The Story Garden
In times of distress, I turn to Italian pop music of the 1980s: Riccardo Fogli and Pupo have the strongest therapeutic effect on me. Passionate yet soothing, and only God knows what they are singing about in this wonderful language of theirs. Must be love, sunshine and the breathtaking blue-eyed beauties. I continue thinking my gloomy thoughts, with Fogli or Pupo serenading in the background, and then, all of a sudden, I'm happy again, or writing something too sentimental.
On October 29, it was different. In the evening, I was trying to take a break from thinking about the dead and the surviving former hostages. When I finished my second glass of red wine, I had a vision: a huge, ugly face - a blend of Putin the Sly Spy and Zyuganov the Communist Joker - almost rubbing against my cheek, grinning in this crazy, angelically ominous way. The face of Russia, I thought.
When I was about to put on the Italians CD, an unknown force diverted my hand and I ended up listening to Pet Shop Boys. Very soon, my delirious sobriety returned: less than a week since 10/23, with three Kremlin red stars and two proud Russian flags visible from my window at night, I had no other choice but to believe that a song called "The Theatre" was about Moscow, not London - about the Chechens, and not about the disadvantaged young Brits.
"While you pretend not to notice
All the years we've been here
We're the bums you step over
As you leave the Theatre
It's another world here
Somebody is singing
I was only wishing
For a bit of cash
From a patron of the arts
Or at least the phantom of the opera
Will I catch your eye?.."
October 29 must have been marked as the Day of Revelations on some PopJunkie Saint's calendar.
"And perhaps 'The Theatre' could be used on a radio piece about that gay club, Central Station-2, which opened at the end of September in the 'Nord-Ost' theater's basement. There were rumors that the terrorists had hidden their explosives there and that the special forces blew up one of the club's walls to storm the besieged building."
This was an irrelevant afterthought that I shared the next day with an American journalist I was assisting, one of the few precious people who helped me keep my sanity throughout most of the 10/23 ordeal.
The first chaotic steps away from helplessly sitting guard in front of the TV, however, I took on my own. On Friday, October 25, some forty hours since the hostage crisis began and seventeen more to go before gas would be pumped into the theater, I decided to go to Red Square, where a small group of the hostages' friends and relatives was trying to hold an anti-war rally.
A Russian acquaintance called me just when I was ready to leave. Forgetting that he never missed a chance to expose my touchy-feely nature, I greeted him the only way I could then: "I hope no one you know is in there." "Veronica, my friends aren't the kind of people who go to musicals. What about yours?" he replied. I didn't tell him that in this particular context his words sounded almost as foolish as, "Our friends aren't the kind of people who fly planes, take subways, eat out occasionally, live in apartment blocks and walk the streets of Moscow." All I said was that there seemed to be no one I knew in there, either.
By the time I reached Red Square, the protesters had heeded the city authorities' "request" to disperse and had moved back to the "Nord-Ost" neighborhood. In fifteen minutes I, too, was walking past dozens of buses lined up from the Proletarskaya subway station all the way to where the riot police, rescuers, diggers, journalists, relatives, friends, politicians and gawkers mingled at a safe distance from the besieged theater.
A neatly dressed elderly man - small, pale and subdued - caught up with me and asked how to get to the rehabilitation center for the hostages' relatives. I knew from the news that the place - misnamed by one journalist as the "filtration" center - had been set up in a technical school nearby, but I wasn't able to guide the man. He continued walking next to me for a couple more minutes, stooping as if someone sat on his shoulders, looking so lost, so lonely. "Do you have anyone in there?" I asked, and he whispered - almost exhaled - his reply: "yes.my son.and his girlfriend."
He soon crossed the street to ask a cop for directions, and I passed the crowds and entered a maze of crumbling five-storied apartment blocks and rusty garages that surrounded the theater packed with explosives. I spent some time eavesdropping on janitors, soldiers and the locals, wondering what Putin would have done had his daughters been inside the theater, along with 800 other poor souls, of whom I felt I already knew at least two.
