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Letter from Russia

How our former enemies view the attacks

I gave my first lecture as a visiting professor of computer science at Russia's St Petersburg Technical State University two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Russian students--particularly computer science majors--are always looking for ways to improve their English, so the department chair had already told me that my course would be popular. Even so, I was astonished at the crowd. The room was packed, standing-room only. Under normal circumstances, I would have felt flattered.

But of course circumstances were hardly normal. The night before, I received an email from my brother, a reporter in New York City. I stayed up late translating it into Russian, and started my lecture the next day by reading it to the class. Things were all right for a paragraph or two, but when my brother described the scene of utter devastation at the World Trade Center and noted that his many friends among the missing must surely be dead, I broke down. Even in a foreign language, I couldn’t continue. The class became very quiet.

People here have been very compassionate and kind. President Putin went on live TV within an hour of the attack to deliver an address of support in solidarity with America. He said all the right things. More important, he set the mood for the country.

That mood has been reflected in all my dealings with Russians since the attack. Russians are laying wreaths at the American Embassy in Moscow. My friends and colleagues here have gone out of their way to make sure I continue to feel welcome, both in their homes and in their country. They have been extremely supportive, and even casual acquaintances offer condolences and ask about my family once they learn I’m an American. While Americans back home have been reading about international support for our country, it’s really something to experience it in the eyes of a street vendor or the handshake of a cab driver. This has been one of those events that enables us all, at least for a time, to transcend barriers of language, ideology, and culture and touch our common humanity.

I wonder how long this all will last: America has always loomed large in the eyes of Russians, in ways that most Westerners would find it difficult to imagine. America’s fate dominates the news, with no sign of waning media interest. When my Russian friends tell me how sorry they are for the attack on America, they're thinking about the America that’s the cradle of democracy, the land of prosperity, and the birthplace of the institutions that their own country, with varying degrees of success, is still attempting to copy.

Yet things are already changing: In just the past few days, people are less interested in offering condolences and more interested in knowing what comes next. Everyone I speak to, from the students in my class to the salesgirls (they’re always girls) in the department stores, want to know what the American people are thinking, what we will do in response.

When Russians ask those questions, they're thinking about a different America: America as the world’s only superpower, America as the country that can easily humiliate Russia in its spheres of influence, America as the country that sees the world as its playground and all too easily forgets the Russian experience of World War II. Reading The Greatest Generation or The Good Fight, for example, you’d think that America beat the Nazis singlehanded. The military cemeteries and monuments here suggest a somewhat different perspective.

World War II has affected Russia to a degree that Americans today will find hard to appreciate. No Russian filmmaker would have ever made Saving Private Ryan, because it would have been pointless. The history it revisited for and the feelings it invoked in Americans have been in the hearts of Russians since they were children.

Much has been made of the World Trade Center bombing as an attack on American soil. Most Russians would simply sigh and say "Now you know." We forget that America’s experience with foreign wars is a fortunate historical accident. The vast majority of countries have fought wars against foreign powers on their own soil; Russia’s experience in World War II stands out as particularly horrific.

That’s why the overwhelming national security issue for Russians for most of the last century has been guarding against a ground assault from the west. To Americans today, with the Cold War over, such a concern seems groundless, but it is unrealistic to expect the Russian mentality to change overnight. This means that Russians will be very, very nervous when the military forces of the world’s remaining superpower start operating near their borders.

When that happens, things will be very different. Russians will support the fight against terrorism because they see strong parallels with their troubles in Chechnya. (Films of the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were shown on Russian TV for three days after the World Trade Center attacks). But any hint of long-term involvement of American forces, any collateral damage to Russian interests, even a simple loss of prestige should the Americans succeed in Afghanistan where the Red Army failed, and things could change dramatically.

Russian politics are anything but predictable. Right now, the climate for Americans in Russia is extremely supportive. Whether it remains so will depend on how the United States conducts itself in response to the events of September 11th.

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