Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 11 1999 2:39 AM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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I dreaded going home to Moscow. Five weeks ago, I left a country frothing at the mouth in the biggest nationalist frenzy in anyone's memory. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia made Russians feel humiliated for having a country that no longer carries any weight in international politics. The humiliation, masquerading as pan-Slavic solidarity, translated into aggression, which translated into demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy, which turned violent, and into young men showing up in droves to sign up as volunteers for the Yugoslav Army. The Yugoslav embassy in Moscow was besieged with potential volunteers when I was there getting my visa, and when I came home, I saw hundreds of men crowding around Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party headquarters, just up the street from my house.

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When I imagined returning home, I dreaded seeing these young men, high on newly reinvented nationalist rhetoric, living proof that their kind of politics will not die off with the Cold War generation. I was also afraid of facing the same thing I experienced during the war in Chechnya: discovering that people I am used to thinking of as kindred spirits hold views that I consider unconscionable. I envisioned heated discussion at every kitchen table and in every office--something Moscow experiences with every political crisis--and I envisioned losing my temper trying to prove that, while it is wrong, in human terms and in strategic terms, to bomb people, it is also wrong to support Serbs because of some imagined ethnic or religious bond, or to write off Albanians as underdeveloped violent mountain dwellers (this delicious bit of ethnic stereotyping was transferred instantaneously from the Chechens to the Kosovars).

When I returned last week, I found the city empty, as it usually is during the holiday that starts on May Day and flows into the Victory Day celebration on May 9, with barely a workday in between. I found the city calmed: There were no more demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy, no crowd in front of Zhirinovsky's headquarters. I did have a few conversations of the sort I feared--one acquaintance asked, "But aren't the Albanians just the same as the Chechens?" thereby taking the discussion back a few giant steps--but most of the conversations I've had were colored by the seasonal nationwide rumination on the topic of war and peace.

In the 54 years since the end of World War II, Russia has had at least five armed conflicts, invading other countries three times. One of these wars, the one in Afghanistan, lasted nearly 10 years. Still, the word war in Russian, when used without a modifier, can mean only one thing: the World War II. More than 26 million Soviet citizens died in that war, so there is not a single family in this country that did not lose someone (my own maternal grandfather was killed in 1942, leaving my grandmother a 22-year-old widow with a 3-month-old). Lucky families are the ones whose members were maimed but not killed (my paternal grandfather was disabled in the war). Stalin fought that war as only a dictator could, erecting human shields composed of the young, the infirm, the unarmed, sending out poorly equipped, undertrained troops, ultimately winning because of the sheer numbers of desperate human beings he was willing to sacrifice. Still, Victory Day continues to be the only unambiguous, untarnished Russian holiday (out of an arsenal of some 70 federal holidays).

The symbolism in which Victory Day is steeped, though, is anything but unambiguous. Perhaps the most common postwar saying, which always floats to the surface in times of crisis and around Victory Day, is "Whatever happens, as long as there is no war." In a country that survived the loss of more than 10 percent of its citizens as well as years of hunger during and after WWII, this sentiment is perfectly understandable. Aided by state-enforced denial, the saying has even survived the various bloody upheavals of the last 54 years. Since I returned from the Balkans, I have heard it a number of times: Now that the first wave of outraged solidarity has passed, a lot of people are most afraid that the Balkan conflict will lead to another war of the sort that can be mentioned without a modifier--a world war. As for wars that take an adjective--the Chechen War, for example--in the time I was gone, about 20 Russian soldiers were killed around the Chechen border, but this has hardly made the news.

In Soviet times Victory Day was primarily an occasion to showcase the country's military might. The Victory Day parade through Red Square marched on for several hours, and included not only troops of every sort but also tanks, missiles, and other military technology. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, financial difficulties and a less-aggressive state posture have conspired to cut the military parade out of the Victory Day menu. But, humiliated by NATO's disregard (and by the apparent inability of several Black Sea Fleet ships to make it as far as the Adriatic), this year Russia held the first military parade in Red Square in eight years. Fortunately, in the intervening years the city reconstructed a building, razed in the 1920s, that now makes it impossible for large vehicles to enter the square--so the parade was limited to about 5,000 marching troops.

