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Rising After the Fall

Moscow’s downtown Okhotny Ryad shopping mall is a bustling three-story glittering complex of faux-Greco design, dotted with cafes and video-game arcades, almost directly across the street from the Kremlin. With American and Russian pop music piped into the walkways and shops, the mall‘s atmosphere is similar to L.A.’s Beverly Center. Lenin‘s cadaver lies in state within walking distance of the mall. But the view of new Russian consumerism built on communism’s grave may be reductive.

What were, only a few years ago, clearly identifiable, opposing waves of Western and anti-Western sentiment have now crashed into each other, creating a tangle of feelings in the sea foam. Old communists express measured sympathy for and alliance with America‘s new wartime plight. While former clown president Boris Yeltsin tried to put all of Russia up for sale, the current pres, ex--KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin, keeps one hand open to foreign investment while, with the other, he cleans house and nurtures domestic production.

And through all this, until only recently, the American press was largely ignoring Russia’s Lazarus-like economic return from the dead -- astonishing, given the ruble‘s meltdown in August of 1998. Though extremes of poverty and wealth continue to tear at the nation’s social fabric, the ruble has stabilized, Russia is making IMF loan payments in advance, her GNP is up 7 percent over the past two years and her stock market is looking bullish -- a far cry from the wobbly consumer confidence and economic retraction that is now choking the United States and much of Europe.

Though America‘s domestic economic woes are clearly on Russian radar, they’re not the lead TV and newspaper stories, while one can hear profound vexation expressed about America‘s self-involvement. For Muscovites, the pain that America now endures is all too familiar. When Chechen extremists blew up two apartment buildings in Moscow and one shopping center in Vladikaykaz, where, they ask, was America’s outrage then? Was that not sufficient cause for an international coalition against terrorism? Furthermore, Washington‘s snubbing of Russia’s elite anti-terrorist militia -- standing by to fly to New York on September 11 to help -- adds to this fallen superpower‘s already wounded pride. Which may partly explain why Russia, overriding NATO objections, gave the Northern Alliance its nod to invade Kabul -- a corner of the world where Moscow still calls some shots.

It was the insistence of my Russian wifetranslator, Lena, that she try on the third sparkly gown in an Okhotny Ryad boutique that made us 20 minutes late for the interview in the city’s northeast sector with Dr. Vassily Alexeivich, a Soviet-era military physician still in public service. He‘s the father of Lena’s best friend, Irena Zacharova, at whose fifth-floor apartment Lena had made the appointment. After we‘d paid the Gypsy cabdriver, Lena remained on the muddy streets in the icy drizzle to buy some pastries from a stall adjoining a subway station. Meanwhile, Irena greeted me in the foyer of her small, spotless apartment as I dispensed with my overcoat, scarf, one of two sweaters and my running shoes, which she replaced with customary tapochki, or house slippers. Through all this, Alexeivich -- a robust man of 70 with a bald pate, and dressed in a perfectly matching tweed suit and tie -- paced the living room with some agitation, checking his watch and making cracks about punctuality.

After we had settled around the table of the newly remodeled kitchen -- laminated cupboard doors snapped shut against magnets; frozen foods thawed in a microwave -- the temperature seemed to rise noticeably, even the little frozen eclairs sweated. Alexeivich used a paper napkin to dab at the perspiration rolling off his nose as he spoke, but he doggedly refused to remove his jacket or loosen his tie. He was accompanied by his college friend, Dr. Alfred Grigoryevich, now retired, dressed far more casually and suffering from deafness.

They studied together in the late ’50s but were reunited in 1962, in Leningrad. Since that time, they worked together in Soviet army medical facilities across the former Soviet Union and in East Germany -- wherever medical epidemics were occurring and experimental work was being carried out.

Alexeivich explained how, after the 1972 Biological Weapons Treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological weapons, both nations went separate ways in grappling with the potential effects of such devices. Russia found vaccines for anthrax and the derivatives thereof, while America worked on antibiotics.

”We do have the vaccine,“ Alexeivich insists. ”We offered America help and America said no. This was as recently as October of this year. We‘ve been working on this for decades, via animal testing -- the cure is there, for us it is not difficult, but they said no.“

But why do you think America would spurn help that’s so readily available? I ask.

Here, Alexeivich savors an eclair and wipes his lips with a napkin.

”We have little joke that America is creating incredible difficulties just to say they can get through it by themselves . . . I think Americans are hung up on their prestige, they think they‘re stronger, they know better -- just regular pride. Perhaps they’re concerned that under the influence of the vaccine, the spores might mutate into something more toxic, something there‘s no prevention for,“ he explains. ”But I don’t think so. There‘s no evidence that anthrax behaves that way.“

According to Alexeivich, Western arrogance isn’t confined just to the United States:

”On Russian farms we‘re vaccinating all our livestock. In Mongolia as in England, they had an epidemic of mad-cow disease, the Mongolians happily took help from the Russians, the British said no. Why? In Mongolia, the disease has been eradicated, in Britain it keeps coming back. This makes no sense to me.

“When doctors from many nations sit down, there’s always some agreement, because we all speak the same language. Even if the Russian and American military staff were to meet, there would surely be some agreement on how we can be partners. But the politicians ruin everything.”

In the ‘70s, Alexeivich was stationed in the south Soviet territory, near the Afghan border. “At that time, we were working on a cholera vaccine,” he tells me. “You Americans are just getting to know some truly unpleasant diseases that we’ve known all our lives. That‘s how we got our huge experience, not in war but in fighting for our health. America rarely looks outside itself. Other people have been through this, too.

”We all live on the same planet. We have to be closer, to reach out to each other. Instead, we’re doing everything except what must be done to save us all, to preserve nature, to make our life easier.“

A clock from the living room struck 6. A crow cawed from out the kitchen window. A light snow was falling onto a children‘s playground below. Determinedly refusing to remove his jacket, Dr. Alexeivich tugged at his tie and dabbed perspiration from his brow.


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