MOSCOW – Mark Rankov, one of 750 hostages held by Chechen extremists inside a theater here last week, had a message for the Russian people while he was a captive: “Your TV is lying.”
Rankov, 28, wanted his countrymen to know that it wasn’t just his Chechen captors who favored holding a rally on the Moscow streets to end the war in Chechnya, as Russian television had reported. So did a number of the hostages.
Rankov contacted his friend, Olga Brukovsky, on a cell phone while the standoff was in progress. She took down his words and published them online at LiveJournal.com, a website that has become increasingly popular among Russians in recent years.
The postings drew a flurry of responses from those who were hungry for news about what was going on at the theater, which Russian security police raided on Saturday in a controversial rescue attempt that killed 117 hostages.
“He wanted as many people as possible to be informed about the hostages’ requests,” said Brukovsky, the development manager of the Russian online newspaper, Utro.ru.
It wasn’t the first time that Russians had turned to LiveJournal for the news of the day.
The site, which won a Webby this year, along with an award presented by an influential Russian Internet group, has become a digital meeting ground for Russian Internet activists, journalists and writers, many of whom post articles and commentary that doesn’t end up in the mainstream press.
“It’s quite natural to regard LiveJournal as a news feed,” said Anton Nossik, one of the founders of LiveJournal’s Russian community, and chief editor and CEO of Lenta.Ru, the country’s leading online news service.
He said the site has become an especially important source of information for people living in remote locations, such as Siberia and the Far East, where established news agencies seldom send reporters.
That was certainly the case on Oct. 23 when 50 heavily armed Chechens took control of the Moscow theater.
In the days that followed, LiveJournal became a key conduit of uncensored information on the crisis for Internet users in Russia and abroad.
In the midst of the standoff, governmental authorities prohibited the publication or broadcast of interviews with the terrorists. One television station, Moscovia, was temporarily shut down, along with the website for the radio station, Echo of Moscow, according to news reports.
While Russian authorities attempted to control the flow of information about the crisis, LiveJournal “served as a good mirror of public opinion,” said Roman Leibov, a professor of Russian literature at Tartu University.
Among the site’s contributors was Stepan Kravchenko, an Echo of Moscow reporter who witnessed the hostages’ controversial rescue attempt. The raid involved the use of a mysterious gas that killed 117 hostages in the process of knocking out their Chechen captors.
“He wrote more deeply about the victims for LiveJournal than he would ever want to share with (his radio audience),” said Nossik. “His text was quite emotional, but it also contained information not available in any media source regarding the number of dead hostages and causes of their deaths.”
Nossik added, “Half an hour before the media got its first evaluation of victims’ numbers from the authorities, Kravchenko’s had already stated the number on LiveJournal.”
At first the Russian authorities tried to hide details about the hostages’ rescue.
LiveJournal became a destination for physicians and eye-witnesses who wanted to uncover the truth about the gas, which has since been described as an aerosol version of a powerful, fast-acting opiate.
Throughout the ordeal, Olga Brukovsky continued to keep her journal on the experiences of her friend, Mark Rankov.
“Thank you, Olga,” wrote one LiveJournal user. “Thanks to you, a lot of people who don’t know Mark can feel for him – and through him – for all of the other hostages.”