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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dogs of War Next Door




Life in Moscow has become more complicated, ever since NATO's bombing of Serbia began. "Welcome to the Third World War," is a cry that greets me every evening, upon arrival home.


This comes, of course, as a result of living directly across the street from the headquarters of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a ribald arch-nationalist, anti-Semitic politician, leader of Russia's ill-named Liberal Democratic Party. His otherwise upscale office complex includes a shabby, two-story youth center, which until last Thursday was home to toddler ballet classes and occasional teenage disco evenings.


Despite their sponsor's Hitler-esque rhetoric of ethnic superiority and Lebensraum, these gatherings always seemed innocuous enough. In fact, when several of my more curious friends asked if they could participate (with the self-proclaimed goal of "infiltrating enemy ranks"), they were told by bored bodyguards that sure, everyone was welcome - but that, truth be told, the place was dead, a has-been hangout that might soon be shut down for lack of interest.


Lately, everything has changed. The youth club has been converted into a military recruitment center for volunteers, hungry for battle against so-called "NATO fascism." Since no one, in truth, has much intention of actually ferrying busloads of would-be "fighters for Slavic brotherhood" into Serbia, at least not in the immediate future, those offering their services actually spend much of their time drinking beer while dressed in camouflage fatigues and telling anybody who will listen that they are preparing to die for the Motherland. On Saturday at 8:30 a.m., a group of agitated patriots raced through our apartment building, ringing insistently at all the doors.


"Who's there?" asked my boyfriend Sasha, after the ninth or 10th buzz.


"Wake up! It's the LDPR. There's a war on! Today they bomb Serbia, tomorrow the Kremlin! Sign up to defend your country!"


"Are you crazy? It's Saturday," was Sasha's prosaic response.


Soon afterwards, groupies set up a stereo system, with speakers lining the street, and proceeded to play an assortment of warmongering propaganda, interspersed with Russian folk-rock hymns and frequent renditions of the Godfather theme song, all at ear-splitting, paint-peeling decibel levels. Twelve hours a day, for the last three days, and there's still no sign of the self-imposed regimen ever letting up.


Neighborhood residents tend to suffer in silence, as police hang up on calls regarding the apparently quixotic crime of "disturbing the peace." Most hesitate to complain to Zhirinovsky supporters in person, fearing they'll only become potential targets for robberies or beatings. I, however, am not so practical, and am easily riled. After being jolted awake, once again, by yet another call to arms, I recently started screaming "Shut up" in accented Russian out my kitchen window. A still-groggy Sasha emerged from the bedroom to tug at my pajamas. "Please, please," he begged. "At least tell them you're only Italian."


The irony of these events is that they are not popular ones. The number of would-be military recruits, just like the number of protesters outside the U.S. Embassy, is relatively small - and they consist largely of unemployed men, many in their late teens, and elderly, impoverished retirees. However, what is undeniably true is that Russian citizens across the political spectrum are uniformly opposed to the NATO bombings, and that extremist political groups have seized on widespread feelings of outrage as a heaven-sent opportunity to gain support and visibility.


The LDPR, along with its rival, the Communist Party, are both particularly eager to exploit the issue of NATO intervention in light of parliament's upcoming impeachment vote against President Boris Yeltsin, scheduled for April 15.


As the music plays on, across the street, I, in my worst moments, begin to rail against my own native land. What was Clinton, or Congress, thinking? Granted - ethnic cleansing is always reprehensible, and Slobodan Milosevic is a two-bit bandit who ought to be wiped off the face of the Earth. But NATO bombs are not going to force him back to the negotiating table. Serbia is not an easy country to subdue. Seven hundred thousand German troops tried in the 1940s, to no avail. Nightly air raids are only serving to solidify popular support behind Milosevic and to intensify the brutality of military reprisals against those ethnic Albanians still living in Kosovo. Meanwhile, it remains in Serbia's interest to endure the onslaught as long as possible and exploit the resultant, ever-widening rift between Washington and Moscow.


Russia was upset enough about NATO expansion. Now it is confronted by what it deems to be NATO aggression. As a result, officials are prepared to discuss plans with Belarus and Ukraine for possibly reinstalling nuclear weapons on formerly Soviet territory. The Russian parliament has killed ratification of the START II arms control treaty.


Worst of all, political leaders have been handed a perfect scapegoat for their country's unresolved economic ills, as the value of the ruble continues to slide. Breaking news about airstrikes has driven stories about upper-level government corruption off the air, and out of the headlines - shifting public attention away from the mismanagement and mafia connections inside the Russian state, to the specter of a Western imperialist coalition arrayed against it.


In short, no one is going to be turning down the music outside my apartment building anytime soon.


Cynthia Hooper, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, is in Moscow on an International Research and Exchange Fellowship.