When the rain turned into a real distraction, I went inside a bar within, maybe, half a mile from the theater. The TV on the wall was blaring a commercial of J-7 juices (sponsor of "The Last Hero," the Russian sibling of "Survivor"): "Everybody loves their freedom, everybody loves, everybody loves their freedom!"
On Sunday, October 27, I was back in the "Nord-Ost" area with the American journalist. At 1:30 p.m., there seemed to be as many reporters in front of the City Hospital #13 as there were relatives of the former hostages. The majority of the rescued - the conscious, the unconscious and the already dead - had been brought here more than 30 hours before, but there were still no exhaustive lists available. Family members were not allowed inside the hospital and had to continue their despairing vigil in the cold, rainy weather. The one hour deducted out of the three and a half days of their wait - with the switch to winter time that occurred at 3 a.m. on this last Sunday of October - hardly made any difference.
Two women walked away from the crowd by the hospital gate and, finding a patch of relatively mud-free surface on the edge of a sidewalk, lit up their cigarettes in silence. One of them, Nadezhda, was the wife of Viktor Martynov, a clarinetist in the "Nord-Ost" orchestra; the other was his sister. They had no idea whether he was in Hospital #13 or in any of at least a dozen others; they did not know if he was dead or alive. They were getting no help from the officials, and only through a network of friends was it possible to obtain bits of information, which - so far - hadn't fused into a simple and definitive answer Nadezhda and her sister-in-law were looking for. They were so drained it was hard to tell if they were in their 30s, 40s or early 50s, and there were moments when Nadezhda was choking down tears and apologizing for these lapses into emotion. I stroked her shoulder and repeated several times that everything would be fine, that she'd soon find her husband healthy and happy. I didn't have courage to say that she'd find him alive, for that would have implied that he might be dead.
The City Hospital #13 is located on Velozavodskaya St., named after a bicycle factory. Very close to it is Sharikopodshipnikovskaya St., named after a plant that produces "sharikopodshipniki," or ball bearings (defined in my Collins Dictionary as bearings "consisting of steel balls rolling between a metal sleeve fitted over the rotating shaft and an outer sleeve held in the bearing housing, so reducing friction"). The building that housed the musical (and the gay club) used to be the ball-bearing factory's cultural center. Although the area is loosely called Dubrovka, a name that conditions one to think of an oak forest, the grim industrial connotations are more resilient. It is tempting to describe Dubrovka's scenery, both before and after the hostage tragedy, as lifted out of Tarkovskiy's "Stalker" - if it wasn't for the basic attributes of a functioning magapolis: lots of people and cars.
Right across the street and a parking lot from the battered "Nord-Ost" theater, a few people were waiting for a bus at a stop that, for the past year and four days, received those from the musical crowd who chose to take subway to Proletarskaya and then switch to a bus. Three women at the stop, and their little children, watched as the cars slowed down, reaching a makeshift memorial just slightly off the road: flowers, flowers, flowers. We asked them what they thought about the war in Chechnya, and they said there was no war. One of the women said the Chechens had a propensity for warfare in their genes and then, disregarding the presence of the kids, called the terrorists "vyblyadki," a very strong word that can be translated as "the whore's children." As we talked, people with bouquets were stepping out of cars every now and then, and the flower memorial continued to grow.
In the evening, we visited one of Moscow's mosques, intending to speak with a Chechen Diaspora member about the impact the hostage crisis had had on this large and very diverse community.
