The Zapunny family immediately makes it clear that not a single one of them supports the war in Chechnya.
"Show me a person who wants to continue the war in Chechnya," demanded Nina Zapunny, a 47-year-old accountant with a social conscience. "Who could be for it?"
Her husband, Sergei Zapunny, a businessman, is also still reeling from the aftershocks of Moscow's hostage crisis, but is both angrier and more cynical, now that the 50 Chechen guerrillas who stormed the Moscow theater are dead, along with 117 hostages killed by the deadly gas used by Russian authorities in the raid to save them.
"As soon as this happened, I realized that I was a hostage, too, that everyone in this country is a hostage to this war," said Sergei, also 47. "And we will be as long as the situation is not resolved clearly."
Like the rest of this traumatized city, the Zapunny family is trying to make sense of the war that came home to them with an act of terror in a Moscow theater. They are grieving for the victims, and questioning the actions of their government while supporting their president. And most of all, they are wondering how, when and what will come next in the bloody, seemingly endless conflict with Chechnya that has interrupted Moscow's boomtown reveries with unpleasant reminders of the forgotten war down south.
Over a leisurely Friday night dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes, French wine and Greek salad, the Zapunny family debated the events that unfolded just a few miles from where they sat. They are exactly the sort of people the Chechen guerrillas appear to have targeted in their attack on the theater where the hit Russian musical "Nord-Ost" was playing on the night of Oct. 23.
The Zapunnys are theatergoers, well-educated and law-abiding, and have managed not only to survive but to flourish in Moscow's turbulent decade-long transition to capitalism. They are the people one of the Chechen hostage-takers had in mind when he told Anatoly Glazychev, the "Nord-Ost" stage manager, "You are responsible. It's your indifference" to the war in far-off Chechnya that had made them decide to bring the battle to Moscow.
Now, with the funerals over and the recriminations just beginning, the Zapunny family retreated to the kitchen, as they always did in Soviet times, when it was the only safe space for a family, in private, to say what they really thought of the world.
It was a conversation filled with all the contradictions of the broader Russia, one that quickly moved beyond the shock and horror of the hostage crisis to touch on the lasting power of the Soviet legacy in shaping both the authorities' response to the crisis and their own way of seeing the world. Like other Russians, the Zapunny family had little criticism of President Vladimir Putin's handling of the crisis and decision to deploy the gas -- the first post-raid opinion survey put approval for Putin's actions at 85 percent.
But the dinner talk also revealed what the polls have yet to fully explore: a deep cynicism and suspicion of the government that Putin leads and a strong belief that many of the hostages' lives were lost because of the Soviet legacy of secrets and lies.
The hostage crisis exposed many of the most painful questions of the Putin era, the things that Russians often choose not to talk about -- the heavy state control over the media, the lack of information about Chechnya, the failure of ordinary Russians to pressure their government to end a war that many of them don't support.
In the end, though, the Zapunnys still do not view things through the prism of Putin's Russia, but through the longer lens of Soviet history. And, said Nina, "compared to Soviet times, this story, this tragedy is a huge step forward. The authorities were talking. It was not all the truth, it was some of the truth. They admitted mistakes, not right away, but they admitted them. For us, this is progress."
Never Met a Chechen
From the minute it happened, they understood that the hostage-taking was a huge moment for them and the city they love, an event of such magnitude, it could not be ignored.
"I had a feeling of deja vu," said Sergei. "It was like September 11, when I was at work and watched all that terror happen in New York. It was absolutely the same feeling of horror happening in front of your eyes."
Nina interrupted. "Yes," she said. "It was the same show: 'Terror Live.' "
For days, they were glued to the television set with a sense of impending disaster. Nina worried about the pregnant women in the audience, the children just like her 14-year-old daughter, Marina, who had gone to see "Nord-Ost," or "North-East," a few months ago, and the 75 foreigners suddenly caught up in Russia's long-running war. None of them expected it to end well.
They watched it all play out on a flat-screen Sony set, in the same apartment where they have lived since Soviet times -- only three rooms, but like their city, upgraded considerably in recent years.
They connected what was happening very directly with Moscow, a rich city, waging war on Chechnya, a poor region. In the same way the hostage-takers are said to have refused to bring in food, even for the dozens of children among their hostages, telling intermediaries, "why should your children eat; ours don't." The Zapunny family believed Moscow was targeted because of its special status in post-Soviet Russia as a city of new shopping malls and Mercedes-Benzes, at odds with a country of collapsing villages and grinding poverty. "We live better here," as Sergei put it repeatedly. "We have a higher standard of living."
