Peter Baker and Susan Glasser of the WASHINGTON POST discuss the siege of Beslan with anchor Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, thank you very much for joining us on Wide Angle. You arrived at Beslan on the very first day. On the day this event happened. How did you get there?
PETER BAKER: Well as soon as the reports came in that a school had been taken hostage in southern Russia, we recognized that it was going to be an extraordinary incident that needed to be witnessed first hand. And so I rushed to the airport in Moscow. And it was a roundabout way there because they had closed the airport near Beslan. So we flew into another city, took a long drive through the mountains, and arrived there that first night.
And what we found was an extraordinary scene, an entire town in effect taken hostage. Everybody knew somebody in there. There were 1,200 hostages from a town of 30,000 people. If your own children weren’t in there, your sister’s were or your brother’s were.
And they were all swarming around the school, late at night. They hung out all night there and at the House of Culture nearby. It was extraordinarily gripping.
BILL MOYERS: Where were you?
SUSAN GLASSER: I was in Moscow monitoring all these events, watching as it played out on Russian television, talking to Peter. The communications were very limited. This was perhaps the most chaotic – crisis – of our time in Russia. And basically he had no communications. He was just, you know, sort of there with the people of Beslan. And –
BILL MOYERS: Did he have a cell phone?
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah, talking on the cell phone. And sometimes the satellite phone even that we had used in war zones. Right –
PETER BAKER: Right.
SUSAN GLASSER: – was what you ended up using to tell me some of the things so that I could get them back and put them on the Washington Post website. Put them in the newspaper.
BILL MOYERS: Was Russian television covering this?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well Russian television was covering this. But in many ways we found this to be a story about the outcome of what President Putin had done with Russian television over the previous four years.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well in the culminating scenes that we just saw in this film so powerful – these were not played live on Russian television, because there was really no instructions, no orders from the center about what line to take. In fact, as the horrible battle took place and the children were being rescued from the school, hundreds of them were dying, CNN and BBC were live broadcasting these events around the world. And Russian television was all but silent. In fact, on the two main state-run television channels there was a Brazilian soap opera that was playing. And –
BILL MOYERS: As this battle was taking place?
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely. Absolutely. A Brazilian soap opera. Because there was no marching orders from the Kremlin. And we had spent at this point nearly four years in Russia covering the Kremlin’s consolidation of control over media outlets.
BILL MOYERS: And it is a state-controlled media?
SUSAN GLASSER: Essentially when you come to television, all three major national networks are under the control of the Kremlin.
Anchor: Bill Moyers
BILL MOYERS: Why did the government not want this event to be covered?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well I think it was such an atmosphere of chaos and horror playing out. It was more that there were no instructions prepared, that this is a very methodical way in which they regulate television. As we were doing the reporting for our book, many participants recounted to us how they would have meetings every Friday at the Kremlin with the major television directors. And they would sit them down and they would have a list of topics of news stories for the coming week and the Kremlin’s recommendations for what to do.
And when it came to the war in Chechnya, often the line would be there on the written handout to the television directors recommendation, do not cover. And so I think that’s the context in which this horrible event in Beslan took place.
BILL MOYERS: It’s as if on 9/11 CNN, ABC, BBC were told by the governments don’t show what’s happening.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well that’s right. Many people in Russia compared the Beslan tragedy to their own 9/11. And yet they had to turn to foreign media, to Western media to see this crisis play out live.
BILL MOYERS: The film that we saw [was] quite dramatic as to what was actually happening there. But no context of where it came from and what happened after. Put those events in context for us.
PETER BAKER: Well this is a culmination of ten years of active warfare in Chechnya in the southern part of Russia, and hundreds of years of ethnic hatred and animosity and imperialism and separatism.
BILL MOYERS: Animosity against the Russians? Against Moscow?
PETER BAKER: It’s a whole mix of things. There’s a whole cauldron of ethnic groups in the southern part of Russia. Some of which were happy to be part of the Moscow empire. And some of which, in particular the Chechens were not.
And what was going on here was an extension of a war that had begun under Yeltsin and was restarted under President Putin in 1999 in which for years unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence escalated each and every time until you got to the point where even school children were considered to be a target of these separatist rebels or terrorists as the Russians would call them and as most people would call them.
So there were no lines anymore. Even in the weeks before Beslan was taken, two Russian airplanes had been taken hostage by Chechen women, suicide bombers who set off explosives, and brought both of them down within three minutes of each other. The first time since 9/11 of course [that] you had seen a multiple airplane, you know, terrorist event. There was also a bombing in a subway station in Moscow. That sort of terrorism –
BILL MOYERS: – that happened the day before the Beslan hostage taking.
SUSAN GLASSER: That’s right.
PETER BAKER: The Metro bombing happened the day before Beslan –
BILL MOYERS: Suicide bombing?
PETER BAKER: – suicide bombing. About ten people killed. The airplanes had gone down a week before. Russia has lived with more terrorism in the last few years than even Israel, if you count just the death toll.
BILL MOYERS: So Beslan didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a train of violence, of terrorism.
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely. And what I recall so vividly was that as this played out, I think many Russians knew instinctively and intuitively that it was going to end very badly. And I remember sending e-mails. People around the world, of course, were horrified and transfixed by this event. And I got many e-mails, notes from people. “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” and just had this powerful sense that, you know, this is Russia, it’s not going to end well.
And people were shocked and amazed that this was so clearly what we felt within minutes of the school being seized. And yet –
BILL MOYERS: Why did you feel that – why did you have this anticipation of dread?
SUSAN GLASSER: Because there was a historical precedent for this. We immediately thought – in fact that morning, we were still in our apartment when we found out about the seizure of the school – and what we thought of immediately was Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel leader who ended up taking credit for this Beslan seizure. And we thought back to the seizure of the hospital in Budyonnovsk. Nearly ten years before. And –
BILL MOYERS: He was the one who led that incident.
