions remained unanswered--or lost in a fog of contradictory government explanations. Contrary to initial statements that several of the terrorists had been taken prisoner, for example, it turned out that all had been killed by the Special Forces. The number of hostage takers reported as dead was reduced from 50 to 41, also without explanation. When it emerged that the gas had actually required minutes to take effect, rather than seconds, journalists asked why the terrorists hadn't used that time to set off their explosives. The response from a government expert: "I don't know how to answer that question."

The biggest controversy, of course, is whether the Kremlin might be concealing a vastly higher number of dead and missing. Almost immediately after the rescue, reports began circulating of people who were unable to find relatives known to be in the theater. Soon their searches spilled onto the Internet, where several Russian Web sites posted information. One, vazhno.ru, compiled a master list of the missing that contained 141 names by the weekend. NEWSWEEK found that several of those identified on the site were, in fact, also on the official list of the dead. But it also confirmed at least five that were not.

One such is Yury Sidorenkov, 29, who was in the theater with his wife, Svetlana, on the night the terrorists attacked. According to the meticulous description provided by his family, Yury was wearing black jeans, black boots and black T shirt--details that ought to have helped the authorities locate him once the assault was over. After the raid, Svetlana turned up in Moscow's Hospital No. 7--but Yury was nowhere to be found after a week of searching. "The hospitals say they don't have him," says a neighbor named Yulia, helping in the hunt. "So they send us to the morgues, where they say they haven't seen him. The morgues refer us to the prosecutor's office--and they have no information."

Throughout the controversy, Putin has remained conspicuously above the fray. Rather than being compromised, the president has emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. Partly that's due to savvy PR handling. Through aides, he has let it be known that he deferred matters of tactics (such as the use of poison gas) to his subordinates, and that he himself did not make any potentially embarrassing decisions. But more generally, Russians are simply inclined to forgive him for any mistakes in the rescue. Even those touched personally by the debacle say they welcomed his toughness. "I don't have the information that Putin had, but I think he did the right thing," says Roman Tsikonyenko, 29, whose best friend died in the raid. He sighs and concludes on a thought shared by many. "If there had been no storming," he says, "everyone would have died."

Such sentiment has not kept Russians from criticizing other government officials, however. In one recent survey, 35 percent of those polled believe the hostage crisis was the fault of the Russian security services, which, they say, allowed it to happen in the first place. And there is widespread consternation about the ease with which dozens of terrorists managed to smuggle enough explosives into a building in the center of the Russian capital to demolish it and kill everyone inside.

In the end, the main question is whether Putin can resist the political temptations that the resolution of the crisis now presents him. Throughout, he has almost deliberately echoed the language of U.S. President George W. Bush--denouncing terrorism in the strongest possible terms and proclaiming his determination to do everything within his power to stamp it out. For those yearning for a return to Russia's age-old brand of authoritarian rule, this is a powerfully appealing message--and Putin could easily fill the bill, becoming ever more the strong, unchallengeable leader in the grand Russian tradition.

There's also a danger that public demand for a harder line against the Chechens, for starters, could translate in-to state-approved discrimination against ethnic minorities and new restrictions on civil liberties. Some politicians have already called for the deportation of all ethnic Chechens from Russia, unlikely as that may be. One newspaper has gone so far as to publish a map of Chechen-owned stores in Moscow, a tacit invitation to pogroms. Russian conduct of the war in Chechnya looks set to become even more brutal than it has been before, making the conflict even more intractable.

And the push for tougher controls on the media--barring papers like Versiya from reporting the truth as they see it--is already looking unstoppable. Last week the Russian Parliament moved quickly to make Moscow's ad hoc brand of censorship more formal, voting 231 to 106 to bar the media from reporting information that might hamper state efforts to crack down on terrorists or help such groups in their nefarious work. That makes sense when over-zealous reporting might jeopardize lives, say, but far less so when applied to journalistic questioning after the crisis is over. The danger, next time around, is that awkward questions simply won't be asked, never mind answered. For Russia's nascent democracy, that would be a far greater setback than any terrorist act.