But like most Muscovites at their level of income and education, they have been insulated from the war in Chechnya. Russia's mandatory conscription system hasn't touched their family. Their 21-year-old son, Volodya, who is finishing his last year at a prestigious Moscow economics institute, managed to get out of military service because of bad eyesight. In their circles, Nina said, "I never heard of anyone sending their sons to the war."
If the war has not penetrated their daily life, then neither have the Chechens, who exist for this family -- and for most Russians -- as little more than ciphers on television, mysterious enemies whose history, culture and religion are so different from their own. No one in the Zapunny family has ever met a Chechen. With Russia's state-controlled television showing little of the war from the Chechen point of view, their ignorance about the Chechens only contributes to their sense of hopelessness about ending a war they don't really understand.
"I don't know what Chechnya is. What kind of people live there? How do they live? What do they eat? What do they have for dinner?" Volodya said. "How can we know what is the right thing to do when we only have this limited information from television and official sources?"
Question of Responsibility
To the hostage-takers, the attack may have been an effort to bring the war home to a complacent city. Sergei, however, wasn't having any of it. "I don't feel any responsibility for this war," he said.
Nina interrupted. "I do," she said.
"Naturally people who have jobs do not participate in rallies," Sergei retorted.
"I'm afraid we've outgrown it," Nina said. "Ten years ago, we were always part of it" -- enthusiastic participants in the crowds who surged excitedly around Moscow in the days of the downfall of the Soviet Union, protesting to win new rights, cheering when symbols of the Soviet state, like the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, came tumbling down. "I actually blame myself now for not having participated in rallies against the war."
In the midst of the hostage crisis, when angry relatives of some hostages staged an anti-war protest, Nina considered going down to Red Square herself. But then she heard that the authorities had prohibited the protest and were vowing to break it up. "That I wasn't prepared for," she said. She stayed at work, part of a silent minority protesting the war only around the kitchen table.
That was on Friday, Oct. 25.
Like many Muscovites, Nina and Sergei awoke the next morning just as news was spilling out about the pre-dawn raid. At first, they felt an enormous sense of relief and even happiness.
"But when we began to hear the details, it changed," Nina said.
They were soon more sad and angry than elated as the death toll rose and it became clear that doctors didn't have proper information about the gas to treat its victims. "We have many questions, so many questions," Nina said.
They may support Putin, but they adamantly blame the rest of the government for creating and prolonging the war in Chechnya, for botching the hostage rescue and then for lying about it.
"America is a more patriotic country," Nina said. "People there identify themselves with the state."
"But here, we have suffered so much from the state," Sergei said.
"We don't expect anything good from the state," Nina added.
'It Will Be Forgotten'
Now, most of all, there is a deep, shared pessimism that any progress will come out of this terrible tragedy in the middle of their city. Volodya spoke for the whole family when he said: "It will be forgotten. Everything will calm down. And then, when everybody begins to forget, something like this will happen again. Again, there will be indignation, outrage."
Sergei agreed. "This is people's nature," he said. "Especially here in Moscow, where life is good. There will be no major changes with Chechnya. Just this same, slow-moving war."
Nina interjected: "Because there are no answers to the major questions."
For the whole family, the war in Chechnya, the brutality and corruption they do their best to isolate themselves from, is all about the broader corruption of the Russian state. "The war is a business," Sergei said flatly, echoing a widely held view.
Sergei was also giving voice to another widely held opinion in Russia since the hostage-taking -- the notion that Chechens are so different and so fundamentally opposed to Russian rule that peace can never happen.
"It's impossible to come to terms with the Chechens," he said, retracing the long history of near-constant war between the Russians and the Chechens since the early 19th century. "If Moscow is Rome, then the Chechens are barbarians."
His wife and children don't use such language, but even Nina said she believed the best possible solution at this point may well be "to build a Chinese wall" around Chechnya, trapping the people and the problem inside, where it can't infect the rest of Russia.
Sergei ended dinner where he began it, pondering the price that Moscow has to pay for a war in Chechnya that seemingly few want. "Chechnya is like a tooth that aches," he said. The person with the toothache resolves to have it pulled out, but is convinced by the dentist that it just needs to be treated and the pain will go away. Of course, the pain doesn't go away but just keeps coming back.
"That's the way Chechnya is. You can't have it pulled right out, but you still have to pay money to the dentist to treat it," Sergei said. The family laughed.
Today, the Zapunny family is scheduled to leave for a beach vacation in Egypt. They will lie on the sand and forget Moscow's trauma. They will carry on with the lifestyle of the New Russians they have become. They will try to forget the toothache that never quite goes away.