SUSAN GLASSER: Exactly. And he took nearly 1,000 hospital patients, doctors, civilians hostage. And more than a 100 died as well in that event.
BILL MOYERS: Putin has compared him to Osama Bin Laden. Do you think that’s an apt comparison?
SUSAN GLASSER: In the context of Chechnya, I do actually think that’s an apt comparison. He is the leader of the jihad that exists in connection with Chechnya. I think though that he is a uniquely Russian figure. Right –
PETER BAKER: Uh-huh.
SUSAN GLASSER: – as far as a rebel leader. He started out, not at all as a religious figure. Not at all as a Muslim activist who was driven to fight the Russians out of religious reasons. But very much – as with the cause that he’s now identified with, he started out as a nationalist, throwing off Russian occupation in effect. And he’s evolved over time as has his cause to become much more religiously tinged.
BILL MOYERS: Putin attempted soon after Beslan to link it to Al Qaeda and to the international war on terrorism. But you refute that in your book.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well I think there has been no real evidence so far to bolster the claims that they made in the immediate aftermath of Beslan. And, in fact, I think it was the very same day of the battle that Russian television showed footage of a lineup of dead bodies outside of the school.
And they said these were the dead terrorists. And that they were almost all Arabs. And they said that there were not a single Chechen among the terrorists who had seized the school. And made it seem as if there was no connection whatsoever to the war that was less than an hour’s drive away. But that it somehow was an Al Qaeda operation. And I don’t think that there’s any evidence at all that’s emerged.
BILL MOYERS: So the Moscow government wanted the country and the world to believe that this was a jihad against by the extremist Muslims. Not an act of resistance against Moscow by rebellious Chechens, right?
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And what did Putin say?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well Putin, initially, as he has been in many of the crises of his presidency was initially very silent as this played out. He was on vacation in Sochi when this wave of terrorism hit late August, beginning of September, very quiet time. He did this time – he flew back to Moscow to be in the Kremlin as it played out. But he made no statements until the middle of the night after the climatic battle. And he flew from Moscow in his private plane to Vladikavkaz. And he walked through and visited in the hospitals, some of the victims who were still stunned. But he didn’t really stay to talk to them. He said nothing then until later in that day that was Saturday I guess. Right? It was Saturday. And he came on television with a national speech.
And he said in essence, something very interesting and revealing about Vladimir Putin. He said, “We were too weak. And the weak get beaten.” And so the message here was we have somehow been too accommodating of the Chechens. And there will be no quarter given. No negotiations held. And, you know, that that was the lesson that he drew in his immediate horror and anger over Beslan.
BILL MOYERS: Weren’t the hostage takers demanding that the Russians pull their troops out of Chechnya? Was that their demand?
PETER BAKER: That was part of their demand, yes. The demands were sort of incoherent quite honesty. Certainly not demands that they expected to be fulfilled. Russia has 80,000 troops in Chechnya. They weren’t going to be pulled out overnight. And so this was not something that was realistic. And they knew that. It was not really the goal quite honesty to win demands. It was the goal to create a scene of carnage and destruction and terror. That’s what they did.
BILL MOYERS: – they came to kill?
PETER BAKER: They came to kill.
BILL MOYERS: You’re convinced of that? That –
PETER BAKER: I am.
BILL MOYERS: – this was – this was their purpose?
PETER BAKER: Yes. Yes. They had no out. They had no plan for anything other than this. They came with so many explosives, so many weapons, so much armament. There was no other purpose in what they did.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well also they’re very experienced in understanding how the Russians would respond. This goes back to your question, why did we feel – why did everybody we know have this sense of terrible foreboding for the fate of the school children? It’s because of not only this wave of terrorism that Russians unfortunately have had more than a decade’s worth of experience with. But also because of how the Russians have responded. Think back to the theatre siege in 2002 when the Russians launched a storming of the theatre and 129 of the hostages died – most of them as a result of the effects of the knockout gas used by the Russian special forces to free the hostages.
BILL MOYERS: You described hostage takers putting a gun to the head of a father and killing him right in front of his two children. You describe the execution of two dozen hostages at once in an upstairs room. You describe the blowing up of kids, the murdering of pregnant women. Why would these guys turn to such a blood bath of innocent people?
PETER BAKER: Well it’s the unanswerable question. It’s so hard for, I think, any of us to put ourselves into their place and to understand the psychology that goes into this. What they told their victims, what they told their hostages was you’re responsible. This is because of what you’ve done to us.
BILL MOYERS: You the Russians –
PETER BAKER: You the Russian people have done to us, the Chechen people. You came to our towns. You dropped your bombs. You killed my wife. You killed my children. You killed my husband. There were two women in there who wore the hijab. And they were wrapped with suicide belts and they carried guns, two women, shahidka, that’s what Russians call them, martyrs. And these suicide bombing women have become a trend in Russia these days because in theory at least most of them have lost loved ones to the war and have nothing left to live for. So the desperation, the bitterness, the resentment, the pathological hatred that has developed in Chechnya and that region is –
BILL MOYERS: Toward the Russians?
PETER BAKER: – toward the Russians and toward the world to some degree, toward the outer world that has abandoned them. All of this has left a very volatile and bloody region where anything is possible.
BILL MOYERS: 31 of the 32 hostage takers were killed right?
PETER BAKER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Did the survivors hear anything about jihad? About Allah? About this being a war of Islam versus – ?
