MOSCOW BLOG: Shock and resignation grip the Moscow suburbs

MOSCOW BLOG: Shock and resignation grip the Moscow suburbs
The Crocus City Concert Hall. March 23, 2024 / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews March 27, 2024

Initially, Anton and his friends thought it was a drone strike. The first images they saw on Telegram channels was of the top of the concert hall on fire, with black smoke billowing out into the light-polluted sky.

Anton lives in Pavshinskaya Poyma, a district on the west bank of the Moscow River. On the east bank, a short five-minute walk away via footbridge, there is the Vegas Crocus City shopping mall, and, adjoining it, Crocus City concert hall, which was the site of Russia’s worst terrorist attack in two decades on the evening of March 22, when gunmen massacred concertgoers and shoppers and set the building on fire, causing its roof to collapse, all within 13 minutes. As of the time of writing, the death toll stands at 133.

Like many other Muscovites, Anton, the owner of an import business in his late 30s, moved here some years ago to start a family. Apartments are cheaper and more spacious in the leafy western suburban districts close to Crocus City Hall, but the heart of the city can still be reached in under half an hour on the metro.

The area attracts a lot of middle-class types – small business owners, IT professionals, engineers, media people. There are good schools and clinics, parks nearby and no shortage of restaurants, cafes, bars, gyms and other amenities. The riverbank is well-kept, with playgrounds, sports courts and a running track.

In short, it is a nice place to live. Many choose to raise children in Pavshinskaya Poyma because it is considered safe. Normally, you hardly ever see a police car roll by. On the evening of March 22, however, the flashing lights of dozens of emergency services vehicles could be seen across the river, while helicopters could be heard circling the area late into the night.

It wouldn’t have been the first time a drone exploded in the district. Last August, many were woken up in the early hours of one morning by a loud bang. Authorities said they had successfully downed a drone, with the resulting explosion smashing the upper windows of one apartment block. Fortunately, there were no injuries. But a BMW and several other European brand cars – now far more pricier for Russians than they were a few years ago – were damaged by the falling debris.

Within minutes, Anton saw the infamous video clips of armed gunmen indiscriminately shooting their way through the Crocus shopping mall.

“It was clear that this was something else. Something worse,” he says.

Someone in the local bar they were in at the time shouted out that at least 50 had been killed. Then the numbers kept rising. Faces were glued to phone screens. Few words were spoken. Messages are sent, checking if family and friends are safe.

In the aftermath, Muscovites are in shock at the enormity of the scale of the tragedy.  “This happened so close – we saw the flames from our window. We go to this shopping mall most Saturdays,” Nastya, another local resident, says, bewilderedly shaking her head. “I keep scrolling through the images of the victims.”

On March 24, which was declared a national day of mourning, thousands gathered to place flowers on a memorial outside Crocus City Hall. Nastya was incensed that some neighbours in her apartment block were drinking and playing loud music that day to celebrate someone’s birthday. She complained about them to the concierge.

The bar that Anton was in closed shortly after reports of the attack came flooding in. His group found another one that was open. The room was abuzz with the news as people there shared clips as the events unfolded. Theories as to who the perpetrators were flew unfettered. But others avoided any talk of the attack to keep it out of mind. The attack pervaded suburbia like a black miasma of doom that was hard to escape, simply because it was so close.

In that same bar, when Russia announced its first mobilisation since the Second World War in September 2022, they decided to put a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake on the television – a quiet acknowledgement that something was very wrong and changes were coming. The ballet was broadcast after the deaths of three Soviet leaders in the 1980s, and played repeatedly during the August 1991 attempted coup that precipitated the USSR’s collapse. 

The bar opened earlier than usual on June 24, 2023, when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was marching on Moscow. Customers wanted to watch that saga develop with company, over beer and shots.

There is also anger. Racism towards Central Asian migrants runs deep in Russia. And the news that the four gunmen were Tajik nationals has caused such sentiments to swell up. When their nationalities became known, the derogatory comments about Tajiks on social media came thick and fast.

“The way people blame all the Tajik nationals is the same as to blame all Germans for two World Wars,” says Polina, a lawyer who lives in the same district. “I am angry, and I don’t understand, but my anger won’t be spread to any Tajik I know or any Muslim I know.”

Theories abound about why this tragedy happened. For some, a terrorist attack perpetrated by a jihadist group is too simple an explanation. Someone must have been pulling the strings, some locals think. The Kremlin has actively cultivated a deep distrust among Russians for official explanations of events.

Others like Kostya, a newly-wed engineer who moved to the district recently, believe that trying to determine why this happened is pointless. “We will never know.” In contrast to others, he only felt apathy in response to the attack. Had it happened a few years earlier, he believes his reaction would be different. Russians, and Ukrainians, are dying in such numbers every day on the front line, he says.

IT professional Artyom shares this sense of desensitisation that is increasingly common in Putin’s Russia, where the people have little choice and feel increasingly less in control of their destinies. “The Russian people are like a frog in boiling water,” Artyom said despondently.