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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beslan Demands Words, Not Silence

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At the Aug. 16 hearing in Vladikavkaz, where the lone accused hostage-taker is standing trial for last year's attack on a school in Beslan, a remarkable exchange took place. A man named Eduard Adayev testified as a witness. A well-known and, apparently, well-connected athlete in North Ossetia, he arrived at the school soon after it was seized. Then, two days later, he was one of the people saving children from the burning school. He says he saved two children before he was injured.

Adayev's description of the rescue effort was blood-chilling. But something else he described was perhaps even more important. One of the prosecutors asked Adayev what he knew about the origins of the figure 354. This was how many people Russian officials claimed were inside the school -- when in fact there were more than 1,000. Former hostages have testified that when the hostage-takers heard the figure on television, they concluded that Moscow was laying the groundwork for a planned storm of the school by lowering the estimate of potential casualties. This, say the hostages, was when their captors stopped giving them water.

Here is what Adayev said: "When we heard that figure, 354, we started asking, 'Where did that come from anyway?' ... Ordinary people thought that if there were 354, then there would be a storm, and if there were 1,500, then, naturally, nobody was going to storm the building. We thought so, too, but then we asked ... someone and then someone else, and they were all saying, 'We put a person there to make a list of people.' He was writing down the relatives of people who were in there. That's where that figure came from." Adayev added that the person making the list was a policeman and that the figure 354 held until the standoff had ended, despite the fact that Adayev and others made up a huge poster claiming there were no fewer than 900 people inside and held it up for the cameras.

I think this is probably the truth, if not necessarily the whole truth. And it is a terrific illustration of how things work in this country. The figure 354 arose accidentally. Law enforcement officials and Kremlin representatives seized on it out of a combination of laziness and expediency: No one could be bothered to get the true figure, and the low estimate was handy. The question is why initially the media continued to reproduce this number. One of the main exceptions was Izvestia, which provided outstanding coverage of the tragedy, for which the editor was promptly ousted. Because the default setting for many Russian journalists these days is to report what they are told, not what they see -- to participate unquestioningly in a conspiracy of silence.

This conspiracy is everywhere -- perhaps nowhere more evident than at the Beslan trial itself. Adayev's testimony is atypical: He is a well-respected and well-informed citizen of North Ossetia, who clearly commands the court's respect. But if you read the trial transcripts, all too often you will see remarks to other witnesses from the prosecutors and judge like: "Don't talk," "That question cannot be answered," "Now is no time for that" and other variations on "Shut up."

This is also what we are all invited to do next week, on the first anniversary of Beslan, when the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi is organizing a silent rally. "No Words" says the white-on-black poster advertising the event. It looks beautiful. But here is the thing. When it comes to the memory of Beslan, the right things to do are to listen -- or read the transcripts of the trial online -- remember and tell others. Silence, when it comes to Beslan, is not dignified. Silence is the opposite of truth.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor at Bolshoi Gorod. Beslan School Siege