Mournful Unconcern: Russia reacts to Domodedovo

Desensitised to terror, Russians will not take long to get over the latest attack. Russian writer and openDemocracy contributor Elena Fanailova passed through Domodedovo Airport just thirty minutes before Monday’s bomb struck.

The Domodedovo terrorist attack brings to light a whole series of issues: the negligence of the airport security services; the inability of the secret services to infiltrate terrorist networks; Russian policy in the North Caucasus generally; the international and local nature of terrorism; the figures of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov; the good doctors and the surgeons; the bad taxi drivers who used the opportunity to raise their prices; the good people who went to Domodedevo to help getting the passengers away and the good train managers who let people travel for free; the not very good Mayor Sobyanin, who refused to talk to journalists; the good Medvedev, who promised to investigate the attack; the bad Putin, who promised that he would crack down on terrorists, and yet failed to do so.

At least 35 people died in the bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport. The airport is located to the south-east of the city, about 40 km from the Kremlin. Photo Demotix/Liza Azarova. All rights reserved

Several things, it seems, lie ahead. For a month or so, the public will not need to fear flying from Domodedovo airport: security will be stepped up a notch. Dark-skinned people from the Caucasus will begin to have their documents checked in the street more often. There will be another explosion of popular xenophobia, possibly leading to battles in the street. The Putin-Medvedev tandem will win the 2012 election in some form or another. (These, by the way, were expert opinions expressed on the Web. New technologies such as Twitter were particularly impressive in their ability disseminate popular reaction to the attack, and we already have video footage from the incident). 

My prediction, however, is that by the day after tomorrow, both the attack and its victims will be largely forgotten. If not by then, then certainly by next week. 

"Metaphysically, Islamist terrorism is no different from Kremlin terror, or the small-minded boss in the office: people have learnt to repress the horror and terror, to hide it away as though it has nothing to do with them" 

“Mournful Unconcern”, is the title of Alexander Sokurov’s famous perestroika-era film, and seems a pretty correct metaphor in the circumstances. Little, in truth, has changed since Soviet times: neither the level of public violence, nor the absence of any kind of serious reaction to it.  There is nothing that forces the average Russian to have strong feelings (except perhaps betrayal, gang rape or noticing the traffic police). While all Russians remember the terrorist attacks of the Putin era, it is impossible for them to experience an animal, personal sense of the danger of physical annihilation.  Metaphysically, Islamist terrorism is no different from Kremlin terror, or the small-minded boss in the office: people have learnt to repress the horror and terror, to hide it away as though it has nothing to do with them. 

This is what allows authorities to manufacture a third term in prison for Khodorkovsky, while laying a motorway through the virgin Khimki Forest. It is why those below die silently and uncomplainingly of hyperthermia and vascular complications from peat fires.  Why the middle class half-heartedly clings on for liberal signals from President Medvedev, while the nationalist wing assembles in large numbers on Manezhnaya Square (their protest quickly was quelled by the authorities who hadn’t quite worked out how to turn it to their advantage). Why radical anarchists and isolated rebels such as the Voina group find themselves in prison; and why Khodorkovsky is declared a thief. Far easier, indeed, to question Voina’s art and Khodorkovsky’s enrichment than it is to think for yourself, to stop collaborating with the authorities in order to protect your own interests. 

We have reached a crossroads. Culture and science cannot continue to operate in ignorance of politics, economics and ideology: no longer can there be abstract artistic beauty and abstract humanity through medicine. As wonderful as the gesture is, it simply isn’t sufficient to come in one's own car to offer free transport to people leaving Domodedovo. Psychologists can offer as much counselling as they like, but what is the point if the victims are doomed to a useless life? 

"We have reached a crossroads. Culture and science cannot continue to operate in ignorance of politics, economics and ideology"

We’ve been here once already, of course, seven years ago in Beslan. We realised then that our system is flawed. We recognised that small acts of personal generosity are no longer compensation for the absolute evil represented by the violence of the reincarnated Witzraor, with its growing appetite and complete lack of satiation. Simply put, empires that build themselves on violence have to go. There's no point hanging on to former glories. The exit should be an elegant, rather than a pathetic one, and a matter of personal will for every citizen of the empire. Russia must work up the courage to let the lands at the periphery go, and learn to live as a post-colonial state, rather than a post-imperial or, particularly, post-Soviet one. 

