115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Terrorism as Theater, Terrorism in Theater: A Case Study of the 2002 Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis

Irina Vasilyeva Meier, University of New Mexico

The 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, also known as the Nord-Ost Siege, functions as performance of the absurd within a theater as a physical place because it expands the notion of the audience to both victims and decision-makers as well as general Russian public and changes the spectators’ relationship to the stage, while reinforcing the structured and codified system of the theatrical space.


Terrorism in its modern form has been functioning as a symbolic performance with intentionally high visibility for the last few centuries. Back in 1975, in his report at the Rand Corporation, Brian M. Jenkings called terrorism a theater while emphasizing the efforts of terrorists to “choreograph violence.” In this paper, I go beyond Jenkings’s statement and not only analyze a terrorist attack as a performative act, but also explore the peculiarities of a terrorist act that took place within the actual theatrical space, specifically the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, also known as the Nord-Ost Siege. I argue that the Nord-Ost siege functions as performance of the absurd by forcing the audience that was a voluntary witness of the musical up to the point of intrusion, into participants of violence within the fixed matrix of time (4 days of siege). With the Chechen terrorists instead of the actors on stage, the notion of audience expands to include both victims inside the Dubrovka Theater at whom the violence is directed and decision-makers as well as general Russian public outside the theater for whom the violence is performed. What makes a terrorist act and a theatrical performance eerily alike is the fact that both of them exist within the distorted space-time matrix. Both a theatrical performance and a terrorist act convey information and emotion through creating a simulacrum of conflict. Forcefully replacing the actors of the Nord-Ost musical on stage, the terrorists at the Dubrovka theater break the continuum of the theatrical narrative by changing the spectators’ relationship to the stage. Despite the fact that the light in the auditorium was now on, the audience was visible, and its power as a silent observer was taken away, the theatrical space remained structured and codified. The male terrorist leaders occupied the stage, while the female shakhidki with explosive belts were dispersed throughout the auditorium. Meanwhile, the orchestra pit, an intentionally invisible place of music and emotion in a theatrical play, became a toilet for hostages, thus making the process of defecating - that usually remains in the margins of visibility – uncivilized and exposed. Mary Douglas defines dirt (that becomes feces in our case) as “a matter out of place” that is at the same time “a by-product” of the system. Thus, the orchestra pit turns into a dirty border space produced by the structural system of the power relations between predators and victims in a terrorist act. Metaphorically speaking, this is the place where the stage – the crux of control – and the auditorium – the cradle of yielding – collapse.