Moscow, an uneasy city.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 1 2004 6:42 PM

Dispatch From Moscow

In my Russia, the terrorists are winning.

When my best friend's wife called me in the middle of the day yesterday, my heart sank. I was staying home to work on a story, and I wasn't expecting any calls. Besides, my friend was supposed to be in the air, having taken off that morning from the Domodedovo airport of terrorist fame, on the Tu-154 plane of terrorist fame, on the Sibir airline of terrorist fame. One of this company's other Tu-154s had blown up in the air a few days earlier, less than an hour out of Domodedovo. My friend and I had been exchanging morbid jokes about this for a couple of days. We'd each pointed out that the old Russian adage about a bomb never hitting the same spot twice had been debunked (there had been two planes). "At least," I'd said, "no one's ever been blown to pieces on the return flight."

As it turned out, my friend was fine, more or less—he'd been sitting in a plane on the runway for hours, apparently because of some new threat or rumor or fear. His wife just happened to call with a professional question.

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I went back to work for a few hours—I was writing the cover story for the weekly magazine where I work. I was interviewing someone by instant messenger when my interlocutor suddenly disappeared from the screen. She came back about 30 minutes later, apologizing; she had been on the phone trying to reach her parents in Beer-Sheva, Israel, where a bomb had just gone off. They were fine, she said, adding that she would now appreciate the distraction of continuing the interview.

Working at home proved difficult. The kids were especially loud because their grandmother was in town. My mother-in-law had come from St. Petersburg especially to see 7-year-old Vova off to school. Sept. 1, known in Russia as the Day of Knowledge, is the first day of school across the country, and a first-grader's first day is usually celebrated with some fanfare. My daughter Yael, who is almost 3, was trying to compete for her grandmother's attention, showing her a photo album she has recently uncovered. It contains her birth and baby pictures, and it starts with a classic photo of the mother ridiculously pregnant, about to burst. I am naked in the picture, standing in a New York hotel room. The date in the lower-right-hand corner is 09-11-01, and lately the fact that it's the first picture in my daughter's album has been giving me the creeps. The photo was taken minutes before I found out that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers, a few blocks away.

I wedged my last batch of phone calls in that short bath-and-tooth-brushing interval after supper and before bedtime reading. This was when someone  told me about the explosion in Moscow. Eight dead (now the body count is up to 10), 40 wounded. What knocked the wind out of me was the location: If I hadn't stayed home from work, I would have been driving past that very spot a few minutes earlier, or a few minutes later, or right when the bomb went off. I made one more quick call to assign a reporter.

Vova was asleep on the top bunk and Yael was still trying to get comfortable on the bottom one, where I'd agreed to keep her company for a bit. She extracted a fuzzy ball from under the blanket.

"Where does this go?" she asked.

"I'll set it on the floor right here, by the bed," I said.

"But what if a strange man comes and takes it?"

"This is our house," I said. "There are no strangers here." I felt like I was lying. Not that I think strangers will be breaking into our house to steal Yael's fuzzy ball, but I was trying to impart to her a sense of safety that I didn't have. Safety just then would have felt like the usual nighttime low buzz of things left over from the day, already fading into irrelevance. Instead, in my mind I was composing a chart.

We have moved out of the city—good. Vova will be going to school outside the city—also good. But that means a daily drive on the crowded beltway—bad (lots of people, good terrorist target). If we move back to our city place, we'll hardly have to drive or use public transportation—good. But we'll be right in the center of town, where there are lots of crowds and traffic jams—bad. What's the point? How in the world can one devise an escape when I could simply have been driving home from work today? I can't keep up.

Once Yael was asleep, I got on the phone to my colleagues. The piece I'd been writing all day was now irrelevant, and I was trying to come up with a new cover story. It's difficult with a weekly. Last week, I'd called in favors to make sure I could get someone to the scene of a bus-stop bombing in the south of Moscow (four people injured). The next day I scrapped the resulting piece, because the two simultaneous plane crashes, with over 90 people dead, had overshadowed everything. Now the magazine we put to bed last week wasn't even out yet, and here was another tragedy, already doomed to obsolescence in days or even hours. I can't keep up here either.

This morning we all drove to Vova's school. It's a small private school located in a guarded, gated community just outside Moscow, and I've never been happier about it. It was probably the only school in the city, or even the country, that didn't have police and security guards posted at the door. If Vova hadn't screamed ecstatically on the drive to school every time we saw a truck full of soldiers, I may even have forgotten about terrorism for a bit.

After about an hour, the festivities at the school were over, and I got in the car to drive to work. Crossing the Moscow River on the outskirts of the city, I saw a battleship docked at the river port, where sightseeing boats usually depart. A few minutes later, the radio news announcer interrupted her report on the aftermath of yesterday's bombing to say that in southern Russia, not far from Chechnya, a school had been seized. One hundred and thirty-two children and an undetermined number of adults were being held hostage. On the way in, the terrorists had shot the school security guards and the policemen posted there for the Day of Knowledge.

Masha Gessen is deputy editor in chief of Bolshoy Gorod, a Moscow weekly.

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