Tragedies too normal for outrage

The Baltimore Sun

Moscow -- When Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in October, Vladimir V. Putin called it - albeit after his characteristic few days of silence - a "tragic death."

When former spy Aleksandr Litvinenko was fatally poisoned with a dose of radiation last month, the Russian president said, "A death of a man is always a tragedy and I deplore this."

The September killing of two men in Russia's north in a brawl sparked by ethnic hatred brought a similarly formulaic response.

"When people are killed," Putin said in a recent nationally broadcast dialogue with the public, "then the situation automatically becomes the tragedy of tragedies - the greatest tragedy."

Tragedy has become a refrain in Russia these past few months. On Dec. 9, a fire at a drug treatment hospital in Moscow believed to have been deliberately set killed 46 women, many trying to escape through a locked exit and windows that were barred shut. Days before that, an Orthodox priest and his family - including his three young children - were killed in Tver, north of the Russian capital, in another presumed arson.

What is most remarkable about tragedy here, though, is that it is so relentless as to have become mundane.

"The problem is that each day something that seems absolutely disastrous happens," said Yuliya Latynina, host of a political radio program on Ekho Moskvy, ticking off another few disasters with hardly any thought at all. "From the point of view of the public, they simply cannot care too much, because these things happen every day. You get tired."

Russia is, and long has been, a nation steeped in tragedy. Through revolution, famine, state-sponsored terror and war, Russians have endured some of the most unbearable conditions and grievous suffering - the type that naturally triggers a self-insulating defense mechanism.

But the many tragedies of modern Russia and the lack of a collective response to them underscore other long-held aspects of the Russian character: fatalism, complacency and a devaluation of human life.

The last of these predates the Soviet era but was amplified exponentially during it. Individuality was all but a crime, and everyone was expendable, for any cause or no cause at all.

"During this tragic, horrible epoch, dozens of millions of people were killed, died from hunger," said Andrei Zubov, a historian at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "In people's minds, the idea became embedded that the value of human life, it's quite small. Human beings were just means for reaching goals."

"Shto dyelat?" or "What to do?" Russians ask rhetorically with a resignation intoned the way only they can. The answer is implied: Nothing. It's as if society has decided that the price of social engagement is energy spent - and wasted.

There is a saying here, attributed to the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1938: "In Russia every path always leads to disaster." There is another, made famous by former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin: "We hoped for the best, but it turned out like usual."

"Weather, wars, violence, cataclysmic changes and oppressive rule have made them pessimists," Yale Richmond, a longtime foreign service officer, writes of Russians in his book, From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians.

"Russian pessimism contrasts with American innocence and optimism. Americans expect things to go well and become upset when they do not. Russians expect things to go poorly and have learned to live with misfortune."

Violent death in Russia is absurdly common. There are killings that make international headlines: those of Litvinenko, Politkovskaya and Andrei Kozlov, deputy chairman of the Central Bank, a reformer who was gunned down in September. But far more barely register here. A North Korean was fatally beaten last week in the far eastern city of Vladivostok. A 17-year-old Chechen student on his way home from judo was fatally stabbed in a Moscow metro station last month. A week earlier, the English-language Moscow Times reported, police found the chopped-up bodies of two people, in plastic bags, on a man's balcony outside the city.

All of this raises the question: Where is the outrage? Some blame the media - above all the major TV channels, from which the vast majority of Russians get their news - for their unpenetrating, pro-Kremlin coverage. In the world of these networks, the killing of a journalist like Politkovskaya makes news for a single night, or maybe two. Ongoing atrocities in Chechnya - and, sometimes, seemingly even Chechnya itself - do not exist.

"The Russian people are not well-informed," said Eduard Limonov, whose radical National Bolshevik Party has perfected the art of outrage as stage show, through antics that have included hurling eggs and tomatoes at politicians, seizing the reception area of a presidential administration building and hanging a banner from the Rossiya hotel proclaiming, "Putin, Quit Your Job."

Others say Russian resignation stems from a lack of faith in the nation's institutions - like parliament, police and the courts - which are supposed to protect the public but far more often take advantage of it. If it's a foregone conclusion that there will be no justice, what, then, is the point of seeking it?

But history, in many ways, continues to hold the Russian consciousness captive.

Richard Lourie, the translator, author and observer of Russia, once wrote in the New York Times Book Review of the Russian word normalno, which is typically what Russians say when asked how they are; it translates literally as normal, or regular. But they likewise say it about situations that, to a Westerner, might arouse joy or grief.

"It is a wistful, ironic word, containing all the pain that came before and all the hope of what might yet come to pass, the great dream of the present, a 'normal' society," he wrote.

For all the times he has uttered the word tragedy of late, Putin himself can be the epitome of stoic and unemotional. When Larry King asked him in a 2000 interview what happened to the submarine Kursk, whose loss meant the death of all 118 people on board, the president famously replied: "It sank."

None of this is to say Russians, as a people, are unfeeling, or uncaring; they are neither. Children play hopscotch in the park. Couples flirt shamelessly on the subway. Dyedushki, or old men, collect pretty leaves on autumn walks. Russians can love life, albeit in their own, often reckless way (the only two groups of people on Moscow's streets on Sunday mornings are those attending church and those heading home from a Saturday night out).

It's just that Russians, who have struggled for so long in a world of corruption, secrecy, suffering and hostile power, have responded in part by turning their backs on a dangerous world - and turning to their families and friends instead.

The Russian government's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, called the recent fire in Moscow - in a building that had been cited for safety violations before - what it was: a horrible tragedy. "But, unfortunately," he went on, "such tragedies have been happening all too often in this country."

He is right. Sadly, a whole culture of them has minimized the impact of individual, painful turns of fate - the next of which will arrive all too soon.

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