On my way there, I talked with a cab driver, a young Muslim of Azeri descent. I mentioned that I had once tried to study Arabic and still remembered a line from the Quran, "Iyyaka na'abudu wa iyyaka nasta'iin" ("You alone we worship, and to You alone turn for help"). He asked me, all of a sudden: "What do you think - is it necessary to kill all non-Muslims?" I turned all the way to him and said, totally incredulous: "Are you asking me?!" And he replied, "Yes." I told him that, of course, no one should kill anyone, no matter what the clerics say, because many of them are so good at producing interpretations that fit their goals. He seemed to agree with me, saying that when his uncle was translating the Quran, he realized that the verb usually rendered as "to kill" had another, less extreme meaning. When I tried to pay my fare, he refused to take the money. But I insisted because I felt I owed him not just for the ride - but also for that little reminder that there could be some consensus and things might not be as bad as they appeared.
The Chechen man who had earlier agreed to be interviewed, was reluctant when we met him in person. Having spent a quarter of an hour waiting for him outside the mosque's courtyard, we felt it was reasonable to take no for an answer. Some of the men who gathered at the mosque that night for a Sufi group meeting kept coming in and out of the courtyard, giving us suspicious, seemingly inhospitable looks. The paranoid atmosphere of the place was reinforced by the four residential buildings that encased the mosque, fencing it off the abnormally quiet street - in the post-10/23 circumstances, this encouraged strangers like us and, no doubt, the regulars of the mosque, to imagine a zillion Russian intelligence agents watching us from every single window.
When we left the premises of the mosque, a tiny part of me was discontent: if they really had nothing to hide, I thought, why were they afraid to talk? Halfway to the subway station, we heard steps behind us and then a male voice, calling for us to wait. We turned and recognized a young, clean-shaven man who had been around when we were waiting outside the mosque. Awkwardly, he asked about the purpose of our visit to the mosque, and I immediately thought he was an undercover Federal Security Service agent.
He agreed to be interviewed, though, and spent the next 40 minutes talking non-stop about his fear for his own life, the danger that nearly all Chechens and others from the North Caucasus were facing in Moscow, the peaceful nature of Islam that he truly believed in, the Russian ex-girlfriend he had been dating for a whole year (who initially was convinced he was a clandestine terrorist) and his numerous Russian friends (who abandoned him after 10/23). He wasn't a Chechen but an Ingush, which, in the eyes of the Moscow police and other witch-hunters, was exactly the same thing. He was 26 and very eager to escape from "this damn country." He wasn't speaking for the others who stayed behind at the mosque, and I could see how his innocent confessions could potentially get him in trouble. Thanks to him, I realized that it would have been wrong to blame those others who chose to remain in the shade: each one of them was on his own when it came to safety, and most of them had families to care for, too.
I am not one of those people who think all Muslims are evil; nor do I share the minority view that Muslims are better than the rest. There was no way I could think of the Azeri cab driver and the Ingush man as some rare, unique representatives of their faith. But I was still incredibly pleased to meet them because there are times when my rationality crumbles, and these two encounters helped me restore a huge part of it.
Unfortunately, episodes incomparably smaller than 10/23 sometimes seem enough to tip over the precious common-sense balance in my head. Three weeks before the hostage crisis, I was in another cab, with another Azeri driver. When I told him I was Ukrainian, he asked if I thought it would have been better had Adolf Hitler conquered Ukraine during World War II. No way, I replied. At that time, to think that the Nazis would have treated Ukrainians better than the Communists was a horrible yet common mistake; to continue believing this in 2002 was criminal. The driver, however, turned out to be a Hitler fan: he said Hitler was a wise man who understood that because Jews were clever, they had to be exterminated.
It is always a shock to see swastikas scribbled on the walls in Moscow or St. Petersburg; it is disgusting to see the local breed of skinheads on the evening news, carrying out drunken pogroms at markets as the police are looking the other way - or are looking on, approving, not interfering. But to meet an Azeri man praising Hitler in Moscow was like tripping over a freak show character in my own living-room. The man's jet-black hair and beard, his dark complexion and his accent made him a perfect target for Moscow's skins and cops, and yet, he sounded just like them. I asked if he was aware of that, and he shrugged rathercarelessly and replied that the kids who attack his folk at the markets are too young and ignorant, and shouldn't be taken seriously.
