The buildings located on the Red Square: Kremlin wall (at left) and Saint Basil's Cathedral (at right), Moscow, Russia. UNESCO World Heritage Site
The buildings located on the Red Square: Kremlin wall (at left) and Saint Basil's Cathedral (at right), Moscow, Russia. UNESCO World Heritage Site

“Oh, God!” Anna Andrianova said over the phone as bursts of gunfire exploded in the background. “Can you hear us? We will all be blown up to hell.”

Then, nothing.

Andrianova, a journalist, happened to be on the phone with a Russian radio station on this day 16 years ago when Russian special forces raided a Moscow theater in hopes of saving her along with nearly 1,000 other hostages being held by more than 40 Chechen extremists.

But the rescue operation went badly wrong, and to this day remains a dark, controversial incident in Russia’s modern history.

It all started with a musical.

Vesselin Nedkov was sitting in the audience at the Dubrovka theater as a production of Nord-Ost, a musical based on a popular Russian novel, entered its second act. That’s when, he said, dozens of men with guns and women with explosive vests burst into the theater.

Their demand was to the Russian government: remove your troops from Chechnya, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation about 1,000 miles south of Moscow that’s also known as the home of a violent Islamist insurgency.

Over the next two days, Nedkov said the extremists reminded the hostages repeatedly they were more than willing to give their lives for their cause. “We want to die more than you want to live,” they purportedly said.

Nedkov would later write, “My life experience, which is average and middle class, was thrust into direct confrontation with people whose experience of life was so extreme and so alien [that] it was hard to believe we inhabit the same planet.”

As Russian authorities scrambled to respond to the attack, the Chechens went about rigging the theater with explosives and threatened to kill any hostages who stepped out of line.

While Russian forces were able to free some hostages that had managed to hide during the initial assault, after more than 48 hours the attackers and the Russian government were at a standstill.

A direct rescue appeared out of the question, according to a “lessons learned” report written by FSB official Yevgeny Kolesnikov and published in 2004. Not only did the Russian security forces suspect the building had been prepped for demolition, which could kill all 1,000-or-so hostages, but there was a concern that any massive explosion could also ignite natural gas lines that serviced nearby buildings including a military hospital and potentially destroy them as well.

After four of the hostages were executed and the terrorists threatened more, the Russian government decided to act.

“There was no other option,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March 2018 of his decision to send in the FSB’s security services.

The security services knew that a standard assault could be potentially disastrous, so they decided on an “extraordinary plan of action,” as Kolesnikov put it. They would pump the theater full of strong, narcotic gas, “which according to the plans of the operation’s leadership would sharply reduce the capacity of the terrorists for resisting the assault.”

In his recounting, Putin said that on the night of the operation he was contacted by the head of the FSB who complained that the gas wasn’t working as they had hoped, and Putin ordered the task force in. By the time they went in, however, the gas appeared to have taken hold and the security services quickly killed the terrorists.

But the gas was also being inhaled by the hostages, who had been weakened over the past two days, and it proved far more deadly than the hostage-takers. Over the course of the operation and the following hours, 129 of hostages died, including several children.

Critics blamed the Russian government for the heavy-handed operation and for providing late and inadequate medical response. Survivors described waking up in buses with unconscious bodies piled around them as if they were “dolls.” Some reportedly perished after choking on their own vomit.

In his comments in March, Putin expressed regret over the “great many people” who died, and admitted it was due to Russia’s “lack of experience of operating in such a situation.”

“There were enough antidote doses [to stop the effects of the gas], only one injection was necessary, but some people received two or three injections while others got none,” he said.

Anna Andrianova, who was on the phone with the radio station when the raid began, was among the survivors. Five years after the ordeal, she spoke again with the Russian radio program about the experience, criticizing the government for failing to successfully negotiate with the terrorists and for allowing so many deaths afterwards.

“Why did so many die?” she asked.