Several hours after bloody, half-naked and terrified children and teachers fled School No. 1 Monday afternoon amid explosions and automatic weapons fire, NTV television correspondent Ruslan Gusarov told viewers he had heard law enforcement authorities saying on their walkie-talkies that there were a significant number of dead and wounded victims inside. The anchorwoman in Moscow admonished him. "We have to stop," she said. "We cannot broadcast this information."
The warning was a glimpse into the reality hanging over the hostage crisis in the town of Beslan in southern Russia. At a moment of great distress, there was near-total silence from President Vladimir Putin and the rest of Russia's political leaders. Information about victims trickled out slowly. Secrecy and obfuscation, tools of the authoritarian past, cast a chilling shadow over television news broadcasts. All three major television networks are now state-controlled, but the restrictions they face are offset somewhat by Russia's newspapers and lively Web sites, which offered fast-breaking and firsthand accounts from the scene.
Soon after explosions and gunfire rocked the school, the main television channel shifted away from the scenes of mayhem and broadcast a soap opera about World War II spies. Twelve hours after commandos stormed the school, Putin had not said a word in public, reflecting a penchant for opacity that has characterized his response to controversy since the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine four years ago. Back then, he went jet-skiing on the Black Sea while navy families waited anxiously for word about the doomed sailors.
"People do not see that they have politicians who can save them, guarantee their security and stability and who can suggest any kind of solution," said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research organization. "They would love to see a tough, harsh, resolute president, but they have not seen one. Russia has lost its president in these days."
"Politics is really dead, but in a way that is dangerous for Putin. This is the moment of truth for the country. The Duma is afraid to convene an emergency meeting," she said, referring to the lower house of parliament. "Nobody has made a comment. The president is hiding. The government is hiding. This is the end of politics, when no one wants to take responsibility."
Sergei Markov, a political analyst who has worked for the Kremlin, said the attack took Russia's intelligence agencies by surprise. Putin spent his career in the KGB and later was director of its domestic successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before rising to power. But Markov said that criticism would be directed primarily at the security services rather than at Putin. "The Russian intelligence services have not been prepared for a terrorist attack," he said.
As president, Putin has often promoted his image as a tough guy, discreet and stone-faced. In his attempts to corral the influential Russian tycoons, he has often let subordinates intense pressure tactics, while portraying himself as distant, cool and unconcerned. In fact, according to those who have dealt with him, he takes a behind-the-scenes role in the maneuvering.
Since he became Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor, Putin has also sought to stamp out challenges to his power, with crackdowns on independent television, the creation of a pliant parliament and the imposition of restrictions on regional governors. The result has been a shrinking of the public space for criticism and an expansion of the influence of the security services. Journalists, academics, politicians and human rights activists have described a growing atmosphere of anxiety in which they are wary of crossing the Kremlin. An author who wrote a best-selling book critical of Putin fled the country after a grenade-size bomb exploded outside her apartment door.
When Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater during a performance in October 2002 and took more than 900 hostages, the authorities pumped a knock-out gas into the building, causing almost all of the 129 hostage deaths. At the time, Putin sought to conceal key details, such as what kind of gas had been used. But the events also spurred many Russian political figures to raise sharp questions about how the crisis had been handled. In both the Kursk sinking and the theater attack, family members of the victims also refused to be silenced.
Yet the ferocity of the attack in Beslan was an important factor that may generate sympathy for Putin, who came to power in 1999 by championing a renewed military offensive against the Chechen rebels following a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities that were blamed on the insurgents. The bombings took more than 300 lives, and the war stalemated.
"I don't envy him," Shevtsova, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said. "This is his war. He has been trying to push the idea that everything has been ended successfully. He has been trying to prove the situation in Chechnya has been normalized. And now he has to begin from scratch. It has become worse than 1999. He cannot solve it by military means, he cannot solve it by peaceful means. He is in a trap."
Shevtsova said Russians were on edge in public spaces. The attack came after a bombing at a Moscow subway and the apparent downing of two airliners. "People are scared," she said. "It's like a Hitchcock movie." She recalled that on a subway this week, a woman was seen by other passengers wearing a black head scarf and baggy dress. "The moment they saw a woman enter the subway in a scarf, they created a space around her and she had to get out at the next stop," Shevtsova recounted. "Someone called a militiaman."