“They think we’ve forgotten!” Friends and strangers wrote on social networks on September 1. “They want us to forget!”
It is not that the authorities necessarily want anyone to forget the Beslan hostage crisis of 2004, of course - it’s just that they would prefer that people focus on a certain narrative of the tragedy that occurred at the local school there, one that doesn’t involve any mention of possible mistakes made by officials in charge.
Over 1,100 people were taken hostage by Islamic militants at the school during celebrations commemorating the start of a new school year. On the third day of the hostage crisis, the school was stormed by security forces. A total of 186 children never made it out alive. Including security officers and rescuers who perished at the scene, the total number of victims stands at 334.
Legal proceedings surrounding this act of terrorism and its aftermath have outraged many – including survivors and relatives of the victims. The courts have been careful to shield the security forces from responsibility. Yet there was a general consensus that the rescue operation was botched – though no one was punished.
The security apparatus is enormous and, as such, it is not a monolith. And I can’t abide by blanket condemnations of all security forces members – because I know that many of them risk life and limb and see the worst of what the world has to offer, and remain people. But few of us can look at the outcome of the Beslan hostage crisis and hold back tears – and anger.
The problem here is also one of lack of transparency – and general public mistrust. While a culture of secrecy is an important aspect of any security organization – the biggest challenge is the promotion of at least some form of a culture of accountability. I’m not saying that this will somehow help people get over Beslan – some wounds will not heal in our lifetime, nor should they. But it will, ultimately, help the country move on from the Soviet (and Imperial) notion that the importance of a human life should pale in comparison to the grandeur and majesty of the state.
There is a Russian saying, “The ashes of Klaas beat on in my heart.” It is taken from a translated book on Till Eulenspiegel and references the execution of Till’s father. Well, I guess you can say that for many people, “The bones of the children of Beslan beat on in our hearts.”
Tracing my own professional and personal trajectory so far, I can tell you that Beslan played a crucial role in bringing me to Russia. I was a U.S. college student in 2004, and in the aftermath of what happened, I saw far too many Western attempts to justify or excuse the actions of the terrorists. September 11, 2001, you see, was an attack of radical Islamists – and moral nihilists. But the Beslan terrorists were “just fighting for their freedom, man.”
The idea was, if only Russia would only give up a good chunk of the North Caucasus – then all problems would be solved and candy and teddy bears would rain from the sky!
The notion that a state ruled by a group of radical fundamentalists – who have no problem murdering fellow Muslims, as we just saw with the killing of venerated Sufi leader Sayid Chirkeisky – would then be formed right next to Russia is somehow seen as not all that bad. Of course, even this scenario is an optimistic one – what would probably happen is years of growing chaos, violence, turmoil, public executions, an out-of-control arms trade and so on.
It was this Western narrative of Beslan that made me, an aspiring journalist born in Soviet Ukraine, seriously consider my possible future place in the Western media. But there was something else too, something deeper – my horror at the tragedy was profound and unrelenting and ultimately alienating. The tragedy dislodged something inside of me – some trapdoor that opened up on inner doubts about my entire life’s purpose. I realized that I wasn’t treating the bad news from Russia as mere reports from a distant land – this was personal. For better or for worse, the needle on my inner compass started its slow progress toward Russia.
In Kitai Gorod, a historic Moscow neighborhood, a monument commemorating the victims of Beslan has had many Muscovites, regardless of political affiliation, crying foul. It’s a work by Zurab Tsereteli, favorite sculptor of former Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and it is characteristically bombastic – if sculpture can be bombastic. Yet I find something appropriate in the banality of the monument after all – perhaps it’s the banality of the dead-eyed toys it features. There is the same kind of horrific banality in the accounts of the survivors. One minute, you’re at a celebration, surrounded by families and small children. The next minute, you’re in hell – and when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse.
What possible good can come of Beslan, in the end? None for the people who lost loved ones. For the country as a whole, perhaps, it has allowed for a new kind of national soul-searching. Maybe, in a hundred years, historians will refer to it as a kind of breaking point. Maybe not.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.