From Russia With Schadenfreude

Having suffered through terrorist attacks of their own, residents of Moscow can empathize with Paris. But that doesn’t mean they sympathize.


It took the hundreds of theatergoers a few moments to realize that the armed gunmen shooting volleys into the air were not part of the show. A few people tried to flee, but it was too late: The gunmen had taken control of the theater and began strapping explosives to the room’s columns. They hung an Islamist flag from the stage and explained to their hostages that it was retribution for their country’s war against them and their Muslim brethren.

But it was not Syria of which they spoke, but Chechnya, and it was not the Bataclan, in Paris, but the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. It was not Nov. 13, 2015, but Oct. 23, 2002. The crowd was there not to see Eagles of Death Metal, but a play called Nord-Ost. And instead of holding the hall for a couple of hours, the Chechen guerrillas held the theater for three days, not allowing the 900 hostages to use the restroom for the duration and forcing them to use the orchestra pit instead.

Like Paris, Moscow too has known terror, slicing sharply, unexpectedly through its cosmopolitan evenings. It was hard, watching the attacks in Paris unfold, for Moscow reporting veterans not to think of the parallels with the Dubrovka Theater crisis, 13 years prior, in part because like the siege of Paris’s Bataclan concert hall on Friday night, the siege of the Dubrovka Theater too ended with mass casualties.

So when Paris exploded in terror on Friday, Muscovites imagined they knew how Parisians felt. On Saturday morning, there was a traffic jam around the French Embassy in Moscow as locals ferried flowers, stacking them on the pavement in a massive pyre of stems and petals. Others waited in line to add their mementos of empathy. Many cried, even those who said they had no loved ones in Paris. They just knew how those in Paris felt. “We are one family,” one woman told TV Rain.

But not everyone’s empathy took the form of sympathy. Many Russians took the opportunity to chide their naive French counterparts for bringing the terror on themselves. “We in Russia understand like no one else what is happening to the French today,” wrote columnist Egor Kholmogorov in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin paper. “The carnage at the Bataclan concert hall feels exactly like Nord-Ost [at Dubrovka].” He then blamed the attack on France’s “orgy of tolerance.” Kholmogorov, like several others in Russia, also blamed the attack on France’s interventions in the Middle East — a sin that was just as great as tolerance.

Alexey Pushkov, who chairs the Russian parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, took to television to declare that responsibility for the Paris attacks lay at the feet of the American coalition fighting the Islamic State. “France is paying for its active participation in the destabilization of the Middle East, as well as for its exceedingly hospitable migration policies,” wrote a columnist in Izvestia, another pro-Kremlin paper — which, the morning after the attacks, crowed about the coming collapse of the euro and French tourism. One liberal Russian observer blamed the attacks in Paris on France’s social safety net, which attracts “these wonderful people who can’t stand European civilization” and then pays them to live in it.

Even one of the Russian commandos who stormed Dubrovka weighed in, criticizing the French security forces for allowing these attacks to have happened in the first place.

Many Russians expressed hurt that there was no similar global outpouring of grief in the wake of the crash of a Russian-operated Airbus in the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago. Sure, sympathy with France is nice, but where were the Russian-flag overlays on people’s Facebook profile pictures in the wake of that disaster, people wondered? Some Russian socialites were attacked on social media for writing that their hearts were with the people of France: Where were their hearts on Oct. 31, when a plane full of Russians exploded in the Egyptian sky?

Some Russians, still nursing their outrage over a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that compared the crash to pornography, began their Saturday with sarcastic speculation over whether the satirical French paper would parody the Paris attacks. By afternoon, the paper had turned to triumphant harrumphing when it announced it would not. There was no apology from the Élysée Palace for the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, wrote Kholmogorov, “and so all of our expressions of sympathy, alas, have to begin with a caveat: ‘Even though you mocked the terrorist act committed against us, we really feel for you.’” (The Kremlin, it should be added, has yet to officially name the cause of the crash, which seems likely to have been an act of terrorism.)

Other Russians have offered a raft of political analyses and advice for the French. They draw on the massive political changes that have accompanied terrorist attacks in Russia, including the elimination of the election of governors and the general rolling back of media and political freedoms. “The French mainstream will shift right; there’s no doubt about it,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It doesn’t matter what the parties will be called, but they will all be operating in a different paradigm.”

Others were more prescriptive. One Russian journalist tweeted that “if the French have any pride left, the next president of France will be [far-right National Front leader] Marine Le Pen.” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the clownish leader of the Russian nationalist LDPR party, even proposed evacuating French citizens to Russia. “We need to say goodbye to France,” he said, “which will soon turn into Arabistan.”

Shrewder politicians spotted a geopolitical opportunity and tried to milk it. If the French were now in the same terror-afflicted boat as the Russians, why should they fight over details like Crimea? Why not band together and fight the common enemy? “The West needs to drop its fictitious war against ISIS and turn to real military action in Iraq and Syria,” Pushkov, the parliamentarian, tweeted. “It needs political and military coordination with Russia.” He added, “In Syria, Russia is fighting those who blew up Paris and declared war on Europe. It’s time for the West to stop criticizing Russia and create a coalition.”

Irina Yarovaya, a prominent and rabid parliamentarian who heads the Duma’s security committee, voiced a similar opinion. “Terrorism is the most important global threat for all countries, which is why we need immediate decisions and coordinated action in fighting terror,” she said. It would not be the first time that Russia has used a massive terrorist attack in the West to paper over political differences with the United States and Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to call then-President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, launching a decade of counterterrorism cooperation between Russia and the United States that seems even to have survived the recent imposition of Western sanctions against Moscow.

But there’s an unmistakable element of schadenfreude in Russians’ wizened older-brother response to the Paris attacks, and there’s also a sense that the attacks were a just punishment — for welcoming refugees, for not shuttering Charlie Hebdo, for an orgy of tolerance. Yet if terrorism is punishment, points out Masha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow, “these people don’t seem to think about which policies Russia was punished for.”

If Moscow’s experience is any indication, anger will arrive in Paris, and so will the desire for vengeance and blood. But there are limits to such comparisons. There is a fundamental difference between the inhabitants of Paris and Moscow, perhaps because of the fundamental difference between how the Élysée and the Kremlin treat the people they represent.

If the concertgoers at the Bataclan were felled by Islamic State terrorists, most of the victims at the Dubrovka died at the hands of their rescuers. Before dawn, on Oct. 26, 2002, after three days of deliberation, Russian commandos from the FSB’s Alpha and Vympel special forces units moved in. But before they stormed the theater, they pumped it full of a fentanyl-based anesthetic, which knocked out the hostages and their captors. After neutralizing the terrorists, the commandos carried out the passed-out hostages, laying them on the pavement outside and stacking some of them upon one another. Ambulances didn’t arrive for over an hour, and when they did, there weren’t enough of them, so the stacks of human cordwood were put in buses where many choked on their tongues or vomit. One hundred thirty Russian hostages died that way, an outcome that earned only a grudging apology from Putin, the man who ordered the operation.

The difference between Paris and Moscow is the difference between storming the Bataclan in a couple of hours and stacking still-living victims like firewood, between a sober public accounting of security failures and Putin’s threadbare apology to the families that lost loved ones in Dubrovka, followed by his silencing of those who questioned the Kremlin’s use of the gas. It’s not that one place is more deserving of terror, or sympathy, than the other, but that the responses to two eerily similar attacks can tell us so much about what it means to live in each city.

Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.