15 years of terrorist attack on Dubrovka (Nord-Ost)

Sergey Pugachev on Radio Svoboda

Mumin Shakirov: I would now like to turn to Sergei Pugachev who can both see and hear us online. Back then he was advisor to the Chief of the President’s Administration. We know virtually nothing or very little of what was going on at the Kremlin at that moment, i.e. when it was decided to launch the military operation and use the gas.

– Sergei Viktorovich, can you perhaps tell us what you remember from that time, from those days, now that fifteen years have passed ? You had directly witnessed the authorities take those decisions when the tragedy was unfolding  in Dubrovka.

Sergy Pugachev: Well, fifteen years… is quite a long time. Nonetheless I would like to start by conveying my deep sympathy to all those who lost their loved ones then. But overall, yes: you are perfectly right, you might say that I look at this situation from the other side, as it were. I was able to see it from inside.

It so happens that when it all started… I was in the Kremlin. That was on the 23rd of that month. Needless to say, the confusion inside the Kremlin was complete. No one could understand what was going on. It was the first major terror act to happen since the bombings  that had targeted apartment blocks. Nobody was prepared to that. As to what was happening in…

MS: Pardon me, Sergei Viktorovich, I would like to remind you that before that there had been Buddionovsk, then Dagestan, when Salman Raduev took about a thousand people hostage. Chamil Basaev, if I remember correctly, also took hostage all those that were inside the maternity hospital. So there were other terror acts before…

SP: Yes, of course there were. But I mean that this time it was happening in the centre of Moscow. The very centre. And, therefore, it looked entirely different from the Kremlin. Putin was totally disconcerted and turned, in the first place, to members of the law enforcement agencies. They tried to come up with some plan. An operations centre was set up. Overall, one had the impression that the special forces that were positioned near the theatre (another operations centre was set up there), the experts, they were following their own plan. At the Kremlin they had their own plan. And so it went on…

Then, you may remember that there were broadcasts and a TV crew from NTV was able to go inside. That too brought about a certain reaction.

This, too, was a peculiar aspect of the situation. The channel in question was NTV. It so happened that I was closely acquainted with its director, Boris Jordan, I had recommended him to Putin. So Putin asked me to summon him to the Kremlin, they had a long conversation and Jordan was absolutely perplexed. He said: “I don’t understand what is going on. What special operation? Why cannot we broadcast?”

So, from the very beginning, the general impression was that we were dealing with a random terror act commissioned and piloted by Maskhadov. Just that.

The issue of liberating some 1000 hostages seemed impossible to resolve. Especially given the amount of explosives and various other circumstances.


MS: Sergei Viktorovich, back to you: you were there. Could you tell us: when precisely was it decided that the most important thing was to destroy the terrorists, not to save the people.

SP: Well… I would say that this had been established from the start. It was clear that one had to win time. The law enforcement agencies had proposed a plan. But getting inside the building was difficult. This has been widely debated…  many attempts were made, but overall…

The operation was directed by Patrushev, the then head of KGB. He was a rather good professional, expert in that type of incidents precisely. I suspect that he was not responsible for the humanitarian aspect of the operation. He was to execute the orders he had received. And I think that his men did an excellent job later on. But then it all depends on what order you get…

What is more interesting to me, though, is what REALLY happened! It was fifteen years ago. But no one can come up with any intelligible information. One may recall Anna Politkovskaia speaking about a number of things… It had been said that the explosives were fake… and so on. In the Procurature’s decision, you can read the following: detonators were not fitted with batteries! And so you wonder: if the gas took ten, fifteen, twenty minutes to work – why wasn’t there an explosion? So there remain many unanswered questions even after fifteen years.

How shall I put it… it looks more and more as I have already said, like a failed assault operation. A little like the Riazan military exercises. That’s the problem.

And I remember that they talked a lot at that moment, in the Kremlin. There was panic. Of course we saw it as a real act of terror, a threat for the people. We could not grasp the situation. Besides we were not part of the law enforcement, and the main goal was to save the people. But in spite of that they took the decision that we know.

I remember speaking with Patrushev. He told me that Putin was discomfited and disoriented, and even on the edge of recording an address to the people stating that in case of failure he would resign from his post.

I also remember a conversation with Sechin: he said that it was his idea to use gas for that operation. If I remember well, he had spoken with some former commander of the chemical Corps who was already retired then. That commander apparently told him that the gas was old and might fail to work. Sechin told me that he then ordered to increase the dose ten times. So, basically, there a various aspects and many strange things. Many questions without answers, that no one cares to resolve.

I was reading the Procurature’s conclusions again today. It was decided to close the criminal case, for the reason that no survivors were left. But isn’t this just strange? Look: forty terrorists in that room. Shot down in less than a minute, all of them. All of them and them alone. I do not mean collateral victims. It is absolutely obvious, and there is no need to be a special services expert, that terrorists must be taken alive, so that one can understand their motives. Was there but ONE survivor? No. Of course not. So, there are indeed many more questions than answers in this case.

