Moments of Silence

The striking thing about the aftermath of this morning’s bombings in Moscow was the silence. Moscow is never empty and never quiet, but by comparison today it is a ghost town. The streets are emptier of cars, the metro of passengers. That is not surprising.

What surprised me, rather, was the silence both of the public and the state. Television reports have been subdued, and by 10:30am (about two and a half hours after the news first broke) all channels had returned to their regularly scheduled entertainment. Only the Internet and the radio provided ongoing coverage. President Medvedev and Primer Minister Putin both spoke out, as did Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, but only perfunctorily: the former two to assure us that the culprits would be caught and destroyed, the latter to assure us that the metro would return to full operations by 4pm.

In most Western cities, it seems to me, after the first bomb went off the authorities would have evacuated the metro altogether. But not in Moscow. Even after the second explosion, they only closed down the central section of the red line. Most passengers on other lines would have had no idea what had happened, hearing only nondescript announcements that a section of the red line had been closed, without explanation. In the scheme of things, it seemed unextraordinary. Nor was there noticeably increased police presence, except for at the immediate scenes of the attacks — not that the police would have done any good.

Dmitri Trenin sums up correctly, in my view, the dilemma the government faces: they must be seen to do something, but there is little they can do that would be effective. Even the most well organized states, with highly professional security structures, struggle to prevent these sorts of attacks and to punish the perpetrators. And Russia is by no means well organized.

The government’s chosen solution, for the time being, seems to be avoidance: keep the conversation to a minimum, reduce exposure to the public, don’t go out on any limbs. The official story — that the attacks were carried out by female suicie bombers — is plausible (and probably true), but it is also readily accepted by Russian citizens. It forces few difficult questions. Eventually, the government may take this as an opportunity to push through further "reforms", such as the "reform" that ended direct elections of regional governors after the Beslan tragedy. Or it may not. But there will be no public discussion, no attempt to engage with citizens in a process of reflection.

The silence of the state has repercussions, however. Russians are beginning to act out. Echo of Moscow radio is reporting that ordinary citizens have begun attacking non-Slavic passengers in the metro, while the police stand idly by. By abandoning the public space and forcing the public consiousness to turn to rough-and-ready tropes, Russia’s leaders forfeit the ability to control the outcome. Were Putin and Medvedev out in the media, front and center, citizens could vent and emote at them, and the leadership could use its bully pulpit to direct the rage. Instead, the rage finds other targets, and the result will only be more violence.

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