The social contract between state and individual remains along the vector “oil — good living standards — limited freedom”, with no problems if you toe the line. The only way that equilibrium will change is if there is a mass and radical refusal to cooperate with the whole system of state. This, in turn would require a union of social solidarity and social empathy (not simply an alliance of fashion, corporate interests, personal advantage or — forgive me ! — personal sympathy for the dead and wounded). How you can build such a movement is a huge issue. For the time being, the only people aligned in such a direction are Khodorkovsky, the Primorskye partisans and Voina, none of which command great support in society. And while there is a slow movement, there are still no no serious mainstream social groups aligned in support of freedom. 

I’d like to end with three connected stories. 

The first relates to a discovery I made when reporting from Beslan in 2004. I pass over the tragic part of my journalistic work, and limit myself to the observation that Islam in the North Caucasus appeared just as post-Soviet — by which I mean new-fangled, rootless and proselytising — as Russian Orthodoxy, and produces young radicals.  I was subsequently told by knowledgeable colleagues that Islam in the Wahhabi interpretation promises social equality no worse than the Communist utopia. Quite attractive for a poor youth with ideals.  And for a girl whose brothers or elderly relatives have been killed.

A second story.  In 2008, in the course of professional work following the press, I was struck by a piece in “Kommersant” newspaper describing the seizure of a house that apparently belonged to one of the Dagestan radicals.  He was 30, a historian with a doctorate specialising in traditional Islam. He was working in the Russian Academy of Sciences while editing a radical Islamist newspaper.  He, his wife and two small children were shot in their home without trial. A large quantity of literature was found in his house, but no arms and no drugs.

A third story. Yesterday I took the suburban train into Moscow from Domodedovo airport half an hour before the explosion.  I had flown in from Cairo, where I had been on a weekend break.  My companion there looked at the magnificent mosques of a city which had lost its illusions and ambitions and said “Islam should be respected: such temples to God can only be put up by a considerable force”. There were several young men with Wahhabi beards in the plane. They were accompanied by an old man, who was sitting in front of me. He was an Avar and had fought in the Great Patriotic [Second World] War.  I overheard fragments of his conversation. The man was telling the young about Stalin's deportation of the Chechens. and they seemed to be listening as though they'd never heard it before.

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PS.  I don't really want to speculate what would have happened if the plane had been half an hour late.  I would probably not have been in the waiting area, where the blast was, but the limited resources meant that I would have had to become involved – as a former doctor (the Doctor's Oath of the Soviet Union is still in force, as are international medical ethics) and as a Radio Liberty reporter.  It would have been involvement with adrenalin, but with mournful unconcern too:  you can help an individual, but you can't help people who have entered voluntarily into an unholy conspiracy/collusion.

First published in the Russian at www.openspace.ru

About the author

Elena Fanailova is a poet who lives in Moscow.  She is a laureate of the prestigious Bely Award.

Read On

Vladimir Putin & Russia's Special Services, by  Gordon Bennet, Conflict Studies Research Centre , Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, 2002

Beslan: the tragedy of School No.1, by Timothy Phillips, Granta, 2007, 291 pages

The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan hostage crises: a critique of Russian counter-terrorism, by John B. Dunlop, Ibidem Verlag, 2006, 157 pages

Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War, by Emma Gilligan, Princeton University Press, 2009, 288 pages

Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror, by Yuri Felshtinsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Encounter Books, 2007, 295 pages

More On

Major terrorist attacks in post Soviet Russia:

2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing (2011)

2010 Moscow Metro bombings (2010)

Nevski Express bombing (2009)

Moscow market bombing (2006)

Beslan school hostage crisis (2004)

Russian aircraft bombings of August 2004 (2004)

August 2004 Moscow metro bombing (2004)

February 2004 Moscow metro bombing (2004)

2003 Znamenskoye suicide bombing (2003)

Stavropol train bombing (2003)

Red Square bombing (2003)

2002 Grozny truck bombing (2002)

Moscow theater hostage crisis (2002)

Kaspiysk bombing (2002)

Moscow, Volgodonsk apartment bombings (1999)

Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis (1995)