PETER BAKER: There’s some of that. Yes. They did have some of that rhetoric. But it’s more complicated than that. Remember some of the children in there, and the teachers and the parents were of course Muslim themselves. The region in which this happened, North Ossetia, is majority Christian, but a significant minority Muslim. And it’s not as simple to say it’s Islam versus Christian or something like that. Islam has fueled an already existing hatred in this system in the region. It has helped power, if you will, the termination of what began as a nationalist movement. But I don’t think it’s at the root of it.
BILL MOYERS: Now I was surprised when I read your book that you dwell mostly on their claim of being resisters to Moscow, angry about the Russian occupation of the republic of Chechnya. That’s what comes through very loud and clear in your reporting.
PETER BAKER: Shamil Basayav was an admirer of Che Guevara at the beginning of the movement. He was the Marxist leader. He was not exactly an Islamic figure, Shamil Basayav, the Chechen commander, when he began his career of resisting Moscow. So he developed into somebody who used the symbols and ideology and language of jihad. But that’s not where it began.
BILL MOYERS: That does sound like Osama Bin Laden in the sense of the evolutionary –
PETER BAKER: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: – ideology that he embraced.
PETER BAKER: Sure.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well also I think you should look at what happened over the course, it’s now been ten years of war in Chechnya. And I think the increasing marginalization of the Chechen fighters left them with almost no where else to turn. Initially their cause may have had some support in the West. But as more extremist figures came to the fore, and there was no middle to speak of. And Putin has very successfully in certain respects put increasing pressure on Western Europe to adopt his view of the situation, increasing pressure on the United States – not to criticize him on Chechnya. He used September 11th I think very effectively to say to President Bush and to the Western world, “see I’ve been trying to tell you this for years, we are already a front in the international war of terror; perhaps now you will understand what I was saying.”
BILL MOYERS: So he immediately linked Beslan to the international war on terror?
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: In order to divert attention from the fact that it was Chechen resistance to Moscow?
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah and this has been a continual theme throughout the last, you know, five or six years since the current round of conflict in Chechnya began. The Russians have consistently tried to stress the international nature of the war that’s happening inside their own territory.
PETER BAKER: And yet it’s important to remember the difference is that the terrorists – from the Chechen side today have generally not targeted foreigners, not targeted Western institutions. They’ve never gone after Western embassies or Western targets in Moscow for instance.
When they did choose the theatre to take over in 2002, they chose one showing a very Russian musical. Called Nord-Ost. It was the very first Russian musical ever made. They had scouted out another theatre showing 42nd Street, an American musical that had been imported, and chose not to because, in fact, their war is not against the West, unlike say Osama Bin Laden. Their war is against Russia. It’s against Moscow. It’s against Putin. That may change. But for now it’s a very important point.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well that’s right. Bin Laden you know, his role is to encourage the fight against the far enemy, which is what the United States is. And he’s tried to encourage national liberation movements, whether it’s his affiliates in Southeast Asia, for example, in the Philippines, or in Pakistan, the Kashmirs, whatever, to focus on Western targets, to focus on the United States as the symbol of the far enemy. And that’s been his argument consistently within the ranks, the broader ranks of the global Islamic movement.
BILL MOYERS: So was there any connection in your mind as journalists. Was there any connection between what happened in Beslan and the larger global, international “war on terrorism”?
PETER BAKER: In the general sense, the Arabs have participated in the Chechen cause. In the general sense that Osama Bin Laden adopts Chechnya as one of his – part of his mantra, there is sort of a nebulous connection. In the sense that Osama Bin Laden is calling the shots, in the sense that he has anything to do with this directly, in the sense that any of his people are waging this war as part of their broader struggle, no. I don’t think that’s the thing.
SUSAN GLASSER: Remember that Budyonnovsk, that seizure of the hospital by Shamil Basayav and his men occurred a decade earlier, before Bin Laden had even become a terrorist of global reach.
BILL MOYERS: Is Basayav still at large?
SUSAN GLASSER: Yep.
BILL MOYERS: Like Bin Laden?
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely. And he’s believed to be inside Chechnya.
BILL MOYERS: Today?
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah. Although Russians control the territory, he’s believed to be pretty much operating relatively freely in his own native village.
BILL MOYERS: You write very explicitly that what happened in Beslan was a horrendous and unanticipated consequence of Project Putin. Tell us what Project Putin is.
PETER BAKER: Well Project Putin was the campaign by the old Yeltsin crowd to install a loyal successor. Somebody they thought would take over the Kremlin and make sure that they, the Yeltsin crowd, was able to leave power without retaliation. Putin was a midlevel KGB officer who had risen into the bureaucratic ranks. And they thought he was going to be their person. When they made him Prime Minister he had two percent popularity rating in the country. Within a span of a few months through the use of state television, through the use of the power of the state, they created an image of a very strong and powerful leader. But the trick was, they thought the project was in their hands. And in fact the project turned out actually to be in Putin’s hands. And in the end he marginalized the old Yeltsin crowd and began bringing in some of his own compatriots from the old KGB.
BILL MOYERS: So why was Beslan a consequence of what he was doing?
PETER BAKER: Well Beslan is a consequence of a society in which debate has been stifled. Political opposition has been neutered. The free flow of information has been cancelled in effect.
The Kremlin controls all television. The Kremlin has emasculated Parliament. The very first thing that Putin did after Beslan was to cancel the election of governors. That was his response to terrorism.
BILL MOYERS: And announce that he would appoint the governors himself?
PETER BAKER: He would appoint them himself.
BILL MOYERS: In other words he again assumed the powers of a dictator?
PETER BAKER: Well he assumed power of an autocrat. He believes in what he calls the vertical of power, meaning a single chain of command that leads up to him.
BILL MOYERS: So he used Beslan as a justification –
PETER BAKER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: – for retreating from democracy?