I wasn't going to preach humanity to this man; all I needed was to get home at the end of a long day. Before I got out of his car, though, I came up with a rhetorical question for him: isn't it better to have a country full of clever people rather than kill them all and go on living with the stupid ones?
This episode, obviously, has little or nothing to do with 10/23, but I do admit that sometimes I find it hard to remain rational and avoid generalizations. And I'm not the only one. The most blatant and yet, an absolutely justified, sweeping statement has been the comparison of 10/23 to 9/11.
Although the historical and political realities that had shaped these tragedies were as distant as could be, their psychological implications seemed similar. Now and then, there were people who defied despair and whose compassion for the victims was genuine and unconditional; there were also those who didn't hesitate to point out that "terror has come home" (as if it was something anyone could possibly doubt); and, of course, there were some who cheered these "acts of retribution"; and more than just a few who didn't care.
One of my flashbacks to 9/11 occurred when we were by the "Nord-Ost" impromptu flower memorial on that long, damp Sunday after the rescue operation. It reminded me of the flower mound that had grown in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after 9/11 - in just one day, too. And I couldn't help thinking of that couple my boyfriend and I encountered the night of September 12, minutes after we put our flowers and took a trolleybus home: an old, mountainous Communist comrade-wife and a meek husband by her side.
There was a minor traffic jam by the Embassy (just like the one in Dubrovka), and the trolleybus was arduously advancing towards the tunnel, giving some passengers their first chance to see the flowers and the sad crowd, and some their second one. The woman - whose old-style Soviet elite polish still shimmered through - suddenly threw her hand in the direction of the Embassy and declared, "Ha! And how many people they've killed!" There was no passenger reaction to her outburst and, encouraged, she said something nasty again before disembarking at the next stop. I remember the rest in slow motion: my boyfriend almost crashing the window with his middle finger, me hypnotically doing the same, the old docile man remaining unmoved and the woman responding with a dignified Russian equivalent of the "up yours" - a fist with the thumb stuck between index and middle fingers. Then they walked away - most likely to their once-luxuriant apartment in the very center of Moscow, acquired with the help of millions upon millions of the Gulag dead.
I am not one of those people who expect everyone around to feel what I feel and do it in unison with me: life is much more complex than a universal switch to winter time at 3 a.m. October 27. But I hate it when someone disrupts my grieving spells the way the woman on the trolleybus did. After 9/11, I've learned to dodge certain people and certain authors for the time it takes me to recover, though occasionally I do get hit.
Early morning on October 27, still feeling it was late at night on October 26, I absent-mindedly clicked on a Reuters story, headlined "Chechnya Peace May Be Casualty After Moscow Raid." Somehow, the headline didn't seem contradictory right away. But then I read the lead, which I did find ambiguous: "Russia counts the cost Sunday of the bloody end to a theater siege by Chechen rebels, but the chief victim could be peace in the Muslim region of Chechnya." What peace, I thought, and if there was any indeed, why saving a few hundred people would affect it?
The story had been posted 16 minutes before I opened it, so there is a chance Reuters provided some clues later. But I haven't seen any follow-up headlines preceded by the word "CORRECTION," nor was I really looking for them. I just went back to grieving for all those who died, got hurt and were still searching for their dear ones, as well as for those innocent people who were likely to suffer in the aftermath of 10/23 all over this country.
A few weeks later, when I toughened again, I visited Reuters' web page to learn about the agency's editorial policy, written by Stephen Jukes, Head of News, and last updated in April 2002. I found out that Reuters journalists did not "voice their own opinions" ("No, never.") and that their "news stories [were] sourced very clearly and precisely to enable readers and viewers to form their own judgment." (I did form mine, even though I was unable to locate any explicit attributions for the nonsensical lead statement.)
