#17 - JRL 7255
July 18, 2003
Ex-Hostages in Russia Hit 'Wall of Resistance'
Government Blocks Efforts to Seek Redress
By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW -- By the time Igor Trunov got to cramped Courtroom 28 one day last month, it was clear he had little chance. The Russian attorney had not been allowed to call witnesses in previous hearings. He had not been allowed to introduce evidence. The judge had gaveled his clients quiet when they tried to tell their stories, even teary-eyed mothers.
Trunov's lawsuits, filed on behalf of the victims of knock-out gas that Russian commandos used to end a hostage crisis in a Moscow theater last fall, were being tossed out one after another. And so now he broached the idea of a settlement.
"Unfortunately, we're not authorized to do that," replied the state's lawyer, a young woman in a pinstripe suit, who did not seem to consider this unfortunate at all.
"Will you leave us your phone number so we can talk about it later?"
The woman smiled. "No."
In today's Russia, the state often does not feel the need to give out a telephone number, much less settle multimillion-dollar lawsuits against it. For many of the 793 hostages who survived the storming of the theater and for families of the 129 hostages who died from the government's gas, the past nine months have been a medical, legal and bureaucratic ordeal.
Their story is a case study in the new Russian state's relationship to its people and the troubled development of democratic institutions here. It is a story of unexplained headaches, heart trouble and organ damage, official obstruction in seeking treatment or disability payments, and a so-far fruitless court crusade to hold someone accountable.
Since the era of the czars, Russia has placed the interests of the state above those of the individual. In the dozen years since the end of the Soviet Union, political leaders have claimed progress in building a system that is more open and responsive to citizens. Yet in dozens of interviews in recent weeks, former hostages and relatives of the dead described being ignored or insulted by officials who consider the raid on the theater to be a great success in the war on terrorism.
"The authorities didn't even apologize. They're not even talking to us," said Oleg Zhirov, 39, whose wife died in the theater. "The main problem in Russia is the total lack of respect on the part of the government toward its population. Up until now not a single victim has gotten a simple letter of condolence from the government. This is immoral."
"In our Russia there are no laws, no laws at all that help people," said Tatyana Karpova, whose son died in the theater. "And the lives of people, the lives of our sons and daughters, it's nothing to them."
So far, Russian courts have rejected 35 of 65 lawsuits filed against the state by former hostages or relatives, with the rest pending. One hundred thirty-five former hostages or relatives have signed up to file suit, but have held off, while many others opted not even to try, convinced it was a hopeless cause.
In the siege last October, hooded Chechen separatists seized the theater in the middle of a performance of the musical "Nord-Ost," taking 922 hostages. Fifty-seven hours later, Russian troops pumped a mystery gas into the theater and stormed inside. They killed all 41 terrorists, but it came at a terrible price, as piles of lifeless hostages done in by the gas were stacked outside.
Frantic relatives in frigid rain pounded on locked hospital gates, turned away as they searched for loved ones. Parents haunted city morgues, only to discover blue-lipped children dead from a gas the government will not fully identify to this day.
Rather than review what went wrong, the Kremlin pressured legislators to squelch an investigation and pinned medals on organizers of the raid. When parliamentary leader Boris Nemtsov visited President Vladimir Putin to propose changes in the government's emergency response procedures, he was rebuffed and faced accusations that he was exploiting the tragedy.
"The Kremlin did nothing. Nothing," Nemtsov said in a recent interview. "They said, 'You know, these victims are [dead] and we can't save them now.' "
For relatives of the dead and survivors, condolences from the state have come in the form of a stipend generated by tax funds and private business -- about $9,500 for each family of those killed and $2,700 for hostages who survived.
Authorities said that was enough in a city where average wages hover around $250 a month. "This is the biggest financial support ever provided," said Olga Gracheva, the Moscow city official dispensing the compensation. "No other victims of terrorism ever got a higher amount."
Like other Russian officials, Gracheva said he saw no need to dwell on what happened, much less conduct a formal review. "What kind of mistakes were there?" she asked. "In the work of the [government] headquarters itself, no mistakes were made. I don't have anything on my conscience and no regrets."
Nikolai Lyubimov poked himself on the left side of his face, over and over again. There was nothing, not even a flinch. His left hand dangled at his side. He had no sensation there either. "It feels like wood," he said, tapping on it. "Wood."
Until October, Lyubimov was a rarity in Russia -- a relatively healthy, working 70-year-old man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. A security guard at the theater, he succumbed to the gas and almost died in the hospital. He awoke with serious heart problems, and his left side was partially paralyzed.
"They got me pretty bad," Lyubimov said, hunched over in his tiny bedroom just a short way from the theater where he worked for more than a decade. "The Chechens captured me, scared me and intimidated me, but I was poisoned not by them. I became disabled and lost my health not because of them. I was poisoned by our Russian authorities."
In recent interviews, more than 20 former hostages said they continued to suffer from medical problems, including severe headaches, temporary hearing loss and persistent heart and liver troubles. Nearly all complained of psychological trouble as well -- nightmares, depression, fear of public places.
But the state has conducted no known study of the effects of the gas and has yet to tell doctors the name of the chemical used, beyond saying it was a derivative of the opiate fentanyl. For many slain hostages, authorities listed "terrorist act" as the cause of death. They dismiss survivors' health problems as preexisting conditions or figments of the imagination. Ongoing medical consequences are "very unlikely," said Yuri Ostapenko, a toxicologist at the Health Ministry. "In principle, it's more psychological."