PETER BAKER: They had this plan in place for many months, ready to go. And then the minute Beslan happened, that’s when they came forward with it. And they –
BILL MOYERS: You mean as –
PETER BAKER: – used it –
BILL MOYERS: – if you had the plans to invade Iraq and suddenly after 9/11 you had a justification? I don’t mean to imply –
PETER BAKER: Well it was certainly something they had in mind for a long time. And Beslan gave them the pretext to do it. And it’s also a consequence of what Putin has done in terms of Chechnya. It’s a war that he has waged with pitiless remorse, with no remorse, with pitiless approach that has radicalized a young generation of Chechens, and has not been the subject of popular discussion within the country.
Without a genuinely free media, without a genuinely free political system, the Russians who were against the war in Chechnya have had no ability to exercise influence to find a way to pressure government to put an end to it. And so what you have is a spiraling out of control conflict that will continue to escalate I think even now.
BILL MOYERS: This is so important that I want to make sure we get it. You write in here and you’re suggesting now that while Beslan was completely unanticipated – although something like this might have been expect after ten years of war – you’re saying that Putin seized the unexpected horror and tragedy to really reverse course on democratic reforms. And, in effect,he executed a sweeping power grab after Beslan, using Beslan as the reason, right?
SUSAN GLASSER: Absolutely. As I mentioned, his very first speech in the immediate shaky, upset, horrible hours after the Beslan tragedy played out, was to say that the lesson from Beslan was the weak get beaten. And we were too weak. And then that’s followed by another speech a few days later in which he says, “Okay, now I had time to think about this. And what I’m going to do is cancel elections in all 89 regions of Russia for governor. And the pretext is, the reason that he’s stated was Russia’s territorial integrity is under threat and, therefore, I need to assume these powers.
BILL MOYERS: It’s as if President Bush had declared after 9/11 there will be no more elections in the 50 states. And I’m –
PETER BAKER: Can you imagine? Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: He couldn’t have done it constitutionally. But Putin got away with it.
SUSAN GLASSER: Right
PETER BAKER: Right, that’s right. And Russians are very suspicious as a result of this. One thing to remember, when Putin came to power there had been a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and in southern Russia. And Putin blamed them on Chechnya and Chechens. And used that as again a justification for his war down there. Many Russians to this day still suspect that their own government had something to do with it, and it had something to do with accumulating power. Now maybe this is all conspiratorial. But it does talk about the mindset among average Russians today of suspicion toward their own government.
BILL MOYERS: And yet as I read the book, read the press recently. I mean it seems to me that Putin does have some psychological hold on the Russian people that they are tolerating this. Many of them are even saying the stronger he is, the better off the situation. How do you explain that? What can you tell us about the psychology of Russia today? Of the people today?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well that’s right. That’s one of the great mysteries right now. I mean clearly Putin is genuinely popular. In many ways he’s genuinely popular as the anti-Yeltsin. He’s young. He’s sober in both the literal sense and in the image that he projects to people.
BILL MOYERS: People forget Yeltsin was an alcoholic and drunk.
SUSAN GLASSER: That’s exactly right. And Russians don’t forget that. It’s very important to them. You ask a 70 year old woman why does she like Putin. The first adjective that she will use is sober. He’s relatively young. He’s relatively articulate. He is a product of the KGB, which to our sort of Western approach might seem to be a negative. But what we found through years of interviewing people in Russia about this very question, was that for many people service in the KGB was associated with membership in some sort of elite fraternity. It was almost like the Harvard of the Soviet Union. And there was a sense that continues to this day that somehow the KGB was one of the least corrupted institutions of a fully corrupted Soviet society. That this represented some of the better educated, better prepared people. So that actually has counted for a plus for Putin as he has made his political career.
BILL MOYERS: It’s really a paradox for an American to try to wrestle with this who hasn’t been there. That here’s a strong man who emerged out of the Kremlin. And yet the stronger he gets, the more the people applaud. When we hear all this talk about democratic reforms.
PETER BAKER: Well that’s important to remember the context of the 1990s. After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 they weren’t ready to suddenly create a whole new state out of whole cloth. It took a long time to get off their feet. They consider the 1990s to be a period of chaos, economic dislocation and collapse, and people losing their life savings, and not knowing how to handle a new society. And in that context emerges Putin who says, “Don’t worry. I will stop the disillusion of the state. I will stop the disorder. I will bring a sense of order, basically, back to Russia.
BILL MOYERS: I will speak for the silent majority.
PETER BAKER: Speak for the silent majority. And so they view him as rescuing them from a period of turmoil that they weren’t ready for.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, and even the word democracy really was discredited in a way that is hard again for an outsider to understand, that it’s taken on a very negative connotation. Putin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin used to tell his colleagues behind closed doors in meetings at the Kremlin, “Russians are not ready for democracy.” And this was very much, I think, the idea of Putin and the men who surrounded him, that Western style liberal democracy represented actually a break with 1,000 years of Russian history. And that it was something that Russians neither wanted nor were prepared for. And they certainly weren’t going to force feed them on it.
