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Hostage Georgi Vasilyev tells hisstory
Written by   
, 30 2002
There is more of ‘Nord-Ost’ in Russia, than there is in ‘Nord-Ost’ the musical

October 30th, 2002. Georgiy Vasilev in an exclusive interview with ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ tells how it was

The tragedy that unfolded at Dubrovka over the course of three days has already been described many times, but we have always watched the events through the eyes of those outside the building. Nowit is possible to see it all through the eyes of the man who spent those days among the hostages, the man who tried to change their fate. Thisexclusive interview given by Georgiy Vasilyev, one of the writers and producers of ‘Nord-Ost’, contains entirely new information. Itis the point of view of a man staring into the eyes of death, a man who lost many of his friends and witnessed scenes beyond imagining. Itis the point of view of a man, without whom there would have been many more victims. Ithink that, in order to explain the whole truth, we must listen to him in full.
- Where were you when you were caught by the invasion of the terrorists, and what was your first reaction?

Alexei Ivashchenko and Iwere working in the recording studio on the third floor, when our manager rushed from the stage and said that there was shooting going on in the auditorium. Myfirst reaction, naturally, was to rush back there and see what was going on, to do something to help, because how can there be shooting in the theater? Iran to the first floor and found our fireman shouting at some unknown people, who were dressed in black: “Stop trying to frighten us! Ican see that those are blanks, Iknown the smell!” But when the first bullets started hitting things, we knew that it was a serious thing and so Irushed into the auditorium.

Could you have run outside and saved yourself?

Idid save myself. Asa matter of fact, Imade it onto the last train car. HadI hesitated even a little, Iwould never have gotten into the hall. Every second counted, and fortunately Isucceeded. HadI not been able to, Iwould have been shot or forced out of the building. Ihad to run somewhere: either into the hall, or out of the building. SoI ran into the hall.

Okay. Whatwas going on in the hall?

By this time everyone was already sitting very still in there, because a cordon of people dressed in black surrounded the audience. Theywere mostly women, with guns and grenades in their hands, and they had packages of explosives attached to their belts. Ihad no choice but to sit on the outer edge (of the crowd) and try to inject myself into the situation and to get in contact with the terrorists. Thisturned out to be rather simple, because very quickly they needed me. After all, the theater building is a complex structure and has many dangers for those unfamiliar with theatrical equipment and who do not know how to work with it. Naturally, the problems began almost immediately. Forexample, they suddenly found that one of the big heavy pieces of equipment that they used to barricade the stage doors had thick smoke coming out, and they did not know what it was. Itwas a machine for generating smoke on stage. Theterrorists were forced to appeal to the auditorium: “Anyone here know what to do with this thing?”

In principle, you found yourself in the role of the captain of a hijacked vessel.

In principle, yes, and it is fortunate that Iwas able to spend all those difficult hours together with the people whom Ilured, so to speak, into the hall, who had gathered for the play. So, Iwas supposed to be with these people, and with our actors and orchestra members.

Did you try to negotiate with the captors?

Iwas the only person in the hall who had an opportunity to speak to them, for the simple reason that they needed me all the time. Itried all the time to increase my sphere of influence, and already the next episode showed that one could get some concessions out of them. Itwas when the lighting filters started to smoke and burn. Thecomputer for lighting was put into standby mode, and the filters were not designed for such a long exposure to the powerful lamps. There was a burning smell, and people got scared. Theterrorists at first acted tough, but Idescribed to them how awful it would be if the theater caught fire, and how they would not even have time to put forward their political demands everyone instead would die senselessly in a matter of minutes. Using this pressure Imanaged to get from them a walkie-talkie and Igot in touch with our people inside the theater, and Iwas even able to for some time to contact people outside the building. Inparticular, our technical director Andrew Yalovich, who was outside the theater and did a lot to get us released. Ican talk forever about such episodes. Allthree days consisted of these. Iwas doing something the whole time, always in some endless struggle, as if locked in a multiple chess game in which Iwas in a privileged position. Itwas harder for the others, since they were practically glued to their seats and forbidden to stand up, make calls on their cell phones, or even turn their head and talk. Theycertainly had it much worse, both physically and mentally.