Reuters also claimed to be "committed to reporting the facts and in all situations avoid the use of emotive terms." I did agree that it was an established fact that "Putin has long linked so-called international terrorism to the problem in Chechnya where rebels have been battling on and off since 1994 to break from Moscow's grip" - but whoever wrote this sentence had been guided by emotions and, perhaps, a hope that the editor was dozing off at the moment. (And I am not referring to the "so-called international terrorism" part - I understand that by now, Reuters must be really tired of all those who believed that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked by terrorists and expected this reliable news source to confirm their impression. I know that they are following "a long-standing policy to avoid the use of emotive words," and that's why they "do not use terms like 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' unless they are in a direct quote or are otherwise attributable to a third party." But isn't the phrase "Moscow's grip" too figurative to be considered non-emotive?)
The story ended with a quote from Dominique de Villepin, French foreign minister, who did use the T-word as discreetly as if he had studied Reuters' editorial policy page: "I believe one must distinguish between things: terrorism, which is reprehensible in all its forms and wherever it might be, and crises which genuinely call for the search for a political solution. This is clearly the case in Chechnya, we've said it for years[.]" Yet, the reporter's dissent was irrepressible and pushed him (or her) to introduce the quote as "a voice of criticism" that "[would] have given [Putin] a rude awakening."
My judgment here is that this prophecy might or might not have come true, but the editor sure did find much stuff to fix when he (or she) awoke. And somehow, I sympathize with the reporter, especially when I remind myself of what Ryszard Kapuscinski, a renowned Polish war correspondent, once said about "the horrors of a press agency writer" in a Granta (#21: The Story-Teller) interview: ".these anonymous markers of events, these terrible victims of information, working day and night in the worst of all possible conditions."
To end this brief review of the so-called neutral coverage on a good note, here is the beginning of an October 24 piece from the Istanbul-based Agency Caucasus: "Action is carried by Barayev the dead man. Russia had claimed to have killed him. Chechen sources said that the action is carried by Movsar Barayev. Moscow movie raiders asked Russia to pull out from Chechnya." They did not demand, they just asked.
Perhaps Reuters could learn something about truly dispassionate reporting from their Caucasian colleagues, and in return offer them some tips on the English grammar, and a few more on untangling all those confusing facts. (I can't resist offering one clarification: Movsar Barayev was a nephew of Arbi Barayev, a notorious kidnapper killed in summer 2001. Allegedly, among the ruthless uncle's victims were four Western telecom engineers beheaded in 1998, as well as numerous Chechens; allegedly, he collaborated with the Russian Special Forces; and, allegedly, many Chechens hated his guts.)
Anna Politkovskaya is no match for Reuters. She may be closer to Ryszard Kapuscinski who, in that same Granta interview, said that his condensed news agency stories always had counterparts that "[expressed] what I actually felt, what I lived through, the reflections surrounding the simple news story." But his writing covered much of the turbulent world, while Politkovskaya's stories do not even embrace the whole of Russia. They are limited to Russia's self-inflicted wound, Chechnya, which has been bleeding all over the place for the past decade.
Politkovskaya has so far dissected an incredible expanse of Chechnya's tissue, following blood streams from the battlegrounds in Grozny to the refugee camps in the neighboring Ingushetia; from the army barracks in Daghestan to the offices of corrupted generals in Moscow; from the war zone nursing homes to the out-of-the-way homes of bereaved families of the missing Russian soldiers.
She doesn't seek to be in the spotlight but gets caught in it anyway: either through her noble initiatives to help the most miserable among her sources, or through the government's clumsy yet menacing attempts to silence her. The last time she drew everyone's attention was during the hostage crisis, when the Chechen terrorists named her as one of those they would have liked to negotiate with.