BILL MOYERS: During the four years you were there, you must have covered Putin quite a bit. I mean he was emerging with all the power and the focus was on him. What did you learn about his psychology? What kind of guy is he?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, he’s a very tightly wound character. He’s very cold and distant in most public settings. Even when you meet with him in a small group, which both Peter and I did several times, he seems like he’s memorized the briefing book. He’s very good at spouting back long, long – literally paragraphs filled with facts and numbers and detailed bits of information in response to questions. A group interview with Putin could last four hours. It could last into the middle of night. I mean there were shades of Castro at times, in terms of the filibustering quality. But there was always an edge and an undercurrent in some of these sessions with Putin. And the thing that really seems to be his blind spot is Chechnya, interestingly enough. This is the one thing that ever caused him to go out of character in interview with us.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, he would get visibly angry when questioned or challenged on the conduct of the war in Chechnya. And I experienced that first hand the first time that I met with President Putin, which was his first interview with American correspondents, which was back in the spring, the early summer of 2001, right after his first summit meeting with President Bush, in which Bush famously declared that he had looked into Putin’s eyes. Well, right after that, Putin met with American correspondents at the Kremlin. And we went around the table, and I realized that no one had yet asked about Chechnya. So it was going to be up to me to sort of carry that burden. And I asked him a question. And he got very exasperated. And he said, “I’ve told you,” meaning, you, the reporters, “again and again and you just won’t listen.” And, over the years, we would see him get even angrier and more defensive. He once, actually very famously, threatened a forced circumcision on a French reporter at a press conference in Brussels. And the translator was so stunned that the translator actually did not translate that word. And so he’s on the stage with very European dignitaries, and they had no idea, until much later, of what Putin had even said. But he uses a very crude attack, basically, on a French reporter who asked him about –
BILL MOYERS: About Chechnya?
SUSAN GLASSER: About Chechnya. And human rights violations.
BILL MOYERS: Reminds me of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, when reporters would press him.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, he was a famously crude character, right, in some ways, President Johnson. And we don’t really know about Putin’s everyday language. Except for his famous remark early on, in his presidency, right, where he vowed to wipe the Chechen rebels out in the outhouse. And this was just coming to the attention of the world.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain this behavior? I mean did he think Chechnya was really going bad? He didn’t have an answer for the questions? Or did he just want to keep it off the table all together? Why would he react so when people would ask about Chechnya?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think because he understands that Chechnya is inextricably linked to his own presidency, that this is his legacy that this is the thing that the name Putin cannot be untangled with. He’s invested in the nation of Chechnya that they’ve built up. He’s invested in the idea that his critics have it all wrong when it comes to Chechnya and that he is saving Russia in his view of things.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the phenomenon that a few days, I believe it was a few days after Beslan, he organized a pep rally for himself, a big pep rally in Red Square. And used the occasion, again, to announce another roll back from democracy. What was going on there?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think this is a good example, again, of what we talked about, sort of the unintended consequences of Putin’s Russia in four years of Putin’s rule was really the effort to get rid of – or to squelch – even the nascent efforts at civil society, building a Western style civil society in Russia. And, for example, this rally, after Beslan. what happened was a very popular radio station in Moscow had the idea, as this horrible crisis was playing out that they wanted to do something, that they wanted to give Muscovites a chance to come out and show their solidarity with the victims. And in much the same way you might see people in the street of Rome who held a candlelight vigil for the school children of Beslan. I think they had tens of thousands of people come out into the streets. So I think that was their idea, which was simply to have the people of Moscow show their support.
But, what happened was, as this horrible battle took place, and we saw the carnage, in southern Russia, someone from the Kremlin called the radio producer and said, “We want to work with you on this rally.” And he knew what would happen. He knew that this would then become a prop in the authority’s campaign, that it would be stage managed. And there was pretty much nothing they could do, and they had no choice really but to allow the Kremlin to take it over.
And that’s exactly what happened, down to the preprinted signs that they handed out to the children who’d been bussed there by their local authorities. And they handed them preprinted signs that said, “President Putin, we are with you.”
BILL MOYERS: So, clearly, the Kremlin, Putin, were using Beslan to rally support for himself, that had nothing to do with Beslan.
PETER BAKER: Well, also, of course, to make sure that the public image and view of Beslan was that President Putin and the Kremlin responded forcefully and that they responded appropriately. Remember in different hands an incident like Beslan could be turned against the authorities. Large rally of people not controlled by the government might find a voice that the Kremlin didn’t like, to blame the authorities for what had happened. In fact, that’s what happened in Beslan. The parents and the citizens of Beslan to this day, are very angry at the government. They blame the government almost as much as they blame the terrorists. And so Putin and the Kremlin didn’t want to –
BILL MOYERS: They blame the government almost as much as they blame the terrorists?
PETER BAKER: Sure. Sure. There’s a trial going on right now of the one Chechen they caught, the one terrorist they caught, Nurpashi Kulayev, who you show in this film. And they started the trial and people shouted at him everyday, “Death isn’t good enough for you. Give him to us, we’ll tear him apart.” And it has now evolved to the point where, actually, some of the parents of some of the dead children are getting up and saying, “We will plead for clemency for you, just tell us the truth of what happened.” Because his version is different than what the government has said. He has said a number of things that don’t correspond to the government’s version of events. He says there were more terrorists, some of whom escaped. The government doesn’t say that.
He gives a different explanation for how the first explosion happened. He says a Russian sniper shot one of the Chechens who was standing near one of the bombs and when his foot came off the pedal, it exploded. The government says it was an accident. And the parents are desperate for the truth. And they know they’re not going to get it from their government. And they’re willing –
BILL MOYERS: Did the government lie a lot as Beslan was happening?
PETER BAKER: Sure.
SUSAN GLASSER: Repeatedly, in the film, you see Lev Dzugayev, who was the spokesman for the president of North Ossetia, coming out and telling the world that there were 354 hostages inside the building. And everyone in Beslan knew that wasn’t true. And they knew, this was a very small town, that there were well over 1,000 women, children, teachers inside that school. And, yet, they continued to assert that there were only a few hundred people. It was a very deliberate cover-up.
