PHOTOGRAPH BY MAXIM SHIPENKOV, EPA
Published December 31, 2013
"A shock wave has carried away New Year's Eve Celebrations," read a headline on Kommersant.ru, the website of one of Russia's major newspapers, on Monday, a day before festivities were due to begin.
Such words were understandable. Two terrorist bombings, one at a railway station, the other aboard a crowded bus, recently rocked Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad and the site of a historic battle during World War II.
Thirty-four people died in the blasts, and dozens were wounded.
Volgograd sits some 600 miles (966 kilometers) southeast of Moscow—and 420 miles (676 kilometers) from Sochi, Russia's showcase for the most extravagant Olympic Games in history, set to begin on February 6.
News of the attacks spread quickly, prompting Volgograd residents to abandon public transport and walk. A surge in mobile phone calls overloaded networks as unfounded rumors swirled of blasts elsewhere in this city of more than a million people.
The bombings cast a pall of grief over New Year's Eve celebrations, the most important of the year in Russia. They've rattled nerves, especially in Volgograd, where two months earlier a Chechen woman had blown herself up aboard a bus, killing seven and injuring 36.
Russia's intelligence agencies still have not identified the mastermind behind the attacks, but suspicions fall primarily on Doku Umarov, a Chechen Islamist warlord who, in July, called for attacks to disrupt the Winter Olympics.
The Olympics are known to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's pet project, his chance to present Russia to the world as a modern, dynamic country.
So why strike Volgograd?
Sochi has been heavily surveilled for months, with unprecedented security measures already in place that Russian authorities say need no beefing up.
Terrorists may be hitting another city because it's easier to operate there.
The Volgograd regional governor has declared a five-day period of mourning.
In Moscow there is anger and sadness over the attacks. But there's no atmosphere of panic, no palpable fear, and few plans to cancel New Year's Eve celebrations.
For Muscovites, What Will Be Will Be
People are going about their business, buying up vodka and champagne and the liver-busting ingredients for sundry traditional Russian dishes, waiting in long lines in crowded markets, taking buses and minibuses and riding the metro.
They could be targets. Russians have lived with war and insurgency on their country's southern border for two decades now, and terrorist attacks, generally Islamist in origin and carried out in or around the mostly Muslim North Caucasus region, are a regular feature of the nightly news.
Muscovites themselves have known terrorist violence. The last three major assaults in the capital—bombings in an airport and on the metro, all claimed by Umarov—took place in 2010 and 2011.
Yet even these incidents did not appreciably disturb life in the city, where fatalism runs as deep as stoicism is ingrained. The adage "what will be will be" is a common response here to queries about frayed nerves in times like these.
When asked whether she was now worried about riding on public transportation, one Muscovite answered, "No. Terrorists can't blow up every metro car or bus in this city."
Diners at a packed restaurant last night were equally calm, preparing to party the next night, if in a more subdued manner. "All this has saddened us, but of course we'll go on with our celebrations. What good would it do not to?"
Decades of Stalinist repression and the horrific death tolls of World War II have inured most Russians—they don't panic easily.
And for a good number of Muscovites, the attacks were just a couple of many that have happened hundreds of miles away in cities near or in the North Caucasus.
One consequence of the Soviet era was a widespread atomization of society stemming from distrust: Russians, more than people elsewhere, worry about their family and friends but can seem callously unconcerned about compatriots they don't know.
The Volgograd bombings have not even prompted unusual outbursts of jingoism or calls for retribution against the large and growing communities of Caucasian Muslims found all over Russia. (Muslims account for 15 percent of Russia's population.)
Threats to the Games—So What?
It is widely assumed that the blasts were meant to scare sports fans away from the Olympics, but even purported threats to the games have not riled people up.
There has been grumbling about their cost—at $51 billion, they're the most expensive the world has ever seen—and they're regarded as Putin's prestige endeavor. But with the fizzling out of the opposition movement to Putin, political apathy has won out over indignation.
In short, in Moscow, people will go on with their lives and celebrate their holiday. Around many tables, though, toasts—somber ones, without a clinking of glasses—are sure to be made to honor victims of the terrorist bombings in a city far, far away.
Follow Jeffrey Tayler on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1.
This is terrible. It makes things very difficult worldwide with this happening. So many terrorist actions, all brought about by religious zealots. How can one look at another and know where their heart lies. It is not one ethnicity or another because these religious zealots feed on creating havoc in all countries, all ethnicities are in the mix, put in a state of terror and confusion until they are then swooped up, brainwashed and taught to go out and kill. I want so badly for this sweeping attempt at worldwide dominance by a group of people who have twisted their own religious ideals to suit their need of killing, to Stop. How can this come about? The beginning is communication. Do not be mislead by any of this as anything but evil doings and stay focused on the light that leads you. Don't forget how to pray and to reach out to each other in kindness.
It is a sad reality in the world today, that we as a 'world community' have to hear about, watch, reflect on the loss of life caused by those who want destroy our way of life though violence. We need to hold these individuals/groups accountable for their actions, seek them out and aggressively bring them to justice!
To slightly clear this up... In Russia the major holiday of the year, traditionally, is New Year. During the USSR years religion was downplayed (to put it kindly) and so Christmas (which is in the second week of January according to the Orthodox calendar) never grew a following, while New Year was always promoted by the media and their rulers. So today the main holiday is New Year... people literally start planning and preparing months in advance, generally it's a family gathering around a lavish table that's groaning under the weight of the delicacies piled upon it.
I wish Russians two things in the upcoming year, patience and wisdom... they're walking only a couple of (tiny - almost insignificant) steps away from a police-state government of a type that Orwell described in his much famous 1984, and they will need to consider their re/actions very carefully. If they can prevent total collapse of the government and/or another war then it would be a decent year. There's always room for things to get worse, let's hope they don't.
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