Russians are confident their nation is back

Mikhail Metzel/Associated PressRelatives mourned during the wake of Vazha Bestaev of South Ossetia, seen in a photo on the table, in the town of Ardon, Russia. He died in recent fighting in Tskhinvali. Mikhail Metzel/Associated PressRelatives mourned during the wake of Vazha Bestaev of South Ossetia, seen in a photo on the table, in the town of Ardon, Russia. He died in recent fighting in Tskhinvali. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)
By Anne Barnard
New York Times News Service / August 15, 2008
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MOSCOW - Outside the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior, ranks of young people stood with flickering candles in plastic cups, summoned by the Kremlin-endorsed group Young Russia. A woman, her voice turned tinny by a megaphone, exhorted the crowd to consider the victims of "Georgian brutality."

The young Muscovites gathered yesterday to show support for their government, which had sent tanks into the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the most formidable show of Russian military strength beyond its borders since the fall of the Soviet Union, and many in the crowd saw in the past week's events as a comeuppance for the arrogant West.

"The superpower showed that she was able to defend her people," said Marina Katayeva, 30, a doctor. "Now we will be more respected."

Alyona Latyuk, 22, said, "I hope that now the West learns a lesson."

While Western commentators are talking of a strategic sea change and a resurgent Russia newly ready to use its military might, many Russians say their country had nothing to prove, at least not to them.

The West, they say, may simply have learned what they knew: Russia is back. And its actions in Georgia are nothing to get excited about, just the ordinary business of a great power in its traditional backyard.

Their tone was less of triumph than of quiet confidence and pride. To describe Russia's actions, they used words like competent, correct, and reasonable. Russia, in their view, is the peacemaker.

"Russia wants to resolve things peacefully," said Latyuk, who wore a tank top on which she had stenciled the English words "No War."

The youth group, affiliated with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin's party, could be expected to side with the government, but the sentiments expressed by its members were echoed by many other Russians who lived through the loss of the Soviet empire and the humiliating economic collapse that followed.

Even Mikhail S. Gorbachev - perhaps the West's favorite Russian - came out in support of Russia. He said that when Georgia tried to take back the capital of a pro-Russian separatist region, South Ossetia, shelling Russian peacekeepers with artillery, Russia had no choice but to act.

But while most Russians seem to believe their country had every right to send troops into South Ossetia, there is a wide range of opinion, and some ambivalence, about how the conflict will affect Russia.

Some in the business community regard Russia's military move as a disaster that caused a sudden dip in the stock market this week

And polls show that Russians' views are fairly nuanced. While they broadly support the government's backing of separatist South Ossetia, support for sending in troops is far from unanimous.

In a poll conducted by the respected Levada Center, 53 percent of Russians said they supported sending troops into Georgia; 36 percent did not. But 70 percent said they believe South Ossetia should become part of Russia or win independence. But even many of those who said they worry that entering Georgia will ultimately hurt Russia added that they believed Russia had every right to do so.

Artyem Bychkov, a supporter of the government's moves, spent his smoking breaks yesterday watching people stream into a South Ossetian cultural center near the cafe where he works to deliver donations for refugees who fled the fighting. For him, it was no surprise that Russia had the boldness and the ability to take the steps it took.

"I never had any doubts," he said. "Only the West didn't understand."

Some Russians expressed complex feelings about the war.

Yekaterina Levchenko, 27, who brought bars of children's soap decorated with a cartoon rabbit to the cultural center, began to cry when asked what might come of the war. "God forbid there will be World War III," she said. "What if my husband has to go?"

Vadim Ozovtsov, a retired electronic engineer, said the standoff over Georgia, an American ally, made him nervous because it wasn't clear "what America will do next."

Others felt a dash of regret that things had come to this: invading Georgia, a country for which many Russians feel affection, even as mutual suspicion lingers from centuries of Russian rule over the nation in the Caucasus.

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