MOSCOW—A stream of black coffins was carried over the heads of thousands of mourners in the Crimean town of Kerch on Friday. Tears streamed over the faces beneath them.
Most of the 17 caskets had a teenager inside, a victim of Wednesday's attack on Kerch Polytechnical College, where improvised bombs and lethal gunshots killed 20 people and injured some 50 students and teachers.
The massacre, which many residents of the peninsula in the Black Sea now link to “terrorism,” left a tragic mark in the history of Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Moscow in 2014. But so far, the investigation has produced more questions than answers, making people fear what might happen next.
In other countries that have seen mass killings in their schools, especially in the United States where such grim events are as commonplace as they are horrifying, there is always confusion, anger, and recrimination in the aftermath. But for many Russians, memories of their government’s deception and cynicism when dealing with mass murder have destroyed whatever confidence they might have in the official version of events.
Russia’s recent history is riddled with terrorist attacks, horrifying hostage crises and murky wars. Over the years, killers have blown up Russian trains, airplanes, apartment buildings, metro stations, and took thousands of adults and children hostages. Time passes, but the victims’ families continue to endure long days and even longer nights with unanswered questions, feeling insecure, hurt, remembering lies by authorities who were supposed to protect their loved ones, facing injustice when they try to find answers, seeing how officials responsible for security shortfalls are still unpunished, free and in some cases rich.
Ever since the attack in Kerch, residents have been coming to the improvised memorial near the college, bringing flowers and toys. Candles burn by the photographs of young victims, just as earlier this year they burned at an improvised memorial in Kemerovo, where a horrific fire at a shopping mall took the lives of 41 children. There, too, devastated parents blamed state authorities for not providing safety in a public place.
There is a common opinion in Russia that officials violate authority, cheat and lie to save their careers and salaries, and to escape punishment. Today in Kerch some wonder if the investigators will even question major Nikolai Fedusenko, who had given the college shooter Vladislav Roslyakov a license to carry a weapon.
Doubts expressed in Kerch echoed a too-familiar refrain. “Authorities do not explain to us why nobody protected the college from the terrorist attack, why the security personnel at the factory across Voikova Street did not react, why we have only two or three ambulances in our city and it takes them 40 minutes to arrive, when people are dying,” a gym coach, Georgy, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Friday.
Konstantin Miroshnikov from Echo of Moscow was one of very few journalists investigating the attack on the ground. “Most people I speak with here are convinced it was a ‘criminal group’ or some sort of terrorists who attacked the college,” Miroshnikov told The Daily Beast.
In Crimea, parents are heartbroken and fearful for their children much as millions of Russian parents were after the hostage crisis at School #1 in Beslan in 2004. On September 1 that year, a group of jihadist terrorists took hundreds of hostages at the school. Parents with babies and schoolchildren were forced to sit on the floor along the walls of the gym. More than 30 masked terrorists surrounded their victims with tripwires and explosive devices.
From the first day of the Beslan hostage crisis it was clear that more than 1,000 people, including more than 700 children, were inside the school. But the rest of the country did not know the truth: the official reports claimed that the terrorists were holding only about 350 hostages. As the lies came back to the devastated town, people were shocked.
The Kremlin’s current spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was in charge of the press briefings during that crisis.
For three days, the Beslan hostages went hungry, growing dehydrated and paralyzed with fear. Many children were naked in the hot gym. Some drank their own urine.
Then, on the third day, came the “rescue.” The gym was partly burned and largely destroyed by fighting; its floor was covered in corpses—334 hostages died that day including 186 children. The city morgue was full of burned and distorted bodies.
The ruins of the school smelled of smoke and ashes. In the following weeks we spoke with survivors in houses once ringing with children's laughter and now empty. Sobbing and crying could be heard all over Beslan. I remember one house where portraits of dead children were set up on chairs; the mother's eyes sunken. “They are angels now,” she said. Even then, early on in the mourning process, people wanted to know how dozens of armed jihadists could drive past checkpoints into their peaceful town.
At least 10 Alfa and Vympel special operations soldiers died during the operation, which freed some 700 of the thousand people taken captive.
