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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States, the term “war against terrorism” was introduced to our political vocabulary. For nearly twenty years, we have been waging this sort of war together, and at times accusing each other of pacifism, sabotage, or even of cooperation with the enemy. But a real war is a serious matter that requires a lot of sacrifice. War radically changes one’s way of life. It rearranges national and personal priorities. It corrects the mutual obligations of the government and society. It breaks the usual ideas about the rights and obligations of a citizen. It makes you reconcile with old opponents in the name of fighting a common enemy. This is always expensive, hard and unpleasant.

Will we come to a real, practical war against international terrorism?

Are we ready to pay a fair price for this war? All together or each by himself?

What scale of sacrifice will it take to make humanity finally wake up with this self-preservation instinct, presumably inherent in all living things? Or, is this instinct already completely and hopelessly atrophied along with many other atavisms of bygone eras?


Remember the part from Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”, when the sorrowful news about the death of Berlioz overtakes the writers having fun at Griboedov restaurant? “The wave of grief rose, lasted for a while and then began to recede. Somebody went back to their table and — furtively to begin with, then openly — drank a glass of vodka and had a bite to eat. After all, what's the point of wasting cotelettes de volatile? What good are we going to do Mikhail Alexandrovich by going hungry? We're still alive, aren't we?”

For some reason, this passage comes to mind when I listen to numerous comments on the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch. Yes, it was a terrible event. Yes, it was unexpected and unpredictable. Yes, I feel sorry for the dead innocent victims. But it is unlikely that this tragedy will remain at the top of news feeds or in the centre of international attention for a long time. With the exception, of course, of Christchurch, which gained worldwide notoriety as a result of the mass execution. Of course, they will build a proper memorial and mark the location of the tragedy in all tourist guidebooks. Local guides will accompany tourist excursions, and the massacre eyewitnesses will share memories of what happened on March 15, 2019.

The very act of terrorism will inevitably be obscured by new events, new tragedies and catastrophes. I will allow myself a bit of cynicism: what happened in New Zealand last Friday lacks the sort of intrigue that would otherwise promise the continuation of the drama. Behind the mass shooting, there is no ominous global terrorist network like in James Bond films. There is no insidious plan like those to be found in Dan Brown’s novels. There is no version of the “Novichok” being released from a perfume bottle, or something else that you could latch on to.

Chief villain Brenton Tarrant is no Professor Moriarty, but an ordinary fitness trainer from Australia. The weapons used were more or less standard ones — from a shotgun to homemade bombs. The scheme of the whole operation was ridiculously primitive, and the investigation of the case is unlikely to encounter any surprises, much less anything sensational. You can try, of course, to connect the terrorists with Chelsea Clinton, with the GRU or with the activities of Ukrainian nationalists – any presumed enemy that fits your narrative. But even in our world of total post-truth, such associative chains have zero chance of serious consideration.

However, it is the sheer, everyday banality of what happened that causes us to return to it in our minds. Modern society is not adequately protected from terrorist attacks like the one that happened on March 15th. This is not an epic struggle with al-Qaeda units or ISIS cells, where a man in the street can rely on the professionalism of the special services or on the bravery of the military. The terrorism of amateurs, that of insane, disaffected lone wolves, is more and more being perceived as an integral characteristic of our civilisation, as an additional tax on the benefits that this civilisation guarantees to all of us.

I could compare the prevailing attitude toward terrorism with the attitude we take to natural disasters and catastrophes — floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. However, such a comparison would not be entirely accurate. Ultimately, floods and earthquakes are extraordinary events that remain in the memory of many generations. And terrorism, I repeat, becomes part of everyday life. It is perceived as a weather phenomenon — as an unexpected nasty rain on a fine summer day or as a sudden blizzard that replaces a sunny winter morning. Of course, it is annoying and uncomfortable. But what to do? After all, we are alive!

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States, the term “war against terrorism” was introduced to our political vocabulary. For nearly twenty years, we have been waging this sort of war together, and at times accusing each other of pacifism, sabotage, or even of cooperation with the enemy. But a real war is a serious matter that requires a lot of sacrifice. War radically changes one’s way of life. It rearranges national and personal priorities. It corrects the mutual obligations of the government and society. It breaks the usual ideas about the rights and obligations of a citizen. It makes you reconcile with old opponents in the name of fighting a common enemy. This is always expensive, hard and unpleasant. “War is not poker!” rightly noted one of the heroes of the film “That Munchhausen”, adding “It cannot be announced when it pleases. War is ... war.”

Will we come to a real, practical war against international terrorism?

Are we ready to pay a fair price for this war? All together or each by himself?

What scale of sacrifice will it take to make humanity finally wake up with this self-preservation instinct, presumably inherent in all living things? Or, is this instinct already completely and hopelessly atrophied along with many other atavisms of bygone eras?

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.


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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
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    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
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    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
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    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
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