Were your artists in the hall with everyone?

Yes. Fortunately, our girls managed to escape from the building. Theywere really helped by Alexei Ivashchenko. Hebarricaded the door to the dressing room and most artists not involved early in the second act managed to climb down from the windows on costumes they tied together.

Did the terrorists listen to you? Wereyou able to influence them?

Yes. Notright away, of course. Iwas always testing to what extent was possible: could we make another small step, and then another? Theywere grabbing me literally every forty minutes. Theyalways had some problem. Atone point they wanted to know what was behind this big door on the stage. Thiswas the entrance to the so-called ‘cold pocket’. Theyalso demanded that Iclimb up a ladder into one of the ducts, and show them what was in there. ThenI found them playing football with our famous watermelon. Remember in the play, this Uzbek was walking around with it? Ipulled this watermelon away and said: “What are doing? Thisis a prop!” And Iput the watermelon to the side. Theybristled: “Who are you to tell us anything?” So, step by step, Itried where Icould to exert pressure, to ask for something, to somehow make contact so that Icould get at least some concessions for the people sitting in the hall.

Did you manage to get something done?

A lot. Imanaged, for example, to completely get rid of the fire hazard. After all, there was a moment when the hall caught fire.

From the lighting?

No, there is a story that goes with this. Ourbiggest problem was with the toilets. There were not enough terrorists to monitor all the entrances and exits to the building, and so they tried to stay inside the hall, or as close to it as they could. Inthe hall they had weapons of influence: a powerful bomb in the middle of the main seating that they were going to detonate if anything happened. Inessence, this bomb was their only serious defense. Theyknew very little about the building. Theydid not know all the exits, or about the set up in the basements, ceilings, catwalks, and galleries. Therefore they tried to keep everyone inside the hall. There were 200or 250people on the balcony and 600in the main seating. Thepeople on the balcony had it easier: there were toilets nearby. Butthe people in the main seating were categorically denied access to these. Isoon found out that the terrorists were using the premises as a toilet. Itwas clear that for the people in the main seating this would soon be an intractable problem. Isuggested that they use for this purpose an inside service stairway, but the terrorists once again refused, citing a shortage of manpower and the inability to control it all, since the access to the stairs was too far away from the hall. Sothey insisted on using the orchestra pit as a toilet. Forme the very thought was unbearable. Ido not even know how to explain it.

That is understandable.

Isuggested another option: take a piece of the scenery from the stage and make two stalls, for male and female toilets. There on stage were hatches that sewage could drain three meters down, but they refused, again pointing out difficulty in controlling the stage. Soall the men and women had to use the orchestra pit, and you can just imagine how this turned out. Within a few hours it was truly ungodly, and it was an incredible mental and physical torment, because the terrorists did not allow everyone to use it all the time. There was one heartbreaking scene where this little girl was sitting there and looking at the stinking pit with imploring eyes, then looked askance at this relentless Chechen woman, who said: “Sit and be patient, like I’m sitting!” But the little girl begged: “I’ve not been to the bathroom for two days, please let me.” It was all torture. Thepit very quickly turned into a horrible cesspool, with blood mixed with feces. Godhelp anyone who had to suffer this. Then, on the second day, it caught fire. Thefact is, we could not completely turn off the lights in the pit, because it would have been too dark, so for lighting we used the orchestra console lights. Anextension cord shorted out on one of the music stands and the fire spread to the wiring and from the wiring to sheets of music. Thank God we had the chief of the lighting shop, Sasha Fedyakin. Heshut down the power to the pit and brought a fire extinguisher so the fire could be extinguished. There were a lot of situations like this.

How did people behave?

Some stoically endured everything, and Iwould say, heroically, while others panicked. Manywere crying all the time.

Did they help each other?

