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The Things They Carried

One of the most powerful literary accounts of the Vietnam War was Tim O’Brien’s famous collection of stories The Things They Carried, which as a rhetorical device categorically listed the minute objects of possession carried by the soldiers with devastating effect, from bug spray to love letters to superstitious trinkets.  The impact of O’Brien’s humanizing of all these young men sent into the maw of war through their objects is considerably felt, leading one reviewer to comment that this approach “lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly.

I felt as though the same effect is achieved in the chilling lede of today’s dispatch from C.J. Chivers in the New York Times on the political murder of a Chechen citizen:  “Umar S. Israilov, a whistleblower living in hiding after accusing Chechnya’s president of personally participating in torture, kidnapping and murder, was gunned down here last year as he stepped from a grocery store with yogurt, eggs and bags of M&M’s and Gummi Bears for his three young children.


What other things were they, the murdered dissidents of modern Russia,carrying when they suddenly met their end?  IvanSafronov, the apolitical military reporter who was thrown off hisbalcony in a simulated suicide, had just arrived home from the marketwith abag of ripe oranges he had planning to eat.  Anna Politkovskaya hadalso just come home from the supermarket before her assassination, andwas on the way back down to the car to fetch the remaining bags, whichcontained specialfood for her pregnant daughter.  When lawyer StanislavMarkelov was first beat up by skinheads in 2004 on his way home,they left him his wallet and cheap watch, but took his briefcase stuffedwith legal files on a Chechen rape case against a powerful militarygeneral.  When he was shot dead five years later on a snowy Moscowsidewalk along with a young journalist, the killer fled withoutbothering to steal the speaking notes he was carrying from his mostrecent press conference.

Do these details of objects and possessions make you care more?  Is itsomewhat more convincing than simply hearing the brutal facts of anotherpedestrian political murder condoned or at least tolerated by thisodious government?  Tough-minded apathy is a trait many Russians holddearly after having survived the deprivations and insults of decades ofcommunism, the savage cruelties of the 1990s, and the current deformityof the Putin years, but there has to be a tipping point to such willfulblindness to injustice inside every human soul.  That’s not to say that it is any different or better outside of Russia, where the opportunists would sooner indulge in the fantasies of the tabula rasa-like reset button and the untold imagined fortunes of doing business in such a bountiful market.

I for one will not be thinking of Gummi Bears and all the everydayerrands we undertake for our families and loved ones in the same way,among everything else we take for granted.  If there exists some kind of new approach out there to cause people both inside and outside of Russia to give pause, share a moment of reflection, or somehow otherwise show that they give a damn about any of these murders, I would be very interested in being a part of it.