Although Russia is no longer known as the Soviet Union, Communist-style repression made a comeback during a recent hostage crisis.
On Oct. 23, Chechen terrorists demanding an end to the war in the breakaway republic raided a Moscow theater and took about 750 hostages. Nearly three days later, Russian security forces filled the auditorium with knockout gas, which killed the terrorists but also at least 117 hostages.
Most observers agree that the Russians were forced to take action to stop the terrorists, who seemed bent on murder-suicide on a massive scale. But the would-be rescuers were sloppy and negligent, causing the deaths of many hostages.
The disastrous effect of the gas on the hostages, who were weakened by thirst, hunger and exhaustion, was miscalculated. When they were finally brought out of the theater, there weren't enough emergency medical personnel on site to assist them. Upon reaching the hospital, doctors had difficulty treating them because the government wouldn't reveal what type of gas was used.
Throughout the crisis, the Kremlin tried to manipulate the media to spotlight its version of events and disguise unpleasant truths. This interference reached its nadir with a 15-hour blackout of Moskovia TV, which lasted until the standoff ended.
While the government's conduct caused some anger and resentment, most Russians seemed to take it in stride. And President Vladimir Putin, the icy former KGB bureaucrat who has successfully developed a cult of personality, is more popular than ever. It appears that repression is such a prevailing old habit that it is accepted equally by the repressors and the repressed.
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