The road between Russia and Massachusetts is a familiar one to me. I was based in Moscow in the early '90s as a journalist, and I work at WGBH in Boston, overseeing the public radio program "PRI's The World." Over the years, I traveled frequently between Boston and Moscow, to revisit a story that, inevitably, got under my skin.
It's difficult to describe, but every trip felt like a step through the looking glass. One reality would replace another. The certainty of life in Boston would give way to the uncertainty of a place still in the midst of creating itself. More than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is still in a state of becoming, as are all the far-flung places that once made up the Soviet empire.
Returning to Boston was always both comforting and disconcerting. Our narrative, the American narrative, is a powerful one. But there are other narratives unfolding in the world -- and some have a power all their own.
In October 2002, I was headed to the Russian capital for a week of reporting. News broke as I was en route. About 50 Chechen rebels had taken over a Moscow theater. Seven hundred people -- audience members, musicians and actors -- became hostages. The entire city, and country, was plunged into a nightmare. I arrived to a changed place, and went on to cover the siege and its troubling aftermath. One hundred and thirty hostages died; most in the controversial storming of the theater by Russian security forces.
I remember the grief of family members waiting outside chaotic hospitals, the intense fear felt by Chechens living in a city that had little love for them to begin with, and the faces of the dead terrorists themselves, especially the so-called Black Widows -- Chechen women strapped to bombs who supposedly had lost their husbands in the war with Russia.
But what I would really hold on to was the sense that this was not an isolated episode, but part of a larger arc. And one not even about Russia, or Chechnya, but more about the competing forces in our world today, hidden, but ready to strike with surprising brutality. These forces don't respect boundaries or borderlines. I would park these feelings once back in Boston. Within 24 hours, I could be playing in a park with my young children, struggling to reconcile the peace and calm of a beautiful afternoon with what I'd seen, trying to keep here and there from colliding.
But those worlds seemed to collide with the Boston bombings. Our studio is minutes away from Watertown, Mass., where a nationwide drama played out and one suspect in the bombings was killed, and the other taken alive, a drama where the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya would suddenly be talked about everywhere -- not just in foreign policy circles, but on local radio talk shows and on the T.
Friends in Russia reached out to me, both after the Marathon bombings and the citywide lockdown at the end of the week. They wanted to know if my family was okay. Everyone used words like "crazy" and "unreal." I certainly never thought I'd hear "Watertown" mentioned in a Russian newscast, but a friend sent me a video clip as proof.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had a page on "V Kontakte," the Russian equivalent of Facebook. I trawled it endlessly as the manhunt unfolded; it seemed to depict a young man obsessed with identity and roots. He even posted a joke about (Russian) persecution of those from the Caucasus. It felt like somebody living between two worlds, perhaps not at home in either.
None of this is to say that easy armchair psychology or a volatile region of Russia is at the root of what we witnessed in Boston on April 15. There is still so much we don't know. But I do know the overall effect felt the same as that October trip to Moscow more than ten years ago. A moment that was supposed to be about the celebration of the human spirit was hijacked. A city, and nation, experienced an almost unbearable weight and urgent need to have the crisis resolved and questions answered.
The point of our program, "The World," has always been to talk to an American audience about the globe, to satisfy the curious, and answer the questions we all have. In the newsroom, we always emphasize the importance of making human connections in every piece -- that's how we bring faraway stories home.
But with the Marathon bombings we all became a part of the story -- we know the injured, we know the community and school that embraced one of the suspects, our kids play in the same youth soccer league as eight-year-old Martin Richard.
We are all now home. And it's an uneasy place to be.
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