There were absolutely amazing moments of self-sacrifice. Nextto me were sitting two of the musicians from our orchestra: Sasha and her husband Zhenya. Hehas a Ukrainian passport, and she is Russian. Ukrainians were considered foreigners, and they promised to release them, and Sasha kept pushing her husband to show his passport and kept trying to say: “He’s a foreigner!” But he would not budge: “Shut up, I’m not going anywhere without you.” Irecall with horror the drama that unfolded right next to me, because Zhenya eventually died.

What happened up on the balcony?

They had it a little easier on the one hand, because they were still allowed to use the restrooms, but on the other hand there were less of them and our child actors were sitting up there, 11of them, and we had no communication with them up there. Though it is true that our teachers were up there, supporting them, and a huge thanks to them. Inthe main seating our actors kept a stiff upper lip and tried to reassure the audience: “Make sure you don’t lose you tickets when we get out of here. We’ll certainly finish the play for you!” They told their neighbors how further events in the play would unfold, and supported others as best they could.

There was a problem with water, but since the theater snack bars had food and beverages, did the terrorists try to feed people?

It was like giving out a few teacakes. Fromtime to time out walks a Chechen and he tosses some chocolate or gum or hands out a couple of 200-ml bottles of Pepsi and that was it for almost a thousand people in the hall! Wecan assume that for three days people hardly ate or drink, and this dehydration increased the effect of the gas.

They tried to help from the outside. Didany of this assistance get to you?

Istill cannot understand why help took so long, came so late, and why they did not bring what we asked for. Onthe very first day Imanaged to send a long list of what we needed. Weprimarily needed hygienic towels and disinfectants for the orchestra pit. Weneeded water, just plain ordinary water. Idid not even ask for food. Iasked for that, which was most urgently needed: stomach and heart medication. Unfortunately, we did not get any of this, and what we did get was not quite right. Theimpression we got, of course, was that the people making the decisions were not concerned primarily with the fate of the hostages.

Were you able to communicate with those who came in from outside? WithProfessor Roshal?

No, he worked up on the balcony, while Iwas in the main seating and no one came down there. Wecarried out the wounded, and Iwas only able to contact those who took the wounded, representatives of the Red Cross, and Politkovskaya. Butwhat sort of contact can there be, when you are being poked in the back with a rifle butt and they are saying: “Go, go, quickly, quickly, stop looking around!” Ionly managed to whisper that we needed this or that and Iwas told that they knew nothing about it. Buthow could they not know, when Iwas calling up every headquarters number and dictating a long list?

After your release, did you ask why?

No, and Ido not want any explanations! Ithink that it was just our usual bureaucracy, but Iam sure that because of this we lost a lot of lives, because if he they had not allowed such severe depletion (of energy) and, most importantly, dehydration, many would have remained alive.

It is known that the terrorists simply did not allow in food and water. Every channel showed how these were carried to the theater building.
But they let in the Red Cross! Andmedicine, and water, and juice. Itis just that they did not send what was needed. After all, they could have brought in what we asked for and what we really needed! Doyou know what kind of painkillers they sent us? Analgin in ampoules! Noteven pills. Whatcould we do with this? Iwill tell you a very important thing: there was an invisible struggle going on, a tug of war between the hostages and their friends and relatives on the one hand and, say, powerful people who set policy and influenced what information went out through the media. Whenit was a question about how to resolve the conflict, to storm or not to storm (the theater), and when to do it and by what means, there was a great deal of weight on both sides of the scales. Youcould choose different options. Somewould infringe on our Russian national pride, but they would preserve lives. Somesuggested lengthy negotiations, while others were more decisive and willing to take risks. Itis clear that it was a difficult decision, but the fate of the theater hostages was in the balance. Andthe question was: what was the weight of these lives in a political solution, versus a military one? Ifthe media is silent and the public is silent, then these lives bear little weight and can be ignored. Sothey made a decision that was more politically advantageous. Thehostages understood. Theyalso understood that no one but themselves could help them their relatives and friends who were outside at liberty could not. Sothey were yelling at their cell phones, appealing to friends, relatives, journalists, and politicians they knew. Theyasked them to please pay attention and go demonstrate, they begged that there be no assault under any circumstances. Theyasked them to make concessions and save lives, attempted to draw attention to the fact that there was more than 800people in the process of drowning. Allthe time the media underreported the number of hostages: some channels in spite of the obvious insisted that the hall only had a capacity of 300! Finally they launched a vile innuendo that the hostages had fallen victim to ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and had “fallen in love with their tormentors” and so they were carrying out all (the terrorists') instructions.