Hours after Politkovskaya had arrived in Los Angeles to receive a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, she had to start planning her trip back to Moscow. Around noon Thursday, October 24, a Russian TV channel arranged a live phone conversation with her, and she explained that at the moment she was having problems exchanging her Delta ticket for an earlier date. I thought that was so ridiculous, having to worry about tickets when the lives of nearly 1,000 people were at stake. And only when my American colleague and I visited Politkovskaya at her Moscow apartment ten days after 10/23, did I understand that the time difference, not red tape, had been to blame: it was the middle of the night when the news of the siege reached LA, and many people were asleep.
Smiling ironically, she told us how she had wanted to see Hollywood and the celebrities' mansions while she was in California. That was when I first caught myself feeling as cozy and ordinary as if I were sitting in the kitchen with my landlady: a daughter greeting us at the door; a son stopping by briefly to say hello to us and tell his mother he was off to work; a dear old Doberman, so excited about the guests that we all worried he might have a stroke. But Politkovskaya then began telling us how hard it had been to think of something to write in the note for the award ceremony she was going to miss, and I knew I was back in the kitchen of a woman whose magnitude was close to Andrei Sakharov's.
In her LA note she wrote: ".I have always believed that Russian journalism, first and foremost, is the journalism of action. The journalism of taking the step that you simply must take. Please pray for us, those who are directly affected by this crisis. And of course, say a prayer for me. I am ever more convinced that the war in Chechnya must be brought to an end. And today, the time has come for me to appeal to President Bush and plead with him to use his influence on President Putin to stop the bloodshed in Chechnya, and to prevent it in Moscow."
Back in Moscow, she did meet with the terrorists, and with some of the hostages, and she returned to the "Nord-Ost" building a few more times that day, October 25, carrying boxes of juice for the people inside. Journalists and firefighters contributed their own money to buy the first portion of juice; later - almost too late - the government decided to participate, too. (Some of the J-7 juice must have seeped inside the theater, while some of us, outside, were musing over the deeper meaning of the brand's slogan: "Everybody loves their freedom.")
In Politkovskaya's kitchen, we drank tea and did not talk about October 25 - by that time she had already described her errands in the bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta and other publications. She told us about the people she knew among the hostages: her daughter's 24-year-old friend, a "Nord-Ost" orchestra member; her own childhood friend with her family. The young musician survived, and Politkovskaya published an interview with him later; her friend lost her son and husband, and Politkovskaya attended the double funeral, and wrote about it, too.
My colleague asked her about the current racist moods in Moscow, and Politkovskaya confirmed that they were on the rise. Regardless of whether we want it or not, she said, the hostage crisis has only made it worse for all those who've been demonized by the media and the President, those who are routinely called "the blacks" here. Two weeks on, in mid-November, she published the first two stories of a series documenting the newest wave of anti-Chechen abuses in Moscow.
It is a purely post-Soviet phenomenon that the war in Chechnya is nowhere near the end and the discrimination against Caucasians is rampant all over the country - all despite Anna Politkovskaya. Her brave reporting is easily accessible in print and on the Internet; her astonishing book, "A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya" (Harvill Press, London, 2001) is available not just in its English translation but in Russian as well. Her stories cannot have but the most profound impact, and yet, no major changes seem to occur.
Chapter 7 of Politkovskaya's book, "Ingushlag: A New Concentration Camp," is about Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. On October 27, 1999, three years before 10/23, a group of them was watching Russian missiles swish by, one after another, high in the sky. "Why do they continue firing missiles into Grozny after the tragedy in the Central Market? Each missile immediately hits a great number of people. That many fighters never gather in a single place, even our children know that. So it's genocide," said Mir Khadjimuratov, a 25-year-old refugee from Grozny. "And those who didn't want to fight are now ready to."
If it hadn't been so obvious, it might have been a prophesy.
Politkovskaya told us that the Moscow hostage crisis would make some people finally notice the correlation between terrorism and the Army's brutal methods of conducting the second Chechen campaign. One of the "Nord-Ost" producers and a former hostage, Georgiy Vasilyev, went even further, calling what had happened a horrible "educational action."