And so, in fact, when Peter was talking, right now, about that sort of consequences, what happened afterwards, and how the Kremlin tried to make sure that Putin came out of this with his reputation intact, a very interesting thing happened, which was that. on state television, faced with this sort of overwhelming evidence of this very inept lie that they had persisted on in the middle of this crisis, the idea that there were only 300 hostages when, in fact, there were 1,200. What happened was, finally, the Sunday after the event, the newscaster for state television comes on the air, and he says, “OK, in times of crisis the authorities must tell the truth. And there was a failure to do that in this case. And basically we think it’s appalling that the authorities lied. And they shouldn’t have done that. And everyone knows that there were 1,200 hostages.” And then they put on Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s political consultant, comes on the television show. And he says, “Yes, President Putin was very angry about that. He was furious that they could have misrepresented things, and misled the people.” And I thought, wow, this is such an incredibly obvious, but very skilled attempt, to manage the outcome of the crisis that the Kremlin clearly was genuinely worried about what perception people would have. And they were genuinely worried that people would blame the Kremlin.
PETER BAKER: In fact, a few days afterwards, Putin met with some Western journalists and scholars, who were already scheduled to come visit. He spent hours out of the dacha railing about how Chechnya was the fault of his predecessor, Yeltsin. “He made mistakes I never would have made.” Never mind that, of course, he started the second war himself. And the fault of the West. He was very angry about the West –
BILL MOYERS: He thought that Chechnya was the fault of the West?
PETER BAKER: Well, he got angry at the West for saying that they needed to negotiate a political solution to Chechnya. He says, “Well, you wouldn’t negotiate with Osama Bin Laden, why should we negotiate here? And this is just like the Cold War,” he said. “You’re trying to bring Russia down with this sort of thing.” And again, as an attempt there to redirect anger toward the outside world, and toward the Yeltsin era government, and away from any accountability he himself, or his Kremlin, might have.
BILL MOYERS: How do the Russian people get any credible information, any credible news, given the heavy hand of the state?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think the Kremlin has been fairly sophisticated in understanding where Russians really do get their information from. In other words, they haven’t blanket taken over all media. They haven’t attempted to re-impose the Soviet style censorship. What they’ve done is they’ve reasserted Kremlin control over the three national television networks because that’s where Russians, by far get their news. So there are Internet news sites. There are newspapers for the Moscow elite that are quite free ranging and very critical in their coverage of Putin and the Kremlin and politics and corruption and all these matters. But most people just simply don’t get them. Russia is an extremely far flung country, 140 million people spread across 11 time zones. And what that means is that television is the only glue that binds. And, so, if you control television, the thinking goes, it doesn’t really matter if a handful, a few hundred thousand elite people in Moscow know a different story.
BILL MOYERS: You mentioned a corrupt society a moment ago, blanket generalization about a corruption, pervasive corruption there. Is it fair to say that there’s a sickness in Russia today?
PETER BAKER: Well, it is a corrupt society, and it is sick in that way. Let’s talk about Beslan for instance. The hostage takers told their victims, “We wouldn’t have been here if your own police would stop taking bribes to let us pass checkpoints.” The week before, when these two airplanes were taken hostage, and blown out of the sky, one of the suicide bombers, one of the women got on the plane by paying a $34 bribe to get on when she didn’t have a ticket for the plane.
So corruption is at all levels and is endemic, specifically to the problem of terrorism in Russia. And nobody’s been fired from the top levels of Russian government for this. Nobody’s been held accountable for this. The court systems is controlled by the government when – there’s a challenge. And you see corruption at every level. Whether we’re just driving down the street, you’re stopped by traffic police who demands bribes. Whether it be registering various documents you have to register, bribes are demanded, all the way up to the top. The seizure of this oil company recently is perceived by many to be outright theft of a very valuable asset by insiders with connections to the Kremlin. So even Putin will say it’s a very corrupt society. And it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. But he doesn’t seem either able to or willing to do what might be necessary to tackle it.
BILL MOYERS: What has happened to what we heard about for so long, you know, loosely called democratic reforms? Are they still happening?
SUSAN GLASSER: No. Not only has the passage of democratic reforms no longer really taking place at all, but now Putin has moved into a new stage of actively rolling them back. And I think that that’s really the difference here. It would be a mistake to over romanticize what happened in the 1990s.
To call Yeltsin’s Russia some sort of Jeffersonian democracy, clearly is wrong headed and was not the case. Real democracy had not yet taken hold in Russian society. But now even the trajectory toward democracy has been halted. The experiment is over, if you will. And now, instead of talking about what’s next on the reform agenda, I think there’s a real sense of what’s next on the undoing of reforms agenda.
BILL MOYERS: Has Chechnya become Putin’s Vietnam or Iraq?
PETER BAKER: Yes. Vietnam is probably the best comparison. Although, even there, Vietnam, the American experience of course was limited to a handful of years. Russia’s experience in Chechnya goes back centuries. And it is, in fact, part of Russia. So it’s even more of a cancer in the middle of Russian society even, perhaps, than Vietnam was. At this point, hundreds of thousands of people in Chechnya have been killed, disappeared, wounded or left homeless.
And this is again also not only radicalized a young generation of Chechen men, it’s also radicalized, or at least traumatized a young generation of Russian men who have been conscripted into the army to serve there and have seen such terrible tragedies committed by the Chechen, but by their own side. So it eats away at Russian society.
BILL MOYERS: How would you sum up, almost a year later, the effect of Beslan on Russia?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think it was a moment, at the very least, of stark clarity about the nature of what Russia under President Putin, had become. That it was a moment of understanding, very clearly, if at least for a moment, that this was a place where the extremes ruled the question of Chechnya. And no accommodation was possible or would be possible in the foreseeable future. That you had this sense of a terrible tragedy unfolding, and that not being the end of the story, but simply a really horrible and powerful glimpse of where things stood at this time, that more such tragedies would be possible. And that there was no way that these two sides could get together.
