Monday, March 29, 2010

This morning while discussing the Moscow metro bombing, my World Issues teacher asked me—since I’m Russian—if I’d be able to give an overview of the ongoing Russo-Chechen conflict that has resulted in several terrorist attacks in the past decade. My first reaction was surprise that he’d assume my knowledge of the situation based simply on my nationality. My next reaction was the realization and embarrassment that I knew next to nothing about the conflict, despite having just written an essay for that same class on Soviet influence. (In my defense, I focused mostly on Georgia for the essay.)

When people picture Russia I guess this see this sort of Second World, rugged, half-civilized, half-corrupted country with Vodka fountains, cigarette vending machines, haggard old men and beautiful women. The reality is that Russia’s major cities, like Moscow, are not that different than New York City, or Toronto, or any other major North American metropolis. My last time in Moscow we stayed at the Marriot hotel, and out of the few restaurants we ate at, one was a Texan grill, and another was a KFC. Almost everyone speaks English. It is not uncommon to see a Peugeot or any other glorified European vehicle. And while in the West famous brands like Mercedes stick to “luxury” cars, in Russia and Europe they don’t hesitate to also design vans or buses. The differences begin to arise when you leave Moscow in your rented car and travel out to the boonies. In Russia, each city or town has a number assigned to it which appears on cars’ license plates, so those infamous Russian cops, always looking for a buck from a bribe, can tell your car is from Moscow, and by the looks of it is rented, which means your probably have money, which means they have 30 seconds to think up an excuse to pull you over and get it from you.

There have been a few situations where the Family Guy style stereotypes of Russian life have played themselves out in front of my own eyes. One was when we were driving towards Moscow through country roads, and to the side of the highway, saw an abandoned rusted tank sitting in a muddy field. Another situation I didn’t actually see because I was looking away, but my family has reiterated for me enough times that I have engraved it into my memory by sheer will and desire to have seen it. Across the street from out hotel was a fancy, upper class, restaurant and lounge, and while I wasn’t looking, out of the doors came a security guard with an automatic machine gun, followed by a couple dressed in evening clothes. They got in the car, and their “escort”, who by my family’s given description, looked more like S.W.A.T. team combatant, shut their door for them and subsequently got in on the other side himself.

The metro bombing now adds to the international fear of the subway. I remember when we visited my grandparents in Connecticut and drove with them to New York City, they refused to ride the train. If only I was still in contact with them to get their opinion on “America’s Worst Mom” Lenore Skenazy, who let her nine year old son ride NYC’s subway alone. I am earnestly surprised, that with today’s extreme daily risk-taking, from smoking to flying, anyone can be deterred from taking the train as transportation. Of the 7,000 people that ride the subway in Moscow everyday, the second largest subway system next to Tokyo, 38 died this morning, in an attack that is now getting blamed on al-Qaeda as well. What’s eerie and a shock for me is hearing names of places, such as Lubyanka station or Gorky Park—places that I until now associated with summer vacations and family photos—being talked bout in terms of casualties and damage. A boycott of the subway by Russians, or of airplanes by Americans, would be a terrorist victory indeed, for then they’d have truly negated our mobile freedom. Yes, there are risks in taking the train, or in flying, or in driving a car, but, in the words of Don Draper in Mad Men’s first episode, “You still have to get where you’re going.”

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