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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Sunday Book Review: Beslan, Another Fact the Russian People Won't Face Up To

Writing in the Moscow Times Peter Baker, a former Moscow co-bureau chief for The Washington Post, reviews Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1, by Timothy Phillips:

A few weeks after the Beslan school siege in 2004, I returned to the traumatized town in southern Russia to write about how it was faring. The town had turned eerily silent, almost as if the guts had been ripped out of it. Funerals were still being held every day as the remains of the bodies of children were identified, one by one. Like the stench at the morgue, the grief was overpowering.

One night during the trip, I went to an Internet cafe in nearby Vladikavkaz to file a story. All around the room were young children, playing one of those ubiquitous violent video games -- children not much older than those who had been shot and blown up in School No. 1. They were giggling as they shot "terrorists" on the screen. As I peeked over, it dawned on me that the digital setting for this shoot-'em-up game was a burned-out building that looked just like the burned-out school in Beslan.

It was all too haunting. How could this be a game just down the road from the place where terror had intruded on real life in such a horrific way? How could they look at those screens and not find the images too chilling to confront? How could they not be crushed by the same sort of relentless misery that afflicted their fellow Ossetians? And, by extension, how could Russia move on so quickly?

Timothy Phillips grapples with these questions in his gripping account of the siege, "Beslan: The Tragedy of School No. 1." As a translator with the BBC, he came to Russia after the standoff to help put together a documentary on the world's worst terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001, and expected to see a country coming to terms with its own 9/11. "But this was not what I found," he writes. "As I traveled between Moscow and Beslan, most of those I met had no opinions about the event at all, as if they had hardly thought about it either at the time or since. It was strange to them that I was asking; some even seemed to resent it."

Maybe it tells us something about the value of life in a country that has seen so much violent death over the centuries. Maybe it tells us something about survival: walling yourself off against the horrors so as to go on with life as if all is normal. Maybe it tells us something about the country President Vladimir Putin has built. Phillips doesn't have the answers, and perhaps no one does, but at least he's raising some of the right questions. "Death, which is feared everywhere, is more preoccupying in Russia than in the rest of Europe," he writes, "because it comes so much sooner."

"Beslan" traces the events of the first three days of September 2004 through powerful narrative, stitching together the individual horror stories we've heard before into a compelling, comprehensive, almost cinematic account. Phillips does justice to the moment, paying tribute to the victims of Beslan by not letting them be forgotten so easily. There's almost no way to read it without weeping for Beslan and for Russia.

Phillips puts the unfathomable events into historical context, tracing the complex and deeply dysfunctional relationships between Russians, Chechens, Ossetians and Ingush over the centuries and explaining how the deaths of more than 300 men, women and children fit into a pattern of anger and atrocity. What is missing from this rendition, as the author admits at one point, is the current context: what Beslan means in terms of the country Putin has built.

"There is one person whose name is seldom mentioned in Beslan, but whose part in the siege was key," Phillips writes. "President Putin has remained distant from the events. Indeed, on the basis of what is publicly known, it is hard to justify mentioning him in this book at all." Phillips notes that Putin appeared only briefly on television and made his post-siege visit in the middle of the night, disappearing again before anyone awoke to realize he was there. "But just the fact of his immense and unrivaled power in Russia means that President Putin must have been involved."

Alas, the two paragraphs devoted to the president belie the greater connection between Putin and Beslan. Although Phillips does place Beslan in the context of Putin's war in Chechnya, the rules Putin has imposed on a society trying to find itself in the post-Soviet era are left unexplored. One of the things that made Beslan such a singular event in modern Russian history is that it exposed the broader reality of Putin's rule -- television stations that aired a Brazilian soap opera or a film about a parrot rather than cover the deadly denouement live, a newspaper editor fired for coverage that angered the Kremlin, a radio station that had to rely on CNN to tell its Russian listeners what was happening, investigations that covered up more questions than they answered.

Especially revealing was Putin's own response. Even as the smoke was clearing to the south, the president invited Western scholars and journalists to his dacha and angrily denounced Europe and the United States for their long insistence that Moscow talk with Chechen leaders to seek an end to the war. "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" Putin fumed. He dismissed Western criticism as Cold War mentality and said that the West wants to "pull the strings so that Russia won't raise its head."

A little more than a week later, Putin announced that because of the Beslan siege, he was eliminating the election of governors in Russia's 89 regions in favor of Kremlin appointment, a move he had sworn repeatedly never to take, as well as eliminating the election of State Duma members by single-mandate districts in favor of easily controlled party lists. How terrorism in the Caucasus required the elimination of gubernatorial elections in, say, Siberia was never clear. But people close to the Kremlin indicated that Putin had long been planning such a move and simply took advantage of the moment to enact it.

Still, Phillips has offered us a worthy history of these three days, giving voice to the anguish of a small town buffeted by forces beyond its ken. And he ably points out the holes in the story that future authors will hopefully answer. "The absence of convincing or honest answers to important questions has caused many survivors to fall back on conspiracy theories," he writes. "These are a tried and tested solution to many mysteries in a country with a pathological aversion to honesty and openness."

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