What outcome would you consider to be correct?

Iknow that professionals would ridicule any scenario that Ican describe. Theycan easily explain why something cannot be done. But, given the number of deaths that we received as a result, given the enormous risk that actually existed, and Iwas on the inside and Iwas able to assess this risk, we probably should have found another way. After all, every fourth person was killed. Ofthe 76‘Nord-Ost’ employees in the hall, 18were killed! Ofthe 32musicians of the orchestra, 8died! Andthis was termed the best of outcomes, an ideal operation. Butjust imagine if in one of the Chechen’s hands had trembled and even one bomb had gone off! Ican describe the scenario to you: it is simple and straightforward. Theterrorists demanded concessions, so we had to make concessions. Wehave seen many times how they do things in the rest of world in similar situations. Theydemand a million dollars, so we tell them: “Okay, we’ll fulfill your demands, but show that you are ready to make concessions by releasing twenty children. We’ll bring you a part, and you release twenty sick people.”

But the withdrawal of forces is not a million dollars that can be brought over in an hour. Itrequires many days!

But we did not ask them to release us immediately, or at any price. Wecould have sat a week or two, if it were to save lives.

But they began to shoot the hostages!

No, it was not like that.

But all channels broadcast a recording of their conversation: “At 6am we’ll start shooting, and we’ll start with the ‘juiciest’ ones.”

On the eve of the assault no one got shot. Theywould start shooting only if their conditions were not been met. Butwhat would have prevented us from starting to meet them, at least partially? Iheard the official theory about how only after the first shooting and a real threat to the hostages they decided to carry out an operation. I, however, was on the inside: it was the usual gloomy morning.

How could you sit there for another week, if you were not given water?

Irepeat: a Red Cross delivery was made, so this means that ultimately they would have let in water and everything needed. Understand, everything was terrible, but everyone was ready to undergo new trials if only to reduce the number of deaths. Thiswas the only thing we asked when we called up friends, acquaintances, and journalists, and a huge thank you to everyone who came out on the picket lines and tried to help us and to bring the problem of the attention of the public. Unfortunately, things turned out differently.

How would you rate the assault?

It was probably done super-professionally, and Iprobably Ihave no right judging the decision of the commanders about what dose of gas to use in the hall. Honor and praise to those who were able to determine how much was needed to put the terrorists to sleep. ButI personally know a few people in the hall who were unaffected by the gas, and Ican give their names. Theyremained fully conscious and left the building under their own power. Doyou know what that means? Hadthe terrorists at least one such person, and the probability was high, everything could have ended a lot more deplorably.

The press reported that some of the hostages somehow were able to learn of the impending assault. Wereyou among those who knew?

These warnings, Ibelieve, did us a disservice. Itmeans they did not feel the atmosphere reigning in the hall. Morethan anything else, people feared an assault! Theyunderstood that it was a huge risk. Perhaps they did not realize that anyone would survive, because they thought that any attack would lead to the explosions of the huge bombs and everyone would perish, so for them an attack meant death. Spreading rumors that after the third night they would start shoot hostages and an assault would begin only brought panic, and to spread such rumors is a crime. There could been mass psychosis, hysteria, and who knows how it all would have ended? Asfor me, the preparations for an assault were quite obvious, from the tone of the media and the politicians who spoke.

You were able to follow all of this?

Yes, some had radios, and gossip went from row to row. Secondly, Iknow the building very well, from the basement to the roof, and Iknow of a lot of holes that remained open, and through which it would have been possible to attack the terrorists. Onecould get in through the basement and the ventilation system, and the terrorists could not control the catwalk and galleries. There was a catwalk above a suspended ceiling that could have accommodated at least a company of sharpshooters. Theterrorists had no idea what was behind any of the many doors. Their bombs were their only protection, and they threatened to blow them up. Itwas absolutely clear to me, however, that in this situation no commando could resist the temptation to start an assault. Fromthe media Iknew that after the third night there would be shooting, and so Iquietly prepared for the assault. Whenthe gas came, Ieven told people sitting next to me: “Relax, and fall asleep.” And then Ipassed out.