MS: I suggest we ask Sergei Pugachev: we are all aware that in such situation the public authorities quite often… lie. You were able to follow the situation from the inside: to what extent would you say that the information in the official media diverged from reality and travestied what was really happening in the Kremlin? You were a direct witness. What was the gap, the “scope of error”, so to speak, between reality and the lies that were told?

SP: Yes. Well, first of all there was virtually no information on what was going on in the Kremlin. I remember Sergei Yastrzhembsky… He had met journalists…

MS: And Vassiliev too, the deputy Minister of Interior …

SP: Yes, indeed: Vassiliev and many others. The were press conferences, but the first goal was to restrain the information flow, under any excuse. It was argued that it might prevent the success of the special operation, and all that… You see…

Quite frankly, I do understand those people… Just imagine… fifteen years! They’ve been struggling for fifteen years  to obtain some sort of compensation. But in the meantime, no one ever has provided any explanation on what had happened, on who those people were… We don’t even know half of their names! Who were those people? Where did they come from? How did they get there? And even, why did they not detonate the bombs?

You know, if you read the conclusions established by the Procurature it is said that the detonators did not have batteries! Do you realise? This is utterly strange, wouldn’t you say?

Maybe I have a different perspective on things, but this is a real tragedy. Fifteen years! Just to think of it… Fifteen years! I totally understand that people are rightly expecting at least some kind of compensation…

MS: But, Sergei Viktorovich, what they also want is truth! Take for instance Mrs Gubareva, who has mentioned the incoherent information regarding the number of terrorists…

SP: But of course the information is incoherent! You must realise that at that moment no one in the Kremlin could make any sense of the situation. Except, perhaps, some five people. We knew virtually nothing of the circumstances. Many versions were put forward afterwards, speculating on motives and methods… But at that very moment everyone was just utterly shocked. A terror act in the very centre of Moscow! Nearly a thousand people risking death! But, I’m sorry, fifteen years have gone by! What are we talking about? Compensations? Complaints to the European court? No one has said anything. Just look at the Procurature’s conclusions: “The variety of factors having led to deaths excludes any direct connection between the deaths and the effect of the gas that was used”. What are you talking about?


MS: The chemical formula was classified top secret by the Ministry of Health. Mr. Pugachev, could you tell us: was it envisaged at some point back then to reveal the truth to the population? Because there was the issue of the antidote, on how to administer it, etc. So my question is twofold:  First: to what extent could this antidote have been used early enough? Second: to what extent could it have helped to save those people, who were lying on the ground all around, or literally piled up inside cars nearby? What do you think of the Ministry of Health having declared the formula top secret? Why did not the authorities want to reveal what gas had been used, so that the victims that had been contaminated during the special operation could be helped?

SP: I would like to go back to what has just been said by one of the women taken hostage. That is a very important point. These people have been struggling for fifteen years, claiming their rights. But, above all, they’ve realised one very important thing: – the last point mentioned here – there were 40 terrorists involved, suicide bombers, men and women. And they did NOT want to blow themselves up… This is unimaginable!

Or else their claims… What kind of claims were they!? Just remember the NTV journalists… they had been inside and came back saying: “we cannot imagine they are ready to kill themselves”. And even less ready to use explosives in order to kill those inside the hall.

I imagine that there was some means of communication, maybe through the secret services, I don’t know, some way of coordinating things… So the issue of the antidote… Except what I heard from Sechin, who would have spoken to some military chemist who recommended that gas, while saying also that is was old and might not work well, I do not remember hearing anything from anyone.

But I can assure you, since I am in touch with people who were in one way or another involved in this story (from the authorities’ side, that is) that there is a wealth of information… But today that information is not needed in Russia. Courts are not dealing with this case. It is not merely an issue of compensation. The real problem is: during fifteen years a thousand people taken hostage, cannot obtain an answer on who did this, and why. This is extremely strange. To withdraw troops from Chechnya…  But anyone realises that troops cannot be withdrawn overnight!


MS: Sergei Viktorovich, generally speaking, were negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov an option, at any stage? Or was that excluded from the start?

SP: I think that indirectly… But not with Maskhadov, no. You see, Maskhadov was a person of importance back at that time. You will remember that he was the elected president of Chechnya. So this whole story including the interview with the leader, with the one leading the group of terrorists, is fairly clear. They said: we take our orders from Maskhadov alone. In other words it was clear that he was directing this operation. At no stage was it proposed to undertake negotiations.

You will remember that Nemtsov and Luzhkov, the then mayor of Moscow, offered their services. Nemtsov had actually been summoned there, just like Politkovskaia and some others. But Luzhkov had spontaneously offered his help. Nonetheless Putin forbid them to go there. He simply did not let them. He said that negotiating was out of the question.


MS: Sergei Viktorovich, I leave it to you to conclude. What is the likelihood of an investigation being undertaken in this case? Or will nothing be done in that respect for as long as the current elite remains in power?

SP: I am convinced that nothing will be done. It is obviously in nobody’s interest. By the way, I am in the process of publishing a book of memoirs in France, in which I also speak about this period. It is difficult to cover the entire issue in a TV programme, but perhaps you will find some information worth reading in my book.