In Paris attacks, echoes of past Russian tragedies

The World
Russia theater siege

A woman lays flowers in front of the Dubrovka threatre in 2007, marking the fifth anniversary of a siege by Chechen militants in which more than 800 spectators and cast members of the musical "Nord Ost" were held captive for three days. Russian special forces took out all the attackers, but most of the 130 dead hostage perished during the rescue operation. 

Grigory Tambulov/Reuters

Ultimately, it took the Paris attacks for the Kremlin to acknowledge what many in the West had long suspected: the downing of Metro Jet airliner 9268 over the Sinai peninsula — killing all 224 people on board — was an act of terror.

In a televised and highly theatrical meeting at the Kremlin, the head of Russia's security services Alexander Bortnikov informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that his investigation had determined the plane was destroyed by "traces of foreign explosives."

Appearing shocked by the finding, Putin promised justice and declared those responsible would be hunted down wherever they might hide.  "We will find them in any place on Earth and punish them," said the Russian leader.

Putin's tough talk sounded awfully familiar to Russians who've lived with terror over the years.

Boris Veshnevsky, a deputy with the liberal Yabloko party in St. Petersburg where many of the Metro Jet victims were from, notes that Putin made similar expressions of vengeance back in 1999.

Then, a series of mysterious late-night apartments bombings in Moscow and other cities killed and injured scores — terrorizing the country in their homes and in their dreams.

Putin, then a newly appointed prime minIster under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, blamed Chechen guerrilla fighters for the attacks. "We will chase terrorists everywhere," Putin said at the time.  "If we find them in the toilet, excuse me, we'll rub them out in the outhouse."

The bold talk launched Putin's political career — and the second Chechen War.  

Veshenvsky argues, this time, Putin's reluctance to label the Metro Jet crash an act of terror was again a question of political expediency — a well-managed military operation suddenly gone awry with Russian civilians paying the price.

"To admit it was terrorism right away would mean giving a basis for questions of whether this was revenge for Russia's air campaign against ISIS in Syria," he says. 

The attacks in Paris effectively internationalizes the mistake, Veshnevsky adds.

Meanwhile, in the attacks in Paris — and in particular, the Bataclan music hall — Russians see echoes of another tragedy: the Nord Ost theater siege of 2002.

On October 23 of that year, Chechen fighters stormed a Moscow theater during a musical performance taking over 800 people hostage.

Tatiana Karpova lost her son, Alexander, in the enusing rescue after Russian commandos pumped an aerosol gas into the theater — killing the Chechen attackers along with 130 spectators. 

Karpova says she's been struck by the outpouring of grief for the Paris victims in Moscow — with Russians lining up to bring flowers and candles to the French Embassy here.

"It's wonderful to see people coming together and sharing their grief," Karpova says.

But Karpova also questions promises from the Kremlin to never forget the victims of the Metro Jet airliner. In their moment of grief, Karpova says, the families of Nord Ost were all but abandoned.

"We were on our own," Karpova says. "Our government never takes responsibility for anything. Back then, when we asked for help, they told us what can we do? Go to talk to the families of the Chechen terrorists.

"We're not going to do anything," she adds, "It was hurtful — believe me."

These days, the Kremlin has a different message: we are all in this together. 

Putin has called for Russia and the West to overcome their differences on Ukraine and Syria by joining in a grand coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Already, Russia has expanded its attacks on ISIS targets in Syria and announced coordinated measures with French military operations in the region.

But Russian cooperation in the face of tragedy is also a familiar refrain.

After the 9/11 attacks in the US, Putin was quick to offer condolences and argued Russia and the West should overcome their differences to combat terror.

It's an alliance that largely worked against Al Qaeda — until, that is, the threat seemed to go away.

Still, Boris Vishnevsky, the St. Petersburg lawmaker, says the Kremlin's new offers for an alliance with the West depend on whether it can ween itself off of anti-Western rhetoric that has ratched up Putin's popularity over the past two years.  

"If you watch Russian TV, it's not clear who's our bigger enemy, America or Islamic State," Veshnenvsky asks.

"This political schizophrenia can't continue forever."