Return of babushki and pogroms

Concerns about terrorism have brought back Soviet-era activities to

Russians are mobilizing to combat the enemy within, which they identify as Islamic terrorism. But human rights groups say it's possible that the real enemy is themselves.

Six apartment bombings in less than a month have killed nearly 300 people and driven millions of city-dwelling Russians to the verge of panic. In a few short weeks, terror has transformed Moscow into a police regime in which darker-skinned ethnic Caucasians live in fear of summary arrest, and self-styled "house committees," keep close tabs on all tenants, in a throwback to Soviet days.

Authorities were forced to shut down a special telephone hot line in Moscow last week after it was jammed by callers ready to report on the suspicious activities of neighbors and the movements of strangers in their neighborhood.

House committees, usually headed by military veterans, have sprung up in every apartment block to organize grass-roots security measures. However, experts say all this does not signal a return of Communist-era totalitarianism to Russia - at least not yet.

"Fear rules in Moscow just now, and it is not wrong for people to organize to protect themselves," says Yelena Rudaya, of the Institute of Rus-sian History in Moscow. "This is not like Stalin times, when the state brainwashed people to spy on their neighbors on behalf of a global ideology. This has real causes.

"Yet people's minds can be corroded by fear, and their expectations lowered by living under constant tension like this. It's not healthy," she says.

No. 23 Gugonniye Vorota, in the southeastern Moscow district of Kuzminki, is a 14-story prefabricated box like dozens of others around it. Gulyanova Street, where a huge bomb destroyed a block of flats on Sept. 8, is barely a mile away. "The blast shook our windows and woke us up. We knew some sort of catastrophe had happened," says Galina Novosvetskaya, an engineer who has lived here for nearly 20 years. Within days of the blast, tenants had set up a house committee.

Three elderly women - the fabled Russian babushki - take turns sitting at the building's sole entrance to question, and sometimes search, unfamiliar visitors.

"It's really a pain how officious they are," says Ms. Novosvetskaya. "Every guest is detained by them, and asked all sorts of stupid questions. You can't tell them to mind their own business.

"But I have to say, for the first time in my life, those old ladies make me feel safer."

In Soviet times, the babushki were collectively known, half-jokingly, as "the Voice of America" - meaning they knew all and broadcast it far and wide. In post-Soviet times greater personal freedom has led most people to thumb their noses at them. But recent events have forcibly restored the prestige and the community need for the kind of indefatigable vigilance that only babushki have the numbers, time, and energy to mount.

Vera, a World War II veteran who declined to give her last name, sits at a little table inside the entrance to 23 Ulitsa Donskaya, a nine-story building in Moscow. Last week, most residents agreed to pay 50 rubles (about $2) each per month for her and two other older women to sit at the entrance around the clock. This means an extra 1,000 rubles ($45) per month for Vera, about the same as her pension.

She says, "A few understand that they [terrorists] are trying to destroy us, and want to do something. But too many are just ... careless people who can't understand the country is in danger."

Though it remains unclear who exactly is behind the terror offensive, circumstantial evidence and Russian ethnic prejudice point to Chechen or Dagestani Islamic rebels fighting to wrest the Northern Caucasus from Moscow's rule. "The anti-Caucasian mood has always been present here, but it is much stronger after the bombings," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "The media and some politicians are whipping up hysteria, which can lead to very dire consequences for Russian society."

The government's response to the crisis has been to dispatch thousands of troops to the Caucasus region in an attempt to seal off Chechnya. Chechen officials have accused the Russian military of bombing civilian villages in the republic, a charge Russia denies.

Russian troops and police have also been sent to sweep apartment buildings, search vehicles, and make random document checks. To date they have rounded up more than 20,000 "suspects" in Moscow alone, mainly darker-skinned Caucasians. The main charge used against the detainees is violation of Moscow's propiska regime, under which "guests," even from other parts of Russia, must register to live in the city.

"I am a Georgian, I am a Christian. It makes no difference to the police," says Dato Suradze, a fruit vendor who says he has been arrested three times in the past week. On each occasion, he claims, police have roughed him up and extracted a large bribe. "There is no work in Georgia, but most of my friends are going back there now. I'll probably leave too," he says.

Human rights activists warn that the racist bias of the security measures presents a more pressing danger to Rus-sian democracy than the vigilante actions of house committees. "These bombings have been used as a pretext for pogroms against Caucasians like nothing we have seen before," says Vladimir Oyvin, deputy chair of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent monitoring group. "It has nothing to do with increasing security in the country. In fact it is a huge danger. Christian Russians are being pitted against Muslim Russians, which can lead to the breakup of this country. "It's so easy to cultivate hatred, and so hard to put a stop to it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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