A series of explosions in apartment buildings here kills nearly 300 people and leaves Muscovites in shock. Everyone calls for tough measures. Although the available evidence is far from conclusive, no one seems to have any doubt about who is responsible: Chechens. A popular evening TV show asks viewers who should be "kicked out of Moscow" -- just Chechens, everybody who comes from the Caucasus or all bandits? "All those from the Caucasus" wins overwhelmingly. Callers to another program suggest that terrorists be killed "in their mothers' wombs" and that "Stalin's methods" be brought back to deal with them. Politicians seek to surpass one another in their mercilessness and resolve.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a likely candidate for president in 2000, orders that all "guests" of Moscow be put under stiff police control. The mayor's tone leaves no doubt he means all those from the Caucasus. Each guest, the mayor announces, must renew his residence registration and provide an explanation of what he's doing in the capital.
The leader of the democratic opposition party, Yabloko's Grigory Yavlinsky, says Russia must present an ultimatum to the Chechen rulers: Turn in the terrorists or we'll level your republic to the ground. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in addressing the Communist-dominated Duma, says it's time to revise the 1996 peace agreement with Chechnya, since the Chechens have taken advantage of some of its provisions to further their separatist aspirations. The legislators think that's a fine idea.
Russians may or may not believe that their national leaders have the will and skill to combat terrorism. After decades of absolute dependence on the Soviet government for their social welfare, employment, ideology, cultural needs and artistic tastes, the Russians have found themselves all but abandoned by rulers who leave them free to speak their minds and vote for parties of their choice but will not pay their wages, defend them against crime or provide simple justice in court. For the most part, they have learned surprisingly well to take care of their everyday lives without any help from government.
Russians furiously condemn the government for not taking care of them and curse those in power for enriching themselves at people's expense, but they've learned to do without state support. If instead of salaries they are "paid" in car tires, vodka or towels, they master the barter economy and opt for direct commodity trading. If the government fails to provide a reliable banking system, they convert their money into dollars and stuff it under their mattresses.
But no amount of personal endurance, patience, resourcefulness or general optimism can protect the Russian people against terrorism. There is no "hustling strategy" that will work against a truck bomb. The impoverished majority and the few new rich are equally vulnerable to these blasts.
And the sad thing is they have nobody to turn to but the national leaders who have already failed them. After the horrible explosions of recent days, people here seem willing to forget the inefficiency and corruption of the government and entrust the leadership with any use of force, be it against "guests of Moscow" or the Chechen republic.
They respond eagerly to calls for vigilance. A journalist friend who happens to have dark hair and a mustache told me he makes sure he's wearing a white shirt and tie these days -- formal dress is supposed to send a message to the police that he's not one of "those from the Caucasus" (in fact, he's Jewish).
If the city police want to kick out of Moscow "all those from the Caucasus," the public approves. People prefer not to remember that these are the same police who are universally regarded as sellouts, more often than not on some criminal's payroll, cops they would never rely on for protection.
If the prime minister wants to crack down on Chechnya, he'll have nationwide approval. The public seems to have forgotten that this same prime minister said in August that the current war in Dagestan would last two weeks. And those who embrace the idea of undoing the 1996 peace agreement seem willing to forget that the agreement was the only way to put an end to Russia's disgrace and humiliation in the 18-month Chechen campaign.
It would be good if the horror of terrorist attacks could do the seemingly impossible -- that is, make the Russian government act responsibly and effectively. And maybe the benefit of the doubt now being granted the government by the Russian people is justified. But it's more likely that a crackdown on Chechnya and "those from the Caucasus" will only result in many more lost lives, major destabilization and the instigating of the most brutal racist acts, while jeopardizing one of the precious few achievements we in Russia have a right to be proud of: our democratic freedoms.
The writer is deputy editor of Itogi magazine.