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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: NATO Raids Ruin Western PR in Russia




My husband Kostya's rock and fashion firm sells football team pennants, Russian tricolors, British and American flags. Last week, one of the junior staff took a Stars and Stripes and burnt it outside the U.S. Embassy to protest the bombing of Yugoslavia.


"Why don't you take a Union Jack and burn it under Helen's window?" said Kostya. At this the warehouse worker, whose name is Pavel, paused for thought. Instead, he came home to our place and we drank tea and talked about his feelings.


"I hate the Americans. America is the embodiment of evil. Today, they are bombing the Serbs. Tomorrow it could be us," he said.


Pavel, 18, may be wrong, but the fact that he and millions of Russians like him perceive the Balkan crisis in this way means that the West has, to say the least, a serious public relations problem.


The West should be worried not at the predictable frothing and game playing of Russian politicians, but at the extent of genuinely felt outrage at NATO's behavior among ordinary, decent Russians. Opinion polls show that 92 percent of them oppose the bombing.


It is impossible to meet a Russian now without talking about Yugoslavia. I went to see my tax adviser this week and we talked about the war. Alexander objected to the airstrikes because they broke the world order in which the UN mattered and because the Balkan problem was too tangled to be solved by crude bombing.


"Tito settled the Albanians in Kosovo as Stalin moved populations in the Soviet Union," he said. "The Albanians had bigger families than the Serbs, so that they outnumbered them. There is a Serbian point of view here too. Why are you taking sides in a complicated issue you know too little about? Why don't you listen to Russia? Do you think because we are poor, our opinion does not count?"


Nobody here is defending Slobodan Milosevic. It is just that Russians are appalled at the chaos the West has unwittingly unleashed.


"Now you have got all these refugees you did not bargain for," said Yulia, an unemployed scientist and friend. "Do you honestly want them in your comfortable countries? And if we Russians end up with a hard-line, anti-Western regime instead of the normal society we wanted for our children, that will be partly thanks to NATO too."


After the fall of communism, many Russians invested in the ideals of democracy and human rights, believing the West with a childlike trust. Now they see what looks like aggression and feel betrayed.


Mitya, a 16-year-old to whom I give English lessons, asked tough questions: "When we were talking about Chechnya, you said violence never solved anything. So why are you bombing now? You said Britain is different from America. So why do you always do what America says?"


Mitya's intelligent, once Western-leaning father said he had come to the conclusion that real democracy did not exist anywhere, an unutterably depressing thought for all those, like me, who have devoted years to working with the Russians.


Now the thaw is over and the chill has set in again. Foreigners are advised not to speak English on the streets. A Russian military officer with whom I am friendly because of our shared experience in Afghanistan rang me to say that if anybody hurt me, I could rely on his physical protection.


Dear God, has it come to that?