Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Ashes of Beslan


On 1 September, friends and strangers wrote on social networks, “They think we’ve forgotten! They want us to forget!” Of course, it isn’t that the authorities necessarily want anyone to forget the Beslan hostage crisis of 2004, it’s just that they’d 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 the officials in charge. Islamic militants took over 1,100 people hostage at the school during celebrations commemorating the start of a new school year. On the third day of the hostage crisis, security forces stormed the school… 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 were careful to shield the security forces from responsibility. Yet, there was a consensus that the authorities botched the rescue operation… although no one was punished. The security apparatus is enormous and, as such, it isn’t a monolith. I can’t abide 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 they remain humane. However, 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. Whilst a culture of secrecy is an important aspect of any security organisation… 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 won’t heal in our lifetime, nor should they. Nevertheless, ultimately, it’d 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. A Russian saying goes, “The ashes of Klaas beat on in my heart”. It’s 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 college student in the USA 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. You see, 9/11 was an attack of radical Islamists… and moral nihilists. However, 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 find a solution, 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 Afandi 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. This Western narrative of Beslan made me, an aspiring journalist born in the Soviet Ukraine, seriously consider my possible future place in the Western media. All the same, 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 realised 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 Kitaigorod, a historic Moscow neighbourhood, a monument commemorating the victims of Beslan had many Muscovites, regardless of political affiliation, crying foul. It’s a work by Zurab Tsereteli, favourite sculptor of former Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and it’s 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’s 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’s allowed 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.

3 September 2012

Natalia Antonova



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