When I visit my dentist’s surgery in Moscow, I am used to being the one nervously asking questions. Yet on the day after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down, everyone here — including my dentist, the receptionist and the guy fixing the receptionist’s computer — wanted me to tell them what would happen next.
“You’re a journalist. You probably know something we don’t know,” the receptionist said. “And I don’t trust the television.”
In the aftermath of the horrific crash that took the lives of nearly 300 people, from here it looks as if it has turned a local conflict into a tragedy of global proportions.
As the popular political observer Konstantin von Eggert said in the Kommersant daily newspaper: “It won’t be [the rebels] paying the price, it will be the Kremlin. Because it is Moscow, in spite of many denials issued by representatives, that is believed by the entire world to be [the rebels’] chief sponsor and protector.”
Meanwhile, ordinary Muscovites are expressing horror at the tragedy, even as they entertain some of the wildest conspiracies imaginable. My dentist, Dmitry, has served in the military and professes scorn for the rebels, whom he refers to as “undisciplined morons.” At the same time, he says there is “another side” to the disaster.
“Who benefits from portraying Russia as the monster? The Americans do,” he said. “They want to go to war with the whole world.”
At my local home improvement store, the young manager, Vitaly, launches into a tirade about how “there is an information war on” and that the US has every capability to frame “either Russia or the rebels.”
However, he, too, has tremendous disdain for the separatists.
“I don’t even know what their goals are. It all seems pointless,” he said. “They’re trying to drag Russia into world war three. Fuck them.”
A curious mixture of conspiracy theory and criticism for the separatists comes up almost every time I strike up a conversation on the fate of Flight MH17.
“Even if they didn’t bring down the plane, I have no sympathy for these whackjobs,” Konstantin, a man in late middle age who describes himself as “retired military,” told me as we line up at the grocery store.
“Separatists mean too much liability — every good tactician will tell you that,” Konstantin said confidently.
Like many Russians, he believes that the new Ukrainian government is virulently anti-Russian, pro-Western and corrupt. Nonetheless, he does not think that Russia should have taken the “political risk” of supporting the militants.
For Maria, a woman in her 30s who says she works on radio, the MH17 disaster has invoked “feelings of a coming apocalypse.”
“It’s bad enough that all of these people are dead,” Maria said. “But what if the war gets worse and more people die? How far will all of this go?”
In stark contrast to Western tabloid headlines which speak of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s missile and “Putin’s victims,” most of the people I talk to in Moscow stop short of directly blaming the president for the disaster.
This has a lot to do with how Russia’s involvement in east Ukraine is perceived to be chaotic and halfhearted to begin with. Unlike the annexation of Crimea, which saw well-trained Russian troops take control of the situation immediately, east Ukraine is a murky misadventure at best.
“The idea that the rebels are reporting directly to Putin is just funny,” Konstantin said. “I don’t even know if there is any kind of established chain of command over there.”