Some Things Have Changed

What the Moscow airport bombing tells us about modern Russia.

Domodedovo Airport 

As I write this, only a few hours after the explosion, the identity of the bomber who attacked Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport is still unknown. Here is what we do know:

Some things have changed. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has already addressed the nation on television, expressed condolences to the victims, and postponed his trip to Switzerland, where he is supposed to speak to the Davos conference later this week. Once, it took Russian leaders far longer to react to disasters. Ex-Soviet General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev waited three weeks before saying anything about the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Ex-President Vladimir Putin waited five days before reacting to the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000.

Some lessons have been learned. The Russian health ministry has opened up a “hot line,” which will dispense psychological counseling to victims and their families. Domodedovo has already posted an information number on its Web site, too. Casualty numbers have been constantly updated: As I write, at least 34 people are thought to have died; more than 140 are injured, at least 60 hospitalized. The hospitals receiving casualties have been identified. At the time of the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004, officials gave out delayed and conflicting information about numbers and victims from the very beginning.

Some problems are new. Someone at the scene has complained via Twitter that airport taxi drivers are now demanding 20,000 rubles (about $670) for a ride back to town. A massive traffic jam has also formed around the airport. Extra traffic police have been sent to cope, because angry drivers caught up in the jam have been refusing to let ambulances through.

Some problems are old. The Russian wires are reporting that the bomb went off outside the security zone of the airport, in the arrivals hall. That exonerates airport security, but it reflects badly on the police, since the bomber must therefore be a resident of Russia. Which is not very surprising: Since 1999, Russia has suffered, on average, from at least one major terrorist attack every year. Chechens or other North Caucasians—citizens of the Russian Federation *—are most often held responsible, but some cases are unsolved. After the Chechens lost their war for sovereignty in the early 2000s, some Chechen leaders promised to take their battle to the heart of Russia. Perhaps this is the result.

Other than that, the attacks have no pattern. They have been carried out on trains and planes, in airports and in theaters, in Moscow and in the Caucuses. They have targeted children, air passengers, and commuters. In the wake of such attacks, Moscow police often increase random identity checks of darker-skinned commuters or issue draconian new residency requirements. Evidently, the solution lies elsewhere. “We will find them, and we will destroy them” Medvedev said last year, when a bomb went off in the Moscow subway. But he didn’t, and they haven’t. Some things have changed, in other words—but not enough.

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* This article originally described the Russian Federation as the Russian republic. (Return to the corrected sentence.)