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Op-Ed Columnist

Russia: the Beginning or the End?

Moscow

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Russia is unique, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Russia's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The media seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the tables for the wood.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Russia has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Russia's ironing board, then capitalism is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Russia last August, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Russia have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Russia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Russia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Russia's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so poorly marked that Russia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Moscow needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Jewish community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shad-farin-bin-yamin, which is a local saying that means roughly, "That tea is sweetest whose herbs have dried longest."

I don't know what Russia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.