A Russia united by more than fear
MOSCOW — Many people - President Vladimir Putin chief among them - have called for Russian unity in facing the danger of terrorist attacks. Indeed, it feels as if Russians have grown considerably united - united in fear, as terrorism has escalated in the past two weeks with the school hostage massacre in Beslan in the southern region of Ossetia and the suicide bombings at a Moscow metro station entrance and aboard two airliners.
But a unity in fear will not lead to any positive change - and change is what we need, both politically and culturally.
Yet the fear can be all-consuming, and hard to overcome day-to-day.
My 19-year-old son, not a timid person normally, tried four times to enter a metro station on Friday and was driven out by anxiety each time. He finally decided to take a taxi. An elderly woman I know told me she started instinctively choosing the last car on the Metro train - in a half-conscious calculation that terrorists wanting the most victims possible would choose the front of a train for an attack.
In the faculty lounge at the school where I teach, a colleague started to discuss different methods of jumping out windows and how to help children do it.
The Ossetia tragedy - in which at least 338 people were killed, half of them children - is a turning point for Russians. The conflict with Chechnya, the Muslim region seeking independence, has gone from a decade of civil war isolated on our southern borders - and on the fringes of many Russians' daily concerns - to an all-out assault on our hearts, minds, and homes. Vague fear has become a tangible daily horror for us.
One kind of horror is watching half-naked, terrified, dying, and wounded children on television. Another is the growing realization that our authorities seem to be totally ineffective at protecting us. And it is this point that regularly causes our faculty lounge to erupt in shouting matches. Normally reasonable people say that the only way to guarantee our security is for authorities to retaliate against Chechnya in the toughest possible way. And when anyone raises the point that it is just this kind of behavior - war crimes and abuses of human rights - that may have caused the separatists to radicalize in the first place, that person is called a terrorist sympathizer.
Another turn these discussions often take points up the utter ignorance of who "Russians" and "enemies" are. As the crisis unfolded last week in Ossetia - part of the Russian Caucasus - some colleagues asked: "How could these people attack their own kind?" They think Chechens and Ossetians - both ethnic Caucasians - are the same. They are not. Chechens are mostly Muslim, Ossetians are mainly Christian, for example; and they speak completely different languages, in addition to their adopted Russian. The very simple idea that terrorists do not care about any people - Chechen, Ossetian, Russian - does occur to those who would place blame on an entire people rather than on individual terrorists.
The fears and misunderstandings are made worse by the fact that few Russians believe news reports and official statements. The government's woefully off-base initial estimates of fewer that 300 hostages in Beslan only reinforced this lack of credibility and increased wild speculation. Any idea - cynical, silly, or strange - seems credible in this atmosphere. Many people I know, for example, are convinced that the two airliners that went down in late August were shot down by our own missiles because the planes had been hijacked and were headed for President Putin's Black Sea vacation home. The planes were proven to have been blown up by two Chechen women on board.
Likewise, as we watched the unfolding violence in Beslan on TV, my family erupted in great debate. My mother and my daughter's boyfriend were convinced that Russian federal forces were going to storm the school, in spite of promises not to. My son and I argued with them, giving the government credit for thinking through a more pragmatic approach and wanting to save as many people as possible. But who will ever know the whole truth? It's not likely we'll have our own version of the critical findings of America's bipartisan 9/11 commission to inform us.
The political situation is tragic and harder to control than our personal approach to the problem. A psychologist on TV advised: "Just go on living your lives." But he did not explain how. As for myself, I try to find consolation in work, family, friends, and students. Through the fog of public hysteria, I see many of them trying to behave honestly and independently. I know they try to fight feelings of revulsion against a world that has provided fertile ground for terrorism.
I know the thoughts of individuals - isolated from the public hysteria - can change through education. As a coordinator of an educational project, "Mosaics of Culture," an effort to teach multiculturalism and tolerance in public schools, I've been a part of a diverse group of Russians - from Ossetians to Tatars and peoples of the Far East of Russia. The textbook we're writing - a multicultural approach to teaching history - is near completion. And a seminar of educators from all over Russia and experts from abroad who helped us are having a long-planned meeting this week. It is a controversial gathering, given last week's hostage crisis.
Multicultural teaching is practically unknown in Russia, where all history curricula and texts focus on ethnic Russians and the Russian state. Our project has combined the traditional curriculum with material showing that, in fact, Russia has been multicultural from the beginning, with more than 100 different peoples living across its 11 time zones for centuries. How to present this varied material in interesting and challenging ways that would not become a provocation was a great problem for us. That's what this week's meeting has long been planned to do: try the material out on a gathering of Russian teachers and experts and see how it goes over. It couldn't be a better time.
In this moment of public fear and hatred aimed indiscriminately at everything different, the project feels monumentally important for a population grasping for something, anything that will offer hope.
Of course, one book, one project cannot change the world; but still, it offers hope of a small step toward uniting us in more than just fear, but a better life.
• Tamara Eidelman teaches history at a Moscow public high school. She is on the board of the Moscow history teachers' association and is coordinator of the international educational project "Mosaics of Culture," which promotes multicultural tolerance in history education.