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FAGIN: Understanding Russia as an equal

April 6, 2017 Updated: April 6, 2017 at 4:05 pm
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Around 2:30 p.m. last Monday, in the Russian city of St Petersburg, a subway pulled into "Sennaya Ploschad" station. When it arrived at "Technologichesky Institut", dozens of its passengers were bleeding and maimed. Fourteen of them would be dead before nightfall.

I know those subway stations well. On September 12th, 2001, I was riding the metro to give my first lecture at St Petersburg Technical State University. I had stayed up the night frantically rewriting my notes. I knew my students would want to talk about something other than automata theory and programming language translation. They would want to talk about what had happened the night before. Which we did. For almost three hours.

The day after 9/11, I remember an incredible outpouring of sympathy, kindness and goodwill from everyone I met. Putin (yes, it was President Putin back then too) went on national TV to deliver a powerful message of empathy and support. I don't remember much of it anymore, but I do remember him saying "We want all Americans to know, now more than ever, that we are with you". Things were different then, I guess.

All these memories came flooding back with the news of Monday's subway bombing. "Sennaya Ploschad" station, where it appears the bomb was placed, was about a mile from my former apartment. Known in English as "Haymarket Square", it was a trading market before America even existed.

It's heartbreaking to think of it as place of murder and mayhem. But that's how Sennaya Ploschad must have been on Monday, 5,000 days give or take after I first saw it in September 2001.

Since then, terrorist acts have become so commonplace they're barely news. A few days, a week, and Monday's bombing will have faded from the headlines. Besides, what's 14 Russian lives? America lost a hundred times that many on September 11. Sure, it's a shame, but that's the world we live in now. America always takes the lead, and sacrifices more for freedom. Right?

Well, sort of. If we want to play at numbers, let's think about the Second World War. America lost about 400,000 lives in WWII. Any guesses about Russian casualties? 500,000? A million? Not even close. Try about 24 million, 60 times as many. Then ask yourself who really defeated Nazi Germany.

The point is that death and suffering are not new to the Russian soul. Russians mourn their lost loved ones with the same anguish and pain as Americans, but their history has taught them to bear adversity in a way that most Americans do not really understand. It has also taught them to be suspicious of invading outsiders, including but no longer limited to the West.

Such suspicion, sadly drives Russia's paranoid and unjust seizure of the Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine. I'll predict that despite Putin's genuine wishes for good relations with the West and continued enthusiastic cooperation in the fight against terrorism, he'll use this latest tragedy to support the continued destabilization of Ukraine and portray Russia as being surrounded by enemies all waiting to pounce.

Given all this, what can America do? With all the focus on Russian interference with the election and President Trump's business ties there, Democrats think they can make political hay by portraying Russia as "The Enemy."

That would be a mistake. Russia isn't an enemy. It is a country with different interests from ours. These interests, like those of America, springs from its unique culture, geography, and history.

Those different interests, however, shouldn't blind us to what we have in common. For all its strangeness to us, Russia is a fundamentally civilized country that finds cowardly barbaric attacks on its citizens as repugnant as we do. And while it is suspicious of America to the point of obsession, it is also obsessed with America in a way most Americans can't understand. Any efforts that allow Russia to be seen as an equal partner with America in the war against terrorism would, I think, be warmly received. Let's start with that.

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Barry Fagin is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. He spent two semesters in St Petersburg as a Fulbright Scholar in 2001 and 2009. His views are his alone. Readers can write Dr. Fagin at barry@faginfamily.net.

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