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This Day In History: 11 years ago, Chechen rebels hold Moscow theater hostage

On this day in 2002 a crowded theater in Moscow was seized by rebels from Chechnya in what has come to be known as the Moscow Theater Siege. Some 40 to 50 armed Chechens who claimed to be a part of the Islamist militant separatist movement in Chechnya carried out this siege; however, those in charge of the Islamist group in Chechnya denounced it publicly.

The hostages were seized during a sold out performance of Nord-Ost., a play based on the novel The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin, at the House of Culture in Moscow. During Act II of the performance, 40 to 50 heavily armed masked men and women drove a bus into the theater and entered the main part of the building firing assault weapons into the air. The Chechens took almost 1,000 people hostage, including members of the audience and performers. However, some performers who were waiting backstage were able to escape through a window and call the police. Present at the performance were foreign nationals from all over the world who were released, as the terrorist group had nothing against these people.

The gunmen were led by Movsar Barayev, the nephew of a Chechen rebel militia commander Arbi Barayev, who had been killed by the Russian military occupation of Chechnya at the time. He demanded that all Russian forces withdraw from Chechnya or he would begin killing hostages. He gave a deadline of one week. Cellphone conversations that occurred between the hostages and their families revealed that the terrorists had explosives strapped to themselves and had placed them sporadically throughout the building.

On the first night of the attack, the attackers released between 150 and 200 people, including pregnant women, Muslims, some foreigners and people who required health treatment. At about 2 a.m., a young woman named Olga Romanova entered the theater through the police outside and began persuading the hostages to rise up against their captors. Believing she was a member of the Russian government, the rebels shot and killed her.

The standoff between the captors and the police continued for about three days. During the time, the Red Cross brought in  food and doctors were permitted to go into the theater to provide medical attention to those who needed it. Also during this period, about 50 hostages were released, including foreigners and children.

On the morning of Oct. 26, 2002, weaponized fentanyl began pumping into the ventilation system of the theater. As the gas began to take effect, troops from Russian Special Forces, Spetnaz, stormed the building from all possible entrances, lastly pushing through the front door. Sporadic gun battles continued to take place for about an hour. The raid ended with all of the hostage takers being killed. Some reports have the number of hostages dead at about 200, many of whom died from asphyxiation from the gas.

The raid caused a tighter grip on Chechnya by Russia, and the plans to reduce the number of Russian forces in Chechnya were canceled.

Matt Bair is a junior studying history, political science and classics and a columnist for The Post. Feeling historical? Chat history with him at

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