A familiar enemy
By Anna Arutunyan

I emigrated from Russia with my family when I was seven. Both of my parents became American citizens, and even though I kept returning to Moscow, my footing was really in the United States. Every time I took a long trip to Russia to visit friends and relatives, to study for a year my parents urged me not to give up a pending passport and a pending education. America, for them, was a safe harbor, and every time we heard new reports about deaths in Russia’s war with Chechnya whether in battle or as a result of terrorist attacks on Moscow and other cities we would collectively wince

Terrorism is a touchy issue for Russians, who have struggled for years in the conflict with Chechnya while the West relentlessly criticized them for human rights violations because they were cracking down on the Islamic fundamentalist sect of the Wahhabists. Wahhabism, founded in the early 18th century by the Arab Muhammed ibn Wahhab and considered heresy by the majority of Islamic leaders, holds almost official status in Saudi Arabia, and is an almost overused word in the Russian media. Chechnya’s Russian federal leader Akhmed Kadyrov wanted to ban the sect in 1999, in response to allegations that Chechen terrorist leader Hattab the same one considered to be linked to bin Laden was a Wahhabist.

The name bin Laden has been familiar to us for years, long before his face began appearing on Wanted posters all over New York. So perhaps Russians know more than they should about Wahhabism, and at the same time not enough. But they have also been living in an area where these kinds of struggles have reached back for centuries. Leo Tolstoy’s account of real-life Chechen militant Shamil, in his novel Hadji Murat, differs little from recent news accounts of terrorist leader Shamil Basaev. And though the word "terrorism" didn’t exist in the 13th century during the Tartar-Mongolian raids, Russia is still recovering from the damage.

So while most immigrants to America are striving blindly to convince themselves that this country is still a "safe harbor," Russians in Russia are having strange reactions. The initial one was of horror and sympathy. Even though hundreds of people flocked to the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1999 to splatter it with paint, in protest against the U.S. attack on Belgrade, now people flocked to bring flowers and candles to a building many Russians, especially those who had tried to get visas, cringed at while passing. One group of youths came with a poster saying, "Remember Belgrade." But the general reaction was that America the safe harbor no longer existed. My husband summed it up pretty well when he said that America had suddenly "acquired a human face" for those parts of the world still struggling with history.

My father, a programmer, has lived in New York for thirteen years. He worked at Deutsche Bank, on the fifth floor of tower two. Since he immigrated, he has been back to Russia twice each time realizing that America was the only nation he could live in.

He was on the first floor when the second plane hit, and he ran. He walked home, and didn’t want to talk about it when I finally reached him by phone. Later that day, all he said to me was, "Didn’t think we’d live to see that."

Later he said something else: "Can you believe how we ever ended up here, in this city? Can you believe that was us they were bombing, us?"


Anna Arutunyan is a journalism student at NYU.