|Photos of the victims at Beslan school number 1 Sourch: Wikimedia Commons|
I was in Russia studying at St. Petersburg State University 7 years ago today when Russian security forces stormed a school in Beslan, North Ossetia in order to liberate hostages from their armed Chechen captors.
One can never be sure of Russian casualty reports, but the official number is that out of the 1,100 hostages that had been held for 3 days, at least 334 were killed. 186 of those were children. 21 Russian officers were also killed in the raid. And those 3 days of captivity were undoubtedly tortuous. People ran out of water early on. There are reports of Russian officials going in and seeing children without clothes trying to escape the heat.
A few days after the raid I remember I was sitting in a Baltika tent in Peter. (Baltika is a name of a popular Russian beer.) These makeshift huts are removed in the winter but in the summer and fall I often enjoyed sitting in them with my friends. On this particular day a group of friends and I were watching the television coverage of the siege and at some point a man who had been sitting alone in the corner finally spoke. He said, “I was there.” He didn’t say anything else and he didn’t need to. It was clear from his demeanor that he witnessed unspeakable horrors.
When I returned home to Texas from my year abroad I completed my honors thesis which framed and resolved the following paradox: How can the Russian people support President Putin and still value democratic norms? So I 1) defined a democratic norm 2) argued that Russians did indeed value democracy 3) illustrated how Putin’s policies contradicted what I believed to be a democratic norm and 4) resolved the paradox by articulating how Russians could want both Putin and democracy.
One major difficulty I had when I tried to argue that Russians valued democracy is when I came across the polling data for the Russian view of civil liberties. There is no ACLU in Russia. I’m not making a claim as to whether or not I believe wire taps to be a good or bad thing. What I am saying is that in Russia, it seems to be taken as a given that they are virtually always an appropriate solution. That assumption is not as common in America.
There are a countless number of opinions on what kind of democracy Russia has the potential to be. And people understandably despise cultural arguments that suggest there is something in the Russian soul that doesn’t appreciate political freedom.
I’ll never forget a Russian history professor I had once named Dr. Heenan. She had been in Military Intelligence for decades. She loved maps and history and historical maps. She always reminded us that democracy is a lot easier to achieve in a place like America because we’re surrounded by oceans and friendly neighbors. It’s a lot harder in a place like Russia because it is simply so difficult to defend.
Citizens of any nation will always have to make choices between freedom and security.
One reason why the Soviet Union was able to defeat Hitler’s armies was that Stalin was able to turn Russia’s economy overnight into a war machine. His republican French contemporaries were not able to defeat Hitler. Fortunately for Great Britain, the English Channel kept the Nazi’s at bay until they could regroup and fight the Battle of Britain in the air.
Dictatorships are fast. Democracy is slow.
It is important to remember that right at the beginning of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin went into hiding for about 2 weeks and nobody had any authority to act on his behalf or remove him from office. More Russians died during those 2 weeks than the total number of Americans who died during the entirety of the war.
I don’t know if Russians will always choose security over freedom, but if they do, I understand why. I was glad I was in Peter instead of Beslan, North Ossetia 7 years ago today.