BILL MOYERS: Do find what the hostage takers said credible about their fighting for the independence of Chechnya against Russian domination? Do you find that believable?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I think terrorism is such a horrible tactic. And the idea of taking small children, even babies, hostage is so anathema to us, that it’s hard for me, personally, to connect that to a political goal. And so, in that sense what were those individual men, who died in that school, what were they really there for? I have no idea. And I’m not sure that we can credibly know why they were there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the 32 hostage takers understood that they were likely to die when they went in there?
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah. Peter said, in his reporting, and I think that this was born out, that they came there prepared to die. Knowing the history of these things, knowing how many weapons and explosives they came laden with, I think that they had to expect that they were going die. There’s some anecdotal evidence, although I’m not sure really where it’s been born out, that some of the men may have been shocked when they got there and found that they had taken a school full of children hostage. And perhaps some of the terrorists balked at that idea. And may have been shot by their own leader, a guy that our reporting described as the colonel to his men. So it’s possible that even some of the terrorists were troubled by what they ended up doing. But that doesn’t excuse what they did, which was, really anathema and almost, to me, unconnected to any political questions
BILL MOYERS: America’s paid attention briefly. We were focused on the election back here when this happened. And we paid attention briefly because it was carried on the cable networks and the evening news. But we missed a lot after the fact. After Beslan happened, we went back to the election. What do you think we Americans are missing now about what’s happening in Russia?
PETER BAKER: Well, I think we’re spending so much time thinking about Iraq and the Middle East. And obviously, justifiably so, that we talk about promotion of democracy around the world, the one place where it’s gone backwards in the last five years is Russia. And I think that that’s a cautionary tale when we talk about trying to help other countries find a democratic path because that’s, of course, what we tried to do in 1991. And it can go easily off the rails. As Susan said, it never quite got on the rails to begin with, I suppose you could say but certainly heading in a different direction now. And I think that Russia is a society that wants to find its own way. And that it’s still a giant and important country in the world today. and we ignore it at our peril.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you call the subtitle of your book, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the End of Revolution? What do you mean the end of revolution?
PETER BAKER: Well, when Putin came into power, he, of course, was the anti-Yeltsin. He was going to end the Yeltsin revolution. And, in fact, Putin’s own political consultant told us Putin doesn’t want any more revolutions, he wants to end revolution. And so this is the reaction to the tumult and the changes of the 1990s, and the late 1980s that had begun under Gorbachev, and continued under Yeltsin.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I would say the end of democratic revolution?
PETER BAKER: Well we asked him about this. I said, “Well, what about this democracy roll back?” He says, “Well, if you mean my democracy, the disillusion of the state, we don’t want such democracy.” We didn’t define it that way, he defined it that way. And, in his mind, and in many Russians’ minds, democracy is defined as the disillusion of the state, as chaos, as disorder. And so, in fact, when he begins to take back some of these powers for himself, he has some popular support. A new poll shows that 82 percent of Russians who support the imposition of censorship again. So this is –
BILL MOYERS: Why?
PETER BAKER: Because it’s perceived as a way of ending the corruption and the tumult of the 1990s.
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, that’s right. I mean look at their version of history, versus the one that we have, in our American narrative of what happened in the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall fell, followed by, two years later, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Freedom came, rang out. Boris Yeltsin came in, there was some troubles along the way, some drunken antics, some economic crises, but, all in all, the march of freedom went on. And now there’s capitalism and the golden arches on Red Square. And I think that that’s sort of where many Americans left the story. But what we found, as correspondents living in Moscow for the last four years, is that Russians themselves have a very different version of the story.
And President Putin has very skillfully both played on and captured this different version. And his view of reality, he said recently, to great controversy, that, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” completely ignoring, of course, the Holocaust, World War II, the Great Terror back in the Soviet Union. And I think that this is a very revealing statement, right? That this is what Putin is there to do, is to put a halt to the catastrophe that was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
BILL MOYERS: And, by your own account, he’s firmly in control doing that, and the more control he exercises, the more popular he seems to become.
PETER BAKER: Well, he is firmly in control on the one hand, and he’s not on the other. Beslan is an example of how he’s not. You know, that you can have order in society, and you can take over media and parliament and cancel elections. And, in fact, you’re still never going to be able to control society the way perhaps he might want to. He’s not re-creating the Soviet Union. This is not a top to bottom, cradle to grave, totalitarian society. And he’s simply using some of the techniques of his training and his past as a KGB officer to restore some of the authority that he thought was lost during the 1991collapse.
BILL MOYERS: Your book begins and ends with Beslan. So I want to end our conversation with Beslan. You saw horrific things that day, in those 52 hours. What’s been the effect on the two of you?
PETER BAKER: We covered the war in Afghanistan, and we covered the war in Iraq. Nothing I saw in either of those places came anywhere close to what I saw in Beslan. I watched as fathers ran into the hail of bullets to rescue their children. And men who didn’t have any children there, to try to find some children that they could save at great peril to themselves. I walked through the morgue afterwards and saw dozens of charred and beaten and bloodied bodies of children. And it’s a horror that will never go away, for me and a reminder of what we would never want to have happen anywhere again.
BILL MOYERS: You tell a remarkable story of a 14-year-old who absolutely slips out of the school, away from the hostages, only to realize he’s left his younger sister there. And he slips back in the school looking for his younger sister.
PETER BAKER: There are moments of great heroism on the part of some of the Russians who were there that day and powerful stories and amid all of the tragedy and all of the government deceit I think we shouldn’t forget those acts of bravery and generosity and selflessness on the part of many people, including the school principle who did everything she could to try to save her own children, saved the hundreds of children that she thought of as hers. And it’s a very powerful human story and I think the film captures that.
BILL MOYERS: This is the woman who had been there 52 years?