“When you speak with law enforcement agencies, they insist that in situations when there is a risk of losing 100 percent of hostages, saving at least 70 percent is a success,” says journalist Alexander Raskin, who covered Beslan.
Was commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin to blame for the deaths in Beslan? The storming operation was widely criticized as “unprepared,” “unprofessional,” “messy.” In Beslan, where more than 60 families lost children, federal authorities tried their best to silence desperate relatives, especially those blaming their losses on President Putin or the FSB, the Federal Security Service, that was in charge of the operation.
The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta spent years investigating the Beslan hostage crisis. “The main question I still have is who gave the order to begin the storming operation and who provided the information for that decision to be made,” the newspaper’s founder, Dmitry Muratov, told The Daily Beast on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the Beslan tragedy is not the only one that has left Russians puzzled and uneasy. In one month, September of 1999, hundreds of kilos of explosives destroyed four apartment buildings in the Russian cities of Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk, killing 307 and injuring up to 1,700 people.
That was the first year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. His enemies would later try to blame the FSB, and him, for the carnage. One of those, the defected spy Alexander Litvinenko, was murdered in London in 2007.
Sixteen years have passed since October 23, 2002, when 35 heavily armed jihadist terrorists, including 15 women in suicide belts, took 916 hostages in the center of Moscow, the entire audience at the Dubrovka Theater.
The jihadists demanded the Kremlin stop the war in Chechnya, withdraw its forces and give their republic independence. The horrifying hostage crisis known as Nord-Ost siege terrorized the entire country. It ended on the fourth day, when Russian special units pumped gas into the theater. The undisclosed chemical agent put some hostages to sleep and killed others: 130 hostages died during that “special operation.” The Russian public learned about the use of a chemical agent only eight hours after the operation ended.
For years a retired police officer, Yevgeny Chernousov, has been helping Nord Ost families try to come to terms with what happens. He says that the key question for the authorities remains open: “Why did they keep the truth about using fentanyl, a powerful opioid secret from public, instead of immediately telling doctors what it was and saving lives?”
In 1995, Chernousov worked for the drug control department at the Interior Ministry. He said fentanyl derivatives were not among the official tools police used for control. “If they were going to use that chemical agent, they should have included it in the official list of police weapons.” Innocent people, hostages, died as a result of the secrecy — doctors simply did not have the right antidotes to save them.
In the film “Putin,” a laudatory documentary released before his reelection in March, the president said that he was the one who ordered the special operation in Dubrovka Theater. People did not die from the crossfire or gas, Putin said, “but from unskillful actions,” whatever that means.
Victims’ families disagreed with him. “Once again we see your attempt to hide behind the backs of the soldiers, who really risked dying and were killed by the poison,” said Dmitry Milovidov, who lost his 14-year-old daughter, on the website of Nord Ost victims' community. “Putin, we accuse you personally, we don’t have questions for men who fulfilled the orders and saved hostages.”
Like many others in Russia today, Chernousov was concerned about the truth of the attack on Kerch. “This time it is really crucial to answer all the questions that people have in Kerch, in order to prevent other attacks and save people’s lives,” the retired police colonel told The Daily Beast. “I am worried that some commander in some Rosgvardia [National Guard of Russia] unit would lie to keep his job. “
Both victims and their defenders in the Nord Ost siege continue to question the Kremlin, especially regarding command of the special operation. Multiple accounts by independent observers show there was no coordination between civilian and military wings of the rescue during the hostage crisis.
Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russian authorities violated European human rights when they decided to storm the theater building. The case was brought by about 400 relatives of the victims, who insisted that Putin and the Russian government failed to handle the crisis correctly.
“The Kremlin prefers to distort information, hide the truth, and lie to Russian citizens about almost every tragedy, rather than admitting its mistakes and embracing the victims,” Svetlana Gannushkina, a veteran human rights defender, said in an interview.
Perhaps the slaughter in Crimea really was the work of a deranged 19-year-old, a school shooting like Parkland or Columbine in the United States. But when faith in the “official version” is as low as it is here in Russia, even if there were no “terrorists,” terror always wins.