“Real Chechnya” — this is how Muscovites sum up their experiences during the recent holiday season. Fortunately, except for routine scuffles ignited by the excessive consumption of alcohol, there was no fighting in the Russian capital.
For some reason, Chechen jihad fighters chose not to intrude on the festive mood of Mother Russia. The metaphor actually suggested not the war in the Caucasus but the overwhelming number of impromptu fireworks that were exploded all over Moscow, adding light and color to the bleak wintertime cityscape but also filling the city with combat-style roaring, rattling and hissing and even jeopardizing Muscovites’ physical well-being. Spectacular multicolored charges that normally exploded above the rooftops would occasionally shoot horizontally, severing limbs, piercing skulls and setting apartments on fire. Ignited mainly by intoxicated teenagers, the fireworks claimed 500 victims and kept medical emergency teams busy into the small hours of Jan. 1.
The emergency workers had good reason to curse not only the manufacturers of the deadly toys but also the authorities who chose not to impose any restrictions upon their use. For several hours, Moscow looked like a war zone — or like a happy, carefree city, depending on your point of view.
No private fireworks were available under the old communist regimes at all. Too exuberant for the monotonous Soviet lifestyle, fireworks were also regarded as potentially dangerous weapons — which they are. All fireworks events were state-sponsored. Sometimes Russians would travel several hundred kilometers to see the spectacular fire flowers bloom over the gloomy fortress of the Kremlin in Moscow. Of course, if one lived close enough to a military base, there was a chance that at midnight a drunken lieutenant would fire a signal rocket into the air, thus endangering his career but also causing enormous excitement in the dark, quiet neighborhood.
The first movable fireworks to reach Russia were Chinese-made. This penetration started in the late 1980s, during the years of slow and cautious rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow. Russians visiting China were buying not only fake Levi’s jeans and cheap porcelain but also petards — remarkable luxury at that time. Even the Russian police back then had no concept of such a thing as privately launched fireworks. When a friend brought a couple of charges from China in 1989, we tried them at night in downtown Moscow, thrilled and slightly scared of this explosive challenge. The mild eruption immediately caught the attention of a local policeman. He emerged from the darkness like an enraged nemesis and our hearts immediately sank. However, the question he asked me was totally unexpected.
“What have you been doing? Fooling around with a piece of tin?”
“Officer, do I look like the kind of person who would drag a piece of tin across the sidewalk?” I asked.
He looked at me in confusion. Of course I did not. I looked precisely what I was at the moment: a person who had just fired his first rocket and now was dead scared of the potential consequences.
“Right,” he muttered finally, saluted me, as he was supposed to when confronting good citizens, and returned to his solitary patrolling.
This was barely 12 years ago. Now Moscow policemen indifferently watch the grapes of fire exploding right above their heads, and their only concern is not to miss the shot of a real gun. As for the authorities, they know that Moscow is overflowing with genuine weapons, from Kalashnikovs to grenade dischargers, and could not care less about the destructive potential of fiery toys.
The current fascination with spectacular explosives tells one something about the new aggressiveness in the air (excuse the pun). Russia has always been a violent nation, but it is probably fair to say that it demands less stamina to punch somebody in the nose than to shoot a rocket that can very easily turn your eye sockets into two smoking craters — to say nothing of the eye sockets of bystanders. To deal with charges is a very macho thing — and in a culture obsessed with aggression, be it in foreign policy or in one own’s household, everything macho sells well. My 7-year-old son had somehow gotten hold of two petards and it took a lot of arguing to dissuade him from using them on the New Year’s Day. Only when he saw a misfired rocket chasing and eventually nearly killing a dog, did he grudgingly admit that it might be a good idea to drop the whole plan.
Of course, you do not expect 7-year-old boys to sit around doing embroidery while the whole city is going crazy with festive cannonades all around them. Of course, you do not expect people in the streets on New Year’s Eve to read Plato to each other. And yet there is something disturbing about this whole “real Chechnya” New Year’s thing. I admit I am slightly paranoid about violence in general and in my hometown in particular — but still, isn’t it significant that thousands of people chose to risk their health, and that of their friends and relatives, simply in order to demonstrate their manliness?
With every new leader, Russia more and more resembles a typical Third World semidemocracy, operating on the unimaginative yet reliable principle of “bread and circuses.” Bread (but not butter) is now available to everybody, in sharp contrast with the years of, say, former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule. As for circuses, these seem to be President Vladimir Putin’s specialty, what with the recent reintroduction of the Soviet anthem and red flag, his conspicuous churchgoing, his widely publicized judo feats and all the rest of his high-profile PR campaign.
This year, half a million people went to Red Square to celebrate New Year’s Eve — a rather odd demonstration of patriotism, given the general mess throughout the nation and all the associations so tangibly evoked by the place once known as “the heart of world communism.” A circus — sure. But how innocent are circuses? Gladiators and lions may have useful opinions on the subject.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.