MOSCOW – There's a unique blend of resilience and fatalism in the Russian DNA that has served the country's people well in traumatic times, and the days following Monday's double suicide bombings in Moscow's Metro were no different.
So when I took a long walk through central Moscow's underground tunnels – including the Lubyanka metro station, near the headquarters for Russia's security services and one of the two sites targeted by the bombers – I shouldn't have been surprised to see so much life getting back to normal, barely 48 hours after shrapnel-filled explosives had ripped through the subway, killing at least 39 people.
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A makeshift memorial of candles and flowers filled one walkway. But so did an array of dozens of quaint boutiques, lining both sides of the pedestrian tunnels – selling cheap make-up, made-in-China DVD's, iPod accessories and Russian Baltic beer – all open for business.
Metro platforms and trains bulged with commuters trudging on with their daily lives despite worrying about when and where the next attack would come.
Jittery, but life goes on
Yelena, a Muscovite who wouldn't give her last name, said she had heard that both female bombers set off their suicide vests from inside their trains, just as the doors opened and passengers filed in. "Once we were in the moving subway car, and got to the next station and pulled up and stopped at the platform, I got really scared," she said.
Another resident, who called himself Dima and also refused to give his family name, said that everyone he knew was frightened to death, but had no choice other than to take the subway. "People have to work. This is the only way to get there. And – in this recession – if you don't work, you don't eat and someone else will take your job, too," he said.
Above ground, security forces covered the capital. I counted at least 25 plainclothes police – mostly talking to each other on hidden radios – along just one city block, between a 5-star hotel and a train station.
Gaggles of guards – with darting eyes – flocked around each entrance to every shopping center I passed. In the streets, police and military vehicles raced through and around traffic, their sirens blasting, as they chased down the latest report of a suspicious object or bomb scare – all of them false alarms, but further straining already frayed nerves. One potential bomb, according to a Facebook entry, turned out to be a bottle of human urine, with several wires attached, planted on a Moscow university campus – a morbid practical joke.
Many counter-terrorism experts say that such blanket security will not be enough to thwart trained and determined suicide bombers, especially females who, in many cases, have been hand-picked to avenge the killing of their rebel husbands or loved ones at the hands of Russia's security agents – a force that's come to be known as the "Black Widows."
In fact, one of the Moscow subway suicide bombers was the 17-year-old widow of a slain Islamist rebel from the North Caucasus, a leading Russian newspaper reported on Friday.
"Once they have that backpack, they're gonna be able to get on a bus or a train and detonate it," said NBC News security analyst Michael Sheehan. "So your focus has to be [on] intercepting this cell before they pack the bomb and start to walk toward a subway station. By that time it's very difficult to stop."
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This city's residents have been knocked off balance because of the fact that so many Russians believed the war against Islamic militants in the distant region of the North Caucasus was done and dusted. Or at the very least, was a conflict that would never return to the nation's capital.
President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minster Vladimir Putin have both talked tough about pulling "terrorists from the sewers" and "destroying the beasts," but most Muscovites thought that had already happened years ago.
Interestingly – there's been a palpable backlash. Even in normally pro-Kremlin newspapers, brazen editorialists have dared criticize – many for the first time – the government's heavy-handed security crackdown in Chechnya and other Caucasus states, claiming that shortsighted policy has only managed to recruit more Chechen militants, and bring al-Qaida into the region as well.
The Russian blogosphere has also been replete with irate comments from Russian viewers who had tuned into (Kremlin-controlled) TV stations in the immediate aftermath of Monday's attacks, only to find the usual, anodyne fare of sitcoms and variety shows, instead of any real breaking news.
To a large extent, Putin's steely reputation – and meteoric political rise – were built on his ability to bottle up the Islamist insurgency and often gruesome bloodshed just inside Russia's southern border. But a growing number of critics are now warning that further militant strikes in Moscow could just as quickly undo that career, and that of Putin's protégée, Medvedev.
The man who has claimed responsibility for Monday's bombings certainly thinks so. Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel commander and self-proclaimed "Emir of the Caucasus Emirate," has warned of just that: more Moscow attacks. Writing on an insurgent Web site, he boasted of at least 20 more suicide bombers who are trained, deployed and ready to strike "in the cities" before Easter.
If that happens, Russians could soon find themselves – once again – caught in the crosshairs, sending their sons and husbands off to another war in Chechnya. And that's probably the only nightmare that Muscovites fear more right now than going into their own subway.
Jim Maceda is an NBC news correspondent based in London, who has extensively covered Russia and the Caucasus, and was currently on assignment in Moscow.