PETER BAKER: Fifty. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Started at a very low level at the school. And –
PETER BAKER: Absolutely. She went there as a student and became, ultimately, the principle a half century later. And one of the sad things about her story is that she tried so hard to save these children, and, in the end, many in the town blamed her for not saving them.
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah. She was accused of not protecting the children.
BILL MOYERS: When President Putin sent the Russian troops into Chechnya in 1999, he said it would be over in, what, two weeks. You know, he looked at it as sort of brief excursion and a return. Since then, it’s been six, seven years. A war of great cruelty, right?
PETER BAKER: A war of great cruelty, a scorched earth war in every sense of the word. Putin isn’t the first one to misjudge this, of course. It goes back to Peter the Great. But, in this case Peter the Great never had bombers who could inflict the sort of damage that was done on Chechnya under Putin.
BILL MOYERS: On civilians too.
PETER BAKER: And civilians. They drop more ordinance on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya than has been dropped on any city in Europe since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens killed, wounded, left homeless. The city of Grozny, to this day, is basically an apocalyptic scene of broken buildings, and shells of old apartments. And people living without electricity or water and scrounging to get by. And it’s hard to overstate just how devastating this war has been.
BILL MOYERS: I saw a photograph of refugees that reminded me of the refugees in the 1930s in Europe at the time of the Soviet and German war.
PETER BAKER: Absolutely. I spent a lot of time in the refugee camps next door in Ingushetia. These are people who lived there for, in many cases, five, six years. They had had children there and gotten married there. They continue their lives there as they lived in a tent with a single bare bulb and one serving of meat a month because they had no other life, and they had no other choice.
BILL MOYERS: Susan, you spent, what, a year in a high school? What were you doing?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, I was very curious about this question, what’s next? What’s the next generation? Are we really justified in thinking that all it takes is time to wipe away the legacy of the communist past? And what I found in a high school history class in Moscow, was that it’s a lot more complicated. And it’s probably going to take a lot longer than people had expected back in 1991. I think the idea was, well, in one or two generations, a new rise of capitalist Western-oriented Russians will take the place of their Soviet parents. Instead, what I found, was kids who, when asked by the teacher to vote on the very first day of class about the Bolshevik Revolution, the majority of them said that they would actually have been on the side of the Bolsheviks back in 1917. The most articulate girl in class, she turned, and she said, “Yes, Lenin was right after all.” And, yet, these were also cell phone addicts, who all wanted to go to business school. They were reading Cosmo during the breaks. They had the boom box in the classroom. And so I think they were very much children of Putin’s era. Their parents had taught them to romanticize the Soviet Union as a time when Russia was great unlike the indignities of the 1990s.
BILL MOYERS: Is there any discussion among the kids of democracy? What do they mean by democracy?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, absolutely. This was a constant question that they had. And they came down very much, I think, where President Putin did, which was if, by democracy, you mean what happened in the 1990s, then we don’t want it. And, yes, there were excesses in our Soviet past. But, all things considered, wasn’t it necessary?
BILL MOYERS: You went to Russia with President Bush on his last trip didn’t you?
PETER BAKER: Yes. In May.
BILL MOYERS: Is he pressing his friend Putin to push for further reform? Or is he acquiescing in Putin’s retreat from democracy?
PETER BAKER: Well, Bush is pressing now. He, of course, had originally seen President Putin as a soulmate, if you will. He said, “I looked into his eyes and got a sense of his soul,” back in 2001. And I think he understands now that Putin is not quite the person he thought he was at first.
But for President Bush, it’s a delicate balance. He wants to push a little bit, but he doesn’t want to push too hard, somebody who’s been a friend to him, and he’s used as an ally. And you have to remember, of course, for Bush, there’s an awful lot on his plate. Right now he’s got Iraq, he’s got the Middle East, he’s got Afghanistan, he’s got the war on terror. And so a conflict with Russia, an open and contentious debate with Russia about its own internal democracy may be one more thing that he doesn’t want on his plate right now.
BILL MOYERS: If as you said, Peter, Chechnya is Russia’s Vietnam, why is there no great outcry in Russia as there was in this country over Vietnam in the 1960s?
PETER BAKER: Well, there is a popular discontent about it. Russians who supported it in 1999 by far do not today, particularly the mothers and fathers of young men who’ve been sent off there. But there’s very little space in the political system to express that sort of outrage.
BILL MOYERS: Media wouldn’t report it if with there was?
PETER BAKER: Media wouldn’t report it if there was. There are no political parties anymore in the parliament who oppose the war. Street rallies are just not a part of the Russian tradition and certainly are not encouraged. And so while I think Russians are ready for the war to end, they haven’t been able to influence a political dialogue in that regard.
BILL MOYERS: So, is Chechnya not just Vietnam but is it Northern Ireland to Britain? Are they there without a solution for a long time to come?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, certainly that’s the analogy that the Kremlin itself has made repeatedly over the past few years is try to prepare the Russian people for the idea that this is Northern Ireland or the Basques in Spain or some sort of intractable insurgency that they don’t even expect to get a handle on for decades to come. And the only leader of the Chechens perhaps who could have even come to the table with the Russians, the de facto President of Independent Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed recently by the Russians. And I think with his death when even the faintest glimmer of hope of a negotiating partner with the Russians at this point, there doesn’t even exist a viable Chechen leader of the political wing of the resistance who the Russians could even meet with.
BILL MOYERS: So, there could be another Beslan?
PETER BAKER: Absolutely.
SUSAN GLASSER: Yeah.
PETER BAKER: I would expect it.
BILL MOYERS: Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, authors of Kremlin Rising, thank you for being on Wide Angle.
PETER BAKER: Thank you for having us.
SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you very much