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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Gripping, Repellant Theatre of the Real

National Post, 10 January 2004

Book Review
57 Hours: A Survivor’s Account of the Moscow Hostage Drama, by Vesselin Nedkov with Paul Wilson
Viking Canada, 256 pages

57 Hours: A Survivor\'s Account of the Moscow Hostage DramaTrue-life disaster books are one of life’s guiltiest pleasures. Unlike mysteries and horror novels, which trade in fantasy, books about cannibalism in the Andes, hypothermic death on Everest or terrorism in Russia appear to profit directly from human suffering.

Vesselin Nedkov addresses this concern directly in 57 Hours, his first-hand account of the most horrific terrorist attack ever staged on Russian soil. In October, 2002, Chechen terrorists burst into a theatre in Moscow, taking some 800 musicians, actors and audience members hostage. Fifty-seven hours later, Russian commandos pumped an unidentified gas into the auditorium and stormed the building, killing all 41 terrorists and over 120 hostages. Nedkov reflects on this carnage — and his decision to write about it — in his final chapter. “Perhaps I needed to justify my own survival,” he suggests. “Perhaps, because I am an entrepreneur at heart, I saw this as a way to turn my ill luck at having been there to my advantage, a sort of survivor’s dividend.”

Whatever Nedkov’s motivations, the account of his ordeal is both gripping and repellent. It includes a concise backgrounder to the brutal Chechen wars of the past decade, researched by the co-author, Paul Wilson, deputy editor of The Walrus magazine. But it is ultimately an intensely personal work.

Nedkov plays the role of the ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances. A Bulgarian immigrant to Canada, Nedkov was winding up some business affairs in Russia when he decided to take in a performance of Nord-Ost, a popular homegrown Russian musical. Shortly after the curtain rose on the second act, a stream of gunmen entered the auditorium, herding the hostages into empty seats and lining the auditorium with explosives. “We are from Chechnya,” shouted one of the terrorists. “A war is going on there. We’ve just brought that war to Moscow!” A new and brutal chapter in Russia’s war in Chechnya had just opened.

Nedkov recounts his ordeal with spare and effective prose. He is a careful observer of human nature, noting the wide variety of responses to the unfolding drama. Some hostages broke down completely, while others displayed a reckless bravado. Some episodes are so distasteful or bizarre they could never be included in any fictional thriller. Hostages are forced to use the orchestra pit as a bathroom, stepping gingerly through human waste in order to relieve themselves. A woman somehow breaks past police lines from the outside and enters the theatre, encouraging the hostages to resist their captors. Nedkov watches silently as she is dragged out of the auditorium and summarily shot.

Just who were these hostage-takers? Based on video footage and survivor testimony, the attackers presented themselves as aspiring martyrs to a fundamentalist form of Islam. They draped banners with Arabic slogans across the theatre and wore headbands similar to those of Hamas foot soldiers. They even released a video to the Arab television station Al-Jazeera, which Nedkov describes bitterly as “a kind of messenger service for terrorists and dictators in hiding.”

Their fanaticism was most terrifyingly embodied by the 18 women among their ranks. These were the infamous “black widows” — Chechen women who were prepared to give their lives for a cause that had already claimed their fathers, sons or husbands. With home-made bombs strapped to their waists, the women peered out from behind face coverings with dark and lifeless eyes. Chechen suicide bombers are now overwhelmingly women, and last month’s attack on a central Moscow hotel was believed to have been committed by another of these black widows.

Conversations with these women provide some of the best insights in the book. Initially reserved, several eventually spoke to their hostages about their motivations. One told of the loss of her husband and the doubts she had about her mission. Another hinted at a larger and more organized network: “It doesn’t matter what I want. I have to do what I’m told to do. If I get the order, I am supposed to detonate the bomb. And that’s what I will do.”

Even some of the male hostage-takers appeared to confirm this claim, admitting on occasion that they received their orders “from outside.” But from whom? Nedkov and Wilson refuse to speculate, although there is no shortage of theories circulating in the Russian press. One highly respected reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, who spoke directly with the terrorists, has suggested one of the terrorists was a Russian special services agent who left before the theatre was stormed.

But we will never know, since none of the remaining terrorists survived. (The alleged double agent was killed in a car accident in Grozny last month, according to Interfax.) Without their testimony, Nedkov writes, “we would get conspiracy theories, conjecture, accusation and counter-accusation, official affirmations and official denials, but very little in the way of solid, publicly scrutinized fact.”

One of the few certainties to emerge from this tragedy is that it will not be the last, and it will not be the worst. Whether victimized by Chechen nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists or their own secret police, Russians will continue to die in a war that has spilled far beyond the borders of Chechnya. And survivors, it is equally certain, will continue to write about it.