He said that many of those who came to see a musical about "the great Russian history" - highlighting exploration of Siberia and the heroic deeds of the Soviet army during World War II - ended up learning a few facts from the history of Chechnya. In the 57 hours of the siege, their female captors, wrapped in explosives, shared tales of the Russian-Chechen wars of the 19th century, the deportations of 1944 and the more recent tragedies of the Chechen people. Vasilyev's attitude towards war in Chechnya hadn't changed: he had been opposed to it before 10/23, and he was still against it.
He spoke at a press conference October 30, after the funerals of Arseniy and Kristina, two teenage "Nord-Ost" actors who hadn't survived the rescue operation. We gathered in a room from which the musical's team, four days earlier, had been contacting Moscow hospitals and later, when all hope vanished, Moscow morgues. A bottle of Novopassit, a tranquilizer, still remained on a window-sill.
The young actors didn't die at the hands of the terrorists, Vasilyev said, but were killed by those who were trying to rescue them. However, had the terrorists not taken them hostage, Arseniy and Kristina - and the rest of the dead - would still have been alive. He said he wouldn't have wished to be in command of the rescue operation, for one needed immense courage to take responsibility for the lives of so many people. He thanked God at the end of the press conference - not for having survived, but for having been one of the victims. "And the feeling of guilt," he added, "will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Politkovskaya remembered one man among the hostages she'd been allowed to see on her first trip into the theater: he kept recounting things that the people inside needed most and, as he was being led away by the terrorists back to the auditorium where all the hostages were held, he continued shouting requests to her. "They tried to shut him up but he just went on and on," she said. "It was very brave of him." Later, when she saw him on TV, she realized the man was Georgiy Vasilyev.
Vasilyev said that although the female terrorists did not treat hostages with explicit cruelty, their male counterparts were quite fierce at times, and all seemed ready to die. Their determination did not become obvious immediately, however, and many hostages were able to maintain some of the casual attitude for a while, referring to the terrorists' leader as Mozart instead of Movsar, a name that at first sounded too foreign to remember.
But as Vasilyev furtively watched the masked people set up the explosives, he knew they were all doomed. The constant screech of Scotch tape used to keep the devices together served as just another chilling reminder to everyone. Moreover, Vasilyev managed at one point to start a conversation with a widow-terrorist seated nearby. It turned out to be easy, he said: he just asked her to translate the Arabic words on a black banner that had been placed upon the stage. She explained it was a prayer, and then confessed that she liked the way he was preparing for death. Eventually, the woman gave Vasilyev a piece of paper with a prayer scribbled on it in Arabic. She said that if he learned it by heart, he would be received in paradise as Muslim.
Before leaving the room in which Vasilyev's press conference had taken place, I stopped by a message board and, holding my breath, read the "Nord-Ost" casualties list.
Eighteen names; one of them - Viktor Martynov, a clarinetist, born in 1963, not yet forty. I still cannot get his wife out of my mind. His widow.
But life goes on. At least, this is what one talk show host said on October 25, roughly 12 hours before the rescue operation and around the time Politkovskaya was delivering the freedom-loving J-7 juices to the hostages. Life goes on. And if it did then, it surely does now.
The remnants of the "Nord-Ost" troupe began rehearsing for two commemorative concerts shortly after all their dead had been buried. A few newspapers reported that the Russian Special Forces were planning to wrap the terrorists' bodies in pig skins and bury them that way, to make sure they wouldn't be clean enough to go to heaven. Putin toughened up and famously invited all who wished to become "radical Muslims" to come to Moscow for circumcision.
The now-elderly Italian pop stars of the 1980s (Riccardo Fogli and Pupo among them) arrived here one month after the 10/23. Too late to have a soothing effect on me; too early to lure me into a crowded concert hall; so I ended up skipping their show.
And I still do not know whether the old man's son and his girlfriend survived. I doubt I'll ever find that out.