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Putin’s Theater of the Absurd

Vladimir Putin
By Tuesday, it had become clear how the Kremlin was going to spin the worst terrorist attack on Russian soil in 20 years. Photo: Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
March 26, 2024

On Friday evening, a small group of heavily armed men stormed the Crocus City Hall mall and entertainment complex and began gunning people down before setting fire to the theater where over 6,000 concertgoers had gathered for a sold-out rock show. As smoke began to fill the air, dozens of victims rushing for the exits discovered a horrible truth: as with many emergencies in Russia, several life-saving doors were closed and stairwells led not to freedom but dead ends. By the time rescuers finally arrived, they found bodies clustered in the bathrooms and the stairwells, where they had been frantically, hopelessly calling for help. As of Tuesday morning, at least 139 people were dead, with an unknown number unaccounted for among the ruins.

By Tuesday, it had also become clear how the Kremlin was going to spin the worst terrorist attack on Russian soil in 20 years. It took Vladimir Putin nearly 24 hours to speak to his people in the wake of this calamity, but when he did, in a taped speech on Saturday, he made sure to blame Ukraine. The four suspects who had been caught—and tortured—had been fleeing toward the Ukrainian border, Putin said, where “a window” was being opened for them, ostensibly to escape arrest. (How would they get past all the Russian soldiers and border guards? Putin left that part unanswered.)