We Are All Russians!

A week ago today, forty people were killed by suicide bombings in the Moscow subway. Since then, no flowers or candles or messages of condolences have been placed in memorial at the front gates of the Washington, DC, Embassy of the Russian Federation. Unlike in the aftermath of the assault in Beslan or after the bombings in Madrid and London, when flowers, messages, and outpourings of compassion, sympathy, support, and love were spontaneously brought by individuals and left at the doorsteps of the embassies of each nation, this time, there is no memorial.

While it is possible that the embassy staff have decided to take any items left in condolence inside, the absence of a makeshift memorial has been noticeable and stirs questions concerning the nature of contemporary relationships between our two nations and the ways the American public relates and responds to horrific events abroad. For instance, would we ever see a sign today that reads, “We are all Russians?”

Under the shadow and magnitude of the attacks of 9/11, “terrorism” is often portrayed as a uniting force among nations and populaces who are commonly threatened by those who would target civilians for political gain. In this context and given the history of American-Russian relations, how is the absence of a makeshift memorial this week significant? Does it reflect the breadth of the chasm that remains between us, or is it simply symptomatic of an American public that is, for lack of better terms, getting used to hearing about “terrorism?”

In the US, domestic partisan divisions have taken to nasty tones, and that may offer clues to these questions. Ever since the 2008 Presidential campaign, political language has been saturated with fear-inducing references to brutal historical experiences, including those inflicted by Stalin’s forces. President Obama has been called a Communist, a Socialist, a Fascist, and a Terrorist by many of his political detractors, and these trends are revealing of an unfortunate potency that Cold War enemy images continue to carry in modern American political culture. But does anyone really understand what these words mean anymore? Do they bear any connection to contemporary “American” views toward Russia?

It is safe to say that to the vast majority of the American people, Russia is an unknown country. The Soviet Union has not existed for twenty years, and yet still the peoples of each country have very limited opportunities for cultural exchange and interaction with one another. Cold War stereotypes remain fashionably pervasive in popular American culture, whether they are in movies, television, or messages spoken from the lips of politicians, political commentators, and everyday citizens, as if antagonism toward Russia is a hallmark of American patriotism and national pride. As a consequence, political exploitation of the mirage of historical memories that are commonly associated with Cold War enmity and attitudes successfully obstructs the potential for realistically assessing what a 21st century relationship with Russia could actually look like.

Today, the Cold War is long over and now that the wars of the 21st century are burning and casting new dangers everywhere, from Moscow to Washington, it might not be such a bad idea to ask if we could all be Russian for even a moment – to empathize, to sympathize, to offer consideration and compassion, and to bring flowers and messages of condolences after horrible and violent events bitter sorrow-born hope for a more peaceful world. While there are many Americans who would cringe at the thought, “We Are All Russians,” why? War and peace are psychological as much as physical. How one thinks about relationships affects how one behaves, communicates, and manages relationships. There is much that can be learned among friends who were former enemies, and finding a basis for building understanding and empathy is extremely valuable and necessary if both countries are to reach beyond the legacies of a troubled and perilous past.

This essay offers a sincere expression of compassion, of sorrow, and of sympathy for the lives that have been lost in Moscow, and for all loved ones who grieve. Peace.

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