The main institution assigned to help victims is Moscow's Hospital 13, a rundown, World War II-vintage complex where officials claim to have opened a follow-up center for former hostages. Leonid Aronov, Hospital 13's chief physician, said he sent 700 letters inviting them back, an offer taken up by about 370. He claimed that there were "no medical consequences" for the majority of the gas victims, just preexisting illnesses.
"We've done everything we could," said Yelena Chertok, head of the hospital's diagnostic center.
Several hostages who visited recently scoffed at that. Antonina Titova, 46, who complains of memory loss, pain in her right side and nightmares, returned to Hospital 13 after receiving the letter and was asked only what illnesses she had before the hostage crisis that could be causing her problems now. Then, Titova said, "the doctor turned her back and left."
When Titova called out to the departing doctor to ask why she had been told to come to Hospital 13, she recalled, the doctor replied, "It was a formality, to check it off the list."
For most former hostages, continuing care comes down to a ritual of standing in line at the neighborhood clinic, where they are subjected to indifferent treatment, inadequate facilities and demands for bribes, like any other Russian unable to afford private medical care. Some, like Angelika Kosova, battle demons at home alone; the 34-year-old psychologist quit her job after the theater siege, too fearful of crowds to go to work, and even changed her last name to avoid detection by terrorists. But she has no doctor. "Yoga is my therapy," she said.
Then there are those like Lyubimov, who waits up to four hours at grim Polyclinic 37 to see a randomly selected doctor. When he comes back the next day, the wait is the same, the doctor is different. "They don't know themselves what they are treating me for," he said. "It's a conveyor belt."
Recently, four months after he first sought it, he received a coveted certificate of disability. With this, he can now obtain another certificate entitling him to a $16 increase in his monthly disability pension, raising it to $71. Lyubimov says it is not the indignities but the cynicism that rankles most -- a curt letter from the city denying him free medication because instructions had not been received "from above," the officials who were invited but did not bother to attend an event marking the six-month anniversary of the siege.
Ever since he woke up from the gas last fall, he said, he has "hit a wall of resistance and indifference."
Tatyana Karpova's cluttered flat on the eastern outskirts of Moscow looks more like a shrine to her dead musician son than an incubator of civil society. The front hallway is plastered with fliers advertising Alexander's appearances, including Irish folk music performances under the name "O'Karpov." The glass cabinets in the cozy living room are covered with his pictures and handbills from the Russian production of the musical "Chicago," in which he worked as a lyricist.
Karpova refuses to forget her 31-year-old son and won't let anyone else forget him either, at least if she has her way. But her way is not the Russian way. Her way is to go to court. "Putin and the representatives of his government didn't know that we, all of us, are very strong people," she said. "We don't close our mouths."
Russia's court system remains only partially reformed and widely corrupt. Most criminal trials are still conducted without juries. Lawyers say that most judges defer to the state or wealthy interests. So when Karpova and a few other relatives decided to sue, they ran through long lists of lawyers before finding one willing to take the case.
Trunov, 41, earned a law degree in the 1990s, after the fall of communism, and now runs a small firm with his wife. He agreed to represent Karpova and her relatives for free. Trunov, who favors a buzz cut and black suits, said in an interview that he took up the case "because I think something should be done, not just talk about it in the kitchen, not just suffer and complain." He quickly concluded that he could not win a negligence case against the state, especially given the way it had clamped down on information, so he filed claims under a law obliging the government to provide "moral compensation" to victims of terrorism.
Russian authorities argue that they already have paid compensation and that therefore the suits are unnecessary. The government takes credit for directing $3.4 million to victims and their families, though much of it came from the state-controlled utility Mosenergo, a produce exporter, and a group of wealthy businessmen. The government also sent some people to resorts, gave out some free medicine and provided coffins to bury the dead.
In court, Trunov demanded $1 million in "moral compensation" for each plaintiff but got little opportunity to make his case. Judge Marina Gorbacheva rejected motions to take testimony from doctors, government officials and hostage negotiators and refused to admit videotapes from the event or expert statements. Gorbacheva showed little more patience for the plaintiffs themselves, many of them felt.
"[Court officials] made us tell how we looked for our children, how we found them, how we searched morgues," recalled Zoya Chernetsova, 50, a former Afghan war surgical nurse whose son died in the theater. "She got tired of it." Chernetsova believes that the judge "had already gotten instructions from above to end this whole case. It would have been more human to tell us, 'Don't testify, it's already been decided.' "
Gorbacheva, who has handled nearly all of the cases, did not respond to requests for an interview. Lawyers for the government declined to comment.
The fight continues. "The state guarantees life to us, and if the state fails to fulfill its guarantees, it should be held accountable," said Svetlana Gubareva, whose fiance, Sandy Alan Booker, was the only American to die in the siege. Her case will be heard Aug. 1.
Three plaintiffs whose suits were dismissed have appealed, planning to go to Russia's Supreme Court and, if they lose there, to the European Court of Human Rights.
With little faith in the system, Karpova and other families decided in March to form an association of terrorism victims. Hundreds came to meet at the Andrei Sakharov Museum. Denied a list of survivors, they began compiling their own. Last month they decided to put up their own memorial to the dead.
"We'll do it, the simple people who saw relatives die in that building," said Karpova, staring at a picture of her son. "We'll do it. But not our government."