The re-militarization of the holiday was not the only indication that the mood I found in Moscow is a temporary calm, a valley between the high of the beginning of the Allied operation and the next escalation in the Balkans or, more to the point here, the December parliamentary election, which will reignite the nationalist flame. The non-state-sanctioned Victory Day demonstrations were even more worrisome. My paternal grandmother, who fled Poland in 1939 and whose father died in Majdanek and whose fiancée died in the Bialystok ghetto, came out of her house in the center of Moscow on Victory Day and saw people marching with swastikas on their flags and their sleeves. It was an opposition demonstration, about 5,000 strong, according to police reports. Communist Party leader Genady Zyuganov was marching at the head, among red-flag-carrying comrades, but various other parties, including neo-Nazis, were following right behind. They marched to Lubyanka, the secret-police headquarters, and held a rally there. The speeches touched briefly on Victory Day and, more substantially, on Yugoslavia, by way of establishing a common ground, but focused on the upcoming parliamentary election. One of the speakers, Albert Makashov, an army general known for his outspoken anti-Semitism, called on his supporters to make sure "people with two passports" did not get into Parliament, meaning that non-ethnic-Russians, who may claim alliances with other countries, should be purged from politics.

As the rally was breaking up, when only 400 or 500 remained, a scuffle broke out in the square. Three young men with close-cropped hair tried to wrestle the megaphone from an older man who was reciting his war-themed poetry. His listeners, mostly middle-aged and older, screamed that the young men clearly had no culture. The boys took out their documents and started waving them around. As it turned out, they were 18-year-old conscripts, serving in a military unit of the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations, who were to be shipped off to Yugoslavia with a humanitarian-aid convoy the next day. They were drunk on their last day off, and they came to find support and admiration. The older people screamed, "Anyone going to Yugoslavia is a hero! You are uncultured, and you are making it up! They wouldn't send people like you to Yugoslavia!" The boys were chased off.

It is an abstract, glorified vision of war that feeds their kind of aggressive nationalism. A generally revised vision of history helps as well. I wandered to the edges of the rally, where a dozen people were each selling a variety of swastika-decorated publications, including one that accused Clinton of being Hitler-like (that's bad, though the swastika has been rehabilitated) and one, a newspaper called I Am Russian, with a banner headline, "Makashov Has Stalin's Kind Eyes." I was tempted to buy it, but I didn't dare: I was already getting stares--Russians can identify my features as Jewish from 100 yards (if only they knew that their beloved Serbs, like all Southern Slavs, are generally dark-haired and often dark-eyed, making the Balkans the only place where I actually pass for a "real" Russian). Earlier in the rally, a colleague from a television channel that belongs to the same (Jewish-owned) media group as my magazine was roughed up just for trying to film.

There was another rally on Victory Day as well, one organized by the liberal Young Russia movement to call for the country to keep its armed forces out of the Balkan conflict. That one drew 30 people, mostly around 30 and under. The opposition rally attracted the 50-ish crowd. As for war veterans themselves, the unusually cold weather probably prevented most of them from venturing outside, where, by tradition, young people usually give flowers to anyone who is wearing the medals--as veterans do on Victory Day. I saw only one veteran in the street--or, rather, in an underpass. Small and stooped, she stood, her chest covered with medals, a bouquet of flowers in one hand, the other stretched out, begging for change. The average pension in Russia is hovering around 10 dollars a month; for Victory Day, Moscow gave all veterans who have Hero of the Soviet Union medal--the highest military honor--a one-time payment of under 10 dollars.

I spent the evening with my family, including my two grandmothers. We talked about war and drank to peace. The next day, I sorted through wire reports of the Victory Day celebration. There had been military parades all over the country. In southern Russia, very close to the Chechen border, there was even a war show, complete with a mock battle. During a stabbing scene, a wooden plank that the soldier being stabbed was wearing under his shirt for protection snapped, and he died. Then someone apparently accidentally covered a mock grenade with a wooden box, turning it into a real bomb. Thirteen people were injured. It didn't make headlines: Whatever happens, as long as there is no war.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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