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57 Hours: A Survivor’s Account of the Moscow Hostage Drama

by Vesselin Nedkov and Paul Wilson

This book has all the tell-tale signs of being a knock-off meant to cash in on a news story still fresh in the public’s mind. There’s the relatively quick turnaround time, two authors (although no sign of the tip-off phrase, “As told to”), and a title that doesn’t suggest a great deal of depth. Prepare to be surprised. This is a compelling and intense read, part history lesson and part detailed account of what it’s like to be a hostage.

Vesselin Nedkov was walking with his friend Irina Filipova in Moscow, just days before he was to emigrate to Canada, when they happened upon a kiosk selling tickets for the hottest play in Russia, Nord-Ost. Impulsively, they bought tickets for the next night, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002. The rest, as they say, is history. Moscow’s House of Culture theatre was invaded by Chechen terrorists, who held about 800 people hostage based on one impossible demand – for the Russians to get out of Chechnya.

The hostage-taking is a story to which we all know the ending, and even on a personal level there are no surprises – this is, after all, a survivor’s tale. But Nedkov’s account is not about cliffhangers and plot twists. Its strength is in its vivid detail, from how the terrorists rigged the theatre with explosives, to the orchestra pit being turned into a large and smelly toilet, to how the terrorists and hostages interacted with each other. Most of the hostages didn’t believe that they would survive, yet they still managed to treat each other with great humanity. The corollary to the first-person account are several interesting chapters on the tumultuous and bloody history of the Chechens, the background to how and why the terrorists came to be in the theatre in the first place.

In his introduction, Nedkov says the greatest weapon of terrorists is their ability to make us all fearful and on edge. His book is meant to be a way to deflect that by helping us to understand everything about a terrorist act. However, the overwhelming moral of this story is the utter pointlessness of hostage-takings. The real strength of this book is its unique and personal perspective on a moment in history. That does help us to understand, but only to conclude that in these situations everybody loses.