How did the gas affect you?

Bad, because Iwas sitting right under the air conditioner and got a large dose, but thank God Ihave strong health and bear stress well. After 10hours Iwas resuscitated and came to. Italso helped that Iwas lying by the edge (of the crowd) and was quickly taken outside into the (fresh) air.

How are the children feeling? Towhat extent has the incident affected their psyche?

Unfortunately, Ihave not yet seen a single child. Ithink that they are sitting at home and their relatives and friends are fussing over them, and rejoicing in their salvation. Itis very difficult for me to talk about it: there were children among the dead, including children from ‘Nord-Ost’ (cast).

What do you think, why was ‘Nord-Ost’ selected for a terrorist attack?

Iasked this question of the terrorists, and they said: “You’re a Russian musical. Moreforeigners would go to see ‘Chicago’, but we’re not interested in them. We’re interested in Russian citizens.” Also, our performance was the same every day, so it was easy to watch and learn everything you needed.

Iunderstand that it is too soon to say, but a question of concern to everyone: ‘Nord-Ost’ has won a very special place in our hearts will it live on?

Honestly, Ido not know. Ihave neither the strength nor the means, and Icannot do anything by myself. There was too much damage. Wedo not even have the money to pay our employees. Now, as a result of the terrorist attack, we are forced to dismiss the whole ‘Nord-Ost’ team, 300people. Wehave nothing with which to pay them. Weare appealing to the Employment Fund, explaining that terrorists attacked us and we are not to blame. Wedid not make the policies in Chechnya. Weare just victims of circumstances. Wehad to fire the actors, but maybe in two or three months we could resurrect the show. Could they pay them unemployment benefits at least equal to half their salary? Wehonestly dotted every ‘i’, but we got an answer: no. Iam not even talking about resurrecting the musical, just about supporting people affected by the terror attack, and still the answer is no. Thisis what is terrible, so Iam afraid to await more serious help from the government, though Iheard that, supposedly, the building would be rebuilt. Butwhat is there to rebuild? Itwould be ready for the summer season, when there is a decline spectator activity, and after a year later our lease is up. Thiswill not help us, anyway, just the ball-bearing plant (the owners of the theater center ed). Inaddition, it is not just the building that needs to be rebuilt we must also restore a complex play and, most importantly, socially rehabilitate the place. After all, right now it is a mass grave.

Of course, if the city really shows us its support, we can try to restore everything, but for now it is a cursed place, and it will be hard to walk out onto that stage or and get into that orchestra pit, and it will be hard to get spectators to enter the hall. Itcould probably be overcome by replacing the seating and the banner that was on television the whole time, but it might be better to make ‘Nord-Ost’ a traveling show so that the whole country could see it. Itcould be shown in Moscow for half a year, then St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and the ‘Near Abroad’ (CIS ed).

But these are all projections, and Igave you just one example. Wemust support the cast and workers of the show who have been thrown out into the streets. Evenhere we cannot find understanding.

Thus the frontline (of the Chechen War) has passed through the most vital genre of the musical arts through the first Russian musical. Amusical that the people loved because its performances once again restored faith in our country and the greatness of its history. ‘Nord-Ost’, which only claimed to give its viewers relaxation and recharge their optimism, has become a symbol of courage, and a sign of a critical time. Following on the heels of the World Trade Center in New York, a musical story of heroic polar explorers once again tragically marks the poles of the in the world today: terrorists against humanity, humanity against the terrorists.
Therefore, ‘Nord-Ost’ must return to Russia, because Russia should see it. Nowit is a matter of honor, not only for producers, directors and actors, but also for Moscow and for entire country. Itwill return and crowded, as always, and the audience will rise to greet it.
 
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